Menu :

London's Early-20th-Century Workhouses

London's Early-20th-Century Workhouses

First-hand account of East End life by author Jack London who disguised himself as a stranded sailor reveals 'chronic misery'

The People of the Abyss (1903) is a book by Jack London about life in the East End of London in 1902. He wrote this first-hand account by living in the East End, sometimes staying in workhouses or sleeping on the streets, and writing and photographing all he saw.

A photo entitled 'View In Wapping' in the groundbreaking book. Disguised as a stranded sailor, American journalist London took to the streets of the East End to document the struggles of London's destitute.
A photo titled 'Under the Arches' shows destitute and drunk men slumped under the arches where they were forced to sleep.

A group of starving 'ticket men' queue at a Salvation Army Courtyard, waiting for a ticket to afford them food. London wrote: 'For over two hours I had waited outside, and for over another hour I waited in this packed courtyard. I had had nothing to eat all night, and I was weak and faint, while the smell of the soiled clothes and unwashed bodies, steaming from pent animal heat, and blocked solidly about me, nearly turned my stomach. So tightly were we packed, that a number of the men took advantage of the opportunity and went soundly asleep standing up'.

Salvations Army Barracks Near the Surrey Theatre. London said: This is the breakfast: two slices of bread, one small piece of bread with raisins in it and called “cake,” a wafer of cheese, and a mug of “water bewitched.” Numbers of the men had been waiting since five o’clock for it, while all of us had waited at least four hours; and in addition, we had been herded like swine, packed like sardines, and treated like curs, and been preached at, and sung to, and prayed for'.

'A Tow-Relay System Lodging': 'There are many kinds of doss-houses, but in one thing they are all alike, from the filthy little ones to the monster big ones paying five per cent. and blatantly lauded by smug middle-class men who know but one thing about them, and that one thing is their uninhabitablenes', London writes.

'The Municipal Dwellings Not Far From Leman Street': 'I stood, yesterday, in a room in one of the “Municipal Dwellings,” not far from Leman Street. If I looked into a dreary future and saw that I would have to live in such a room until I died, I should immediately go down, plump into the Thames, and cut the tenancy short'.
'Devonshire Place, London' shows a busy street filled with young children in Jack London's book 'People of the Abyss' about life in the East End of London in 1902.
'Before Whitechapel workhouse' shows poor men queuing up ahead of the day's work at the workhouse in Fulbourne Street, London which has since been demolished.
'Spitalfields market, London' shows horse-drawn carriages making their way down the bustling cobbled street in the early 1900s (left) and in 2015, where some of the original buildings remain to this day.
'Green Park, London' the smallest of the capital's eight Royal Parks in the early 1900s (left) and the park today, more than a century later, where some of the original buildings in the background still remain.
Back To Top