The Great Pit
"There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth
what a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London."
"No Place like London" by Stephen Sondheim from Sweeney Todd
Life was cheap in 18th century London. As the industrial revolution gathered steam and refugees from the shires flocked to the great city in search of work, the city, which was still reeling from the recent plague years, was unprepared, civilly and morally, for the great influx of population. Poverty and decadence were widespread, and the separation between the classes was distinct.
For all intents and purposes, there were three classes of people in London at the beginning of the industrial revolution: the gentry, who included those with land and title, the merchants, or shop and factory owners, and the working class, which was by far the largest of the three classes. Within the working class were those who worked either in the factories or stores, and those who subsisted through service to the other classes. Beneath all of these was the underclass of beggars, thieves, and prostitutes and common criminals. Movement between classes was rare, except in a downward spiral, and many working class people were forced by situations into the beggar and criminal underclass.
Although the city had managed to survive the late 17th century plague, disease was prevalent in London as sanitary conditions in the growing municipality were less than ideal. The Thames River was considered the dirtiest river in Europe: raw sewage and industrial waste was dumped into the street without second thought. Smallpox, plague, fever and consumption were the most common causes of death not including accident.
In an effort to survive, whole families, including children, would work for just pennies a day in the mills and factories that had sprung up around the city. Tenements housing dozens of families in small apartments dotted the landscape creating a dismal scene of poverty and chaos. Thieves, ruffians and "sturdy beggars" plagued the streets of the capital, and no one dared walk the streets at night, for fear of his life.
Charles Dickens summed up life for the working class and London in general in Oliver Twist: "The street was narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours... Drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands."