In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slumming

  • Introduction
  • Digital Archives
  • Working-Class Autobiographies

Victorian Literature Slumming
S. Brooke Cameron, Ian M. Clark
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0202


The word slum was first coined in 1825 as a reference to the “back slums lying in the rear of Broad St” (OED). It did not take long for the term to acquire negative connotations, as seen in Leslie Stephen’s Playground of Europe (1871), wherein he describes “[t]he unspeakable ugliness of a back slum in London” (p. 176). By 1884 the word referred to both place and activity (“the visitation of slums” “for amusement” [Christian World, 22 May 1884]). To go slumming was, in effect, to transform working-class subjects and spaces into sources of interest or fascination—if not outright entertainment. This transformation of the poor was itself a pleasure for slum visitors, who juxtaposed their own bourgeois (i.e., morally superior) identities against the constructed slum Other. Besides reifying their classed sense of self, people from the upper classes sought out underground working-class subcultures and/or literal spaces of supposed deprivation (the slums), with motives ranging from social documentation or assistance of the poor to unabashed pleasure-seeking. Still, historian Seth Koven reminds us that whether inspired by altruism or selfishness these are all acts of self-serving “slumming” (see Koven 2004, cited under Secondary Sources: Entertainment and Slum Fiction). The reformers who looked to impose their own middle-class values, the women journalists who gained professional legitimacy, and the “swells” who pursued nights of titillating debauchery are just some of those who went slumming at the expense of their working-class and poor subjects. This article intends to reflect the range in ways and reasons why late Victorians slummed. For ease of use, we have divided our selections by primary and secondary sources, each half containing five parallel subcategories. We eschew a definition or class designation of the slummers themselves to keep focus on the act of slumming—for slumming was first and foremost a relationship of power, and those who slummed sometimes “had little in common beyond their sense that they commanded resources entitling them to gawk at or help the poor” (Koven 2004, p. 10, cited under Secondary Sources: Entertainment and Slum Fiction). The first major category focuses on those who went slumming precisely because of this power dynamic and the “Entertainment” it afforded. Many books were penned to help gentlemen “swells” navigate London’s growing slums, which themselves shifted location, composition, and character over the century. The proliferation of periodicals and tourist guides reflects the popularity of cross-class voyeurism that slumming afforded. This section concludes with a discussion of music halls, a new type of venue where bourgeois slummers could observe (and eventually appropriate) working-class popular entertainment. “Social Reform Writings” follows those who slummed for supposedly altruistic ends. It includes works of social investigation, attempts to scientifically taxonomize urban poverty, and has a section on slum crime. Selections of journalism demonstrate how women went slumming to advance their careers while men slummed for the thrill of sexual contact with poor men. Photographic materials show how emerging flash technology underwrote the literal objectification of the poor, while the third section, “Settlements and Organizations,” focuses on the reformers who stayed in the slums and tried to effect change through decidedly middle-class example. Still other reformers embraced the idea of (re)settlement as a solution for poverty; some in this group went so far as to promote eugenic-leaning farm colonies and/or migration to England’s global settlements. Finally, the stand-alone categories “Digital Archives” and “Working-Class Autobiographies” remind us, as scholars, to always consult the primary sources—particularly when it comes to socially and economically precarious communities.


Entertainment—what is entertaining, what “counts” as entertainment—is impossibly subjective. The following primary sources are thus quite heterogeneous, though they share an understanding of slumming as a form of entertainment. Sometimes this entertainment was exploitative of slum dwellers, as was the case with swells or the middle- and upper-class young men who viewed impoverished subjects and places as a sort of titillating fairground for their taking. For others, entertainment and the slum looked like educational sightseeing: touring asylums, attending bankruptcy court hearings, or gawking at the unhoused. As London’s poorer districts changed in location and composition, guidebooks appeared to help domestic and international slummers find the most exciting areas in the city. Still, it is important to remember that these same slums were vibrant, diverse communities with their own entertainment interests that produced talented and innovative performers. While not the exclusive domain of the working classes, the music hall proved incredibly popular among working folk throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, combining the excitement of live performance (drag, comedy, theater, burlesque) with the pleasure of good company and drink. Such venues allowed for new forms of celebrity, like the pioneering comedian Dan Leno or “Queen of the Music Hall” Marie Lloyd, whose successes gave them financial and social freedoms seldom available to those from an impoverished background. Finally, the proliferation of periodicals dedicated to slumming (subjects and stories) suggests that this form of cross-class entertainment was more than lucrative, but something of a market in itself. Such profitable texts included gossip columns, true-crime reports, and serialized “social problem” novels. The exoticized mystery of this setting gave authors creative license to exaggerate the horrors, as well as attractions, of slums and slum residents.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.