‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ L. P. Hartley’s famous opening is used by Gilda O’Neill as an epigraph to her delightful foray through 19th-century murder and mayhem, but in truth, as she shows in The Good Old Days, the past is our native country. Things were not different then: they were exactly the same. Mass murder has not disappeared; nor has the sale of women and children for sex; nor has robbery, nor street crime, nor mindless violence.
The East End of London is O’Neill’s real focus, and she writes of it with the passion and understanding of an insider. She was born there, as were her parents, themselves the children of Victorian East Enders, with a great-grandmother working in the Whitechapel music halls. Her father still spoke East End cant, yet the world he was born into was already receding as O’Neill was a child. She could not understand how so many generations could have lived in the tiny terraced house he spoke of. They couldn’t all have fitted in there, surely? ‘ “Course we didn’t, daft,” was my father’s reply. “We had the Harrises living upstairs.” ’
To recapture this world, to pin it down before it vanishes from living memory, she has mixed the stories of her family with assiduous research in local newspapers and contemporary reports. Her reach is wide. At one end of the spectrum is Spring-heeled Jack, an early 19th-century bogeyman, with eyes that glowed fire, breath that licked out flames, metal claws for hands and the eponymous springs that enabled him to leap over fences higher than a man’s head. At the other end is the all too real Jack the Ripper. O’Neill is especially good at describing the blighted lives of his victims, the desperate alcoholic women who had nothing to sell but themselves, itemising the entire contents of Polly Nichols’ pockets on the night of her murder: a comb, a handkerchief, and a broken piece of looking-glass. She had been turned away from a lodging-house hours before her death, because she had not got the 2d to pay for a place on a bench.
It is the chapter on murder that is the heart of the book: here O’Neill’s terrific narrative skill is given full rein. It is, for the most part, the women and their terrible situations that capture her imagination. She writes feelingly about infanticide and the circumstances that drove thousands of women simply to abandon their children; others killed them outright, unable to bear the horror of watching them slowly starve to death. (This was, of course, not the sole prerogative of women: O’Neill reports the terrible story of a soapboiler named Parker, who cut the throats of his two children, the boy paralysed, the girl crippled. He then turned himself in to the police, taking the knife with him: he had been unemployed for months and, rather than take his children to the workhouse, he decided on a more ‘merciful’ end for them.)
O’Neill’s book covers more than murder, however. Some crimes were barely criminal. ‘Taking up the pavement’ was the horror of working-class youths who refused to give way to their social superiors — although some might say that ‘not knowing one’s place’ was the Victorian crime. Other crimes are, happily, far distant — garrottings were a not uncommon form of mugging, in which the victim was half-strangled from behind; baby-farming was a semi-licensed form of child abandonment, in which those too poor and too overworked to look after their children gave them to a baby-farmer for a small fee. The farmer would ostensibly put them up for adoption, caring for them in the meantime. In actuality, he pocketed the money and most of the children died of disease, neglect or malnutrition within days.
Then there is a range of subjects that are clearly dear to O’Neill’s heart, but a more ruthless editor would have removed, as fitting neither the ‘crime’, ‘murder’ nor ‘mayhem’ remit — freak shows, street betting, or the unionisation of workers. There is an entire chapter on ‘substance abuse’, but since there were no controls on drugs throughout the century, this was not criminal either. A more rigorous approach, too, would have ensured that dates were more firmly pinned down: the author tends to dash about from mid-century to the 1900s and back again, often in one breathless page. Notes would have been welcome, and, even more so, an index.
But these are quibbles. O’Neill is a broad-brush artist, and in The Good Old Days she has drawn a splendidly vivid picture of life at the extremes in the 19th century.
Judith Flanders’ latest book is Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victor- ian Britain (HarperCollins, £20).