Sarah Wise has returned to Bethnal Green, where she was last seen recounting the fate of ‘The Italian Boy’, murdered in 1831 by grave robbers so that they could sell his corpse for dissection. In The Blackest Streets she gives an equally horrifying account of the living conditions endured by those who survived in those dark streets east of Shoreditch High Street, known as ‘The Old Nichol’ or ‘The Jago’. It is difficult to do justice to the squalor, poverty and disease that its residents suffered, but one fact may help. The annual death rate in Bethnal Green in the late nineteenth century was forty per thousand inhabitants. Elsewhere in London it was twenty. It is now six.
The suffering of the poorer classes is placed in the context of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which was inspired by the belief that many citizens in receipt of ‘poor relief’ were too lazy to work. Rather than giving them money to support themselves from taxes, it was thought