S2, Ep 15 London’s Blackest Streets: Sarah Wise (1889)

For this insightful and evocative episode of Travels Through Time, Peter Moore heads to the historian Sarah Wise’s flat in central London, to talk about left wing politics, life and labour in the imperial capital in the year 1889.


London in 1889 lay at the heart of the most extensive empire the world had ever seen. But though there was fabulous wealth in many areas of the capital, it was unequally distributed. Many were worried that those who lived and worked in the East End and docklands were being pushed increasingly into chronic poverty and further towards revolution.

Among those to be concerned were the businessman turned social reformer, Charles Booth. Following a series of breakdowns, in the 1880s Booth began his series of social investigations into the East End which would result in his pioneering series of colour-coded poverty maps.

As Booth trod the East End streets, assigning each one a social status, other reformers were at work. In one of the most deprived parishes in the country, the Reverend Arthur Osborne Jay re-modelled his church so it included a boxing ring and a music hall platform, so there was a positive outlet for the energies of his congregation.

For the last twenty five years the award-winning social historian Sarah Wise has been researching histories like these. Inspired by passionate, thoughtful leftish politicians like Henry Hyndman and William Morris, in this episode of Travels Through Time Sarah guides us into the turbulent East End streets in search of ‘moralised capitalism.’

The nineteenth-century, Wise says, ‘was an era in which there were lots of secrets and lots of mystery and lots of drama.’ Here she takes us to meet figures like Booth and Rev. Jay, who were trying to make sense of the riddles, as well as showing us how close the country came to complete social breakdown.

This episode of Travels Through Time was recorded on location at Sarah flat. If you want to see some of Booth’s poverty maps, along with other photographs and archives that we spoke about during the course of the conversation, please visit our website at www.tttpodcast.com

The Blackest Streets is available in paperback from Vintage Books.

Show notes:

Scene One: Charles Booth walking around the market of Slater Street, Club Row and Brick Lane, one Sunday morning in 1889.

Scene Two: 14 August 1889, Wapping and Limehouse, by the River Thames

Scene Three: 25 February, 1889, a boxing match at Reverend Jay’s Holy Trinity Church, Bethnal Green.

Memento: The entire Charles Booth Map of London


Presenter: John Hillman

Interview: Peter Moore

Guest: Sarah Wise

Producers: Maria Nolan