Victorian Informality? Revising the Lexis of Inferior Housing in Texts of Nineteenth-Century London

Authors: Jason Finch*, Åbo Akademi University
Topics: Cultural Geography, Historical Geography, Urban Geography
Keywords: London, slum, housing, informality, Victorian, topography, literary texts
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Napoleon, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 41st Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The concept of the slum has been used extensively as a label for the informal urban settlements hugely abundant in cities of the Global South since about 1950. Its use is controversial, with scholars such as Alan Mayne and Eric Prieto arguing that it confuses informality with poverty and functions as a tool not for the protection of the urban poor but of their dispersal and of the destruction of their communities.
Paralleling another 2018 presentation in a comparative literature environment, this paper takes viewpoints drawn from historical and cultural geography, applying recent skeptical analyses of the concept of the ‘slum’ to the environment in which this word came into being: nineteenth-century London. Throughout the nineteenth-century, London was the biggest city in the world and that had ever existed in the world. Its slums became world-famous among observers who visited in a way anticipating the laboratories of research which the vast informal settlements of the twenty-first-century, such as Kibera in Nairobi, have become.
The paper asks how the slums of Victorian London change when re-examined not as immoral and insanitary blights on the city but as functioning informal settlements. It seeks answers in several of the classic early texts of the London slum by the likes of Egan, Dickens, Mayhew, Stretton, Gissing and Harkness. In it I aim to discover whether the areas known as slums in Victorian London should chiefly be compared to or contrasted with sites such as Kibera, or Dharavi in Mumbai.

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