King's College London
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In the Beginning ...

Local life

Photograph of a Victorian era street with groups of women and children standing or sitting before worn brick and timber buildingsGilbert Street with King's College Hospital in far right, 1891Alcohol, vice and grinding poverty were present alongside comparative affluence.

Dickens' picture of King's neighbourhood, of a bustling, noisy, smelly and overcrowded district, was reinforced by the campaigning journalism and forensic eye of the Victorian social reformer, Henry Mayhew. He was instrumental in setting up Punch magazine in 1841 at a meeting at the Edinburgh Castle public house in the Strand, and was intimately acquainted with the area.

Mayhew described every variety of Londoner from street costermongers, beggars and hawkers, to cab drivers and acrobats, the crossing-sweepers of Chancery Lane and cigar-end collectors of the Strand. Especially notorious haunts were the Coal Hole and Cyder Cellars of Maiden Lane, while local theatres attracted money and were an opportunity for vice and gaming as well as legitimate trade.

The grotesque, comic and tragic jostled for space. When, in 1830, a serious fire broke out at the English Opera House, Exeter Street, press reports described the terror of inhabitants 'who, in a state of nudity, were escaping in all directions'. The area, it was reported, 'chiefly consists of houses of ill-fameā€¦the females were seen running about shrieking in the most piteous manner'.

On a very different note, the early arcade of shops next door known as Exeter Change was home to a famous menagerie that boasted lions, tigers, an elephant and a hippopotamus whose appearance it was said reminded Byron of the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Liverpool. Regrettably, the elephant did not live to witness the fire, but having gone berserk in 1826, it was harpooned and dissected by over-eager medical students from nearby hospitals.

The building of the College and Somerset House helped stimulate a regeneration of the area that culminated in the metropolitan improvements of the late 19th century when the slums were replaced by the broad avenues of Kingsway and the Aldwych.

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