Thursday 14 January 2010

London at Midnight

While I generally want to limit this blog to new discoveries, I occasionally stumble across some old bit of my website (eight years old and counting!) which I suspect few people ever notice, and deserves better.

With this in mind, I give you Henry Vigar-Harris's London at Midnight. It's an 1885 pamphlet, in the 'social investigation' style of Mayhew or, more closely, the journalist James Greenwood. Except, it really pulls no punches in exposing the - ahem - dangers of London life. Viz, regarding the lower-class shops and amusements of Islington's Upper Street

"Yonder is the "Devil's Mile," which extends from here to the "Cock" at Highbury, and along which we will steadily make our way. This is not my title; North Londoners themselves have designated it as such. It is an appropriate name, however, for the devil's imps seem to perambulate through it, both day and night. It's past midnight, and look at these young girls with their besotted countenances. They have been torn from all that is pure and bright; swept, as by an irrepressible torrent, into the sea of vice. Here they are conversing and bartering their lives with men who, twelve hours hence, will walk the same thoroughfare, and say " We're respectable moral and virtuous citizens." Look at that old man with grey hairs, and who seems to be fast descending the hill of life, in company with that cherry-faced, intelligent looking child. Surely a relationship of father and daughter exists between them. Maybe they've been to some place of amusement, and are now discussing the best way of returning home. But no."

Or on King's Cross:

"This is King's Cross. It is the centre of a foul net-work of London vice and ruffianism. Four Railway Stations are here - stations of the gay and dissolute, who glide serpent-like upon the platforms, and parade their sensual and daring visages before respectable members of society. The profligate finds here a haven for his vicious desires, and he can be seen from an early hour in the evening till early dawn, or until the recuperative powers of nature no longer lend their aid for a prolongation of their animal enjoyment. "Gentlemen" who reside in various parts of North London find this arena a very secluded spot to carry on their drunken debauch. Here, as in many other parts of London, disorderly houses of the most disreputable kind exist ad libitum, under the very eyes of the police, and wherein, night after night, a calling of the most iniquitous kind is carried on with the sanction of all the departments of officialism. Shops, with side doors which stand ajar, and small windows adorned with nondescript refreshments, and wherein you would imagine you could procure tea, coffee, or cocoa to renew your almost exhausted energies, form deceptive gateways into houses consecrated to immoral purposes. Private houses, in streets occupied by well-to-do tradesmen and City business people, are made centres of corruption into which the unwary are taken, robbed of all that's dear, then trampled and beaten to earth by the hoofs of passion, appetite and mad indulgence."

This is condemnatory Victorian prose at its finest ... stations of the gay and dissolute, who glide serpent-like upon the platforms ... wow! In fact, it's so barking mad in its rhetorical flourishes - so redolent of how we imagine a certain brand of Victorian writing - that I've wondered if it was published as a joke, or a crowd-pleasing piece of incendiary journalism for people who never actually visited the metropolis. Who was Mr. Vigar-Harris? If anyone has access to the census, I'd love to know if he existed - or is it a pseudonymous effort?

Enjoy the full text here.


Mark Catt writes to share his family history research which touches upon Henry Vigar-Harris ...

Henry was the son of William Harris and Julia (or Judith) Degoris(?) Viger. Julia was of French descent, born either in Guernsey or Cherbourg Normandie. William was a seaman from Churston Ferrers, Devonshire. They may have married in Guernsey... their first child Louisa was born there around 1853.

They had many children. Henry was born in 1859, Woolwich Kent.

Henry is on the 1871 census with his parents and siblings in Stoke Damerel, Devon.

In 1881 he's living as a boarder at 3 Malvern Terrace, Islington. Occupation: shorthand writer.

He married Martha Bowen in late 1881.

His "London at Midnight" was published in 1885.

The last trace I have of him is on the electoral register in 1885, living at
3 Clifton Grove, Graham Road, Hackney.

Not a pseudonym at all! Many thanks!


  1. Oooh, such wonderful text,
    full of over the top descriptive words, Lovely!
    Thanks for sharing,
    Suzi Love

  2. I've just come across your wonderful Victorian Dictionary as I was searching for info on Jack the Ripper for a presentation in a Gothic Vic Lit grad class; from there I found your blog. Thanks so much, Lee, for collecting and sharing all these primary documents, especially on Victorian London's underworld. This is fascinating reading. I'll tell my fellow students!