Part 3: Some Final Thoughts on Holman Hunt and Shoreditch
After I had solved the mystery of William Holman Hunt’s childhood home, I delved further into research about Victorian Shoreditch, and began to wonder what the artist thought about the place where his family lived for at least 15 years.
Given the scarcity of information about Holman Hunt’s childhood, his exact feelings about Shoreditch are likely lost to time, but the very absence of the place from his personal narrative may speak to his later relationship with the area.
When Holman Hunt wrote so vaguely, in 1905, that his family had lived “in the suburbs,” he may have been trying to elevate them from the comfortable but fairly lower-middle-class trappings of warehouse management and a terrace house in the inner reaches of outer London. Such an action would not have been out of character for his self-aggrandizing autobiography. However, I think it is even more likely that he was trying to avoid associating his name with Shoreditch.
I have yet to find much information about how Shoreditch was understood in the 1840s and 1850s (if anyone has resources about that, I would love to read them). However, by the end of the century, the neighborhood had specific, and negative, connotations. The huge Shoreditch Workhouse just down the street from the Hunts’ home was testament to the deprivations of the area, which was known for slum conditions, not for comfortable middle class life.
Charles Booth’s 1888-89 London Poverty Map reveals just why Holman Hunt might not have wanted to be associated with Haggerston and Shoreditch when he was writing, 15 years after the map was made. The neighborhood was by then dominated by the workhouse complex and by not one but two areas of gasworks. The Hunts’ former terraces at Hows (formerly York) Street and Pearson Street were colored light pink – according to the map’s key, “Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings.” But just across Kingsland Road, north of the Workhouse, there is a slash of the darkest black – “Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.”
Even people living in the blue areas of Booth’s map were constantly one step away from the dreaded workhouse, struggling to survive and feed themselves. Black indicated almost unimaginable poverty and deprivation. Only a few streets appear so dark on the map, and those are in infamous slum areas like Limehouse and the edges of the former Old Nichol area of southern Shoreditch (demolished and rebuilt as Britain’s first public housing development, the Boundary estate, beginning in 1891 – and already envisioned as cleared and rebuilt on the map). And even compared to those areas, this street in Shoreditch stands out on the map as one of the boldest, largest swathes of “lowest class” housing in the entire notorious Victorian East End.
Is it any surprise, then, that Holman Hunt might not have wanted people to associate him with a neighborhood that lay so close to workhouse and slum? His chosen personal narrative was not rags-to-riches, and by 1905 his family had not lived in the area for almost fifty years. (Holman Hunt’s father died in the late 1850s and by the time of the 1861 Census Sarah Hobman Hunt and her eldest daughter, Eliza, were again living in central London, at 14 Grays Inn Terrace. The rest of the children, all in their 20s and 30s by then, had presumably set out on their own lives.)
Holman Hunt was surely aware that if he had written “my family moved to Shoreditch” rather than my “family moved to the suburbs” in his autobiography’s brief overview of his childhood, he would have conjured up a very different set of associations in the minds of his readers. Identifying Shoreditch as his childhood home would have likely required clarifications and digressions from his personal narrative. Therefore, his choice to exclude the information is understandable (though a bit irritating to a modern scholar trying to place his family in London).
What is truly regrettable, however, is the repetition of Holman Hunt’s own vagueness by later writers. This neglect not only leaves the reader in want of facts: it also overlooks potential insights into the complex suburban landscapes of early Victorian London and the nuances of the mixed neighborhoods of the late Victorian city.
For more on Booth’s map and poverty study: https://booth.lse.ac.uk/
For more on the Shoreditch Workhouse: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Shoreditch/
For more on life in the slums of Shoreditch and on the Boundary Estate: http://www.sarahwise.co.uk/blackest.html