A new chapter for Oliver Twist

February 7th marks the 200th anniversary of novelist Charles Dickens’ birth. But how might archaeology offer a new chapter to his blockbusting London slum story, Oliver Twist? David Saxby, of Museum of London Archaeology, explains all.

Few writers conjure up images of Victorian London more readily than Charles Dickens, born two centuries ago this February. Among his most famous London-based novels is the page-turner story of Oliver Twist, published chapter by cliffhanging chapter from 1837-9.Long after the eponymous urchin asks for another portion of gruel, the story unravels into a tale of bloody murder. The killer, Bill Sykes, flees the North London scene of his crime. But where should he go? Ultimately, there was only one refuge befitting a soul so dirty, and that place was Jacob’s Island, in South London, said to be the worst slum inLondon. There, amid the stinking dilapidation, the novel  reaches its climax, as (spoiler alert!) Sykes is hanged by his own noose.

In his novel, Charles Dickens offers a lengthy and graphic description of Jacob’s Island, which appears too grotesque to be anything other than pure fiction. But in fact, Jacob’s Islandreally did exist. So how true was Dickens’ description? Might archaeology provide answers? To discover more, in 1996 I led a team from Museum of London Archaeology to excavate at the site of Jacob’s Island, just east of St Saviour’s Dock, Bermondsey, South London. The story of our dig, and the insights it sheds on the lives of the real people who once lived there, has never been presented to a wide readership, but in memory of the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, the time is  now right. So light the fire, settle down, and listen to the true tale of 19th-century slums and squalor in South London.

The rise and fall of Jacob’s Island

Life on Jacob’s Island had once been good. It was originally the location of a Medieval St Saviour’s mill, owned by the Cluniac monks of Bermondsey Abbey. During the 17th and 18th centuries trade and employment were flourishing there, with much of the local employment focused in the timber and boat building industries.

However, by the turn of the 19th century much of the trade had moved down river to Rotherhithe where the existing docks were deepened and enlarged. Becoming part of the Surrey Commercial Dock System they took much of the trade, especially the timber trade. This had a damning effect on the lives of the inhabitants of Jacob’s Island: with employment prospects crippled, the pay was poor and jobs insecure. By the time Dickens visited Jacob’s Island it had become a notorious slum.

Our excavations revealed some evidence of its more prosperous, pre-Dickensian past. Within the northern part of the site, we uncovered parts of the Medieval mill, and the former 18th-century water works. These were enclosed by a large brick building that formed the eastern and southern revetment walls to the River Neckinger and the mill pond.

Come the 1830s, the water works were replaced by a Lead Mill. Not only did the inhabitants suffer the poor sanitary conditions but they were poisoned by sulpuretted hydrogen and hydrosulphate of ammonia produced by this, and other lead mills, located at the northern end of Mill Street. Life was, by now, as Dickens described and our excavations demonstrate, very far from good…

Dickens on Jacob’s Island

… beyond dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob’s Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch….at such times, a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up…
(Chapter 50, Oliver Twist)

As is apparent from the above extract, Jacob’sIsland(an area covering some 130m by 130m) was surrounded (more or less) by a series of watercourses, which were spanned by wooden bridges. The main waterway was the River Neckinger, or Folly Ditch as it is appears in the novel. While these waterways had once been the area’s life blood, by Dickens’ time, they had become polluted and deadly.

The watercourses were rarely flowing and the stagnant sewage-filled watery mud was the only source of water for the islanders to drink, wash and cook with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost half of the deaths during the cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854 occurred here (and in two neighbouring districts), causing Jacob’s Islandto earn the damning monikers ‘the Capital of Cholera’ and ‘the Venice of Drains’.  Above the dangerous waters of Folly Ditch, rose rotten houses, as Dickens described:

….and when his eye is turned from these [afore quoted] operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wood galleries common to the backs of half-a-dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it, as some have done; 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 Folly Ditch.

(Chapter 50, Oliver Twist)

According to Dickens, many of these houses were unoccupied and adapted for the purpose of crime, with concealed tunnels and windows to the roofs leading to ingenious hiding-places. He situates murderer Bill Sykes’ hideaway at Edward Street, in Metcalf Courton the mill stream, just south of Jacob Street. Jacob’s Island was, as Dickens makes clear, the very worst place to live inLondon.

Great excavations

So what did our excavations add to Dickens’ picture of slums and squalor? The answer is that since there was no clear evidence that the houses were largely unoccupied, Jacob’s Island certainly was as bad as he described, and quite possibly worse…

 

This is an extract, but the full feature is available in CA 264

4 Comments

  1. Narelle Bayliss
    January 9, 2013 @ 11:40 pm

    Having just begun to read Chapter 50 of Oliver Twist, and fascinated by Dicken’s description, I turned to google Jacob’s island and found your article – how fascinating. I am an English and history teacher and your article has added to the enjoyment of my holiday read. Thankyou.

    Reply

  2. Lynn
    June 9, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    I too am in the middle of Oliver Twist and wondered whether Jacob’s Island was a real, or fictional, location. Delighted with your article and thank you very much for the information. Love Dickens!

    Reply

  3. John francis Jacob
    January 23, 2014 @ 3:49 am

    I guess my family name was derived from Jacob’s Island as my Grandmother Cox and my great aunt lived and died in Mason Street, Bermondsey with her husband Albert Jacob…….my father and his brothers and sisters (11 siblings) born and bred there.

    Reply

  4. Stephen Kirkman
    July 2, 2016 @ 11:07 am

    I have been researching my own family history and in particular the Carpenter and Shea families. In 1855 James Carpenter was resident at 3 Jacob Street. Mary Shea was also resident at the same address. I believe this same couple married in 1855 and were resident in 1861 at 3 Little London Street (renamed in 1912 to Wolsey Street) which runs parallel to Jacob Street. An 1841 census shows a John Carpenter and Mary Anne Carpenter and their children resident at “Folley”, Bermondsey. Further research found the following article:
    In 1911, the Bermondsey Council opposed a suggestion by the London County Council that George’s Yard, in Bermondsey, should be renamed Twist’s Court, to reflect the site of the fictional home of the Dickens’ character Bill Sikes. Nine years later, G.W. Mitchell, a clerk with the Bermondsey Council found a plan dated 5 April, 1855, in the London County Council archives, which showed ‘Bill Sikes’ house’ marked on Jacob’s Island. This was at a time when the London County Council was proposing that Jacob’s Island should be ‘demolished’. The following year, it was noted that ‘so accurately’ did Dickens’ ‘describe the scene that the house that he chose for Bill Sikes’s end was easily located’ in 1855, and ‘became a Dickens’ landmark’, leading it to be marked on the Council’s plan. At the time of the 1920s news reports, the house, as shown in a reproduction of the 1855 plan, was at 18 Eckell Street (formerly Edwards Street), in Metcalf Court, and ‘occupied as stables by Messers. R. Chartors and Co.’. But ‘in the time of a Dickens’ it overlooked the Folly Ditch on one side and was approached by means of two wooden bridges across the mill stream’, and was ‘used by thieves of the area’.

    Reply

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