Much of the rioting and looting in London and other parts of England have been blamed on social inequality and the hopelessness of youths who see no future in their country.
While some of these kids may indeed have some legitimate grievances against the government, the police, the educational system and corporations, they should consider themselves lucky they weren’t living in London in the late 19th-century.
Long before such revolutionary ideas as the social safety net, unemployment insurance, health care benefits, upward mobility and general welfare saw the light of day, millions of people in Britain lived lives of appalling, often unspeakable poverty and degradation.
As Britain built a global empire and created the most powerful nation on earth (on the back of the industrial revolution), many of its peoples found themselves trapped in seemingly eternal desperation -- utterly forgotten or trampled over by the wheels of progress.
Many writers, educators, social reformers and humanitarians travelled to the poorest slums of London and elsewhere to describe the horrors they witnessed (and which the middle and ruling classes either ignored or rejected).
In the late 19th century, working-class laborers in London, particularly dockers, were paid only when work was available. When ships were not unloading on the Thames, dockers and their families often were forced to resort to crime or begging. Those who were caught by the police were often sent to jail or the work-house.
The poor typically lived in sub-standard housing – usually constructed quickly and cheaply, lacking in indoor plumbing.
The famous novelist Charles Dickens frequently wrote about the appalling poverty he witnessed around London, especially in the East End. Many of his books were inspired by the deprivation and degradation he saw around London’s worst slums,
Dickens was shocked by Londoners who lived among open sewers, tiny houses built cheaply on marshes, and widespread disease.
An 1883 document called ‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor’ by Andrew Mearns was even more distressing than Dickens’ observation.
He wrote of an East End slum: “Few who will read these pages have any conception of what these pestilential human rookeries are, where tens of thousands are crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind what we have heard of the middle passage of the slave ship.”
He added: “To get into them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions and often flowing beneath your feet; courts, many of them which the sun never penetrates, which are never visited by a breath of fresh air, and which rarely know the virtues of a drop of cleansing water. You have to ascend rotten staircases, which threaten to give way. Eight feet square - that is about the average size of many of these rooms. Walls and ceiling are black with the accretions of filth which have gathered upon them through long years of neglect. It is exuding through cracks in the boards overhead; it is running down the walls; it is everywhere.”
Moreover, riots flared periodically, prompting fears of social upheavals. Indeed, such street disturbances were common throughout Victorian England.
For example, in 1855, more than 150,000 people rioted in London’s Hyde Park to protest the Sunday Trading Bill, which prohibited buying and selling on Sundays (the only day most working people had off).
A decade later, thousands of members of The Reform League, a group agitating for expanded voting rights, assembled in Hyde Park. Declaring the protest illegal the government sent more than 3,000 police officers to break it up. Ultimately, as many as 200,000 supporters of the League overwhelmed the cops as well as military forces who were brought in as reinforcements.
In 1886, thousands of leftists gathered in Trafalgar Square to protest high unemployment. This aggregation eventually led to looting, stone-throwing, robbery and other forms of terrorizing the public.
The following year, another assembly of poor people in Trafalgar Square led to brutal attacks on the crowd by police, including at least three deaths.
By the 20th century, especially during the Roaring Twenties and the 1930s on the eve of World War II, the streets of London and other English cities were awash with the blood of rioters and protesters, including leftist trade unionists, Fascists, women’s suffragettes, Irish nationalists, among many others.