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The Work of the London City Mission

Written by Peter Daniel

Research by Sarah Boyle and Brittni Morris

"There are multitudes who believe that Westminster is a city of palaces, of magnificent squares, and regal terraces; that it is the chosen seat of opulence, grandeur, and refinement; and that filth, squalor, and misery are the denizens of other and less favoured sections of the metropolis… As the brightest lights cast the deepest shadows, so are the splendours and luxuries of the West-end found in juxtaposition with the most deplorable manifestations of human wretchedness and depravity" Household Words 1850

Old Pie Street and Duck Lane districts were two of the most wretched parts of Dickens’s Devil’s Acre so graphically described in the first edition of his Household Words magazine. These were two of the toughest districts manned by the London City Mission during the Cholera years that marked the middle of the nineteenth century. Both districts were in Westminster and consisted of the areas adjacent to Old Pie Street (known today as Old Pye Street), St Ann’s Street and Strutton Ground. It was a dangerous area even for the police, who would not enter it alone, which gives some indication of the courage of the men that attempted to engage with those that lived there and spread amongst them the teaching of the gospels. The missionaries who moved into this patch had a hard task winning over the people who called this area their home. The population, according to the mission reports, were composed of ‘hucksters (peddlers), costermongers (sellers of fruit, vegetables or fish from a barrow), sweeps, street vendors, razor-grinders, street musicians, singers, tramps, thieves and fallen women.’ However the problems of assisting these people were magnified by the unhealthy conditions that were tailor made for a disease like cholera.

One missionary gave a description of the Old Pie street district in the 1855 London Missionary Annual Report, “This district is like a moral cesspool, into which are continually flowing the dregs of every part of England.” It could be said that dealing with this “moral cesspool” was more than matched by the problems that arose from dealing with the actual cesspools which overflowed from the shabby courts and polluted the water supply for all the inhabitants. An article published in The Builder (1854) shows how deadly this was:

'A correspondent, who has been amongst the vegetable vendors of Strutton-ground and the Broadway, Westminster, gives us a miserable description of their conditions. On entering a house in one of the courts adjacent, he found a floor on which his shoes stuck as he walked, from filth allowed to accumulate on them. At the back there is a small yard (or more exactly speaking, 4 feet by 5 feet), in which is a heap of decayed vegetables, fruit, oyster shells and other rubbish in a state of rapid decomposition. In this house were lying two persons dead with cholera. In Old Pye Street and St Ann’s Street the same scenes were visible. There were five people dead the same morning and upon his asking how often the rubbish heap was carted away, he was told as soon as they got a cart load, which took in some cases seven weeks, in others eleven, according to trade. In three weeks there had been thirty cholera cases which had proven fatal in this locality. In this street he was told that it being Monday, there had been no water on the premises since Saturday. The small tub they had not holding sufficient for the numerous family in the house, so on Sunday they were without. I this tub there was a greenish mud, an inch and a quarter thick; it had not been cleaned out for six years. The water he procured in another house (more fortunate than the rest) was of thick brownish green tint, not fit for any human use. He suggests that each policeman on his beat should report the sanitary condition of each house once a month. After writing his note, he learned that in one of the houses last mentioned six persons died in one morning-two women and four men!'


Despite the depravity of these conditions the missionaries did what they could to help to improve both the moral and physical health of those forced to live in the area. One of these missionaries was Andrew Walker, a man who went beyond the call of duty in his determination to see the community of Old Pye Street have a better life.

Before Walker became a missionary he was a gardener to a gentleman in one of the nicer districts in London. One night he found himself lost in the Old Pye Street district in Westminster when coming home from a day's work. Distraught with the sights that befell him whilst lost in the slums; he decided to make it his life work to help the lost souls by signing up with London City Missionaries and asked to be specifically placed within the area of Old Pye Street. Walker signed up with London City Missionaries in October 1838 and retired in April 1853, during this time he was able to gradually improve the area, creating a solid foundation in both schools and reformatories and doing whatever he could to help improve the health of what he saw was his 'flock.'

Walker's opportunity to work in the Devil’s Acre came when a previous missionary died from cholera. This highlighted the dangers of working in such a deprived area but Walker’s strong faith reinforced his belief that this was the place he should begin working as a missionary. Soon after arriving in the area, he created an Industrial Nursery, which housed discharged prisoners from Millbank prison who wanted to turn their back on crime and work towards a common goal: to grow a lively garden. In exchange for their services, he gave them food, clean lodging, and proper wages.

Andrew Walker's work was featured in an 1857 edition of Household Words in an article titled, 'Tilling the Devil’s Acre:' "As gardeners, these youths improve rapidly in health and body; after they have been with him a month, they are so changed by the free draughts of fresh air, the wholesome food and labor without care, that their old faces seem to have dropped off, like disguises. Mr. Walker’s Nursery had transformed the lives of these men and had showed them how to be an honest, hard-working man. By working in the garden and then selling their produce in Covent Garden, it showed the men that by living an honest life, prosperity and happiness would meet them on the other side."

According to archives at the London City Mission, Andrew Walker, who recorded notes of his efforts and success stories whilst working as a missionary in the ‘The Devil’s Acre’ resigned in 1853. However, Life Service and Disablement Records list Walker as having passed away that year. It may well have been cholera that claimed his life as the disease swept through London. In the same year that Andrew Walker died the London City Mission records mention the passing of a fellow missionary, Mr Robert Carter, who had been based in Shoreditch for seventeen years. In a letter to a friend just a couple days before he passed, Carter wrote:

"Oct. 31, 1853-I write you a line by advice of my Training Superintendent to say, that in the night of Wednesday last I had an attack of diarrhea, which prevented me from visiting Thursday. After taking some medicine, kindly obtained by a brother missionary, I was a little better on Friday, and I visited for an hour or two in the afternoon, but in the evening my strength was so completely prostrate, he called in a surgeon, who has forbidden my visiting for some days to come. Such a sickness as this is quite unusual to me, but not much to be wondered at, as considerable portion of the district is in such a horrible, filthy state. 14 deaths from cholera in Dunk Street along, and several others in other parts are reported."

The fact that Robert Carter died of cholera is no surprise especially given the type of work he did and the areas where he worked. When the London City Mission surveyed their missionaries they discovered that several men had suffered from bouts of diarrhea and similar symptoms. Even more stated that their wives and children suffered the same ailments.

The missionaries did their bit to try and control the cholera epidemics by way of education and promotion of the preventative measures of the General Board of Health. Below is an account from one missionary about the affects of cholera.

"Where the inhabitants in an enlightened spirit determined to carry out the preventative measures of the General Board of Health, is most important and encouraging. In one week, from Friday, August 31 to Friday, September 7, 1,582 cases of diarrhea and of premonitory symptoms were promptly treated, and in consequence only one death from cholera occurred among the poor who were objects of the preventative measures; whilst amongst those who in a better class of life several deaths took place; an unquestionable evidence that the disease had lost none of its force when uncontrolled…"

The London City Mission

The London City Mission was founded in 1835 by Glaswegian, David Nasmith. He was greatly influenced by the Christian faith and at the age of 15 he along with friends set up three “youth societies” to support the Bible Society. Nasmith was influenced by the work of Thomas Chalmers, who created new and small parishes amid the crowded slums of Glasgow, and recruited volunteers, to reach the unchurched. Nasmith’s desire was to become a missionary in Africa and the South Seas, however his lack of education halted this dream and instead he opened missionaries across the UK. In 1826 Nasmith founded the Glasgow City Mission, which he based on Chalmer’s pattern of district outreach. However Nasmith made crucial changes; he made the work inter-denominational, enlisting the support of all evangelical churches and he recruited paid full-time lay agents, as not only were the agents more dependable than volunteers, they also tended to be from working classes, so were able to relate to the inner-city poor. Nasmith’s successful campaign lead him to travel to Scotland, Ireland, the USA, Canada, and France, where he addressed local church leaders and encouraged them to form City Missions. His travels resulted in 140 organisations opening. Some of these still survive to this day, including the London City Mission, founded in May 1835.

The missionaries’ at the London City Missionary wrote detailed reports of their experience working in London, these reports are held at the London City Mission in London.

Student interns working on the Cholera and the Thames website visited the London City Missionary and researched some of these reports, focussing their attention on the areas around Westminster. We hope you enjoy they’re fascinating findings, which gives us a real insight of life in the notorious Devil’s Acre.

For more information on the London City Missions visit their website www.lcm.org.uk