In popular culture this refers to a bygone era that (in this writer’s opinion) was preferable to that in which they now live. Twenty years or so after the war had finished, to many of the adults in the area of London where I lived, this would become a mantra.
As a child of course I believed we lived in a playground paradise. We could play for days making camps in any of the hundreds of bombed buildings. Our parents knew little of the things we would get up to, and in retrospect this was probably just as well.
In truth we lived in sub-standard houses, with leaking roofs, sparse furnishings, often plagued by bed bugs, no hot running water, no baths, and a diet restricted by rationing.
This is where the poorer people would have struggled to exist from one day to the next. Most would have been without even a basic education and made a shilling or two by whatever means (legal or not, more often not!) Even in the lowest strata of humanity there is always an hierarchy: the people who through mostly dubious means rise like scum to the top of the soup; the villains who turn their hand to anything to make a shilling; the bully boys who put their women to work in the alleyways in search of a punter looking for cheap sex.
Alas, children were just as likely to be traded, and men like "Fagin the fence" who, knowing a little about the value of various items, would sell loot brought to him by pickpockets, muggers, thieves of all kinds, and make a nice little profit for himself. The children were well aware that punishment for stealing was more often than not the hangman’s noose. In the novel Oliver Twist Charles Dickens has the young Oliver fall into the hands of "Fagin the Jew" who was running a gang of street kids he had taught to "pickpocket" or "purse snip" anything they could get their hands on to exchange for a place to sleep, a little food, and most importantly company and safety in numbers.
But, as is the way in many very poor areas, drinking was often a great part of life. Drinking and gambling was endemic amongst the poorer classes, and gin (mother’s ruin) was one of the preferred tipples of the times. Perhaps in an attempt to dumb the senses, people could be seen staggering through the dim-lit alleyways the worst for drink, easy prey for the "cosh boys" or pickpockets.
One can only imagine the smell of such places. Sewerage was basic, and most of London’s needs came upriver to the wharfs, so the smell of fish, veg, and spices would have mingled with the unmistakable smell of leather hides and fur pelts.
Together with the powerful aroma of poverty, the great fire of 1666 had raged through this area, and almost 200 years later many remains of the old backwater buildings would still have housed many families. Charles Dickens himself lived in relative squalor. His Father John Dickens was locked up in the Marshalsea Prison for debt and Charles moved into Lant Street quite close by.
Victorian society in The Pickwick Papers was overtly moral and at times pious. In its attitude to the amoral poorer classes, the legal system handed out severe punishment to offenders. Execution was the accepted punishment for many crimes that would be considered petty today, and hanging was a public spectacle, some attracting as many as 40-50,000 people. Many of the wealthy spectators would pay large sums to rent a room with a view of the gallows, including Charles Dickens, who remarked how pleased he was at the most reasonable price he and some friends had managed to acquire a room with a view of the hangman’s noose.
Following the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act, all executions took place within prison walls, bringing an end to the public spectacle. The most trivial crimes could incur a prison sentence, all of which involved hard labour. Even a reasonably short term was likely to bring about the death of the inmate. If however the accused was given a long-term incarceration, ironically he had a better chance of survival (longer terms were seldom with hard labour, the courts preferring to see a long-term prisoner live to serve out his sentence so justice was seen to be done!)
When it is remembered that incarceration was reserved for only the most petty crimes, stealing a rabbit from a warren on someone else's ground, or cutting wood from their tree could carry a sentenced of death by hanging. Between 1800 and 1827, 2,338 persons met their death at the hangman’s noose. It was a common belief that crime was a physical condition of the poorer class, (the “Criminal Class”) and up until 1843 the condemned prisoners’ bodies would be dissected in an effort to identify the cause of such behaviour.
This was the time of the Industrial Revolution in England, and the fuel that fed this explosion of wealth was coal and child labour (cheap and plentiful at the time). Many children whose only crime was their poverty were worked to death in the expanding industries throughout Victorian England and its Empire.
Each year, especially at Christmas time, I like so many have read and reread Charles Dickens' wonderful books, imagining the perfect seasonal celebrations of "The Pickwick Papers" and "A Christmas Carol", and relished the obligatory showing of musical adaptations of "Oliver". Many of the achievements during this period are to be admired, but were these really "the good old days"?
In the words of the Newley/Bricusse song, “People will say when they look back on to-day/They were the "Good old-Bad old days."