East London in the 1800s and 1900s was a notoriously terrible place to live. The outskirts of London was a poverty-stricken slum, and the middle classes ignored it for as long as they could. The depressing living conditions and disease which spread quickly in the overpopulated homes meant life was a constant struggle for survival. A lot of children died of starvation, and if they didn’t then they would be sent to work at an early age to help feed the family. Those who were lucky enough to find work could barely afford a room and enough food to eat.
The working class were subjected to horrendous labour, often working 12-14 hour days with little break. It’s no wonder that some people had to turn to prostitution or a life of crime to get by. If you weren’t skilled then you had to find something to sell, or look for casual work around the town.
General health was extremely poor in the east end of London, as you’d expect when the majority of the population were malnourished. We can’t imagine how terrible back health must have been – but it was probably one of many aches and pains felt daily. No workers got enough sleep, and many were forced to stand all day or undergo hard labour for a very little wage. Here are some of the typical jobs you might have done if you lived in the Victorian ages…
Sewer hunters and mudlarks
It sounds like a last resort, but some people literally had to wade through waste and rubbish to find anything of value. Mudlarks would go thigh-deep into the Thames, looking to retrieve anything they could sell or use for themselves. Some made the illegal decision to enter the sewers – not a task for the faint hearted. They would search for miles sifting through the waste and filth looking to find scrap metal and dropped coins from the streets above. They could even collect dog muck which could be sold to tanneries to make leather. This was a dirty and dangerous job, and bending down all day probably resulted in prolonged lower back pain.
Thousands of men used to line the London docks every day hoping to get some work as a dock loader. The trouble is, it was very low paid and the work was casual – you never knew how many ships would come in. In the 1800s, London was the greatest port in the world – but it still didn’t pay well to be a casual labourer. The excessive repetitive strain on the dock loaders’ backs would have taken its toll and they probably wouldn’t have been in a condition to work past the age of 40.
Women also had to work to make a living, even though many workers in East London still lived in poverty. From the age of 13 many girls became a matchworker, at a factory on Bow Road. The match girls were exploited, working long hours for a pittance and standing for 12 hours with just a short break. It’s possible that standing in the wrong posture and hunching over the machinery could have caused back pain for a lot of the matchworkers.
A skilled woman could find a job sewing, making sacks or producing mass clothing in the slop trade. The pay was pitifully low, and even when the sewing machine was introduced not many people in the East End could afford one. Working conditions were poor, and they had to sew by candlelight or gas lamp. One would presume that these seamstresses had to sit in awkward positions for long periods of time to focus on their work, putting pressure on the neck and back.
Back pain would have been a common problem in historical East London – but it was probably that last of everyone’s worries. Each day was full of hardship, diseases such as syphilis, cholera and typhus were rife and Jack the Ripper was at large. Fast forward to the modern day, and most of us don’t need to worry about eating a proper meal or getting basic health care. We have a comfortable life, which is why back pain can be so disruptive and frustrating.