The seamy side of Victorian Norwood

Published 1975

Most of the surviving photographs and prints of the period emphasize only the surface splendours of Norwood in the second half of the 19th Century. But that is not the whole story. Away from the plush mansions on the well-to-do highways, there was often real deprivation and hardship.

In 1880, a local philanthropist was moved to make reference to what he called the district’s ‘plodding poor’ . Propping up the glittering façade of the times, he pointed out, were ‘those who depend upon their wealthier neighbours for employment and find it extremely difficult to provide themselves with the bare necessaries of life.’

Begging was illegal, but practised nonetheless, and cases of drunkenness amongst down-and-outs were common. One woman, the notorious Sarah Noonan, regularly found herself in custody after a series of convictions for unruly drunken behaviour.

The district was still largely rural. Many local buildings were dilapidated and most the roads were so badly paved as to become virtual quagmires in bad weather. Worst of all was St. Aubyn’s Road, where pedestrians frequently stumbled and fell from accidentally stepping into one or other of the street’s plentiful holes.

Road accidents - sometimes fatal - provided a regular source of stories for the local press. Horses would sometimes panic and gallop into shop fronts. Axles occasionally snapped and passengers were jolted from their carriages into the street. Furious driving - at 22 mph - brought regular prosecutions for speeding.


Sometimes accidents on the streets of Norwood were more bizarre. In one incident on Church Road, a woman was seriously injured when the ornamental cornice from a tailor’s shop fell on top of her. On another grisly occasion, an unfortunate road-worker had both feet crushed by a steam-roller on Westow Street.

A particularly grim fate befell another man walking alongside his horse and cart one day in the summer of 1880. The horse wheeled round suddenly and a hook on its harness caught the man ‘s right ear. According to a horrified onlooker: ‘It was pulled out by the roots and left hanging only by the sinews.’

Cruelty to animals was commonplace. Convictions for maltreatment of horses were frequent, but many a poor creature was still forced to stagger up the neighbourhood’s steep hills, pulling heavy loads. Dogs and cats also suffered: one morning in June 1881, the cat at Gipsy Hill Station - a great favourite with the public - was found kicked to death.


Rowdyism - and mugging too - was a cause of much concern. Indeed street violence actually prompted several local families - fearful for their safety - to leave the district. Gangs of up to forty ‘blackguards’ used to roam the streets by night, wrecking property and attacking men, women and children. Some of these youths were birched, if caught, but most evaded the then rather ineffective police force.

There were very few murders, but suicides were surprisingly commonplace. Poison was sometimes taken, but more often the hapless victim would fling himself from a window or in front of a train. There are also a few records of ‘mysterious deaths’ which the police were unable to account for.

Strangely burglaries were not much more common than murders. There were pickpockets at the Crystal Palace, of course, but few cases of housebreaking. General Morris of Church Road, however, was one resident who did have the misfortune of having his house ransacked. Honoured for his part in suppressing the Indian Mutiny, the luckless fellow had his medals and most of his silver and jewellery stolen in the raid.

A break-in of a rather different kind occurred one day in December, 1880. A local antique dealer was sitting in his Westow Street shop when a dog rushed in and chased his cat, smashing all the valuable china in doing so. In the ensuing court case, the Judge decided that the dog was not under proper control and granted the shop proprietor’s claim for damages against its owner.

Such was life in Norwood in the second half of the nineteenth century. As the backcloth to Victorian opulence, there was a whole world of privation, brutality and freakishness.

James Wright

© The Norwood Society, Registered Charity 285547

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