Living Conditions in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy
Partly due to the influx of Italian and Irish immigrants, Clerkenwell had become a poor run-down neighbourhood. Many of the wooden tumble down buildings had been turned into basic boarding houses, most of which were unscrupulous concerns that would overcharge for both food and lodging. These establishments were of the poorest quality – squalid and unhygienic living conditions, with little or no running water. They were miserable, cold, damp and woefully overcrowded establishments, often with several people sharing a bed. Many of the dwellings were infested with rats, and other undesirable pests.
The medical journal The Lancet reported on the unsanitary living conditions in the area, saying that a house in the Eyre Street area had as many as 50 people living there at once. Families were large, but they would often take in lodgers to help make ends meet. Childhood deaths were common during this time and the urban authorities feared that health epidemics could take hold and quickly spread.
* Victorian Poverty by Gustave Doré
“The chief colonies of the Italian organ-grinders in London are in the neighbourhood of Great Saffron Hill and Eyre Street Hill, where the sanitary officers of the Holborn district frequently meet with cases of overcrowded dwellings of a most dangerous character.
In Eyre Place it was lately found that as many as 14 organ-grinders slept in one room, and, not content with that, beds were made up on the staircases. Dr. Gibbon, medical officer of health, on going into the rooms soon after men had left, found the stench unbearable, and he had in consequence an attack of low fever for a week afterwards. Angelo Calarossa, the occupier of Nos. 1 and 2 Eyre Place, was summoned, by order of the district Board, to the Clerkenwell Policecourt, before Mr. D’Eyncourt, for such dangerous overcrowding, when it was found that nearly all the occupiers had left for the country, and the cause of the complaint thereby been removed. The magistrate adjourned the summons for a month, an undertaking being given that not more than six persons should be allowed to sleep in one room.”
“His house was ‘tolerably clean’ because he had ‘had the good fortune to secure an English wife’. His basement and his house in the back, however were a different matter. These were sublet to organ-grinders. The basement was formed into a sort of kitchen, with shelves along the walls where the barrel organs might be deposited, a long table for the rolling out of macaroni…the floor, ceiling and walls were black with smoke and dirt…the house had no furniture, only double beds wherever they could be fitted. Two or even three men slept in each bed.”
Another Lancet report regarding living conditions in the Italian colony in Saffron Hill. The report describes the homes of organ-grinders:
“Over crowding and the inter-mingling of the sexes seems to be the general rule. Every room containing about 1,000 cubic feet had three double beds in it, and perhaps a crib for one or two children….”
“In one small room visited there were four beds, the first containing a man and wife, the second another man and wife, the third bed held a young unmarried woman, while in the fourth bed there were two English girls, formerly domestic servants, and respectively 17 and 16 years. These English girls were in the habit of going out dressed as Italians with piano-organs; and though they complained that their receipts had of late fallen off, they did not seem in any way dissatisfied with their present mode of life. The intermingling of sexes was not denied, nor did the persons who lived indiscriminately together in the same room profess to be related.
Another Lancet report regarding the Italian colony in Saffron Hill. The report describes the homes of organ-grinders:
“Over-crowding and the inter-mingling of the sexes seems to be the general rule. Every room containing about 1,000 cubic feet had three double beds in it, and perhaps a crib for one or two children….”
“In one small room visited there were four beds, the first containing a man and wife, the second another man and wife, the third bed held a young unmarried woman, while in the fourth bed there were two English girls, formerly domestic servants, and respectively 17 and 16 years. These English girls were in the habit of going out dressed as Italians with piano-organs; and though they complained that their receipts had of late fallen off, they did not seem in any way dissatisfied with their present mode of life. The intermingling of sexes was not denied, nor did the persons who lived indiscriminately together in the same room profess to be related”.
The dirt in these dwellings is appalling, and one house had not even been swept for two years. There were no basins, no towels, no means by which the organ-grinders who lived there could wash themselves.”
“In one house, where several inhabitants had suffered from measles, six persons were found living in a small room. They had just been making some macaroni. The paste, still moist, was stretched out to dry over the most repulsive and disgusting bedding; the atmosphere was fetid, the room dark, and everything around dirty. A cellar dwelling, where an English organ-woman and her Italian husband live together, is also described as totally unfit for habitation, and rendered more dangerous by the adjoining back basement.”
“….many cases of infectious disease escape notice; dirt is not removed; the houses are in a ruinous, crumbling condition; people are allowed to sleep underground or under roofs that do not exclude the rain. A local practitioner assured us that on one occasion he had to open his umbrella while going up stairs to visit an Italian.”
With people living in such confined, unventilated, and insanitary spaces, tuberculosis was rife. The young especially were susceptible to deadly diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia, influenza, whooping cough, croup, small pox, measles, scarlet fever; convulsions, typhoid, cholera, diarrhoea, and rickets. Sadly children would often die before the age of 5 years. In 1834, an outbreak of cholera in Clerkenwell Prison was attributed to the contamination by the River Fleet.
In the 1860’s the London authorities decided drastic action needed to be taken to improve living conditions and began the clearance of some of the slum properties in preparation for the building of the new major thoroughfare of Farringdon Road, together with the construction of the new Metropolitan Railway and Farringdon Road Station.
The first subterranean railway in London opened on the 10th January, 1863. There were stations at Paddington (Bishops Road), (now Paddington), Edgware Road, Baker Street, Portland Road (now Great Portland Street), Gower Street (now Euston Square), King’s Cross (now King’s Cross and St. Pancras), and Farringdon Street (now Farringdon).
A New Sewer System
Part of the general improvements were to redirect the polluted fast-flowing water course of the Fleet underground into a new sewer system. It was directed to run towards Seacoal Lane, once a huge coal wharf, and can be seen today spilling out of a drain into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge, and which is only visible at low tide.
More about the River Fleet here at Peter Talling’s website London’s Lost Rivers
Unfortunately, the slum clearance lead to more overcrowding in Clerkenwell when factories, printing companies and warehouses, instead of the much needed housing, were built on the cleared land. The population continued its rapid growth due to new arrivals seeking economical housing.
Victorian Tenement Buildings
It was thought then that the ideal solution was to construct a new type of “model-housing”, blocks of tenement buildings such as Corporation Buildings in Farringdon Road. The photographer Colin O’Brien lived in Victoria Dwellings, a block of housing situated on the junction of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road.
Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner. Images marked * are in the Public Domain.