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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 27 August 2008
I have seldom read such an affecting book. It is a model of accessible, informative and gripping social history. Through meticulous research, it tells the lives of those people who lived in the area known as "The Nicol" in East London in the late 19th c. there are countless individual stories of heartbreaking poverty, set against the bigger picture of social, political and religious reforms and the history of urban victorian slums. Contemporary photographs and etchings are really illustrative and help bring the area to life. I have ancestors who lived in the area and it provided a fascinating and humbling glimpse of their lives but this book is so well written and informative, in a very accessible style that anyone interested in history will enjoy it. It is a real page turner - I was completely caught up in the day to day lives of the people of the Nicol. Utterly compelling and highly recommended. My book of the year so far.
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Sarah Wise has written an excellent book on the `Old Nichol' slum area just east of Shoreditch High Street and the replacement Boundary Estate, the first example of large scale local government building in London. The author describes conditions in the old slum but also carefully charts the way in which the local vestry tried to avoid any action that might result in expenditure as the fraction of people living in the area who actually contributed to the local rate was very small. Wise shows how the 1834 Poor Law (or `New Poor Law') made matters worse by ending all "outdoor" relief to able bodied men and encouraged the widespread construction of workhouses, some thirty being built in London, as the only alternative for such men. "Indoor" relief in exchange for often pointless work being thought the appropriate response for able-bodied unemployed men. The step by step changes in local government responsibilities and the groundbreaking establishment of London County and the London County Council in 1888 are carefully charted together with their impact on life in the `Old Nichol'. Finally the destruction of the slum and the building of the magnificent Boundary Estate and its impact on the local residents, most of whom moved elsewhere, are described.
My only criticism of the book would be the outright hostility and vituperative comments that Wise reserves for the well known Victorian surveyor of London, Charles Booth, together with the self-serving vicar of All Saints Church in the Nichol, the Reverend Arthur Osborne Jay and the author of the best `fiction' account of life in the Nichol, Arthur Morrison, who wrote `A Child of the Jago'. The author's attacks upon these well meaning Victorians seems rather mean minded and uncalled-for. Booth's surveys may well not have employed the scientific method of modern sociology but they are still of great value. Father Jay may well have indulged in self-promotion but at least he achieved a great deal in this difficult area, something that cannot be said for many other Anglican vicars of the period and Arthur Morrison's book is an excellent read (see my Amazon Review) and describes many of the behaviours and social hierarchy of life in the Nichol/Jago that Wise herself relates as typical of life in this extremely poor area.
Overall an excellent and easy to read book that puts over many aspects of nineteenth century social history in a clear and entertaining way, notwithstanding my earlier negative comments.
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on 7 December 2008
I first picked up on the Old Nichol when researching family history and getting a map of Shoreditch circa 1890 when the areas was being 'cleared'. Curiously, I bought the two maps before and after this time and saw the horrendous labyrinth of streets that made up the Old Nichol and the tidy Arnold Circus that replaced it and still exists today. Little seemed to be known about the Old Nichol until this book (save Arthur Morrisons seminal 'A Child of the Jago' where Jago meant Nichol).

This book paints a good picture of what life was like in the Old Nichol and the events that led to its demolition. Revd Osbourne Jay, who was vicar in the Parish in its latter years is given quite a sympathetic portrayal although in hindsight his motives are a little flawed perhaps.

The book is a little heavy going in its middle sections and there are too many number references to appendices which I could not keep flicking back and fourth to. Also, my interest was in a relative born in Old Nichol Street in the 1840s but there is little reference to whether life would have been as harsh then as it was in the late 1880s. The lack of photos is frustrating but I guess there are none; there was nothing really photogenic about the area. The biggest revelation for me was that the landlords of these shameful properties were respected and wealthy folk.

This book is recommended for anyone with an East End family background or a curiosity in a forgotten area of shame.
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on 15 September 2008
I am enjoying this book because it has shed new light on my own family's story as they lived in Bethnal Green at the end of the 19th century. The use of personal stories especially those of Arthur Harding is very effective and one of the best things about the book. I have struggled with its over-wordiness in places and the insertion of several numerical facts one after the other but on the whole it's very readable and an important historical record of a largely ignored problem.
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on 5 August 2008
Thank you Sarah for setting out in great detail what many refuse to accept - poor social planning has its consequences. Today, we read of sink estates, crime and poverty unaware that these issues are not new. Sarah Wise has highlighted the attitudes that existed in the 19th century to proper housing for the working classes, and when we look at the problems surround modern day housing estates we find that little has changed. Councils, Housing Trusts and Landlords indifferent to the conditions of their tenants so long as the money is rolling in, and when dissent is voiced, use the law, use the courts use any means possible to avoid the legal, moral and social responsibilities of the provision and maintainence of decent housing. Sarah's message is buried deep in the pages of this marvellous book, which is a wealth of social and urban history.
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VINE VOICEon 6 April 2009
I really wanted to like this book. I really did. This sort of social history is just my cup of tea, but I found myself praying for this book to end before I'd reached half way. I was initially excited at the beginning of each chapter and what it promised: the roles of the local authorities, philanthropists, charities, the police, religion, etc. on slum life, only to be buried under a landslide of petty bureaucracy and unenlightening trivia a dozen paragraphs in. The cumulative effect of all these facts and statistics is energy-sapping and distracting. Where is the REAL story? Where are the anecdotes? When will we see what it was like to live in the Nichol in the late 1880s? I finished this book and I still don't know.

I was initially made aware of this book from an article in BBC History magazine, which cherry-picked the one interesting chapter -- "Phantoms in the Fog", concerning the police and judicial system -- and made an interesting article about it. Now I know why they picked that chapter. It would be difficult to select any other chapter to make an interesting article. But perhaps I shouldn't be too uncomplimentary. I DID learn something from this book and I WAS disabused of some common misconceptions about Victorian squalor that I might have seen sensationalised in some costume dramas on the television.

However, this is a much too sober and over-analytical study of a subject that is probably better suited to a more casual and popular approach. Having said that, Wise does treat the subject matter very humanely and sympathetically when she occasionally moves away from facts and statistics. I really wanted more anecdotes, more story-telling. The black-and-white photographs were well chosen and nicely reproduced in the body of the text rather than as plates on glossy paper. I think that was a good decision. I would recommend that this book is taken out of the library rather than bought, as I did, because it isn't exactly as described in the blurb, so the interested reader might be disappointed with his purchase.
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on 13 September 2009
Slumming has always been an agreeable pastime. In the present day it has to be enjoyed vicariously, since the last of the true slums were cleared away by the beginning of the 20th century, but at least the armchair slummer is safe from assault, infection, stench, parasites and excremental contamination which was inescapable by their inhabitants.

The Nicholl, the subject of this book, was dirty, overcrowded and life expectancy was consequently reduced. But it was a facinating labyrinth of narrow streets, courts and alleyways, and housed true communities, many of which had lived in it, contentedly, for generations.

Slum clearances of whole areas, where many of their historic buildings had been repairable and able to be made fit for human habitation, led to more profitable land use and better living conditions for many. But it destroyed much that is irreplacable.
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on 7 March 2014
This is a very well researched work on what was effectively a sink estate of the Victorian era, It describes in great depth the hellish conditions, the inhabitants, the mores and customs of the time, the would-be social improvers and their successes failures.

It is for the most part quite readable although I did get bogged down a couple of times part way through...nonetheless it was well worth's a very rewarding read.

The book is lavishly referenced, and properly indexed. It's only those couple of sticky bits that hold me back from five stars - again I wish I could award 4.5, as four isn't quite enough...
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on 15 April 2009
I bought this book for my mum who was born in this area of London, I before giving it to her had a little look and couldn't put it down, it was amazing to find out how people lived not so very long ago, very happy with my purchase.
Delivery was excellent.
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on 4 October 2012
Apart from my own genealogical pursuits, some family having lived in Bethnal Green, Hoxton and Shoreditch, I bought this book having previously read " A Child of the Jago (Oxford World's Classics)" , by Arthur Morrison, "The Jago" being thinly disguised as the notorious slum "The Old Nichol" in Bethnal Green. Like many other parts of London the Old Nichol was overcrowded and ill-constructed with little or no sanitation, the inhabitants struggling for their very existence with incomes well below "the poverty line". Life was a battle in more ways than one, according to the reminscences of one inhabitant, the petty criminal Arthur Harding. I can't help wanting to know more about Arthur Harding and these can be found in the book "East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding v. 2 (History Workshop series)".

Sarah Wise has produced a fascinating and detailed study of an area of London unfortunately still known for its poverty. The horrific and heart-rending accounts and the effort that was made to help them from a multitude of sources - not always for the better - makes for grim reading. The ultimate demolition by the newly-found London County Council and erection of buildings were not fit for purpose, because no one thought to ask the opinions of the very inhabitants from the Old Nichol who it was meant to help. They still couldnt afford the now increased rents and didn't care for the excessive regulation, thus displacing these very people who it was meant to help elsewhere. I can't help but wonder what became of them.
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