Jacob’s Island, Rotherhithe, 1887. Watercolour by James Lawson Stewart.
Situated between the Thames, the outflow of the River Neckinger at St Saviour’s Dock and two tidal ditches, Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey was a notorious slum in the early nineteenth century. This watercolour by James Lawson Stewart (1887) recalls Folly Ditch, immortalised as the site of Bill Sykes’s drowning in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-39). In the mid nineteenth century the poor residents had no source of clean water and many had to use water from the foul ditch into which they also discharged their waste. The water often ran red with pollution from the nearby leather tanning industry. Described in the Morning Chronicle as ‘the Venice of drains’, the area became a cholera hotspot in 1849.
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