Barbara Leckie, “‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London’ (1883): Print Exposé and Print Reprise”


Andrew Mearns’s The Bitter Cry of Outcast London is acknowledged as a pivotal document in nineteenth-century British housing reform. It offers an exposé of the housing conditions in one section of South London in 1883 and concludes with a call for social reform. With its explicit and often shocking exposé of housing conditions, its illustration of what it calls the “godlessness” of the poor, and its support for the long-contested need for state intervention, the pamphlet excited considerable attention. In this paper I examine the ways in which the form and rhetoric of this pamphlet—its language, structure, and reliance on print exposé—shape, and arguably compromise, its call for social reform.

Poverty map of Old Nichol slum

Poverty map of Old Nichol slum, 1889 (black indicates the “lowest class…occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”)

In map iconmid-October 1883, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor, a twenty-page penny pamphlet detailing the housing conditions of the poor in South London, was published to extraordinary critical attention. A few days later, on 16 October 1883, The Pall Mall Gazette wrote a leader entitled “Is it Not Time?” as well as a one-page condensed version of the pamphlet. The following day, five letters were published in response to these articles and the letters continued to follow in such volume that the newspaper devoted many more columns to the topic in the months to come and it was taken up by most of the leading journals. The pamphlet generated political, journalistic, and layperson commentary alike, and culminated in the 1884 Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes and the pivotal Housing Act that followed.[1] It would be difficult to identify a print event with a more obvious or traceable impact. It was this impressive response that led Anthony Wohl to describe the pamphlet as follows: “Its impact was so immediate and cataclysmic that it must be considered one of the great pieces of Victorian reform literature” (189). And yet, as many contemporary commentators noted, and Wohl also affirms, the material presented in Mearns’s pamphlet was not new.[2] Indeed, the housing distress it documented had been represented on many previous occasions. In the first section below, I will offer an outline of The Bitter Cry, a review of its rhetorical strategies, and a brief consideration of its place in the context of its period. In the second section, I will focus on one of the most intriguing and puzzling features of this pamphlet: its notoriety despite its unoriginality. I will be less interested in speculating on why this pamphlet attracted the attention it did than on the tension between the rhetoric of sensational exposé and the acknowledged redundancy of this very exposé. The Bitter Cry controversy both concentrates several key issues at the heart of the Victorian social housing debates and throws into relief the mechanisms of print exposé as a method for generating social reform.

Print Exposé: “A New Epoch”

The Bitter Cry was initially published anonymously and, at first glance, nothing about its presentation indicated the impact it would have. Slight, cheaply produced, unillustrated, and sensationally written, this pamphlet was similar to many others published in the period. Nevertheless, the controversy that the pamphlet incited was singular in the history of print culture dedicated to the topic of housing for the poor and the Pall Mall Gazette was quick to identify it as marking “the beginning of a new epoch” (25 Oct 1883; 1). After an authorship dispute, Andrew Mearns, a reverend with the London Congregational Union, stepped forward as the author working in concert with two fellow ministers. Mearns’s goals were to revive church attendance amongst the poor and to improve the condition of their homes. The fact that he turns to print to realize these goals is important. His goal was not to reach the poor (with whom he already had contact) but rather to reach the middle-classes. To do so, he relied on two established approaches: he offered print exposés of housing conditions; and he argued that these conditions inevitably led to the immorality—religious, criminal, sexual—with which he was most concerned. Mearns makes many claims to the authenticity and transparency of his account but, like his contemporaries, he relies heavily on the rhetoric and conventions of the housing genre to make legible the issues he raises.

In both its form and its content, for example, The Bitter Cry used sensation to produces its effect. It was divided into seven sections with capped headings as follows: “Non-Attendance at Worship” (less than one page); “The Condition in Which They Live” (four pages); “Immorality” (two pages); “Poverty” (two and a half pages); “Heartbreaking Misery” (three and a half pages); “What it is Proposed to Do” (four pages); and “Description of the Districts” (almost three pages). The capped headings visually alert the reader to the topics in question. To grasp the visual layout I offer two examples here:

Indeed, with the exception of a very small proportion, the idea of going [to church] has never dawned upon these people. And who can wonder. Think of


We do not say the conditions of their homes, for how can those places be called homes, compared with the lair of a wild beast would be a comfortable and healthy spot? (57-58)

And here is a second example:

Amidst such poverty and squalor it is inevitable that one should be constantly confronted with scenes of


misery so pitiful that men whose daily duty it has been for years to go in and out amongst these outcasts, and to be intimately acquainted with their sufferings, and who might, therefore, be supposed to regard with comparatively little feeling that which would overwhelm an unaccustomed spectator, sometimes come away from their visits so oppressed in spirit and absorbed in painful thought, that they know not whither they are going. (65)

These examples use headers at once to sensationalize and to integrate certain ideas into the fabric of the whole rather than to demarcate chapter or topic breaks. In other words, “Non-Attendance at Worship” (which is the section before “The Condition”) cannot be separated from “The Condition in Which They Live” and “Poverty” (the section before “Heart-breaking”) cannot be separated from “Heart-breaking Misery”; one topic leads seamlessly into the next. The boundaries of Mearns’s text, like the houses he describes, are blurred and this blurring heightens the sense of crisis he records.

These brief examples also illustrate five other rhetorical strategies that are repeated in the pamphlet as a whole: the use of rhetorical questions to at once include the reader and shape her or his response; the reference to words or ideas that cannot be spoken but that nevertheless are named through negation (in the first excerpt, for example, Mearns highlights “homes” as the word which cannot be used); the comparison of the homes of the poor, and implicitly the poor themselves, to animals; the illustration of “scenes” to underscore the exposé dimension of the account; and the inclusion of the middle-class viewer’s response. Each of these strategies intensifies the distance between the domestic spaces of the poor and the domestic spaces occupied by the middle-class reader, spaces that are not open to sensational regard or exposé narrations. That is, the use of sensational exposé coupled with the other strategies, all of which are familiar in the housing genre, dramatizes the ways in which housing for the poor is utterly incongruous with housing as it is understood in a middle-class context. It erases the homes of the poor as homes, or even houses, and replaces them with something else that remains either unnamed or vaguely named.

The pamphlet’s dominant rhetorical strategy of exposé of houses is consistent with the case it tries to make for State intervention into this most private and revered of spaces. To do so, the pamphlet takes the quintessentially English reverence for the home and makes it unrecognizable. Homes of the poor are either unspeakable or referenced through a series of substitutions—“dark regions” (3), “vilest haunts” (4), “the lower depths” (5), “pestilential human rookeries” (6), “dens” and so on.[3] But this pamphlet must perform a delicate balancing act in which homes are both unspeakable and endlessly substituted and equally endlessly open to exposé. It is indeed the exposé narration itself—the revelation of what is typically private and hidden and “unspeakable”—that most undermines the middle-class definition of the home.

The genre of exposé has a long history in the nineteenth century and Mearns clearly situates his pamphlet in its context. He applauds the “increased attention” to the “poor and outcast” in London but notes that “only the merest edge of the great dark region of poverty, misery, squalor and immorality has been touched” (56). The conceit of exposé, of course, is that whatever has been concealed will be offered to the reader in a transparent and unbiased manner. Mearns emphasizes the unembellished nature of his record as follows:

First, the information given does not refer to selected cases. It simply reveals a state of things that can be found in house after house, court after court, street after street. Secondly, there has been absolutely no exaggeration. It is a plain recital of plain facts. Indeed, no respectable printer would print, and certainly no decent family would admit even the driest statement of the horrors and infamies discovered in one brief visitation from house to house. So far from making the worst of our facts for the purpose of appealing to emotion, we have been compelled to tone down everything, and wholly to omit what most needs to be known, or the ears and eyes of our readers would have been insufferably outraged. (4-5; emphasis in original)

This account of what might be called sensation through sanitation—the sanitized version of the story titillating precisely through what it intimates it avoids—is, of course, far from “a plain recital of plain facts.”[4] The italicized sections alone belie an interest in inciting the reader and the many sensational headings in combination with the details provided became fascinating reading for a public eager for this window into the lives of others.

The other necessary element to the exposé is its novelty. The claim that territory remains untouched, above, is necessary for the writer to illuminate something that has not previously been seen. An exposé, by definition, cannot tell a reader what she or he already knows. And so Mearns, while noting the increased attention to his topic, promises to travel beyond the known “edge” into the unknown heart of the problem:

Few who will read these pages have any conception of what these pestilential human rookeries are . . . . 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 grope your way along dark and filthy passages swarming with vermin. Then, if you are not driven back by the intolerable stench, you may gain admittance to the dens in which these thousands of beings who belong, as much as you, to the race for whom Christ died, herd together. (6-7)

In this passage Mearns “penetrates” courts, moves down “dark and filthy passages,” and illuminates “horrors” that others ostensibly have not seen. The second person “you” both involves the reader in this journey and underscores the point that Mearns makes at the outset: few of his readers will have visited these “pestilential rookeries.” The barriers to the penetration of these spaces intensify the drama of the exposé. What Mearns relates when he arrives is a list of descriptions of interiors that are almost dizzying in their density and repetition. Consider this accumulation of detail from a single paragraph:

In one cellar a sanitary inspector reports finding a father, mother, three children and four pigs! In another room a missionary found a man ill with small pox, his wife just recovering from her eighth confinement, and the children running around half naked and covered with dirt. Here are seven people living in one underground kitchen, and a little dead child lying in the same room. Elsewhere is a poor widow, her three children, and a child who has been dead thirteen days. . . . Here lives a widow with her six children, including one daughter of 29, another of 21, and a son of 27. Another apartment contains father, mother and six children, two of whom are ill with scarlet fever. In another nine brothers and sisters, from 29 years of age downwards, live, eat, and sleep together. Here is a mother who turns her children into the street in the early evening because she lets her room for immoral purposes until long after midnight . . . . Here the smell of paste and of drying match-boxes, mingling with other sickly odours, overpowers you. (59-60)

This information is conveyed with a quickly accumulated immediacy (“Here . . . . Here . . . . Here”). The description of one room is piled on another in a manner that rhetorically mimics the very overcrowding that it describes. Based on this single partial paragraph it is not surprising to learn that there are seventy-two examples of housing given in the short pamphlet.[5] What these examples “expose,” moreover, is not simply the quasi-private spaces of domestic interiors but also the crowded spaces of domestic interiors (“nine brothers and sisters . . . live, eat, and sleep together” etc).

While overcrowding had been a focus of the nineteenth-century discourse on housing for the poor since the 1820s, the rhetorical implications of this term have been overlooked in the criticism. It was certainly true that the houses and rooms of the poor often contained more people than the spaces could support. The density of housing was captured by print commentators in a range of ways: rooms were measured, occupants and beds were counted, cubic feet of space in the context of safe ventilation was calculated, and so on. But at what point did the high numbers of occupants to the small proportion of space become a “crowd”? And from whose perspective? It bears remembering that words like “overcrowding” carried meanings that extended well beyond a simple description of the facts. In the period, the crowd carried with it connotations of revolution and riot. The crowd also encapsulated at once the city and modernity. From Poe’s early story, “The Crowd,” through Baudelaire and Benjamin and Simmel, the crowd was a potent indicator of the power and the disorientation produced by the dizzying expansion of the urban. What happens, then, when the crowd moves into the house? First, the very boundary between the inside and the outside is threatened. Second, for the middle-class observer, the crowd in the house intimates revolutionary unrest and, more alarmingly, the oft-noted crowd in the bed intimates, at best, transgressive sexuality and, at worst, incest. The crowd in the house (and the bed) also generates the comparisons between the poor and animals or birds so frequent in the housing literature: the houses of the poor are like “lairs,” “warrens,” and “rookeries” in their density; or, they are like cattle “packed” or “herded” together. Overcrowding, in other words, is not a “plain recital of plain facts” but rather a value-laden descriptor in which was embedded a potent threat.

If revolution was one danger that overcrowding suggested, it was its other implication—incest—that most concerned Mearns. I noted above Mearns’s rhetorical technique of sensation by sanitation. To minimize his reader’s outrage and avoid censorship, he has been obliged, he writes, “wholly to omit what most needs to be known” and to sidestep all but the sparest of detail since even “the driest statement of the horrors and infamies discovered” could not be printed by any respectable printer. And yet Mearns’s most famous phrase in the pamphlet—“Incest is common” (61)—packs into three words everything that he has promised to avoid.[6] Further, in all of the citations above, incest is intimated through overcrowding (the beds and occupants are tabulated and the reader is encouraged to draw her or his own conclusions). It was certainly, in part, the blatant references to incest and sexual impropriety (“Who can wonder that every evil flourishes in such hotbeds of vice and disease? . . .  Who can wonder that young girls wander off into a life of immorality, which promises a release from such conditions?” [60-61]), that propelled this pamphlet so quickly into the public eye.

In the last section of his pamphlet, Mearns identifies three districts in desperate need of reform but he only offers an account of one of them; to present further descriptions, he writes, would only “repeat the same heart-sickening story” (24).[7] And earlier, he laments that the many examples he offers could be almost infinitely replicated: “We might fill page after page with dreary details, but they would become sadly monotonous, for it is the same everywhere” (13). George R. Sims had made a similar point in his How the Poor Live, a series of articles published in The Graphic, on which Mearns based his own observations: “Rags, dirt, filth, wretchedness, the same figures, the same faces, the same old story of one room” (46); and, he continues, the “story of one slum is the story of another” (46).[8] But these repeated references to sameness of the story witnessed from house to house, also highlight the sameness of a rhetoric exemplified from print account to print account. Here I have focused on sensation, exposé, and overcrowding but many other similarities across these accounts could be tabulated. If there is, as John Hollingshead had said much earlier in Ragged London in 1861, a “terrible sameness” in the houses that one visits, there is also a terrible sameness in the rhetoric and images used to describe these rooms. It is this “terrible sameness” that might give us pause when we consider more closely the role of print exposé, and the ease of its naturalization in print vocabularies, in The Bitter Cry controversy.

Print Reprise: “The Same Old Story”

“What the evil is every one knows.”

The Pall Mall Gazette

I want to look more closely now at what it means to report what is already known as if the material is, in fact, new. The reception to The Bitter Cry compelled commentators to hold two contradictory claims at once: that the material Mearns reported was new and unprecedented and that everybody already knew about it. It accordingly prompted a thematization of this contradiction and an inquiry into the mechanisms of print exposé itself rather than what was exposed. Starting in the 1820s, and continuing through the century, the condition of housing for the poor was repeatedly represented in print culture from government documents to books, pamphlets, and newspaper exposés. The “discovery” of housing for the poor emerged in the 1830s and by the 1850s the housing problem was firmly lodged in the popular imagination.[9] With the recognition that exposés of housing were being repeatedly made, came skepticism about the efficacy of exposé to prompt social reform.

Hector Gavin, George Godwin, and James Greenwood, among many others, not only represent the condition of housing for the poor but also increasingly question the lack of impact print exposés had on the reading public.[10] Gavin, for example, speculates on the connection between exposé and amelioration in his Preface to Sanitary Ramblings (1848):

At first it might appear superfluous to describe the actual condition of the dwellings of the industrial classes, inasmuch as the prevalence of great evils connected with that condition is very generally known and recognized, but the acquaintance of the public with the evils has not hitherto produced the result which usually follows the general knowledge and appreciation of an evil in England—namely, its abolition. (12)

Still committed to the force of print exposé, he concludes here that the public must not really know the details of the housing distress he records (and that has been recorded so copiously in the press before him), because nothing has yet been done to improve the situation. Roughly ten years later, in the Preface to Town Swamps (1859), Godwin similarly expresses an increasing disillusionment with the view that exposé would improve social conditions:

After the writer had laid bare, systematically and constantly, for years, the frightful condition of various parts of this proud, populous, wealthy, overgrown London, the home of nearly millions of people, the resort of the intellectual world,—had shown the depths of the shadows lying here, there, and everywhere . . . . [I]t was said that enough had been told, that it was unnecessary to make the evil further known, and that improvement would surely follow. . . . The City officer of health suddenly re-describes the unhealthy dens crowded with degraded life, pointed out by us years ago, and all London is perfectly astonished, its daily press in particular, that such a state of things could possibly exist. Eloquent leaders are written on all sides, some speeches are made, and then all the facts are utterly forgotten, and the evil goes quietly on, doing its deadly work, and will be discovered by-and-by, again to be consigned to a convenient oblivion. (Town 1-2).

And more than a decade later again, in his Preface to The Wilds of London (1874), Greenwood puts the case as follows:

The prefatory remarks to the present volume need be but few. It is not claimed for it that in the strict sense of the term it is new. The material of which it is mainly composed has already seen service in the “serried columns” of certain daily newspapers . . . . I cannot but be painfully aware of the many chances of success which are lost to the newspaper correspondent through his inability to hold public attention sufficiently long to any particular subject to secure for it that amount of consideration which it may deserve. . . . and so the ill which was aimed at, and which for a brief space was dragged to light, slinks back to its old lurking place, a little hurt, perhaps, but strong still to lick its wounds and sharpen its claws for fresh mischief. This is repeated with such lamentable frequency that, after all, it may be said that for the greater part the matter herein contained is “as good as new,” inasmuch as it exactly represents a condition of affairs still existing. It is only by perseveringly and persistently proclaiming the existence of evils that one may hope to rouse those who hold the power to apply proper remedies. (v-vi)

If the exposure of social ills was oft-represented in print culture, so too were laments like Gavin’s, Godwin’s, and Greenwood’s here. Over and over again, writers puzzled over their inability to generate reform, the speed with which their exposés were forgotten, and the ease with which they could again become “news” ten years later. This pattern is perhaps nowhere more clear than in The Bitter Cry controversy in which it was a newspaper itself, the Pall Mall Gazette, that rocketed the pamphlet to prominence and that also noted how often its observations on housing for the poor had already been made.[11]

What is striking about the early reception to The Bitter Cry pamphlet, especially in the Pall Mall Gazette, is its thematization of precisely this impulse to present the familiar as new. On the same day that the Pall Mall Gazette published the pamphlet’s single-page synopsis, its leader, “Is it Not Time?” emphasized the fact that its “exposé” was well known:

If this were the first time that this wail of hopeless misery had sounded on our ears the matter would have been less serious. It is because we have heard it so often that the case is so desperate. The exceedingly bitter cry of the disinherited has come to be as familiar in the ears of men as the dull roar of the streets or as the moaning of the wind through the trees. . . .What the evil is every one knows. It is the excessive overcrowding of enormous multitudes of the very poor in pestilential rookeries where it is a matter of physical impossibility to live a human life. (PMG 16 Oct 1883; 1)

The exposé, then, is not, in fact, the housing conditions of the poor (what everyone knows) but rather the fact that everyone knows and yet no one does anything. In other words, the writer articulates two issues: the serious problem of inadequate housing for the poor; and the, arguably more serious, problem of the social neglect of this problem despite widespread knowledge of its existence.[12] As this leader progresses, the repeated “Is it not time?” of the title shifts from the general pursuit of a solution to the role of periodical literature. Is it not time, the writer asks, “to bring the subject to the front?” One day later, the Pall Mall Gazette published a similar response from Edith Simcox: “Again and again reports such as you quote of the dwelling-places of tens of thousands of Londoners have been printed, read with a thrill of shame or horror, and forgotten. The conscience of the Legislature has been appealed to before; by all means let it be appealed to again” (17 Oct 1883; 2). Five days later, the Pall Mall Gazette published its second leader on the subject, “‘Outcast London.’—Where to Begin,” and again made the same point:

One thing at least is obvious. The question that has for a hundred times been raised, agitated, and again forgotten, must not be allowed once more to sink even into temporary oblivion. We cannot afford that. It may be said that it is of no use to dwell incessantly on harrowing details with which everybody is by this time only too familiar. The mere reiteration of the painful facts is not wholly useless. The mass of well-meaning indolent people should be made continually to see—not merely to realize in the abstract, but to have before them as a vivid haunting picture—the misery which goes on disregarded by them at their own back doors. (23 Oct 1883; 1).

And five days later, the Democratic Federation (which would become, the following year, Britain’s first socialist political party), in a front-page Pall Mall Gazette article entitled “Revolutionary Socialism,” again draws its reader’s attention to the redundancy of representation in combination with the need for reiteration:

The condition of the poor in London, more especially in map iconthe East-end of town, has long been known to be deplorably bad. . . . Of late certain public discussions and open agitation, together with the publication of a well-compiled little pamphlet by Congregational ministers, have again directed public attention to truths which have been recorded over and over again in Blue-books, which have drawn forth unceasing protests from medical officers and factory inspectors, and which, indeed, lie plainly to be seen by all who do not deliberately turn away from the seamy side of our civilization. (29 Oct 1883; 1).

The writer continues on to note that in the mid-1860s similar discontent was documented, agitated against, and forgotten. And other writers cite the early to mid-1850s as parallel cases of housing exposés, unrest, and, ultimately, oblivion.[13]

In short, exposé narration had a long history with respect to housing reform. The details that Mearns records are also not new. Consider the following comparisons. Here are three examples from Sims’s How the Poor Live which are immediately followed with a similar example from Mearns (in italics):

1) When we open the door we start back half choked. . . . They are simply pulling rabbit skins . . . and preparing the skins for the furriers . . . . Floors, walls, ceiling, every inch of the one room these people live and sleep in, is covered with fluff and hair. (Sims 14)

Here you are choked as you enter by the air laden with particles of the superfluous fur pulled from the skins of rabbits, rats, dogs and other animals in their preparation for the furrier. (8)

2) There is a broken chair trying to steady itself against a wall black with the dirt of ages. In one corner, on a shelf is a battered saucepan and a piece of dry bread. . . . [A]t one side of the room is a sack of Heaven knows what—it is a dirty, filthy sack, greasy and black and evil-looking. I could not guess what was in it if I tried, but what was on it was a little child—a neglected, ragged, grimed, and bare-legged little baby-girl of four. . . . She was “a little sentinel,” left to guard a baby that lay asleep on the bare boards behind her. (Sims 8)

Here is a filthy attic, containing only a broken chair, a battered saucepan and a few rags. On a dirty sack in the centre of the room sits a neglected, ragged, bare-legged little baby girl of four. Her father is a militiaman, and is away. Her mother is out all day and comes home late at night more or less drunk, and this child is left in charge of the infant that we see crawling about the floor. (16)

3) We have stopped at a marine-store shop . . . . For days in this foul room the body of a dead baby had to lie because the parish had no mortuary. . . . [T]he dead baby was cut open in the one room where the mother and the other little ones, its brothers and sisters, lived and ate and slept. (Sims 92)

In a room in map iconWych Street, on the third floor, over a marine store dealer’s, there was, a short time ago, an inquest into the death of a little baby. . . . The infant was the second child who had died, poisoned by the foul atmosphere; and this dead baby was cut open in the one room where its parents and brothers and sisters lived, ate, and slept. (15)

No description of housing exists in a vacuum; Mearn’s pamphlet deployed an accepted and familiar vocabulary for discussing housing for the poor developed in a similarly accepted and familiar genre (the somewhat calculating and potent combination of sensation, exploration, investigation, and missionary narrative). But these examples do illustrate the degree to which Mearns’s claims to have seen for himself—and his call to his readers to see for themselves—can shade into something that was probably closer to having read for himself previous accounts like Sims’s (which he does credit on one occasion).[14] There is a conflation, in other words, between looking into the house in person and looking into the house in print. Taken together, the public recognition that Mearns’s general account had been told many times before and the fact that his specific formulations were in many places almost identical to descriptions made only a few months earlier, should invite a closer study of how exposé worked in the period. In particular, it should invite two questions: how were contradictory formulations—this is an exposé and this is a restatement of information heard many times before; exposés do not work and exposés are necessary for social reform—held with so little cognitive dissonance?[15] And what is the relationship between exposé and the transparency of one’s knowledge claims? There are varying degrees to which claims to verisimilitude always rely on established conventions and rhetorical practices. The only times that Mearns’s knowledge was questioned—and the only condition under which he could imagine it to be questioned—was when he was accused of inflating or exaggerating his facts. This is especially vividly demonstrated in his response to questioning at the Royal Commission on Housing for the Working Classes. The methods and assumptions by which his descriptions were underwritten, by contrast, were ignored.

Conclusion: “See For Yourselves”

“Will you venture to come with us and see for yourselves the ghastly reality?”

—Andrew Mearns, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London

In short, The Bitter Cry does not represent a rupture in the print treatments of housing for the poor; rather, it should be positioned on a continuum. Previous accounts shaped how Mearns saw the house and the genre of exposé shaped his approach. As a reverend, he was attuned to the moral questions attending on his description and as someone writing in the early 1880s he would have also been attuned to the way in which the architecture of housing for the poor could be read in moral terms. In the 1880s, the condition of housing for the poor preoccupied journalists, politicians, and laypeople alike. In his treatments of The Bitter Cry, Anthony Wohl has given the best account, to date, of the social, political, and print factors contributing to the pamphlet’s impact. Certainly, the Pall Mall Gazette took credit, in a statement that was also a performative, for bringing the urgency of the topic to the attention of the public: “The die is cast, and henceforth the Housing of the Poor takes its place in the front rank of the political questions of the day” (25 Oct 1883; 1).[16] This point was affirmed by many others.[17] I do think that Wohl is right to argue that a range of factors combined to create an especially fertile ground for the pamphlet’s reception. But I also think that the tension between the exposé and the sameness of Mearns’s story has still not been sufficiently addressed. When one considers this tension more closely, it brings into relief the debt of exposé narration to earlier accounts and, in doing so, jeopardizes the authority of the exposé itself as a promised transcription of events as they actually exist. Further, the very fact that there is a long history of exposé narrations on the same topic jeopardizes the purported link between exposé and political action.

In his closing paragraph, Mearns invites any readers who mistrust his account to go “and see for yourselves the ghastly reality” (24).[18] The implication is that firsthand observation will corroborate the print descriptions. And yet Mearns’s pamphlet and the many many others which precede it, and on which it builds, inevitably shape how the house will be seen. Indeed, the very call to the reader to go and see these houses for her or himself also defines these houses in its assumption that they are available to public scrutiny and exposé (an availability, needless to say, not shared by the houses of the middle-class readers to whom Mearns appeals). The impact of this little pamphlet was, indeed, cataclysmic and it has been well recorded and studied. But it is also time to begin a discussion of print exposé: its claims to transparency, its rhetoric, its effects, the unevenness and equivocality of its success, and its cost to those who are “exposed.”

published November 2013

Barbara Leckie is an Associate Professor cross-appointed in the English Department and the Institute for the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University. Her publications include Culture and Adultery: The Novel, the Newspaper, and the Law, 1857-1914, Sanitary Reform in Victorian Britain: End of Century Assessments and New Directions (an edited collection of documents on sanitary architecture and reform), as well as many articles on Victorian print culture. She is currently completing “Open Houses: The Architectural Idea, Poverty, and Victorian Print Culture, 1842-92”


Leckie, Barbara. “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London’ (1883): Print Exposé and Print Reprise.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.

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[1] The success of the The Bitter Cry as a catalyst for reform has been much debated. Anthony Wohl argues that “it forced both parties to pay attention to housing conditions in working class districts, and led directly to the appointment of a royal commission on the housing of the working classes” (“Bitter” 190; see also Parker 30-31). It was W. T. Stead, however, who first promoted the view that The Bitter Cry (and, in particular, the version of it that his newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette, made available to the public) prompted the Royal Commission (cited in Whyte 105). Nevertheless, the results are somewhat unclear. Parker observes that the Poor Law Commission of 1909 “was unable to report a qualitative improvement in the plight of the underclass in over 70 years of ‘reforms’” (31). Gareth Stedman Jones writes: “The Royal Commission on Housing in 1885 represented the triumph of [the] conservative position; proposed by Lord Salisbury and blessed by the Prince of Wales, the commission, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary, concluded that no drastic legislation was necessary and that the answer to the problem lay in more efficient administration” (229). And David Englander is unsparing in his comments on the response to the 1880s housing crisis: “The Housing Question does not, after all, reflect the success of the free market” (x); rather, the “slums of urban Britain constitute a massive indictment of unregulated capitalism” (xi). He continues: “The 1880s, it is now clear, mark a turning-point that failed to turn. There was no assumption of national responsibility, no unilinear progression towards the welfare state. The assimilation of housing reform to ‘politics’ did not take place” (xii).

[2] See Anthony Wohl for three excellent overviews of The Bitter Cry pamphlet and controversy. While I take issue with Wohl’s claims that this pamphlet’s representation of both incest and the interiors of houses are new (see Footnote 6 for a discussion of incest), my reading of the pamphlet has benefited enormously from his historical framing of the issues and supple analyses of the language and rhetoric of Mearns’s writing.

[3] Mearns manages never once to call the houses of the poor homes (he refers on one occasion only to a woman “going home”).

[4] This passage also recalls Hollingshead’s reliance on “the hard outlines of fact” (7) over sensational rhetoric. Mearns later notes: “We are quite prepared for incredulity. Even what we have indicated seems all too terrible to be true. But we have sketched only the faintest outline. Far more vivid colours, deeper and darker far the shades, if we are to present a truthful picture of ‘Outcast London’; and so far as we have been able to go we are prepared with evidence, not only to prove every statement, but to show that these statements represent the general condition of thousands upon thousands in this metropolis” (18).

[5] In the Spring of 1883, George R. Sims’s had published a series of articles on housing for the poor in The Pictorial Times that were later published together as a book entitled How the Poor Live. In a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, Mearns notes that he borrows only eight of Sims’ examples in the “72 distinct cases” that he records (3 November 1883; 2). Sims wrote often on the plight of the poor from a social reform perspective; he was also a prolific playwright, satirist, and novelist.

[6] Sims also writes, “Of all the evils arising from this one-room system there is perhaps none greater than the utter destruction of innocence in the young. A moment’s thought will enable the reader to appreciate it” (12). There are indeed many references to incestuous behavior following from one-room housing from the 1830s through to the “Bitter Cry,” although the word “incest” is often avoided. Joseph Adshead, in Distress in Manchester (1842), writes: “parents and children were found sleeping together in the same bed, without regard to age or sex. . . . The domestic decencies must be utterly unknown where habits like these prevail; and every barrier against profligacy in its coarsest form must be broken down” (cited in Flint 19). In addition to repeatedly counting the number of people and the number of beds in the housing on which he reports, Edwin Chadwick also includes a section in his Sanitary Report (1842) entitled “The Want of Separate Apartments, and Overcrowding of Private Dwellings,” in which he cites sources intimating incest. One source, for example, counts beds and people and then writes: “How could it be otherwise with this family than that they should be sunk into a most deplorable state of degradation and depravity?” (190). Another source notes that families sleep together and there are “young men and women promiscuously sleeping in the same apartment (191; see also 192 for two more references to “sleeping promiscuously”). Another writes: “It shocks every feeling of propriety to think that in a room, and within such a space as I have been describing, civilized beings should be herding together without a decent separation of age and sex” (191). Another writes: “In houses of the working classes, brothers and sisters, and lodgers of both sexes, are found occupying the same sleeping-room with the parents, and consequences occur which humanity shudders to contemplate” (193). In 1845, in a section of his book entitled “Demoralization,” Rev. Girdlestone cites a physician’s report as follows: “I have myself . . . seen a young man, twenty years of age, sleeping in the same bed with his sister, a young woman sixteen or seventeen years old. That incestuous intercourse takes place under these circumstances there is too much reason to believe” (50; see also 47). In 1851, The Labourers Friend cites Simon’s Report as follows: “It is no uncommon thing, in a room of twelve feet square, or less, to find three or four familes styed together . . . filling the same night and day, men, women and children in the promiscuous intimacy of cattle. Of these inmates it is nearly superfluous to observe, that in all offices of nature sexual decency is stifled; and every nakedness of life is uncovered there. . . . rendering their hearts hopeless, their acts ruffianly and incestuous (“Habitation” 36-37). In 1862, Greg observes: “Too often the same room and even the same bed—very possibly there is not space for two—contains father and mother, growing boys and girls” (“Homes” 68). Henry Tucker writes: “But there they are, still together in the same room—the father and mother, the sons and the daughters—young men, young women, and children. In the illicit intercourse to which such a positive gives rise, it is not always that the tie of blood is respected” (104). And so on.

[7] The organization of the pamphlet’s material is interesting for the ways in which it departs from earlier treatments of the same topic. Many writers adopt the convention of the travelogue, and the rhetoric of social exploration, to depict the homes of the poor. They begin with the description of the geographical area considered and, often, use geography to organize the structure of their exposé. Mearns, by contrast, ends with the description of the districts; further, when he finally gets to this topic he dismisses it with the observation here that there is no significant difference between the geographical districts. They all depict the same story of immorality, poverty, heart-breaking misery that he has documented in the preceding pages.

[8] Forster Crozier reinforced this idea of the same story repeatedly told in his response to The Bitter Cry: “one destitute part [of London] is very like another. To describe map iconSouthwark is to picture Westminster, and to picture map iconBethnal Green is to describe the Seven Dials. East, west, north, and south, there are the same sad features [and he offers a lengthy list]” (96).

[9] Both the publication of Chadwick’s Sanitary Report (1842) and Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1861-62), spurred responses similar to the Bitter Cry: stunned shock with respect to the documented conditions. Gertrude Himmelfarb discusses the similarities in the response to Chadwick and Mayhew in The Idea of Poverty (356-58); she speculates that it was not the “shock of discovery” but the “shock of recognition” that so agitated the reading public (356). The rhetoric of discovery, while most often associated with Mayhew’s claim to be a “traveler in the undiscovered country of the poor,” was, in fact, everywhere in the literature.

[10] Wohl argues that the difference between Mearns’s pamphlet and earlier depictions was that the earlier representations had not registered with the public. He suggests that only Simon’s Reports were popular in a similar way—his Second Report, Wohl notes, “sold out in three weeks; it was reissued and sold by the Sanitary Association and was well publicized in the newspapers” (197)—but it nevertheless “had little impact upon the public opinion in which Simon had so much faith” (198). As I will note below, the public had, in fact, many times previously registered the crisis in housing for the poor with a similar mix of shock, incredulity, dismay, and demands for reform. See Footnote 13 for Wohl’s own recognition that these issues had been often discussed and his suggestion that they nevertheless failed to have any impact.

[11] Wohl notes that the problem of housing for the poor was at once repeatedly made visible and ineffective. He cites Rivington’s 1880 book on housing in which he writes “that it appears superfluous at the present time to enlarge upon it, or to enter into the distressing details now so widely known and so deeply deplored” (190). And he later writes: “Even though the housing question, as one contemporary pointed out in 1881 had for decades been ‘more or less continuously agitated,’ there was no public clamour for positive legislation or new thinking on the subject, nor was housing yet acknowledged to be a problem serious enough to occupy the time of leading politicians” (202). While he offers several reasons for this lack of response—from a confidence in private enterprise and philanthropy to the default “solution” of slum clearances—the fact that readers were surprised and shocked by material that was “superfluous” because so oft-discussed, “widely known,” and “more or less continuously agitated,” remains puzzling.

[12] The Pall Mall Gazette leader, moreover, like others, is filled with sensational language; the problem of housing is repeatedly referred to as an “evil,” it is “one of the grimmest social problems of our time,” “the crying scandal of our age,” a “foul ulcer,” and so on (1).

[13] Another commentator writes: “If the contemplated new Royal Commission does its work thoroughly, old abominations over and over again described and denounced by earnest individuals of low degree may be made to appear under new forms when seen and described by noblemen and Cabinet ministers” (“Correspondence” 22 Dec 1883; 1).

[14] In a comment consistent with several of the observations in footnote 1, Inglis writes: “Despite what has been said of The Bitter Cry by its contemporaries and by some historians, it did not arouse a new interest in social distress. The housing of the poor was being discussed publicly, in the weeks before the pamphlet appeared, by Chamberlain and Salisbury. The Bitter Cry was not even a very original document, for much of its evidence was taken straight from a more vivid tract by G. R. Sims, called How the Poor Live” (Inglis 68-69). See Footnote 8 for Mearns’s reference to Sims.

[15] On 22 October, the Pall Mall Gazette introduced its page of correspondence devoted to housing for the poor as follows: “We have been inundated with correspondence from all parts of the country on the subject of the houses of the London poor. It is impossible to find room for all the letters that reach us by every post. The following, however, are a few selected out of the mass which has already come to hand” (11). And a notice on p. 3 of the newspaper read: “Since publishing ‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London,’ we have been inundated with letters from all parts of the kingdom, and from all sorts and conditions of men. We publish some of these letters—after condensation—on pages 11 and 12, but it is simply impossible to do more than indicate the nature of the responses which have reached us from all quarters. On no question that has been raised for many years does public interest appear to be so keen and deep” (3). In many of the letters published here and on subsequent days, the writers draw attention to the familiarity of the problem. William Booth of the Salvation Army endorses the newspaper’s attention to housing for the poor noting that “thousands can exist in a condition of the utmost physical and moral misery and degradation, without its being so much as perceived by the intelligent and well-to-do persons of society.” Booth worries that even now the situation will be overlooked and that the current concern will draw attention to “the outer miseries” (the poor housing of many families) while neglecting “the inner and deeper wretchedness of their condition” (the poor morals) (“Correspondence” PMG, 22 Oct 1883: 11).

[16] Stead had no hesitation about foregrounding the potent combination of exposé, sexual scandal, and agitation for political reform.

[17] In a speech delivered in March 1883, however, Lord Salisbury makes a similar comment before the publication of The Bitter Cry: “I hold one of the most burning questions is that of the housing the working classes in our great public cities” (cited in PMG, 30 Mar 1883; 1). After its publication, Frederic Harrison wrote: “The question of the housing of the poor in great cities is one of the most formidable of modern times” (PMG, 3 Nov 1883; 2). And in the penultimate chapter of The Industrial Revolution (1884), Arnold Toynbee concludes as follows: “the problem of the distribution of wealth is sure, in the near future, to take the form of the question, how to house the labourers of our towns” (116). Garside notes the importance of housing to political restructuring in London and to reconception of the city: “What ultimately revolutionized the tenor of London politics, however, was the emergence of the housing question as the question of the day, not only for Londoners, but for the nation and the Empire. In the 1880s, London’s problems and politics merged with national concerns, and the meeting point was poverty and overcrowding in London housing” (Garside 232).

[18] In one of the early responses to this pamphlet, Crozier makes a similar point: “If we could take our readers with us through the courts, alleys, and lodging-houses with which we are familiar, we have no question that the effect would be, that every one of Christian spirit would wish to become a Home Missionary, and certainly would become a Home Mission supporter. Here the facts speak, as they cannot speak on paper, and as they cannot be described by voice or pen. Look into the homes, how wretched! and think, there are miles of them! See how fierce and sullen are the men, how coarse and embruted are the women, and think there are ten thousands of them!” (107).