George Gissing

Gissing ImageGeorge Gissing, 1857-1903, was a victorian novelist, now somewhat neglected, but at one time regarded as one of the leading novelists in Britain for his gloomy, social realist novels about working class London.  He lived for a time at 62 Noel Road in Islington (previously Hanover Street) and several of his works give us a unique insight into conditions there in the later 19th century, the more so since he tended to use real place names.  Here, for example are extracts from his description of Caledonian Road taken from his novel "Thyrza", 1887:

"Caledonian Road is a great channel of traffic running directly north from King's Cross to Holloway.  It is doubtful whether London can show any thoroughfare of importance more offensive to eye, ear and nostril. ... Journey on the top of a tramcar from King's Cross to Holloway, and civilization has taught you its ultimate achievement in ignoble hideousness. You look off into narrow side-channels where unconscious degradation has made its inexpugnable home and sits veiled with refuse. ... All this northward bearing tract, between Camden Town on the one hand and Islington on the other, is the valley of the shadow of the vilest servitude."  Wow!

Gissing's novel "The Nether World", 1889, is perhaps the most illuminating for our purposes.  Set in Clerkenwell and Islington it is unremittingly grim.  Its working class characters are almost all poor, mean and doomed in one way or another.  Their occupations are familiar to us from the Cloudesley Estate records.  Sidney Kirkwood, the main protagonist, earns a modest living from jewelery working.  His friend John Hewett is successively a lath-renderer, then cabinet-maker, then jobbing carpentry, and is now reduced to making packing-cases.  His daughter Clara works in a disreputable bar off Upper Street owned by the sinister Mrs Tubbs.  His son Bob is a die-caster who then turns his hand to counterfeit coins - unsuccessfully.  Samuel Byass is "employed in some clerkly capacity at a wholesale stationer's in City Road".  Of Charles Scawthorne: "His father had a small business as a dyer is Islington, and the boy, leaving school at fourteen, was sent to become a copying-clerk in a solicitor's office".  Clem Peckover works at an artificial flower factory and her scheming mother is relatively wealthy as a landlady.  Jane Snowdon, the heroine, after suffering grievously as a servant, more a slave, at the hands of Clem, is rescued by Sidney and spends her time on good works such as working in soup kitchens.

Almost all the characters live in lodgings in multi-occupied dwellings, exactly as we have seen in the Cloudesley Estate records for this time.  The condition of the lodgings vary from mean to downright appalling, as in the case of the infamous Shooter's Gardens, scheduled for demolition, where the alcoholic Mrs Candy and her hapless daughter Pennyloaf reside: "Meanwhile the Gardens looked their surliest; the walls stood in a perpetual black sweat; a mouldy reek came from the open doorways; the beings that passed in and out seemed soaked with grimy moisture, puffed into distortions, hung about with rotting garments.  One such was Mrs Candy, Pennyloaf's mother.  .....  An interesting house, this in which Mrs Candy resided.  It contained in all seven rooms, and each room was the home of a family; under the roof slept twenty-five persons, men, women and children; the lowest rent paid by one of these domestic groups was four-and-sixpence."

And so it goes on.  The Cloudesley Estate of the late 19th century was perhaps not as desperate as Gissing's most gloomy descriptions, but it was certainly much, much less pleasant than it is today.  For that we give thanks!