By Andrew McIntyre
Today, Bermondsey boasts some of the most expensive properties in London, part of the developmental metamorphosis experienced in the docklands since the 1980s. With the change in fortune for this area, it is fascinating to note that the background to Oliver Twist is based in the same locale, except then it was known as Jacob’s Island.(1)
Very respectable in the 17th and 18th centuries, by the mid-1800s the area had declined to become one of the most appalling slums in the city, especially the area around St. Saviour’s Dock.(2) Indeed, it was classified as a “rookery,” a colloquial British term of the 18th and 19th centuries describing a slum, the word derived from the nesting habits of the rook (these birds inhabit large disorganized nests at the top of trees); perhaps also a play on the slang expression “to rook,” meaning to cheat or steal.(3)
Like any sound journalist, Dickens did his research first hand. He knew London very well, sometimes walking 10 or 20 miles through the city, often at night. With his lengthy, detailed descriptions, London features almost as a “character” in itself in his oeuvre.(4) In 1850, Dickens was given guided tours of some of the worst slums by armed police, through areas like St. Giles, some of these sojourns lasting all night. The result was detail like this, Dickens describing Jacob’s Island in Oliver Twist: “dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island.”(5) A contemporary of Dickens, the journalist Henry Mayhew also provides some of the most lurid accounts of Jacob’s Island: “On entering the precincts of the pest island the air had literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea and heaviness came over any one unaccustomed to imbibe the moist atmosphere.”(6)
Commensurate with other contemporary social reforming movements like Chartism, for example, Dickens was immensely influential regarding the social improvement that began to be enacted during the Victorian era. However, with its subtlety, its episodic character, its vast readership both nationally and internationally, Dickens’ writing can be regarded as one of the more powerful forces directing 19th century Victorian social reform, along with intellectuals like Thomas Arnold. It was due to this style of brutal, shocking description, for an addicted reading audience of millions, that Jacob’s Island, and other slums like it, were eventually cleared.(7)
All well and good, Bermondsey and Jacob’s Island have changed, everything should be better. However, if one explores London, the social strata, the poverty, the crime and exploitation are still there, relative of course, not nearly as bad as the 1850s, but suffering is still extant; a few streets from Bermondsey’s recent wealth, great deprivation remains.
On a more macrocosmic basis, therefore, terms like “Dickensian” continue to occur in popular speech to describe exploitive, abusive social or work related predicaments; examples of how the reforming spirit of Dickens has entered and survives in our consciousness through language. Tapping into the essence of being human, the undying and assured future popularity of Dickens’ work is thus inextricably connected to some of the universal foundations of humanity: coexistent with the inherent survivalist greed in human nature there struggles a ceaseless recognition and questioning of injustice, combined with the search for a solution based on community, honesty, and fairness, especially for those most vulnerable.
With its past success and future relevance, the work of Charles Dickens is a beacon guiding us through ongoing contemporary challenges, spotlighting abuses, evoking charity, a balancing influence, so that we are reminded always of the humanistic values inherent in the philosophical, spiritual legacy of the Victorians.
1. See “Jacob’s Island.” Also “Bermondsey.”
2. “Jacob’s Island.”
3. See “Rookery.” As far as we know, it was the poet George Galloway, around 1792, who first used the term “rookery” in print to describe “a cluster of mean tenements densely populated by people of the lowest class.”
4. See Wilson, London: a History 87-88 for background.
5. See “Jacob’s Island.”
7. “Rookery.” See also Wilson, The Victorians for more background detail.
“Bermondsey.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2012.
“Jacob’s Island.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2012.
“Rookery.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2012.
Wilson, A.N. London: A History. New York: The Modern Library, 2006. Print.
- – -. The Victorians. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.
Andrew McIntyre is the author of The Short, the Long, and the Tall, a collection of 34 stories recently published by Merilang Press. He has published stories in 3:AM Magazine, The Copperfield Review, The Mississippi Review, and Gold Dust Magazine, among numerous others. In 2002, he was a finalist in the Fish Short Story Prize. He lives in San Francisco.