The mean streets of Somers Town

Walk around Somers Town today – as I did on a short visit to London last week – and it is hard to summon up a vision of the area as it was in the second half of the 19th century, one where more than a third of the inhabitants lived in abject poverty, lacking the bare minimum required for food and a roof over their head, in area of mean and squalid streets and crumbling tenements.

This is the world conjured up by Anthony Quinn in his third historical novel, The Streets.  I had read and admired his first book – The Rescue Man, set in Liverpool during the blitz – so I looked forward to his latest opus, and began reading it on the train journey down to London.

In The Rescue Man, Quinn took the bare bones of the story of a real-life architect responsible for some of the most innovative 19th century buildings in Liverpool and turned it into a cracking read, full of excitement and replete with a real sense of the city and its people.  He has done something similar here: at the end of The Streets he acknowledges his debt to the journalism of Henry Mayhew whose London Labour and the London Poor, a series of articles documenting the lives of the poor who worked and traded wares on the streets of London, was published in the 1840s in the Morning Chronicle.

He also salutes the work of the social researcher (the founding father of British sociology, as we were taught at university), Charles Booth, who conducted a seminal twelve-year study of poverty in London whose results were published in 1889 as Labour and Life of the People.

Coincidentally, Booth hailed from Liverpool, the son of a wealthy shipowner and corn merchant.  He attended the Royal Institution School in Liverpool before being apprenticed in the family business at the age of sixteen. When his father died in 1862, he was left in control of the family business.  The family were Unitarians, and siblings and cousins debated issues of the day, such as the extension of the franchise, the works of Charles Darwin and Comte’s doctrine of positivism.  In the election of 1865, Booth canvassed house to house in the slums of Toxteth in support of the Liberal candidate.  This proved to be a shocking exposure to squalor and poverty, which contributed to a gradual abandonment of religious faith.

But Booth developed a profound sense of obligation and responsibility towards the poor and to the improvement of social conditions. Disillusioned with party politics following the failure to dislodge the Liverpool Tory ‘beerocracy’ he became involved with Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham Education League, on whose behalf he conducted a survey which suggested that 25,000 Liverpool children were neither at school nor at work.

This might be said to be Anthony Quinn’s trademark as a novelist: the fictionalisation of an aspect of the life a key historical figure, and a complete immersion in the chosen period. This time it is the 1880s, and the slums of Somers Town, that wedge of north London streets roughly bounded today by Euston and St Pancras railway stations and the British Library.

We realise that we are firmly in Quinn territory a couple of pages in, when he has the novel’s protagonist, apprentice journalist David Wildeblood, meet his new boss Henry Marchmont, Quinn’s conflation of Mayhew and Booth.  Along one entire wall of Marchmont’s study stretches a huge map of London with each neighbourhood of the city blocked out in a particular colour.  In different-coloured inks, Marchmont fills in the map to indicate the social class of the people living in each street. Gesturing towards the map, he explains what his project is about, and the part Wildeblood will play in it:

Why, it is journalism.  We go through these neighbourhoods, street by street, house by house, and in so doing we glean a systematic and impartial understanding of the causes and conditions of poverty.

Between 1886 and 1903 Charles Booth produced a remarkable series of maps of London carefully coded for social class with data gathered by visiting, literally, every street in London. Equally remarkable, Booth devised, funded a research team, and conducted the study in his spare time while continuing to manage a successful international leather trade and steamship company.

A detail from Charles Booth’s map: Somers Town 1898

Interestingly, Quinn inverts Booth’s original motivation for embarking on his research in his character Marchmont’s explanation of his quest:

[He] pointed to the most heavily inked portion of the map. ‘Behold the East End, where we began our project.  Do you know the most signal fact our enquiries have uncovered?  It is that nearly a third of its inhabitants live in a state of abject poverty.  By this I mean they cannot raise the basic minimum … to cover the cost of rent and food for themselves and their dependants. … But we are beginning to discover something even more extraordinary.  Since broadening our field of interest to Blackfriars, to Holborn and Drury Lane, to Borough, to Southwark – and to Somers Town – we are learning that the East end is by no means exceptional in its state of destitution.  Some years ago, when I put an estimate of the city’s poor at three hundred thousand, I was abused and derided – people were angry , dismissed it as ‘provocation’.  But all the evidence thus far suggests I was too cautious …

Quinn has tapped into the greatest political debate of the 1880s, a question that gripped and divided citizens, politicians and philanthropists: the extent and causes of increasing poverty in an increasingly wealthy industrial Britain. There were fears of social unrest following a series of riots. In 1885, Charles Booth contested the results of a report on poverty by Henry Hyndman of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, which indicated that 25% of Londoners lived in abject poverty. Booth thought the rate was lower, and decided to discover for himself the true extent of poverty in London. For twelve years he and the research team he assembled systematically gathered and mapped living conditions of first, London’s East End, and later the entire city. As a social scientist, he was forced to accept his initial hypothesis had been wrong: he concluded that the rate of extreme poverty was in fact nearer 35% – far higher than the original figure.

The challenge that faced Quinn must have been how to dramatise a sociological inquiry.  He achieves this by extrapolating the journalistic inquiry from Henry Mayhew, who, in the early 1850s, wrote two or three ‘reports’ a week on the London poor for the Morning Chronicle, a liberal newspaper that had previously published Dickens’s Sketches by Boz.  These were the reports subsequently selected and published as the single work, London Labour and the London Poor, with the addition of highly evocative ‘illustrations from photographs’ of street traders such as these.

So Quinn’s main character Wildeblood is an investigative journalist who we follow along the mean streets of Somers Town, his appointed patch: ‘a terra incognito, as remote to most people as those tribes that dwell at the ends of the earth’.  His job is to write up daily reports of his encounters with the denizens of the streets and slums of Somers Town.  Quinn gambles on holding the reader’s attention in the early pages with lengthy examples of entries from Wildeblood’s notebook (in turn modelled on Mayhew’s reports).

But the pace soon quickens as Wildeblood begins to suspect that the area is not completely unknown territory for certain wealthy men with profit in mind and political interests to advance.  The story soon evolves into a fast-paced thriller, with Wildeblood increasingly exposed to danger as he attempts to expose the powerful interests at work in the slums.

His suspicions are first aroused when he realises that ‘somebody must be making a great deal of money on property that was barely fit for human habitation’. No-one he asks knows who their landlord is – only that they pay ‘the man’ who comes round each week to collect the rent.

His investigations soon reveal the identity of the slum landlord, though his employer, the wealthy Henry Mayhew, does not appear impressed by his endeavours.  Someone who is interested, however, is Alfred Kenton, a socialist agitator whose Union for Rental and Sanitary Reform organises a rent strike.  But powerful interests are threatened, and both Kenton and Wildeblood soon find themselves pursued with deadly intent.

It’s a gripping read, with Wildeblood’s friends in Somers Town and those he rubs shoulders with in the drawing rooms of the rich presented as well-rounded characters.  At its heart, this a 19th century political thriller, and Quinn successfully weaves into the narrative the reactionary obsessions of the day:  the laissez-faire rejection of social reforms that might ameliorate the condition of the poor, and the notion of the deserving and undeserving poor.  Wildeblood finds himself debating these questions with wealthy businessmen at an elegant dinner in his godfather’s mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens. It is at this dinner table that he hears the first expression of the ideology that lies behind the conspiracy he is beginning to identify, eugenics:

We must accept that there is a whole underclass prey to vice and drunkenness and what have you.  This degraded element has to be prevented from infecting the rest of society, and the safest means of doing so is to create a place where they would be, as it were, quarantined.

It’s a philosophy that Wildeblood later hears elaborated by Father Kay, a Catholic priest who is a prominent member of the Social Protection League, a body with shadowy intentions:

You see it very strongly in children – that taint in the blood.  There is a school of thought, I’m sure you know, that says allowing our weakest elements to breed will lead to the degeneration of humankind. … The children of the very poor are not born but damned into this world.  Their only inheritance is a weak mind and a deformed physique. … This is the hereditary taint, and unless something is done to check it, evolution itself will be reversed.

The conspiracy which Wildeblood seeks to unmask is a successful dramatisation by Quinn of the theory developed by Sir Francis Galton, based on distorting the theory of evolution propounded by his half-cousin Charles Darwin in this period. After reading Origin of Species, Galton argued that the mechanisms of natural selection were potentially thwarted by human civilization. If human societies sought to protect the underprivileged and weak, they were at odds with the natural selection responsible for extinction of the weakest. Only by abandoning these social policies could society be saved from a ‘reversion towards mediocrity’.

The eugenicist conspiracy at the heart of Quinn’s novel did have genuine parallels in the period.  Although eugenics never received significant state backing in the UK (as it did, for example in the United States, Australia and Sweden), it was supported by many prominent figures of different political persuasions before World War I, including Liberal economists William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes; Fabian socialists such as George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Sidney Webb; and Conservatives such as Winston Churchill.

Galton’s application of eugenics to the question of class was revealed in this diagram in which he placed British society into groups, indicating the proportion of society falling into each group and their perceived genetic worth (red bad, green good). He suggested that those in the lowest social group (the ‘Undesirables’) should be prevented from bearing offspring, while those in the higher classes should be encouraged to breed more.

It’s interesting to compare Galton’s chart with the classification which Charles Booth used in his research; this is his definition of the two lowest of his five social groupings :

A: Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal. The lowest class which consists of some occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals. Their life is the life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink

B: Very poor, casual. Chronic want. Casual earnings, very poor. The labourers do not get as much as three days work a week, but it is doubtful if many could or would work full time for long together if they had the opportunity. Class B is not one in which men are born and live and die so much as a deposit of those who from mental, moral and physical reasons are incapable of better work

Wildeblood is an engaging protagonist – a rather inept amateur detective, driven to reveal the truth by his growing admiration and compassion for the people he has befriended on the street, and his strengthening conviction that the poor and the criminal are not born, but made:

I will tell you.  They deserve to be free to enjoy their life, instead of worrying and struggling over the means to sustain it.  That is the difference between the poor and the rest of us.  We are at liberty to ask, ‘How do I wish to live?’  The poor man only asks, ‘How can I keep myself alive?’  If you had ever witnessed the sort of privations and desperate economies that go on in this city, at this very instant, you would not be tempted to wonder at what they ‘deserve’.

In this brisk narrative, populated by believable and engaging characters and permeated with a sense of social unease, Quinn succeeds in making the political debates and moral questions of the 1880s relevant to the Britain in the second decade of the 21st century, when week after week the media bring news of corruption and conspiracy in high places while social divisions increase. Another enjoyable and intellectually stimulating read from Anthony Quinn.

The end papers of The Streets feature a map of Somers Town in 1880, and Quinn is quite precise about naming the streets where his characters live or ply their trade.  Wildeblood is able to get closer to the people of Somers Town after befriending Jo, a coster, and his attractive and mysterious sister Rosa.  They live in the Polygon (above), the first housing built in Somers Town in 1784, when it stood amid fields, brick works and market gardens on the northern fringes of London (there’s an excellent Time Travel account of the Polygon here).  In essence it was a housing estate, a distinctive, almost circular Georgian building with 15 sides and three storeys that contained 32 houses (seen on the 1880 map below, almost at the centre). Charles Dickens lodged there as a boy, and put the Polygon into Bleak House in 1852, as the home of the down-at-heel eccentric, Mr Skimpole:

He lived in a place called the Polygon, in Somers Town, where there were at that time a number of poor Spanish refugees walking about in cloaks, smoking little paper cigars. Whether he was a better tenant than one might have supposed, in consequence of his friend Somebody always paying his rent at last, or whether his inaptitude for business rendered it particularly difficult to turn him out, I don’t know; but he had occupied the same house some years. It was in a state of dilapidation quite equal to our expectation. Two or three of the area railings were gone, the water-butt was broken, the knocker was loose, the bell-handle had been pulled off a long time to judge from the rusty state of the wire, and dirty footprints on the steps were the only signs of its being inhabited.

A slatternly full-blown girl who seemed to be bursting out at the rents in her gown and the cracks in her shoes like an over-ripe berry answered our knock by opening the door a very little way and stopping up the gap with her figure. As she knew Mr. Jarndyce (indeed Ada and I both thought that she evidently associated him with the receipt of her wages), she immediately relented and allowed us to pass in. The lock of the door being in a disabled condition, she then applied herself to securing it with the chain, which was not in good action either, and said would we go upstairs?

We went upstairs to the first floor, still seeing no other furniture than the dirty footprints. Mr. Jarndyce without further ceremony entered a room there, and we followed. It was dingy enough and not at all clean, but furnished with an odd kind of shabby luxury, with a large footstool, a sofa, and plenty of cushions, an easy-chair, and plenty of pillows, a piano, books, drawing materials, music, newspapers, and a few sketches and pictures. A broken pane of glass in one of the dirty windows was papered and wafered over, but there was a little plate of hothouse nectarines on the table, and there was another of grapes, and another of sponge-cakes, and there was a bottle of light wine. Mr. Skimpole himself reclined upon the sofa in a dressing-gown, drinking some fragrant coffee from an old china cup–it was then about mid-day–and looking at a collection of wallflowers in the balcony.

A map of Somers Town in 1880

I decided to walk around the area – a terra incognito to me – to see if anything of the atmosphere of Quinn’s novel still lingered there.  Nothing remains that offers any semblance of the streets featured in Quinn’s tale.  The Polygon has gone – demolished in the 1890s – and the land where it stood is now occupied by the blocks of Somers Town estate.  But there is still a Polygon Road (below), and if you turn off Polygon Road and go down Werrington Street you will find a plaque to the Polygon’s most renowned resident.

It’s plaque recording the fact that ‘in a house on this site lived Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. It was put up by Camden Borough Council, prodded by Claire Tomalin, author of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (2004). You have to really look for it –  turn down Werrington Street, and where a set of stairs rises above a garage entrance, it’s on the wall halfway up the steps, well above head height.  In the London Review of Books in 1989, Tomalin wrote:

‘Mary Who?’ is still the common form of her name, outside a small circle of specialists and enthusiasts. People stumble over the three simple syllables; its awkwardness has stood in the way of her fame. Pankhurst has an easy ring to it, and Mrs Pankhurst got a statue. When I set about organising a modest plaque on the site of the house in which Mary Wollstonecraft died in Somers Town, there was talk of naming flats or even a street after her: but again, those three syllables defeated too many people.

Further along Polygon Road is a striking wall mural (top of post) that vividly portrays the history of Somers Town.  It’s hard to appreciate the detail of the painting, as it is obscured by a high chain fence as you can see from my photo.  Its present location is its third: the mural was originally created by Karen Gregory in 1984 and located in the St Mary and St Pancras School. It had been funded by the Greater London Council with additional funds from Camden Council and the Arts Council. It was intended not just to be a decorative piece but also educational with posters and leaflets made up to explain the local history stories.

The mural depicts a view looking out from old Somers Town, showing the industrial landscape of Victorian London in the left hand side, the Fleet river divides the picture and Old St Pancras church is seen on the riverbank. On the right hand side is a modern house with contemporary people. Famous faces from Somers Town over the years are featured, including Mary Wollstonecraft and her partner William Godwin, Charles Dickens, who lived and worked in the area in the 1820s, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who founded a women’s hospital nearby. Local scenes are depicted too, such as Mr Darke’s dust heaps (where King’s Cross station now stands), the brick kilns which once provided the main employment, and The Brill, a network of alleys and courts that formed a market place that features in Anthony Quinn’s novel.  Some of the detail can be seen more clearly in this photo of the mural in its original location.

In 1992, the mural came under threat from redevelopment.  Claire Tomalin successfully lobbied for its retention, calling it ‘probably the finest in London’:

…in 1980 the GLC [Greater London Council, abolished by Thatcher] commissioned the London artist Karen Gregory to paint a mural on the wall of a school to celebrate the history of the district and its famous residents…It offers a journey through time, drawing on the styles of many artists; Stubbs, Constable, Gainsborough, Ford Madox Brown, Sickert and Gilman. Old St Pancras church is in the background, surrounded by hay fields. The Fleet river runs by under an elm tree. Beneath it are seated the figures of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who belong to the earliest period of Somers Town’s history. Their daughter Mary is shown as a young woman, with her husband Shelley, sailing paper boats from the bridge over the Fleet, while behind them appears the head of Frankenstein’s monster.

The mural was moved again in 2007 and repainted after a vote from the local community to keep it. The painting now includes Claire Tomalin, the current headteacher of the school where it was first situated, and Sue Child, a teaching assistant who has seen all three versions of the mural.  as flats were built, but in that time has won the hearts of the community.

Artist Karen Gregory, who painted all the murals and spent three months on the most recent, said the inspiration behind the original creations was feminism: ‘We decided to base it on famous women who lived and worked here – it was the flavour of the times, we were very feminist’.

The most dramatic change to this area came with the arrival of the railway and the construction of Euston and St Pancras stations.  The streets where The Brill, the market place that features in Anthony Quinn’s novel, have long gone – partly buried beneath St Pancras.  Now, roughly on the site where some of the the streets that formed The Brill were, is arising another behemoth, to join the new British Library building which has transformed the area in the last decade.

Brill Place is the site for the Francis Crick Institute, a major medical research institute being established by a partnership of Cancer Research UK, Imperial College London, King’s College London, the Medical Research Council, University College London (UCL) and the Wellcome Trust.  It’s a building site now (above), but will soon be a building as massive and significant as its neighbour, the British Library.

The streets have seen it all – change and decay, destruction and rebuilding – and through it all, the people drift like ghosts, coming into the light and fading from sight.

See also

7 thoughts on “The mean streets of Somers Town

  1. Dear Gerry,

    I have only just discovered your site (in the process of writing my own piece on Somers Town). I’ve now looked at your more recent posts (poetry in a time of despair, photographs of 60s Britain) and shall definitely be coming back. I hadn’t heard of the novelist you write about here (I live in Canada though British in origin and affections) but shall definitely try to get hold of his Somers Town based book. Shall also continue to follow you. With best wishes, Ann

    1. Many thanks, Ann. The blog is not being updated at the moment, but there is plenty here to sift through. Hope you continue to find interesting stuff!

  2. Good to hear from you, Gerry. I’m not surprised to hear that you’re not blogging at the moment. A serious well-written blog like yours takes time and research (not to speak of energy!). But I’ll enjoy sifting through back entries. All the best, Ann

  3. Very interesting blog. My grandfather worked at the Somers Town Goods Depot for the Midland Railway and lived in Polygon Buildings. From the photographs I have, these were very unlovely blocks of flats built for railway workers on the site of the demolished old Polygon. They were in turn demolished in the 1960s? for the current housing. Of course part of the Goods Depot is now the site of the British Library so everything my parents would have recognised is gone. A great read.

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