Updated 9 April 2016
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Sarah Wise documents life in early 19th Century London. She has done meticulous research into such things as body snatching, murders and the filth of London Streets on which many homeless people spent their lives. She writes in the Preface:
Toward the end of 1831, London’s Metropolitan Police were alerted to a ghastly series of crimes… I first came across the London killings – or the Italian Boy case as it was known – in the course of writing a newspaper article about an East End council housing estate in Bethnal Green that had been built on the site of one of the nineteenth century’s most notorious slums. It was said that the surrounding district had been tainted for decades by the grisly crimes committed in Nova Scotia Gardens …and indeed, on investigation I learned that in the late autumn of 1831, No 3 Nova Scotia Gardens had had infamy thrust upon it by its residents, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, and an associate, James May – all of them body snatchers, or “resurrection men” who were charged with murdering a vagrant child.
The case of the Italian boy and the subsequent investigations into the other horrific events at Nova Scotia Gardens highlighted the extremely unpleasant aspects of life in London. It was a city that had increased by one third between 1801 and 1831 to over one and half million inhabitants making it one of the most diverse populations anywhere on earth. This era in London was named ‘The Italian Boy’ by the author because as she says, it was an era without a name: Following the Italian Boy case in the newspapers of the day, I became curious about the type of people who had fallen into the path of the accused on their nightly prowls around the metropolis …What sort of city was London in 1831?
The author writes of the young children and young adults who could be picked up off the streets by body snatchers, brothel keepers, sex offenders, and press-gangs. This is the history of the nameless poor and destitute, and immigrant boys such as in the case of the Italian boy, who tried to survive on the streets. Sarah Wise asks the question we would all like answered: Why, even in death, did their identities remain mysterious?
The chapters that particularly interested me at the time I bought ‘The Italian Boy’ concerned the Smithfield Market. Hundreds of thousands of cattle, sheep, pigs and horses were driven to Smithfield from all over England, and were slaughtered on the streets or in uncovered yards for all to see. The cruelty these animals were subjected to is nothing less than barbaric. But then life for humans in London at that time could be described as barbaric as well.
One passage reads:
‘Passersby glancing left or right into a court or yard, where a butcher worked could find themselves witnessing a killing. It was alleged by various witnesses before the 1828 Select Committee on Smithfield that sheep were often skinned before being completely dead; it was observed that an unskilled slaughterman could require up to ten blows with an axe to kill a bullock …horses were up to their knees in the weltering remains of their fellow creatures, maimed and starving and showing obvious signs of distress as their fate dawned on them.’
For me, there were similarities in the way the animals were treated as described at Smithfield, and those in the Indonesian abattoir in the 21st Century, where live Australian cattle were sent to be butchered. Australian animals who had grown up on Australian farms trusting humans and being treated humanely. But that is another story.
Sarah Wise brings a dark and disturbing period of London history vividly to life. Even allowing for the brutality, this is a great read.
It was an eye opener for me on a personal level. Whilst researching my family tree, I discovered that some of my Italian ancestors lived in the slums of London during the Italian Boy era. My great grandfather, as a young man, was an ‘organ grinder’ with a performing monkey when the family first arrived in London. But again, that is another story.
-Anne-Frandi Coory 9 April 2016
A View of Smithfield Market from ‘The Italian Boy’ by Sarah Wise