Vic Keegan’s Lost London 108: Jacob’s Island

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 108: Jacob’s Island

In the 19th century there were numerous candidates for the unwelcome title of the worst slum in London. Shoreditch, Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell and Hogarth’s Gin Lane were strong candidates as was the Devil’s Acre – a phrase popularised by Charles Dickens – west of Westminster Abbey, where 40 policemen were once rebuffed when they tried to arrest a resident.

But if you add health to degradation as a social barometer, Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey – also popularised by Dickens – was right at the bottom of the pit.  It was an area bounded roughly by today’s Bermondsey Wall West, George Row, Wolseley Street and Mill Street where, despite extensive gentrification, the plaque commemorating Jacob’s Island has itself been defaced. Old habits die hard. 

Contemporary descriptions chart the depths of hopelessness better than makeshift ones from today. In 1849 the Morning Chronicle called it “the very capital of cholera” and “the Venice of drains” while the reformer Henry Mayhew described the ditches as red from houses discharging their waste directly into them, and “the water harbouring masses of rotting weed, animal carcasses and dead fish.” All people had to drink was the toxic waters of the Thames. 

Small wonder that Dickens in Oliver Twist had Bill Sikes living and dying there (from a dramatic fall from the roof into Folly Ditch). His description was so accurate that years later Dickens’s fans would visit what they were convinced was the actual house from which Sikes fell. 

During the previous century it had been a fashionable area for the well-heeled, but the advent of industrialisation, shipbuilding and its dependent industries with attendant casualisation of labour and low wages quickly turned it into a rookery and slum. 

The tide turned again in the early 1980s when this part of Bermondsey was one of the first places to be turned into expensive loft apartments, luxury flats and bijou residences, many of them passively overlooking the river that once made the area prosperous and full of activity from shipbuilding, ship breaking and the docks. One can only hope that the cycle of deprivation doesn’t come around here again. 

Read Lost London numbers 1 to 107 here.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

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