New book looks at dark and light sides of Victorian working-class Southwark history

Katherine Johnston (02 December, 2021)

While the book exposes the often-grim details of the everyday life of the poor, it also highlights the tremendous impact of many individuals and organisations who have sought to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

50439A class at St Johns School in Walworth in 1910

It is a sad but irrefutable fact, that in 2021, there are many people in south London who are struggling. Food bank use is high, universal credit is down and many have little alternative but to live in overpriced but substandard accommodation, writes Neil Crossfield…

Yet unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon, as revealed in a new book called ‘A Helping Hand – Improving the Lives of South London’s Victorian and Edwardian Poor’. The book looks at the history of poverty in south London in the period between 1850 and 1914.

While it exposes the often-grim details of the everyday life of the poor, it also highlights the tremendous impact of many individuals and organisations who have sought to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

The two authors both have strong links with the area they have written about. They largely focus on the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth, paying particular attention to Blackfriars, the Borough, Walworth and Bermondsey. Dr Alan F. Parkinson is a former lecturer at the London South Bank University. He has previously written about Charlie Chaplin and has also produced several other social histories of London.

The Robert Browning settlement in Walworth

Chris Wilson is Clerk to the Trustees of Southwark Charities and has spent 25 years working in this sector. In 2017 he wrote ‘A Great Boon & Blessing – A History of Edward Edwards’ Charity 1717-2017’. Their backgrounds mean they have a thorough understanding of the subjects they write about.

The book is broken down into seven chapters, the first of which looks at how poverty was classified and written about in the past. Much of our modern-day impression of poverty in Victorian London is still shaped by the observations of people like Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley and Henry Mayhew. These tended to focus on the filth and squalor their subjects lived in. These conditions are acknowledged in this book, but the authors have expanded the discussion to include causal factors such as limited access to education, health care services and poor housing.

Another chapter explores the provision of housing for the poor. State involvement in housing the masses did not come until much later. In Victorian England, the main burden on providing housing for the poor fell on wealthy individuals and charities. Early attempts to improve the living conditions of the poor meant that several almshouses had been founded in Southwark such as Cure’s College, Hopton’s almshouses and also those of Edward Edwards.

We hear stories of the people who lived in them, some of which show that occasionally residents could misbehave! Later we see the emergence of charitable organisations like the Guinness and Peabody Trusts, who still provide thousands of families with housing in Southwark.

The Settlement movement is covered in some detail, charting the arrival of middle-class students largely from Cambridge University, into areas in which they would encounter real social deprivation. Places like the Robert Browning Settlement provided practical assistance to the needy in Walworth, while both the Pembroke House and Blackfriars Settlements continue to help their local communities in the 21st century.

The unsanitary conditions found in areas of south London meant that disease and ill health was common. Prior to the introduction of the NHS, many poor people would end up in a workhouse infirmary should they require medical treatment. South London was also the location of several world-famous hospitals like St Thomas’s, Guy’s and the Bethlem hospital (Bedlam). The book considers how medical pioneers like Florence Nightingale, Dr Alfred Salter and the less well known but equally distinguished eye surgeon John Z. Laurence contributed to improving healthcare for the poor of south London.

The chapter on Children in Need discusses how the needs of the most vulnerable were addressed. Dr Thomas Barnardo’s work among homeless young people in east London is well documented but few will have heard about James F.W. Fegan, who set up his own orphanages for boys in Southwark or of Charlotte Sharman, who set up her own orphanage for girls in West Square in 1867.

This chapter also looks at the rise of elementary schooling for all children, charting the progression from the early ragged schools through to the introduction of the 1870 Education Act and beyond. It is often forgotten that the provision of education for all was a radical idea. Many of the London School Board schools built in the late Victorian era survive to this day and have educated countless numbers of south Londoners over the years.

Churches of all denominations and faiths provide care and comfort to people who find themselves in dire straits and this is nothing new. The book records the work of two remarkable priests in Walworth at the end of the nineteenth century, both working within half a mile of each other but facing similar conditions. The Reverend Arthur William Jephson arrived at St John the Evangelist in Larcom Street in 1893 and the following year, the Reverend John William Horsley came to St Peter’s, Liverpool Grove. Both men were committed Christians, but they did not hide behind the pulpit and were not afraid to confront the difficulties they faced in practical and pragmatic ways.

The authors have neatly drawn parallels between poverty in the past and the poverty still very much in existence in Southwark in 2021. It is telling that many of the institutions, hospitals and schools founded in the late nineteenth century are still providing care to this day. Many readers may have attended one of these without taking any notice of the historical significance of these buildings and the work they have done. Likewise, those who have lived in the Peabody, Church Commission or Guinness Trust buildings covered in the book may not be aware that these were built in direct response to the state of housing for the working class in Victorian and Edwardian London.

The book has been carefully researched but it is written in a very accessible style and is certainly not some dry academic text. It would be a great addition to any school library as the section on education is superb. A Helping Hand is full of carefully selected photographs and illustrations which help tell the story.

If you would like a copy of this book, they are available from Alan Parkinson for £7. This will cover the postage and any profits will go to a local Covid Victims Support Group.

You can contact him at or alternatively you can call him on 01837880497. This book would make an ideal Christmas present for anyone with an interest in history!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Related Topics

Neil Crossfield
Southwark NewsHistory