University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Exploring London low life: The forgotten East End.

As academics, we are often asked to conduct reviews, do consultancy work, or write blogs. In the following blog, written for the Adam Matthew digital archive platform, our Professor Brad Beaven discusses London’s ‘low life’ in the nineteenth century. The original blog can be accessed at http://www.amdigital.co.uk/m-editorial-blog/exploring-london-low-life/

When we think of the East End in the nineteenth century our minds often conjure-up images of dark back-street rookeries and communities blighted by crime and poverty. Well known polemic pamphlets by contemporaries like Andrew Mearns’ The Bitter Cry of Outcast London and the haunting images sketched by Gustave Doré have influenced both academic writing and popular culture to this day. When imagining the East End in the nineteenth century, very few of us associate it with sailors and the maritime culture that they brought ashore. However, for those living in the districts of Wapping, Ratcliffe and Poplar, the seafaring traditions, slang and folklore were very much part of everyday life. Indeed, Charles Booth estimated that over 10,000 sailors lived in these London districts alone.

Searching through Adam Matthew’s Nineteenth Century London’s Low Life I came across a source that provides a perfect corrective to our narrow and often stereotyped view of London’s East End as a mono-cultural and land-locked area. Published in 1849, The Swell’s Night Guide (complete with, the reader is told, ‘numerous spicy engravings’) provided the affluent slum tourists a guide to the drinking clubs, singing saloons and brothels of London. Indeed, for any self-respecting slum tourist, the notorious Ratcliffe Highway with its sailors, women and beershops was a ‘must visit’ on his travelling itinerary.

What made these districts so special was their ‘Otherness’ from the rest of London, they were communities that looked outwards and were influenced by the ebb and flow of the trade winds. They were districts with transient communities where foreign sailors would congregate around boarding houses bringing with them exotic foods, spices, animals and curios. They were districts that had stable working-class communities that serviced the maritime sector in terms of trades, boarding, catering and leisure. For the slum tourist these districts had a very different feel to places such as Whitechapel as an international maritime culture imbued daily life. Throughout the section on Ratcliffe Highway, the Guide employs maritime terms and slang to convey the seafaring influences in the community such as when the reader is alerted to the ‘starboard side of Ratcliffe Highway’. What makes the Guide so valuable is that the writer interviews local working-class residents in an attempt to immerse himself in the community and learn about the traditions and folklore of the area. One of the great challenges for the historian is to ‘hear the subaltern speak’ and while the Guide is clearly written by an affluent slum tourist, fragments of working-class language, traditions, dress and culture can be pieced together. Our intrepid guide enters Ratcliffe Highway in search of ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’. As my colleague Karl Bell has shown, Spring Heeled Jack was a legend of a murderous creature with superhuman strength that leapt out at victims in towns across the nation in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. However, locals in Ratcliffe Highway appropriated and transformed this folkloric tale to mean prostitutes who searched out sailor ‘victims’. Our guide was told that Ratcliffe Highway’s version of Spring Heeled Jack


is a notorious and rattling shake, at once the terror and lark of

her beat. She has obtained this cognomen by the velocity of her

motion and the style in which she darts on her prey.


The Guide describes how she emerges from her lodgings in the morning rather bedraggled and unkempt but with her much valued ‘mooring chain, attached to which is a small silver coin’ prigged from her sailor lodger. Then


hailing her pal on the opposite coast, with “There you vos, then! How does it wag

 now? Did you doss for a square ‘un last night? Good for a drain, in course? “And

 they blue a bob or so, get half malty, and she staggers to her ken to dress for the

 evening’s promenade. 


However, by the evening she is transformed, emerging from her ‘ken’ [lodgings]


with a yellow fogle tied round her squeeze and flashing a bandanna in her fam, she

 takes them by storm. She has her station near one of the flash houses, and as the

 loggers, alias tars, pass, she bounds on them at one spring, and hence achieved

 the name of “Spring heel’d Jack.”


What is striking about the Guide is the narrative’s mixture of slum tourist sensationalism and subaltern speak. Indeed, for those unacquainted with maritime and East End slang, the Guide offers a handy glossary at the back of the book. Furthermore, the main protagonist, ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ clearly had a sense of independence and agency, wore extravagant clothing and behaved gregariously in public thoroughfares. Indeed, the Guide provides a snapshot of the characters of Ratcliffe Highway and the toleration of behaviours that would have been frowned-upon in more traditional working-class districts. The characters and the seafaring slang described in the Guide reminds us that contemporaries recognised the importance of maritime cultures in urban communities even if our popular narratives of nineteenth century London have long since forgotten them.



Image The Swell’s night guide. Image © The Lilly Library, Indiana University. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. [Courtesy of Adam Matthew Digital.]

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply