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Artillery Row

Decline of the underclass

In the 21st century, London has lost its own internal logic

19th century London was the largest metropolis on the planet, with the world’s busiest port, at the heart of the British Empire and therefore the centre of international trade. For all its wealth and achievement, however, the city was populated by an underclass thought to number hundreds of thousands of lost souls.

Some of these souls have achieved eternal life in the popular imagination —  Fagin’s pickpockets, the match girls of Bow, the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins. Others are left to haunt the pages of obscure books, where they are still lurking out of sight. 

In the London I remember from childhood, there was also a visible underclass going about their shadowy trades on the streets. I can remember what must’ve been one of the last rag-and-bone men whose round included our road when I was 9 or 10. I remember other characters that traded in scrap metal, collecting aluminum cans in shopping trolleys, searching for bits of wire or taking apart fridges on scraps of land where fly-tipping was common. 

Early in the morning there’d be a few scoundrels outside building sites looking for a few hours labouring cash-in-hand. Men with heavy duty bolt-cutters used to drive around looking for cars that had been clamped, and offer to cut them free for £10-a-pop. When the supermarkets closed, you’d see people gathering to raid the skips out the back, pilfering cuts of meat which they’d sell on to butcher stalls on the market. On sunny days teenagers cycled to the off-licence and back to sell cans of stella by order to picnickers in the local park. 

There were of course the more expected trades around, like drug dealing, and what was advertised on the cards in phone boxes which, despite my parents’ best efforts, I could hardly not see as they briskly tried to usher me past.   

In some places, such subterranean trades were dominant. King’s Cross then had a fearsome reputation as a red-light district to rival Amsterdam, just without legal sanction. The stairwells of the nearby flats were popular with crackheads, the derelict warehouses out the back hosted an itinerant population. Soho probably needs little mention, nor any reminders that its townhouses then had open front doors with pieces of A4 paper with things like “Page 3 model First Floor” written on them. It was unlikely you’d walk past, say, Dalston Junction or Peckham Rye without an offer of something or other, or someone trying to lure you somewhere or other, to do something or other, always something best avoided.  

These areas are no longer anything like they were, and images of bolt-cutters and rag-and-bone men seem completely antiquated. The old world where there was a visible underclass of lost souls existing alongside society at large seems to have disappeared. I wonder where they have gone, or who their equivalents are today. 

In Victorian London, the lost souls had very different occupations. They traded as bone-pickers, pure-finders, dredgermen, rag-gatherers, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, night-soil men, bunters, toshers, and shoremen. Some of these names are self-explanatory, others less so. Toshers combed the shores of the Thames at dawn, with a lantern strapped to their chests, looking for scraps of copper. Mudlarks were the rag-clothed children who followed behind them to catch whatever they threw away. Pure-finders collected dog faeces. Bone-pickers scavenged the streets for animal carcasses. 

Around this time people started describing the city as a giant organism or, to quote Wordsworth, as a “monstrous anthill on the plain / Of a too busy world”. Understood like this, the underclass had vital functions. Analogous to something like gut bacteria, the less people encountered them directly the better, but you couldn’t live without them. 

This is because different elements of the market eco-system depended on them. Bone-pickers sold their wares to the bone-boilers who sold them to manufacturers to make knife-handles or collect grease for soap. Pure-finders sold dog faeces to tanners who used it to rub out the lime they had soaked their leather in to remove animal hair. Night-soil men had the job of unblocking cesspools in the basements of houses, where human excrement was collected before sewers were built. This involved near or full immersion deep in the filth to find the blockage and drain the flood. 

London’s expansion had organically generated this network of interlinked shadowy characters who maintained the stability of the urban system which would otherwise have descended into unliveable chaos — for it was a Victorian-sized population existing with an Elizabethan infrastructure. As Steven Johnson describes it, the “bustling commerce of the great city” had “conjured up its opposite”, namely “a ghost class” that somehow mirrors the world above the surface.

As an alternative to city-as-organism analogies, more recently a metaphor has been taken from psychotherapy . Walter Benjamin spoke of nocturnal wanderings around Paris as utilizing “the optical unconscious”, which Geoff Dyer describes in terms vagrants and ne’er-do-wells being “lurking reminders of urges that were at odds with — and a by-product of — bourgeois security”. Approached in this way, my confusion about where this underclass is to be found today carries a threatening character. Repressed urges tend to erupt where they are least welcome, and threaten to force the entire city into pathological behaviour.   

The Victorian underclass was eventually overwhelmed by London’s immense growth. The night-soil men could no longer keep on top of the filth. The infamous cholera epidemics of the 1850s were partly the result of their failure, resulting in today’s sanitation system. The lost souls then began their gradual shapeshift which eventually formed some of those characters I remember from my childhood, well over a century later.

what changed was not primarily about sewers or railways, it was a combination of global forces

That generation of lost souls was destroyed by the city developing an infrastructure to match its character. The generation of lost souls I knew were perhaps destroyed by a similar process. London of the 80s and 90s was becoming a 21st century city constructed on Victorian infrastructure, but what changed was not primarily about sewers or railways, it was a combination of global forces. 

In the first place, the more honest, spontaneous and opportunistic trades are difficult to sustain in a digital world. More darkly, what shadows there are have been pushed out of sight. Street-dealing is replaced by deliveries via WhatsApp, forms of prostitution abound online. While I’m hardly suggesting things return to what King’s Cross was once like, it’s fair to ask whether this disappearance from sight isn’t a repression, which will then begin to seep into conscious life. That is, a form of containment which rebounds with an almost infinite reach of exposure – the dopamine fix of the junkie or prostitute-enjoyer now being normalized, as if we accepted gut bacteria moving into our brains. 

There’s also the fact that any taxonomy of London’s current underclass would include various national and/or ethnic groupings, as would any pattern observation among the overclass too. But there is a more explicit barrier, inevitably, between some of today’s denizens of the underworld and those that went before, insofar as the new underclass is not so much a product of the city, but of the world — and issues of language and politics and culture and religion mean that the old way of living among the city’s lost souls is much harder to imagine than it once was. The possibility of achieving an integrated city-system seems even more unreachable than it was at the time of Dickens, and the pathological instability of the city itself is the inevitable conclusion.

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