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Senate House Library

London Low Life: Street Culture, Social Reform and the Victorian Underworld


Explore the hidden history of London with the digital resource and collection London Low Life: Street Culture, Social Reform and the Victorian Underworld 

London Low Life: Street Culture, Social Reform and the Victorian Underworld

To explore the hidden history of Victorian London with its bustling street life, there’s no better place to start than with London Low Life: Street Culture, Social Reform and the Victorian Underworld.

A fascinating digital resource owned by Senate House Library, this digital collection complements our vast printed book collections to provide a fascinating glimpse into London’s street culture during the 19th century from home. 

London Low Life showcases an array of primary source material that has been digitally captured by the publisher Adam Matthews from the extensive collections of rare books held at the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana.

This blog explores a few highlights from the hundreds of images, texts, pamphlets and maps in the digital collection that you can browse further for your own research and interest

The Night Side of London

“For this great old London is no Puritan”

For this great old London is no Puritan” – from The Night Side of London by Robert Machray, p.23

The city revealed in London Low Life is a lively, exuberant, creative, and sometimes dangerous network of streets, clubs, music halls and drinking dens, showing a mix of workers, leisure and pleasure seekers, performers, the homeless, social reformers and the police (you can explore the range of themes for research in the London Low Life - User Guide section).  

London Low Life presents the side of 19th century culture that was not often depicted in mainstream literature unless through the eyes of middle-class reform campaigns (also represented on this site). 

Days and nights in London

“One half the world does not know how the other half lives”

One half the world does not know how the other half lives” - Days and Nights in London by J. Ewing Ritchie , p.90

This so-called ‘low’ culture is revealed in two corresponding ways: by expressing lives and experiences often hidden from view and by doing so via often ephemeral print sources such as broadsides, adverts and ballads. As a result, in addition to highlighting 19th century social history, politics and literature, those interested in the century’s print culture will also find much of value. 

The speed and change within the printing trade allowed the development of forms such as fast guides for men-about-town, and cheap fiction, an example of which is A Story of the Argyll Rooms: Told by One Who Has Fallen published by a company called the London Novelty Stores. This latter tale relates, over a mere seven pages complete with illustrations, the fall from grace of an abandoned young woman. 

Much of the material on London Low Life is illustrated and some of it is brightly coloured, such as the chapbook called Dreamer’s Oracle. The broadsides and ballads, meanwhile, shed light on interpretations of invariably “horrid” murders, arrests and executions, the revelation of secret affairs and other salacious news events of the period as told and sold on the streets of London. 

Dreamer's Oracle

Whilst researching the lives of street children for our exhibition Childhood in Dickensian London, this site led me to many useful texts including one entitled The Great Army of London Poor: Sketches of Life and Character in a Thames-side District which was written by the pseudonymous ‘River-side Visitor’. My research also led me to one of my favourite items, a little curio called The Streets of London: a New Game, a card game featuring brightly coloured depictions of various street characters including a match-box seller, a boot-blacker and a crossing sweep. This game is part of the site’s ‘Virginia Warren Collection of Old London Street Cries’. 

Streets of London: A New Game

For fans and students of the author George Gissing, who often based his novels in the poorest of London’s streets, London Low Life contains a resource of particular interest. The Lilly Library holds a collection of Gissing’s manuscripts and has made one of them called The Pforzheimer Scrapbook available via the site. The scrapbook is thematically arranged by Gissing and contains writings in his own hand and cuttings from newspapers. 

Pforzheimer Scrapbook

“Study well the plan of the metropolis”

“Study well the plan of the metropolis” – from Black’s Guide to London and its Environs. Illustrated by maps, plans, and views p.vii

London Low Life includes over 100 maps of the city allowing you to visualise the terrain of 19th century London providing crucial context to the study of people, place and publishing. 

The 'Interactive Maps’ section of the site contains contemporary ‘Historic Basemaps’ that can be explored individually or by applying additional tabs such as ‘The Thematic Data’ tab which plots significant institutions such as workhouses, orphanages, women’s refuges, hospitals and prisons as well as the population of each London area. 

Stanford's Map of the British Metropolis and suburbs, 1884

One of the highlights of the London Low Life maps is the full set of London street maps produced between 1838-1840 by the publisher John Tallis. The ‘Tallis Street Views’ tab on the site enables you to explore London’s streets as depicted by his map engravings, using a click-and-drag movement, just like Google street view.

There is also the ‘Victorian London’ tab which plots Buildings and Monuments, Cemeteries, Engineering, Transport and Industry, Parks and Entertainment and Exhibitions.

For further inspiration, you can explore the ‘Editor’s Choice’ on London Low Life, which highlights some of the editorial consultants’ favourites in the digital collections.

Finally, to continue your research - as soon as it is safe for Senate House to open again - you can explore some of the millions of printed works in our collections that are rich in 19th century holdings. Two of our special collections, the Goldsmiths Library of Economic Literature and the Bromhead Library (which includes the Tallis maps), contain many rare treasures giving further insight and context into the Victorian era and history. 

Leila Kassir, Academic Librarian for English Literature