From David Vincent in Shropshire, UK: The Hissing of Rats

Let me introduce you to Jim, encountered during a tour of Poplar and Limehouse in 1899 by one of the team employed by Charles Booth to investigate the social conditions of London:

He is a navvy or bricklayers labourer & besides being very handy is noted for his strength.  Jim is herculean to look at, enormous chest, arms which looked as if they wd. burst his coat sleeves & huge hands, about 6ft high.  His failing is drink & excess of animal spirits.  He had an attractive manner & pleasant way of speaking but is said to be a “fair terror” in the neighbourhood.  He is now about 38 years of age: was married at 17 or 18, has a grown up son who takes after his father & has just been turned out of the army, also several small children.  He married a wife who was a match for him & tried to bang him about.  He left her, took up with another woman & his wife is now doing 6 months in Holloway jail for having tried to brain No. 2 with an empty champagne bottle.*

The cumulative result of the project was issued in seventeen volumes in 1902/3.  Alongside the prose analysis Booth also prepared a series of maps of all the city streets, colour coded from black (lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal) to yellow (upper-middle and upper classes).  These have just been republished in a handsome, remarkably inexpensive book by Thames and Hudson (Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps 2019, £49 95).  Such a topography of wealth and poverty in what was at the time the largest city in the world, had never previously been attempted.  Now the modern reader can once more traverse the streets of London, many of which still survive, noting then as now the proximity of deprivation and privilege.

Or the reader can go on-line and accompany the investigators as they walk down every road and into every court, usually guided by a local policeman.  Their manuscript notebooks are readily available at  For the most part the rich were unseen behind their front doors, but the poor, living much of their lives on the streets, are a vivid presence.  The details of their world lodge in the memory.  Here, for instance, a policeman describes a fat refinery in Poplar:

“You should come down here of an early summer morning; if possible after a shower of rain: Rats, not in twos or threes or in 10s /35 or twentys, but in thousands and tens of thousands: the street will be covered with them, so will be the yard of the factory; rats, not small rats but big & fat, the size of cats: you knock a [illeg] with your book & away they go with a rush and a hissing sound from their feet upon the pavements that will make your blood run cold.**

At the end of one of the notebooks, the guiding policeman turns his attention to the threat of infectious diseases, particularly with regard to a tenement building in which whole families lived in single rented rooms:

Inspector Pearson thought that all statistics relating to deaths in [Queens] Buildings were one sided because as soon as any one was ill they were sent away to a hospital & not Report at home as they wd. be in a private house.  In his opinion they are much more unhealthy than small houses & the danger of an epidemic spreading much greater – While the hospitals have room, he said, patients can be sent off & there is not much risk but supposing a general epidemic, & and no room in the hospitals, then “buildings” become a death trap to their inhabitants.***

Substitute care home for the “buildings” and you have an exact description of the disaster that has just befallen us.

*Booth/B/346, p. 99-101.

**Booth/B/349, p. 33

*** Booth/B/349, p. 247

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