Digging Jacob’s Island: a new chapter for Oliver Twist

February 7th marks the 200th anniversary of novelist Charles Dickens’ birth. But how might archaeology offer a new chapter to his blockbusting London slum story, Oliver Twist? David Saxby, of Museum of London Archaeology, explains all.

This article is originally from issue 264 of Current Archaeology magazine, published in 2012.

Few writers conjure up images of Victorian London more readily than Charles Dickens, born two centuries ago this February. Among his most famous London-based novels is the page-turner story of Oliver Twist, published chapter by cliffhanging chapter from 1837-1839. Long after the eponymous urchin asks for another portion of gruel, the story unravels into a tale of bloody murder. The killer, Bill Sykes, flees the North London scene of his crime. But where should he go? Ultimately, there was only one refuge befitting a soul so dirty, and that place was Jacob’s Island, in South London, said to be the worst slum in the city. There, amid the stinking dilapidation, the novel reaches its climax, as (spoiler alert!) Sykes is hanged by his own noose.

Watercolour of Jacob’s Island, painted in 1887 by J Stewart. It shows the mill stream and run-down buildings; the poles to hang linen can be seen, along with pots and pails in the windows to lower into the ‘Folly Ditch’. Charles Dickens visited the notorious Jacob’s Island slum while researching the dramatic dénouement of Oliver Twist. Image: © Museum of London

In his novel, Charles Dickens offers a lengthy and graphic description of Jacob’s Island, which appears too grotesque to be anything other than pure fiction. But in fact, Jacob’s Island really did exist. So how true was Dickens’ description? Might archaeology provide answers? To discover more, in 1996 I led a team from Museum of London Archaeology to excavate at the site of Jacob’s Island, just east of St Saviour’s Dock, Bermondsey, South London. The story of our dig, and the insights it provides into the lives of the real people who once lived there, has never been presented to a wide readership, but in memory of the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, the time is now right. So light the fire, settle down, and listen to the true tale of 19th-century slums and squalor in South London.

The rise and fall of Jacob’s Island

Life on Jacob’s Island had once been good. It was in Medieval times the location of St Saviour’s mill, owned by the Cluniac monks of Bermondsey Abbey. During the 17th and 18th centuries trade and employment were flourishing there, with much of the local employment focused in the timber and boat-building industries.

However, by the turn of the 19th century, much of the trade had moved downriver to Rotherhithe, where the existing docks were deepened and enlarged. Becoming part of the Surrey Commercial Dock System they took much of the trade, especially the timber trade. This had a damning effect on the lives of the inhabitants of Jacob’s Island: with employment prospects crippled, the pay was poor and jobs insecure. By the time Dickens visited Jacob’s Island it had become a notorious slum.

Our excavations revealed some evidence of its more prosperous, pre-Dickensian past. Within the northern part of the site, we uncovered parts of the Medieval mill, and the former 18th-century water works. These were enclosed by a large brick building that formed the eastern and southern revetment walls to the River Neckinger and the Mill Pond.

Charles Dickens c.1860s.

Come the 1830s, the water works were replaced by a lead mill. As a letter by Henry Mayhew to the Morning Chronicle in 1849 reveals, not only did the inhabitants suffer poor sanitary conditions, but they were poisoned by sulpuretted hydrogen and hydrosulphate of ammonia produced by this, and other lead mills, located at the northern end of Mill Street. Life was by now, as Dickens described and our excavations demonstrate, very far from good.

Jacob’s Island – the Capital of Cholera

Extremely high numbers of inhabitants of Jacob’s Island succumbed to the cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854. The fate of Jacob’s Island, arguably first drawn to public attention by Dickens, caught the attention of many commentators and social reformers of the day, such as Henry Mayhew and Charles Knight. Here we reprint an account by Henry Mayhew, the Metropolitan correspondent for its national survey of labour and the poor, who published the following damning letter about the cholera at Jacob’s Island in the Morning Chronicle of 24 September 1849.

‘The striking peculiarity of Jacob’s Island consists in the wooden galleries and sleeping-rooms at the back of the houses, which overhang the dark ditch that stagnates beside them. The houses are built upon piles, so that the place has positively the look of a Flemish street, flanking a sewer instead of a canal; while the little rickety bridges that span the huge gutters and connect court with court give it the appearance of the Venice of Drains… As I passed along the reeking banks of the sewer, the sun shone upon a narrow slip of water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea, and positively looked as solid as black marble in the shadow – indeed, it was more like watery mud than muddy water; and yet I was assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink. As I gazed in horror at it, I saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; I saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women, built over it; I heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it; and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed, by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble. And yet, as I stood doubting the fearful statement, I beheld a little child, from one of the galleries opposite, lower a tin can with a rope, to fill a large bucket that stood beside her. In each of the balconies that hung over the stream the self-same tub was to be seen. In this the inhabitants put the murky liquid to stand, so that they may, after it has rested for a day or two, skim the fluid from the solid particles of filth, pollution, and disease which have sank below.’

Jacob’s Island, after a map drawn in 1813. The archaeologists excavated much of the area to the south of Jacob Street, now largely the site of a gated housing complex.

Dickens on Jacob’s Island:

…beyond dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob’s Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch…at such times, a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up…

(Chapter 50, Oliver Twist)

As is apparent from the above extract, Jacob’s Island (an area covering some 130m by 130m) was surrounded (more or less) by a series of watercourses, which were spanned by wooden bridges. The main waterway was the River Neckinger, or ‘Folly Ditch’ as it is appears in the novel. While these waterways had once been the area’s lifeblood, by Dickens’ time, they had become polluted and deadly.

Photograph looking south, showing MOLA archaeologists’ excavation of the 16th- to 19th-century water mill with ‘Folly Ditch’ to the right of the mill.

The watercourses were rarely flowing and the stagnant, sewage-filled watery mud was the only source of water for the islanders to drink, wash in, and cook with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost half of the deaths during the cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854 occurred here (and in two neighbouring districts), causing Jacob’s Island to earn the damning monikers ‘the Capital of Cholera’ and ‘the Venice of Drains’ (see box opposite). Above the dangerous waters of Folly Ditch, rose rotten houses, as Dickens described:

…and when his eye is turned from these [quoted above] operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wood galleries common to the backs of half-a-dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it, as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

(Chapter 50, Oliver Twist)

Another photograph of the site, again showing ‘Folly Ditch’ to the right of the mill. Mill Street is further to the right.

According to Dickens, many of these houses were unoccupied and adapted for the purpose of crime, with concealed tunnels and windows to the roofs leading to ingenious hiding-places. He situates murderer Bill Sykes’ hideaway at Edward Street, in Metcalf Court, on the mill stream, just south of Jacob Street. Jacob’s Island was, as Dickens makes clear, the very worst place to live in London.

Great excavations

So what did our excavations add to Dickens’ picture of slums and squalor? The answer is that since there was no clear evidence that the houses were largely unoccupied, Jacob’s Island certainly was as bad as he described, and quite possibly worse.

All along Mill Street, the main thoroughfare leading to Jacob’s Island, we identified 18th- and 19th-century domestic buildings, as well as a public house. The eastern sides of these buildings would have straddled Folly Ditch, the location of Sykes’s hanging. We found a number of timber posts (or stilts) for these buildings running north–south in the middle of Folly Ditch. The posts were made of reused oak beams, salvaged from earlier buildings. But measuring just 0.20m square, they were most likely too small to support adequately the large galleried buildings above. Worse, there are signs that they were most likely decayed even before their reuse. This no doubt contributed to the buildings’ steady sink into the stinking slime below.

MOLA archaeologist Hanne Mette Rendall cleaning the 19th-century timber revetments of ‘Folly Ditch’ (as Dickens refers to it), constructed from boatyard offcuts.

Lining Folly Ditch we found further timber revetments. These too were mainly constructed from reused oak timbers consisting of upright posts with horizontal planks nailed behind. Many were waste timbers from a shipbuilders’ yard, reused from 18th- and 19th-century vessels, possibly derived from a barge builder who is known to have occupied part of the site during the 19th century. The picture of deprivation deepens.

As Dickens tells, the watercourses were clearly not some Venetian idyll, and we found them filled with a black organic clay silt that had fortunately dried up by the time we began excavating. All good archaeologists love the challenge of excavating a wet environment; however, the putrid, stagnant slime of the 19th-century Folly Ditch would have been too much to bear in the circumstances of this singular site.

Then and now. Above is Old Houses on London Street about 1810, by W H Prior. This is an 1870s etching of an 1813 watercolour, and appears to be a reliable depiction. Below, a modern, comparative view of London Street (photograph taken just outside The Ship Aground pub, rebuilt in the early 20th century). The road in the foreground was once the watercourse, and the buildings would have been much further back. IMAGE & PHOTO: Courtesy of Matthew Hillier

Slums and squalor

As we dug through the now-desiccated watercourses, we uncovered numerous finds that add to our picture of life at the time. Mostly, we found 19th-century domestic rubbish. This was both waste dumped into the water from the overhanging galleries, and material deposited during the backfilling of the watercourses in the 1850s – when, after the cholera outbreaks in 1849 and 1854, the government decreed them so unfit for human health that they needed to go (although the now-underground River Neckinger, or ‘Folly Ditch’, still flowed along Mill Street).

The dumped finds included a mix of wood, leather, pottery, and glass, plus metal objects including furniture mounts, cutlery, and tin cans. We also recovered a number of clay tobacco pipes, locally made. Their badly fitting moulds and poor finishes speak of low-status smokers, and further confirm the area’s poverty. But exactly how poor were these people? Answers were forthcoming.

A selection of 19th-century household finds from ‘Folly Ditch’. These artefacts, once the property of the inhabitants of Jacob’s Island, give a personality to the site. Photo: Andy Chopping, Museum of London Archaeology

We recovered a small number of butchered animal bones from erstwhile meals of the island’s inhabitants. These included cattle, sheep/goat, pig, chicken, and fish. Analysis of animal bones from the 16th- to 19th-century shows a decline in the quality of meat during the 19th century. So, while the cattle assemblages from earlier periods are generally composed of meat-rich parts such as upper limbs, during the 19th century the meat was a greater mix of parts, tending towards those in the meat-poor parts of the skeleton such as the head and lower limbs. The pipes and bones add breath and flesh to the individuals and personalities of the former inhabitants.

Sykes is hanged by his own noose in the dramatic climax of Oliver Twist. The image shows the south-west corner of Jacob’s Island, looking north-east up Mill Street towards the River Thames.
In Dickens’ time Mill Street was much narrower, and Folly Ditch ran parallel with this road. The person is standing on what used to be the location of a footbridge, which formerly crossed the Mill Pond to a 17th-century brick house – said to be Bill Sykes’s hideout. Photo: Matthew Hillier

Wandering down Mill Lane, now occupied by design studios and young urbanites, and past the wealthy, gated Berkeley Homes complex that now sits on our excavation site at Jacob’s Island, it is hardly surprising that many have, erroneously, doubted the veracity of Dickens’ descriptions. And certainly, things have long been different: in 1861, a decade after most of the waterways were infilled, a great fire destroyed the houses along London Street and in the surrounding area. With the new Housing and Sanitary Acts of 1874, the remaining dwellings were cleared away, new larger residences were built, and the area gradually improved with better sanitary conditions. Employment opportunities also improved with the arrival of manufacturing, such as the Peek Frean & Co. and Spillers biscuit factories.

This closed the book on this once unique and infamous area of London – until we, the archaeologists, came back to add a new chapter to the story, and tell the true tale of London’s deadliest slum: Jacob’s Island.

David Saxby is a Senior Archaeologist at Museum of London Archaeology and directed the excavations at Jacob’s Island.
Dr Nadia Durrani (nadia@nadiadurrani.com) is an independent archaeological writer and the former editor of Current World Archaeology.