Neo-Victorian Review – Living History, Re-enactment and Victorian Slumming It

Jack Gann (@jackrgann) is a second-year PhD student with Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies at Leeds Trinity University. His research focuses on interpretations of the Victorian street scene in the contemporary heritage industry, specifically on the reconstructed streets that appear as galleries within museums and how their offer of a performance of walking the streets of the nineteenth century presents a different visitor experience to that of other museum displays.

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‘To lead a group of rich people just to see how the scum slum dwellers live is… I mean, that’s very distasteful.’ It could be a comment on the popularity in the past couple of years of a brand of TV programming embodied by the likes of Famous, Rich and Hungry and Benefits Street and dubbed ‘poverty porn.’ Instead, however, it is a line from one of the participants living in The Victorian Slum, the latest example of the ‘reality history’ genre whose final episode aired this week on BBC2. This particular observation came from the slum’s rent collector Andy after he, in the 1880s-set third episode, was given the chance to earn a little extra money showing tour groups the life of the slum. The show’s participants reacted with confrontational frustration to this representation of the first flourishing of the trend for  middle class ‘slumming,’ with tailor’s wife Mandy asking: ‘What is the enjoyment about coming to see people struggle?’

That there is enjoyment, or at least curiosity, to be had in Victorian slumming, though, is the very premise of the series and indeed what drew Andy and Mandy to participate just as much as it did the voyeuristic tour group or their equivalent onlookers at home. (Much as in other forms of tourism outlined by Dean MacCannell, the historic slum tourism of participants in The Victorian Slum is governed by the same rules of a hierarchy of authenticity in which those that perceive their experience as more ‘authentic’ look down on the ‘less authentic’ forms of tourism). [1] Indeed, The Victorian Slum can be seen as just part of a wider trend towards a greater engagement with slum life in Victorian public history narratives. The slumming tour group in the 1880s episode visit the set and question the residents in a manner highly reminiscent of visitor groups within similarly recreated pseudo-historical spaces in museums.

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‘Evidence of the persistent fantasy that it is possible to step back into the past,’ was how thirty years ago Robert Hewison dismissed the growing vogue for ‘living history’ and forms of re-enactment that focused on ordinary daily life rather than great battles. [2] It may be an impossible fantasy truly to inhabit the past, but it has proved even more persistent and prevalent since Hewison wrote those words, helped in no small part by rise of reality TV giving a new arena for living history re-enactments. That the type of ‘ordinary’ people to whose lives audiences and participants now relate has undergone a shift downwards is evident in The Victorian Slum.

The reality history genre is generally dated back to the success of The 1900 House just as Big Brother and its ilk arrived on our screens. Wall to Wall, the production company behind both The 1900 House and The Victorian Slum (as well as Edwardian Country House, Regency House Party, Back in Time for the Weekend and the recent Victorian Bakers), [3] also feature a ‘typical’ home from 1900 in the current show, but what counts as typical here is far from the relative comfort of the turn of the century middle classes on offer in the previous show. Positive reviews of The Victorian Slum seem to have largely focused on this element with one suggesting that ‘any lingering cosiness about the Victorian age, filtered through the sentimentality and picturesqueness of fiction, receives a terminal bonk on the head,’ while another called it ‘a timely antidote to all that 19th-century bling’ present in the recently concluded Victoria on ITV. [4]

Similarly, the Geffrye Museum of the Home in Shoreditch was a pioneering museum of its type in the early twentieth century when it recreated historic domestic spaces of the middle classes as period rooms. Now, however, the museum’s conception of what makes a ‘home’ fits into broader categories, as seen in their excellent 2015 exhibition Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London. Some viewers of The Victorian Slum, on seeing the ‘coffin beds’ available in Andy’s doss house, will already have some bodily experience of these thanks to the Geffrye’s exhibition in which a recreation of one of the beds was available for visitors to try.

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In my own research on reconstructions of Victorian street scenes within museum galleries this slumming shift has also been clear. When the Museum of London Docklands (which makes an appearance in the 1880s episode of The Victorian Slum) first opened in the East End in 2003 it, like its sister museum at London Wall, sought to interpret Victorian life in the city through immersing the visitors in a street scene. Unlike the middle class shopping street of the Museum of London’s Victorian Walk, however, the Docklands Museum’s Sailortown is a far grimier, more ramshackle affair. Meanwhile, mention in The Victorian Slum’s 1890s episode of the research of Seebohm Rowntree in York, which demonstrated that slum conditions in London’s East End were replicated across the country, recalls the development of the original museum Victorian street scene at York Castle Museum. A renovation of this gallery in 2012 sought to tell a more complete story of the city’s streets by opening up new sections showing back alleys tucked behind the wide street of bright, welcoming shop fronts. The resulting displays of domestic spaces within York’s slums (pictured below) could easily double as a set for the BBC series.

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Within reconstructed slum spaces such as this or the 1842 Street at Leeds’ Thackray Medical Museum my research indicates that visitors seek to understand the lives of people living in these conditions through switching fluidly between a variety of different roles and varieties of ersatz slum tourism. The 1842 Street gallery invites visitors both to see themselves in the place of the social reformers and sanitation inspectors discussed in the 1890s episode of The Victorian Slum, but also to pick out a ‘character card’ that specifically identifies them with an individual slum dweller. Visitors, therefore, find themselves simultaneously occupying multiple perspectives, both putting themselves in the place of the people who lived and suffered in the slum and yet also of an outside observer, both an official observer of the time but also a time-travelling observer stepping back (despite Hewison’s protestations) to compare then and now.

For all that the residents of The Victorian Slum decried the slumming tourist group, they too display this cognitive dissonance of on the one hand seeing themselves as occupying the same space as the original slum dwellers, while at the same time acknowledging the time-travelling performance of their role. Heather, one of the slum’s residents, expressed this type of re-enactment double think in the first episode. Part way through making match boxes to earn some extra money, Heather suggested that: ‘It overwhelms me a bit at the moment, because half of me sees this and then in my head I have how I live now. I mean, I’d probably be sat on the settee reading a Kindle half way through the morning.’

Moments such as this demonstrate the continued awareness of both the residents of The Victorian Slum and both the show’s producers and audience that this is a performative engagement with the past rather than genuinely living the lives of the participants’ real ancestors. In acknowledging this the series manages directly to confront the obvious criticism of the format: that this is all staged and sanitised, that participants are under no real threat of disease, injury, starvation or many of the other dangers of real life in the slum, and after five weeks can just return to their normal twenty-first century lives. [5] Even though in the second episode Shazeda (handed the impossible task of earning enough to support herself and two children as a single mother in the slum) described the cycle of rent, unemployment and debt as ‘relentless,’ she did not have to continue life in the slum when it became impossible, but could return to home schooling her children in modern Scunthorpe. In the same episode Irish migrant Maria plucked a chicken for feathers to sell. That she described the experience by saying ‘I’ve never plucked a chicken before and I hope I won’t have to do it again’ is indicative of the lack of relentlessness in the heavily scripted lives of the TV slum dwellers. Each task or job was done once or twice before a new scripted event or a new decade moved the narrative on.

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A similar charge can be levelled at re-enactments and reconstructions within museums and heritage sites, that they can never be authentically dangerous due to the constant reminder that you are protected by the safety nets of the modern world. At the Thackray Medical Museum, for example, a plan to have the water pump provide unclean water for visitors to examine was never taken up due to safety concerns, while in The Victorian Slum there may be an episode where drought prevents the water pump from functioning, but the residents will never truly suffer from excessive thirst.

The Victorian Slum’s approach to this criticism is to point out areas where it would be unsafe or unethical fully to commit to realism and allow presenter Michael Mosley to explain the historical background further. Thus, although Maria does not dye her feathers with arsenic based dyes, Mosley’s narration explains that such toxic chemicals would indeed have been used at the time. A woman in Shazeda’s position would have been likely to turn to sex work to supplement her income from piece work and support her family. Obviously this is not possible in the context of a re-enactment, leaving the voiceover narration as the only suitable way of conveying this narrative. The most obvious example of this approach comes from Andy, who wears a prosthetic leg as a result of an amputation and framed his interest in participating in the show as a way to understand the experience of disabled people in the Victorian era. In a scene in the first episode Mosley explains and shows authentic prosthetic limbs from the period, demonstrating the very basic options Andy would have had at the time, before providing him with a replica ‘peg leg,’ albeit one made from fibre glass and shaped to fit Andy’s stump. It is not, therefore, a complete and genuine experience of a Victorian amputee living in a slum that Andy gets, but it is a greater understanding of their options combined with at least some physical, bodily appreciation of the challenges that they faced.

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Just as in museum reconstructions, therefore, the experience of comfortably well off modern visitors taking a brief tour into the slums of the past can feel like little more than sanitised performance reminiscent of the original slumming enthusiasts. By acknowledging the pitfalls of the reconstruction-re-enactment approach, however, it is still clear that both The Victorian Slum and museum slum reconstructions offer access and engagement with this element of our past to an audience who would never think to wade through the nine volumes of Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London. [6]

[1] Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A new theory of the leisure class (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, 2013)

[2] Robert Hewison, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 83

[3] See, for example, Jerome de Groot, Consuming History: Historians and heritage in popular culture (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), pp. 163-180

[4] Martin Hoyle, ‘Pick of the Weekend: The Victorian Slum, BBC2’, The Financial Times 6th October 2016; Jasper Rees, ‘The Victorian Slum was slumming it in the past with insufficient squalor’, The Telegraph 10th October 2016

[5] See Matt Baylis, ‘Last Night’s TV Reviewed: The Victorian Slum’, The Express 11th October 2016 for an example of a review describing The Victorian Slum as ‘sanitised’ history.

[6] See Katherine M. Johnson ‘Rethinking (re)doing: historical re-enactment and/as historiography’, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 2015, Volume 19 (2), pp. 193-206 for more on re-enactment’s potential for ‘prying open the determined grip academic history has had on the claim to so called authentic representations of the past.’

Screenshots from The Victorian Slum. BBC (10th October-7th November 2016)

Image of York Castle Museum taken by Jack Gann

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