Walking Through Victorian Greenwich in 2016

Charles Booth was a Victorian gentleman. When he read an article in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 that stated that 25% of Londoner’s lived in poverty, he thought this figure was highly inflated. (Fried & Elman, Charles Booth’s London, p.xxi.) This gave him the impetus to look into the issue more closely to prove this was not the case and that the number was much lower. He decided to correlate data that had already been collected. Firstly, he used school board visitation reports to judge the level of poverty in several areas in London, finding this did not cover everyone; as only those with children were covered, he also looked at Poor Law statistics and police reports. (Fried & Elman, p.xxii.) Booth’s findings shocked him when he found that poverty in Victorian London was actually higher than the figure stated originally in the article. Booth then decided to make it his life’s work to find an explanation for this and therefore a solution for the poverty he saw.

Booth made three collections of different data over the coming years. For his third research project he had a number of different people work for him to collect data. These workers were sent out on the streets of London with local police officers to record what they saw of basic living conditions. The judgments of these walkers were then put into one of seven categories to show the level of poverty seen on each street; ranging from “lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal” to “upper-middle and upper classes. Wealthy.” (Steele, The Streets of London, p. 14.)

I chose to follow one of Booth’s walks as a way to view modern surroundings through the eyes of a Victorian. One drawback with this walk is that the write up is for a very specific purpose and so only shows very specific features that were seen on the walk. The walker in this case, George Arkell, has the intention to record only things he sees that show a demarcation of class or point to levels of poverty. Over 100 years later I too was walking those same streets and looking at the same buildings described by Arkell.

I started my walk at St Alphege’s Church on Church Street in Greenwich. St. Alphege’s church is a large, imposing, white stone building; an edifice that may have seemed even more imposing in the nineteenth century, when large buildings were rarer than they are in this day and age. The church, probably mostly ignored now due to the decline in religious worship, would have been a hub of activity in Booth’s day. Not a place of much importance for the working class, churches were places for the upper classes to gather and be seen. (Harvie & Matthew, Nineteenth-century Britain, p.92.) St Alphege’s was one of the only churches in the whole of Greenwich in the early nineteenth century and as such was patronised by many of the local upper echelons including Queen Caroline who had lived in Ranger’s House, a large structure I come across later in my walk. (Hamilton, Royal Greenwich, p.107.)

From St Alphege’s I headed north towards the river Thames where I walked around the Cutty Sark and then south along the edge of the Maritime Museum and Royal Navel College towards Greenwich Park. The Cutty Sark was not present at the time of Arkell’s walk but the buildings that make up the Maritime Museum and Royal Navel College were. I found it interesting that none of these were mentioned in the report; whether it was down to lack of interest or some other reason is hard to tell, as not all places mentioned in the reports were residential this was probably not the reason.

Running to the west of these buildings, I walked down some of the side roads and headed to Greenwich Market before exploring some of the roads that ran perpendicular to Greenwich Park itself. Greenwich market was established in 1737 and was a hive of activity. From the early days of the market it housed stalls and carts in the centre as well as shops along the side; (Steele, p.257.) this hasn’t changed much today. Although I walked through the market on a weekday it was alive with people; food stalls giving off their delicious aromas and numerous bright and interesting products being sold from the plethora of stalls. It is a place that could occupy anyone that wanted to explore for a while. This is probably in stark contrast to Arkell’s view of the market in 1899 when the market was a place of pure commerce, housing mainly greengrocers stalls as well as other trades such as bootmakers and food vendors. (Steele, p.257.) In comparison today, although the food vendors remain, most stalls offer handmade speciality gifts such as jewellery, dog accessories, and handcrafted homewares; showing a change in the trends of market vendors and commerce.

From the market I headed south into The Circus, now called Gloucester Circus. The Circus was noted by Arkell as having “good class families” (Steele, p. 258.) with terrace houses opposite, on Gloucester Place, being “slightly better”. However, this contrasts with today’s sight; where the terraces of Gloucester Place have been replaced by a twentieth century apartment block. From the Circus I headed up the long road leading, eventually, to a rather large house at the corner of Greenwich Park and Blackheath that had belonged to Lord Wolseley, now called Ranger’s House. From here I headed away from the park along Hyde Vale towards Pointer’s Hill where I finished my walk.

Many of the houses on my walk consisted of three or four storeys which often housed one family and their servants. Greenwich, as an area, was quite well off according to Booth’s map. There were a few smaller 2 storey houses and some houses were even divided at the end of the nineteenth century but the area I walked in had very little poverty. Today many of the original houses from Booth’s report are still standing although many have been split into apartments as so many old houses are these days. The area is still one that is affluent although some of the houses have now been made into shops that now make up part of Greenwich town centre. It is nice to see that modernity has not taken away the Victorian (sometimes Georgian) character of the area and that we can view history simply by walking the streets that have been mostly unchanged for over 100 years.

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Bibliography

Books

Fried, Albert & Richard M. Elman, Charles Booth’s London, (London: Hutchinson & Co Ltd, 1969)

Hamilton, Olive & Nigel, Royal Greenwich, (London: The Greenwich Bookshop, 1969)

Harvie, Christopher & H. C. G. Matthew, Nineteenth-century Britain: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Steele, Jess, The Streets of London: The Booth Notebooks – South East, (London: Deptford Forum Publishing Ltd, 1997)

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