London’s Darkest Spot
Whenever a TV shows wants us to see the full horror of Victorian poverty, they shoot a sequence at the back of Somerset House, which they dress to look filthy and dangerous. We tend to think of the London poor in terms of Henry Mayhew, whose columns brought us ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, a collection of literary portraits of street people and their lives, totalling around two million words (the version you can buy today is massively truncated).
We think of the rookeries behind Seven Dials and the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the pay-per-visit foot tunnel under the river that fell from public popularity and became the haunt of footpads and whores. But the one we know little about was much more famous and troublesome at the time because of its proximity to the royal and wealthy.
During the first half of the 19th century, the Aldwych Arches were a high-ceiling cavern of tunnels, stables and vaults that ran underneath the Aldwych and came to be known as the Dark Arches. Before the Thames was narrowed to make a deeper channel there was a marshy foreshore rising to the road beyond, and the Arches raised the Adelphi Terrace to the height of the Strand, creating a multi-level platform below the Strand to the water’s edge.
The structure was gigantic, and was frequently flooded with raw sewage, which brought rats scampering up into the elegant houses above. This is where the very poorest prostitutes worked, picking up their drunk clients above and leading them below. Hundreds of poverty-stricken people stayed here, often thieving from each other.
More bizarrely, pleasure steamers used to stop there on Sundays, letting people off so that they could commit ‘all manner of indecencies’. In the latter part of the century the labyrinthine gloom was lifted with better lighting, but nothing stopped the gatherings. What finally got rid of this den of iniquity was the construction around 1870 of the sweeping Victoria Embankment, which removed the tumbledown chaos of the wharves and many of the steamboat landings, replacing them with a single clean road.
Augustus Leopold Egg painted a corner of the scene, although it doesn’t capture the vastness of the structure, which can be seen in etchings from the time. Gradually the last pockets of degradation were cleared from central London, and the idea that poverty was somehow picturesque began to fade.