What American Audiences Need to Know About Victorian Slum House on PBS

Deborah Gilbert | April 26, 2017

Cast of Victorian Slum House on PBS. Back Row (Left to Right) Mandy Howarth, Russell Howarth, Graham Potter, Allison Oldfield, Andy Gardiner, Adrian Bird Front Row (Left to Right) James Howarth, Rebecca Howarth, Allison Oldfield, Heather Oldfield, Olivia Olfield, Wiebke Bird

The latest British invasion to hit American shores is Victoria-mania! On the heels of the popularity of Victoria – Masterpiece it was inevitable, wasn’t it? Season 2 of Victoria is currently filming and is set to come our way in January 2018. For most of us though, January is a bit too long to wait for our next Victoria fix, so I was eager to watch an advance screening of the this new program set in the Victorian-era, premiering on PBS Tuesday, May 2 at 8pm. Victorian Slum House, like Victoria, is based on historical fact and features real people instead of actors.

Life in Victorian England: Poverty becomes a national debate

In this rather amazing five-part reality series we get to see the other side of Victorian England. Spoiler Alert: It wasn’t all drawing rooms, wacky uncles, and dishy Prime Ministers! While the Victorian era refers to Her Madge’s reign 1837-1901, this series concerns itself with the time period 1860-1901, a time when London was the richest city in the world, but when the underside of what it took to create all that wealth for a few started to become visible. Up until this time, poverty was considered to be the natural order of things and the poor simply unworthy. It was during this time that poverty became a national debate; slum conditions were surveyed and studied, and changes began to be made.

If you like the idea of reality shows but just can’t get with all the screaming, duplicity, and bad plastic surgery, Victorian Slum House will be right up your street. It is a series similar in its educational aspects to 1900 House or Manor House; Colonial House and Frontier House set in the U.S., and a few others we’ve watched here on PBS. In it we get to see what real life was like for ordinary people of a bygone era, bringing an understanding you can’t get anywhere else.

In Victorian Slum House, an East End London tenement is historically recreated, and modern-day people are chosen to live like people would have in that place and time – a Dickensian slum. We watch as they are dropped into this time capsule with no money or belongings and try to figure out how to cope (or not), while a narrator brings factual context to it all. Each of the episodes examines what life was like in a different decade of the (long) Victorian age. The whole thing is eye-opening!

Life in the East End of London: tenements with sparse rooms and outdoor toilets

The East End of London in the Victorian era was very much like the Lower East Side of New York City in the same period: a combination of working class and impoverished residents. Most of the residents of the East End were ‘Cockney’ — a term that refers to anyone born within the sound of Bow Bells (i.e.: the bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church). The East End was also, and still is, a first stop for many immigrants coming to England. If you watch EastEnders on WLIW21, you are very familiar with the East End of today. During the time period Victorian Slum House takes place, about 250,000 people lived in the East End of London, most in abject poverty. One of the worst areas of the East End was a section of the now tony neighborhood of Shoreditch called the Old Nichol (nicknamed the Old Nick), where the residents lived on top of one another in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. The slum building we see on this series was historically recreated from accounts of life in the Old Nichol. The building and courtyard itself was at one time a fire station used to house firemen and their families (it closed in 1964).

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A Slumlord’s Paradise: none of the safety regulations and all of the profits

Being a slumlord was highly profitable. The rent per cubic foot was as much as ten times higher than in the better areas of the West End, and without any health and safety regulations there was no incentive for landlords to spend money making improvements. Much of the housing stock was owned by the church and peers of the realm, though they had no contact with the people who lived in their slums. Their rent collectors did all the dirty work.

Because of cheap materials and poor construction, these slum dwellings were permanently damp. The mortality rate for common diseases of the day was twice as high in the Old Nichol as in other poor areas nearby, most likely due to the lack of sanitation, light, or fresh air. Conditions were so wretched, about 25% of children died before turning one, many having suffocated because families slept all together in one bed. (Though there were suspicions that some babies were intentionally smothered by mothers with too many mouths to feed.) This was all the poorest could afford.  For many, the Old Nichol was the last stop before having to enter a workhouse.

In 1883, fifteen acres of the Old Nichol were torn down to make way for The Boundary Estate, the UK’s first public housing development. It was supposed to house more than 5,500 of the 5,700 people who were displaced when it was demolished. (The dedication was even attended by the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII). But planners had not accounted for the fact that these one-thousand nice, new flats were more expensive than the slums they’d torn down. In the end, only eleven of the displaced families could afford to be rehoused in The Boundary Estate. The rest migrated farther east into neighboring Bethnal Green and elsewhere.

Reality Check: Watch 21st century people cope with 19th century problems

It is one thing to read about the grinding poverty of the time or see the photographs that exist, but it is another thing entirely to see 21st century people deal with the serious filth, drudgery, frightening uncertainty, and (ultimately) revelation. It makes you understand, for example, why the servants in Downton Abbey were grateful for their dreary jobs. In this series, we see a life that is much, much worse than toiling in the basement of a great house. For starters, I’ve heard the phrase ‘doss-house’ mentioned on British programs before, (often on EastEnders) and because of the context, always assumed it referred to something like a boarding house. I never had the full picture of what it actually meant until it was explained in the first episode of Victoria Slum House. Holy cow! Wait till you see it!

Where did these modern day slum dwellers come from? The producers of the series put out a casting call to find volunteers and they cast it well, assembling a group of sixteen people who were interested in living history rather than creating the typical reality show sparks. All of the cast members, who spent three weeks living in the Victorian Slum, have ancestral connections to the East End. Each of the 21st century participants (some individuals, some family units) is given a backstory about who they are (or would have been). Among the people we meet are Irish immigrants, a brother and sister, who turn up with just the clothes on their backs. It made me think of my great grandfather who immigrated here to the U.S. He was turned away when he landed at Ellis Island and put on a ship to be sent back. However, he jumped ship and swam to Brooklyn, starting over in a new country on his own with just the (wet) clothes on his back. Most of the slum dwellers we meet in this series have little more than the clothes they are wearing. (Though at least they’re not wet from swimming up the Thames.) But it does make you think of all the stuff we have today.

Our Daily Breadline: Food cost 2/3 of a slum dweller’s income


Graham Potter making flowers.

In the Victorian era, food was far more expensive, taking two-thirds of a slum dweller’s income. People were so poor they bought bread by the slice and tea by the spoonful. According to our narrator, the poor were looked down upon by the upper classes, who considered poverty to be a result of moral failings. But what we see is the participants coming to grips with how hard the cycle of poverty would have been for their ancestors to break out of, in ways that sometimes become very emotional. To survive, those Victorian East Enders had to muster the same kind of strength and resolve that, decades later, got the East End through The Blitz of WWII.

We also see the necessary industry of the slum dwellers; many were ‘employed’ doing piecework at home. The Old Nichol was known as ‘sweater’s hell’ because of all the piecework residents made. My first job out of high school was doing piecework, painting needlepoint canvases. It was menial, mind-numbing work and paid next to nothing because I couldn’t work fast enough to make it approach minimum wage. No one could. It was OK for me at the time because I was a teenager still living with my parents, just earning pin money. I wasn’t supporting a family or even myself. If I couldn’t produce enough, I was still going to eat.

In Victorian Slum House we see the reality of what it meant to earn pennies for an insurmountable volume of piecework. The whole family sweated to bring in enough coin (even children had to be put to work to survive) and went hungry to save enough of it to pay the landlord each Monday (known as ‘Black Monday’ because it was rent day). Tenants late on rent could be thrown out with no recourse or warning —  just out to the doss-house or street. There are many, many lessons learned in Victorian Slum House. One of the biggest is how vitally important our modern day safety nets are, and how people would suffer without them.

This series is a must see!

With Victorian Slum House, once again PBS takes a TV form, the reality series, and makes it educational, worthwhile and (ultimately) life affirming. I cannot say enough about how fantastic and riveting this series is! Do NOT miss it!

What British import are you most looking forward to seeing this spring? Join the conversation below!

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