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How the Poor Live by George R. Sims (1883)

The tenant washing his potatoes

How the Poor Live by George R. Sims mimics the tradition of travel or, more precisely, missionary literature, which was commonplace during the nineteenth century, to unmask a less pleasant side of Victorian society.

The author declares that his task is 'to record the results of a journey with pen and pencil into a region which lies at our own doors - into a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post Office'. That continent was the crowded and largely forgotten alleyways and slums of Victorian England. These, he hoped, would 'be found as interesting as any of those newly-explored lands which engage the attention of the Royal Geographical Society - the wild races who inhabit it will, I trust, gain public sympathy as easily as those savage tribes for whose benefit the Missionary Societies never cease to appeal for funds'.

Sims's task was to bring the pitiful condition of London's 'low life' to the attention of the more prosperous classes of society who lived so close by but seemed to inhabit quite a different continent. To this end, the heroic deeds and wild animals of traditional travel literature are replaced with less the glamorous hazards of urban life: the underground cellars where 'the vilest outcasts hide from the light of day'; the dangers of breathing an atmosphere 'charged with infection' from effluent; the fear of being hit by half bricks which were 'specially designed for the benefit of strangers'; and so on.

Each episode is superbly illustrated by engravings based on sketches by the artist Frederick Barnard, who accompanied Sims on his dangerous and uncomfortable journey. Contrast, on the one hand, the rough-hewn slum-dweller washing his potatoes and, on the other, the landlord, grown portly on the wealth from his rents.

The narrative and illustrations together present a vivid picture of a side of life that otherwise might be ignored. But there is more. The book's sixty-four pages present solutions and offer insights on marriage, the drink problem, the penal system, charitable missions, Board Schools, and cheap transportation as the solution to overcrowding. Sims's hope is that 'Dr State' will eventually intervene to prevent the weak, the poor, and the ignorant being left 'to work out' in their own persons ' the survival of the fittest to its bitter end'. He can detect 'the first faint signs' of a 'long-promised' era of domestic legislation.

Sims's work is an important political barometer of the time.

The landlord

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