Dickens’s london

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Dickens applied his unique power of observation to the city in which he spent most of his life. He walked the city streets, 10 or 20 miles at a time, and his descriptions of nineteenth century London allow readers to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the old city. This ability to immerse the reader into time and place sets the perfect stage for Dickens to weave his fiction.

Victorian London was the largest, most spectacular city in the world. While Britain was experiencing the Industrial Revolution, its capital was both reaping the benefits and suffering the consequences. In 1800 the population of London was around a million souls. That number would grow to 4.5 million by 1880. Perhaps the biggest impact on the growth of London was the coming of the railroad in the 1830s which displaced thousands and accelerated the expansion of the city.

The price of this explosive growth and domination of world trade was great poverty and filth. In his excellent biography, Dickens, Peter Ackroyd notes that "If a modern day person were suddenly to find himself in a house during this time, he would be literally sick - sick with the smells, sick with the food, sick with the atmosphere around him".

Imagine yourself in the London of the early 19th century. The homes of the upper and middle class are right next to areas of unbelievable poverty and filth. Rich and poor walk together in the crowded city streets. Street sweepers attempt to keep the streets clean of manure, the result of thousands of horse-drawn vehicles. The city's thousands of chimney pots are belching coal smoke, resulting in soot which seems to settle everywhere. In many parts of the city raw sewage flows in gutters that empty into the Thames River. Street vendors are shouting out their items for sale adding to all of the street noises. Pick-pockets, prostitutes, drunks, beggars, and vagabonds of every description add to the population.

Personal cleanliness is not a big priority, nor is clean laundry. In close, crowded rooms the smell of unwashed bodies is stifling. It is unbearably hot by the fire, numbingly cold away from it.

At night the major streets are lit with dim gas lamps. Side streets may not be lit at all and link bearers are hired to guide the traveler to his destination. Inside, a candle or oil lamp struggles against the darkness and blacken the ceilings.

Until the second half of the 19th century London residents were still drinking water from the very same source that the open sewers were dumping into. Several outbreaks of Cholera in the mid 19th century, along with The Great Stink of 1858, when the stench of the Thames River caused Parliament to end early, brought a cry for action. The Victorians slowly realized there was a link between drinking water dirty with sewage and the incidence of disease slowly

In 1875 adequate sewers were finally constructed to serve the city. In addition, laws were put in effect which prevented companies supplying drinking water from taking water from the most polluted parts of the Thames and required them to provide some type of filtration.

By 1900 3000 horse-drawn buses were carrying 500 million passengers a year. All of this added up to an incredible amount of manure which had to be removed from the streets. In wet weather straw was scattered in walkways, storefronts, and in carriages to try to soak up the mud and wet. Cattle were driven through the streets until the mid 19th century.

dickens - blacking factory

The Victorian answer to dealing with the poor and indigent was the New Poor Law, enacted in 1834. Previously it had been the responsibility of local neighborhood churches, or parish, to take care of their poor. The new law required parishes to band together and create regional workhouses where the poor could apply for assistance. The workhouse was little more than a prison for the poor. Civil liberties were denied, families were separated, and human dignity was destroyed. The true poor often went to great lengths to avoid this relief.

Dickens, because of the childhood trauma caused by his father's imprisonment for debt and his job at the blacking factory to help support his family, was a true champion to the poor. He repeatedly pointed out the horrors of the system through his novels.

With the turn of the century and Queen Victoria's death in 190, the Victorian period ended. Many of the problems of the 19th century were fixed through education, technology and social reform and by the social consciousness raised by the themes in the immensely popular novels of Dickens.
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