Friday 10 September 2010

Lost London : Belle Isle

The last post mentions a dodgy match factory in Belle Isle. Which reminded me that I have a fascinating description of this lost area of London from 1874 (courtesy of the great James Greenwood's In Strange Company). Essentially it was an industrial slum, principally known for its horse-slaughterer (although the name suggests it was once a rural retreat). It's rarely marked on maps, but here's one from the 1850s which gives the location (south of the modern Brewery Road/Caledonian Park, if you know the area). A web search suggests the name may still live on, as part of the railway, with a signal box of that name still marking the district.

I find a letter in the Times from 1855 which describes the 'pestilential miasma' from the factories. The writer complains that 'Some time ago I rented a small plot of land in the neighbourhood of Belle-isle for a vegetable and flower garden; my vegetable productions, however, were thoroughly unpalateable, the cause of which I could not explain until a cottager, experiencing similar results, proved to me that the exhalations of the bone-boiling, and the smells of the patent manufactory, and the smells of the horse-slaughtering house, beaten down by the wind upon the garden ground, changed the character of everything raised for household use, and positively rendered it unfit for human food.' He goes on to describe the opening of a school in the district, where everyone present was afflicted by nausea and violent retching, due to the smell from the factories.

Here's Greenwood's excellent article, although cat-lovers should look away now.


ON a piping hot summer's day - the thermometer marking 80 in the shade I took it into my head that I would go and see how such weather agreed with a place so terrible as Belle-Isle was made out to be.
    It is doubtful if, left to himself, the stranger would ever discover the place in question. Those who are disposed for a similar exploration, however, may accept the following simple direction. Turn up a road called the York-road, by the side of the King's-cross railway station, and follow your nose. Even should the wind be unfavourable, the air will certainly be laden with peculiar indications that may safely be trusted for guidance. Keep straight along the York-road, and gradually you will be sensible of leaving civilization behind you. You will discover on the right-hand side of the way, opposite to some cottages which stand in a street that is "no thoroughfare," a modest pair of gates attached to a red-brick lodge bearing the inscription "Cemetery Entrance." Here it is that bodies intended for interment in out-of-town cemeteries are housed until the stated time arrives for their conveyance down the line.
    It is a terribly deserted and melancholy place, looking as though every one connected with its proper and decent keeping had given up the ghost and slipped down the line with the rest. Between the gates and the dismal house where the coffins are stored, there is a space which desperate efforts have been made to convert into a kitchen garden; but never was there a more ghastly failure. Barren, sickly, yellow-cabbage stalks, that have out-grown their strength, crop out of the ground all aslant; while fierce rank weeds have seized on more tender plants of the green tribe, and strangled them till they are absolutely black in the face. The iron gate has long shed the coat of paint by which it was originally covered, and glows dusky red with rust.
    It is evident that no one now resides at the lodge; for there is a board on which are inscribed directions to "apply over the way," and when last I passed a dozen or so of shoeless, almost breechesless young Belle-Islanders were swarming over the wall, and deriving immense satisfaction from the pastime of pitching old tin pots and other gutter refuse upon a sort of high-up window-ledge.
    But you do not arrive at Belle-Isle proper until you reach the archway that spans the road. At this point you may dispense with the services of your faithful olfactory guide; indeed, it will be better, provided you do it in a way that shall not be remarkable-for the act is one that the inhabitants may resent - to mask its keen discrimination with your pocket handkerchief. Here, an appropriate sentinel at the threshold of this delectable place, stands the great horse-slaughtering establishment of the late celebrated Mr. John Atcheler.
    As a horse-slaughtering establishment nothing can be said against it. I am afraid to say how many hundred lame, diseased, and worn-out animals weekly find surcease of sorrow within Atcheler's gates-or how many tons of nutriment for the feline species are daily boiled in the immense coppers and carried away every morning by a legion of industrious barrowmen. Everything, I have no doubt, is managed in the best possible way;  but that best still leaves a terribly broad margin for odours that can only be described as nauseating. In the shadow of the slaughter-yard is a public-house-a house of call for the poleaxe men and those who, with a hook to catch fast hold, and an enormous knife, denude the worn-out horses' bones of the little flesh that remains attached to them.
    They are terrible looking fellows, these honest horse slaughterers. They seem rather to cultivate than avoid stains of a crimson colour; and they may be seen at the bar of the public-house before-mentioned, merry as sandboys, haw-hawing in the true and original "fee-fo-fum" tone, drinking pots of beer with red hands and with faces that look as though they had been swept with a sanguinary hearth-broom. You can see all this from the gateway where the savage young Belle-Islanders congregate to give fierce prods with pointed sticks at the miserable bare-ribbed old horses as they come hobbling in. Altogether the picture is one to be remembered.
    The horse slaughterer's place, however, is by no means the ugliest feature of Belle-Isle. Its inodorous breath is fragrant compared with the pestilent blast that greets the sense of smell before a distance of fifty paces further has been accomplished. The spot that holds the horse slaughter houses is modestly called "The Vale;" the first turning beyond is, with goblin like humour, designated "Pleasant Grove." It is hardly too much to say, that almost every trade banished from the haunts of men, on account of the villanous smells and the dangerous atmosphere which it engenders is represented in Pleasant Grove. There are bone boilers, fat-melters, "chemical works," firework makers, lucifer-match factories, and several most extensive and flourishing dust-yards, where - at this delightful season so excellent for ripening corn - scores of women and young girls find employment in sifting the refuse of dust-bins, standing knee-high in what they sift. In the midst of all this is a long row of cottages, each tenanted by at least one family; and little children, by dozens and scores, find delight in the reeking kennels. These are the very little ones; those of somewhat larger growth turn their attention to matters less trivial.
    For instance, a knot of half-a-dozen were calmly enjoying, at the wide-open gates of a sort of yard, the edifying and instructive spectacle of a giant, stripped to his waist, smashing up with a sledge-hammer the entire red skeletons of horses that had just been dragged from the cutting and stripping department. Again, the juvenile Bell-Islanders are not so benighted that they have not heard of the game of cricket; nor did a lack of the recognised appliances needed for that noble game frustrate their praiseworthy determination to do something like what other boys do. A green sward was, of course, out of the question; but they had; to the number of eight or ten, chosen a tolerably level bit between two dust-heaps. For wickets they had a pile of old hats and broken crockery; for bat the stump leg of an old bedstead, and for ball the head of a kitten.
This is not romance, but earnest fact. With the thermometer at 80 in the shade, there was the merry young band of cricketers, their faces and the rest of their visible flesh the very colour of the dust they sported among; and, the sun blazing down on their uncovered heads, they were bowling up the kitten's head, giving it fair spanks with the bedstead - leg for ones and twos, and looking out with barbarous relish for "catches." Evidently they were boys employed in some of the surrounding factories, and this was the way in which they sought recreation in their dinner-hour! I say evidently they were factory-lads, because their fantastic aspect bespoke them such. There were boys whose rags were of a universal yellow tint, as though they were intimately acquainted with the manufacture of sulphur or some such material; boys whose rags were black as a sweep's; and other boys who were splashed with many colours, that made them twinkle in the sun like demon harlequins as they wrestled in the ashes for possession of the "ball."
    Belle-Isle is by no means a small place. Beyond the delectable Pleasant Grove is another thoroughfare called Brandon Road. Brandon Road has cottages on either side of the way, and gives harbourage to several hundred cottagers little and big. The road is hemmed in, as Pleasant Grove is, by stench-factories, and the effect on an individual used to ordinarily wholesome air is simply indescribable. The odour makes the nostrils tingle; you can taste it on the tongue as though you had sipped a weak solution of some nauseating acid ; it makes the eyes water. And yet, as before stated, swarms of little children and grown men and women abide winter and summer in this awful place; here they cook and eat their food, and, these sultry nights, when even in open places scarcely a breath of air stirs, they retire to bed amid it all. It is utterly impossible that the poor wretches doomed to Pleasant Grove and Brandon Road should not be afflicted occasionally with illness; and just imagine the sick bed at this time of year!
    But there is another feature of this pestilent colony of too grave importance to be passed over. The row of barrows and "half-carts," as they are called, unmistakably denotes that Brandon Road is a place where costermongers congregate - vendors of fruit and vegetables who hawk their wares through the day, and bring home at night what remains unsold. And where is that remainder stored ? It cannot be left in the street all night; it must be carried into the house - into the ill-ventilated hovel containing three rooms and a wash- house; every apartment affording sleeping accommodation for some member of the householder's family or his "lodgers." One shudders even to think of it. The temperature of 80 in the shade, and the plums and apples and pears-more often than not just a little "damaged" before the costermonger brought them - heaped all night in one of these Belle-Isle fever-dens on the same floor on which the sack and straw bed is made, to be taken out to-morrow and sold and eaten raw or made into pies and puddings by the thrifty poor, who, before everything, look out for what is cheap! I saw under one gateway several hundreds of herrings split open and hung up to "cure" in that hotbed of pestilence.
    It is not nice to talk about such matters; it was very far from nice to investigate them; but, since such vileness exists, has existed doubtless for years, and will continue to exist for all that the parochial authorities can do to make an end of it, it becomes necessary to expose it for common safety, no less than for mercy's sake. The risk we run in shirking such questions is incalculable. Not because we are far removed from plague-spots are they no concern of ours; not because we are cleanly in our own homes, and take scrupulous care, in a sanitary sense, of every nook and corner from the garret to the kitchen, can we afford, with no more than a disgustful shrug of the shoulders, to dismiss from our minds all consideration of the deplorable condition of the Belle-Islanders. It is not only the residents of Belle Isle that are in daily danger from its poisoned air. As I have mentioned, there are many factories the operations of which admit of boy labour. I don't know whether the factory inspectors ever visit Belle-Isle, or whether any member of the Metropolitan School Board has yet happened to pass that way at the hour when the gangs of poor little wretches are respited from their disgusting drudgery. It is always unsafe, with regard to this class of juvenile humanity, to rely on size and appearance as guides in judging of age. Stunted in growth and ill-fed as they are, it is easy to miscalculate by a year or so; but I think I might allow at least as broad a margin as that, and then declare that many of the industrious little chaps that came trooping out of the match factories and other factories near at dinner time, had not yet witnessed their ninth birthday. All of them were ragged and hideously dirty, and, so far as might be judged by the little of their complexion that was accidentally brushed clear of its coat of grime, they were one and all sickly and unhealthy-looking.
    I wish that a member of the School Board would find leisure to look in on Belle-Isle some fine dinner time or evening. I think it not unlikely that his benevolent eyes would be opened to the fact that the bold and easygoing youth who is proud to be known as a street Arab is not the only young person who would be benefited by his fatherly attention. The street Arab, at his worst, is a homeless, ragged, wretched little waif, who will tolerate semi-starvation, but beyond that point may not be relied on to keep his hands from picking and stealing; so he is a proper object for rescue, and it comes cheap for the country to take him and place him at a trade by following which he may obtain an honest livelihood. But who would think of apprenticing him to a lucifer matchmaker, or a worker in chemical compositions, the handling of which would certainly enfeeble his health, and bring him to an early grave? Did only half a dozen such instances occur, the whole nation would raise its hands in horror at the deliberate barbarity; yet here, in Belle-Isle, and in a few other places that might be mentioned, we have hundreds of poor, patient little boys and girls, who never in their lives did a dishonest thing, kept in ignorance and doomed to work through their young lives in dirt and squalor and the very shadow of death, for little if anything more in the shape of wages than the free street Arab contrives to pick up in his vagabond rovings.


  1. There still is a Brandon Road in the area but whether it is the same one is open to doubt. Many changes will have occurred since the times described.

    What strikes me is the degree of detail, obviously derived from careful and patient observation. The whole thing has the ring of truth.

    The conditions described are quite frightful, of course, and we can be glad that such no longer exist - at least, here in Britain, because in the Third World I suspect we might still find scenes like these.

  2. It is the same Brandon Road although of course none of the buildings are the same. "Belle Isle" ran from what is now Brewery Road down to almost Copenhagen Street, though the original Hamlet was much smaller. The Pleasant Grove mentioned was where Vale Royal now is but probably went all the way through to Caledonian Road. It would have been destroyed by the building of the railway line. There is still a Belle Isle signal box apparently.