Arnold Circus in London’s East End is a charming residential area consisting of handsome brick apartment buildings surrounding a raised green on which sits a bandstand. Though all is serene here now, the circus and buildings occupy the site of Friars Mount, London’s most infamous 19th century slum. Indeed, the mound that forms the center of the circus is composed of the rubble from the demolished slum and the, now very much in demand, apartment complex was arguably Britain’s first council estate.
Back in its slum heyday, around 5,700 souls lived here in a rat’s nest of dwellings, unpaved streets and alleyways. Sanitary conditions were horrendous with little or no sewage oversight, and running water available for just 10–12 minutes each day. On Sundays, there was no water. To add to the misery, noxious ponds formed in the cavities left behind when earth was removed for brick making. Although there were shoemakers and tailors here, there was also “boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat’s meat and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and ‘lakes of putrefying night soil.’” In addition to these “reputable” trades the area was crime-riddled, thick with street gangs, thieves and prostitutes.
The transformation of Friars Mount can be attributed to the Reverend Osborne Jay. Jay took over the local Holy Trinity parish in 1886 when one child in four died before his or her first birthday and the entire death rate was four times that of London. Jay worked tirelessly to improve conditions, raising the amazing sum of £25,000 to build a new church, social club, gym and lodging house, and in 1890 he convinced the London County Council to replace the slum with flats.
The horrified court of Victorian public opinion was won over when writer Arthur Morrison published A Child of the Jago (1896) a fictionalized work that laid bare the shame of Friars Mount. Indeed, when no less than the Prince of Wales opened the new development in 1900, he cited Morrison’s book: “Few indeed will forget this site who had read Mr. Morrison’s A Child of the Jago.”
Sadly, when the estate was completed, it wasn’t the Friars Mount residents who moved in; it was too expensive for them. They were pushed further out into the surrounding area producing overcrowding and more slums.