Skip to main content Skip to navigation

'Battle of Bread': Tales from the Victorian breadline

The second half of the 19th century was a boom time for the popular press, fuelled by the abolition of taxes on newspapers, improvements in printing technology, increasing literacy and the use of sensationalist stories to draw in a wider readership.

One sub-genre of the new style of journalism consisted of interviews with or profiles of British working class men and women, intended to show a largely middle-class readership the life and leisure of workers, often in inner-city London. Some of the best known examples include Henry Mayhew’s articles for the Morning Chronicle, published in book form as 'London Labour and the London Poor'Link opens in a new window in 1851, and 'Street Life in London'Link opens in a new window published in 1877 by Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson.

Although largely forgotten today, the author of ‘Battle of Bread’, James Greenwood (1832-1929), was a prominent journalist and “social explorer” who burst into the public consciousness with his 1866 article ‘A night in the workhouse’. Greenwood wrote his exposé of the workhouse system after disguising himself as a vagrant and being admitted into Lambeth workhouse, to experience the conditions as an inmate rather than a privileged visitor.

Greenwood was nominal editor of the Railway Review, first published on 16 Jul 1880, with the paper also under the influence of union General Secretary Fred W. Evans. Greenwood had previously edited the ‘Railway Service Gazette’, founded by his friend Charles Bassett Vincent.

Some of the articles featured in ‘Railway Review’ were originally published in the Daily Telegraph and later collected in Greenwood’s 1883 book ‘Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd’

Battle of Bread: Children at work

'Loafers' talking about their children in the tap-room of a Spitalfields pub, 'True Little Britons' travelling to work, and an encounter with a crossing sweeper and his sister in Kings Cross.

Battle of Bread: Umbrellas to mend

Encounter with an umbrella mender and a tinker at Clapham Common, including discussion of the working life of fellow residents of a Spitalfields lodging house ('early wormers', rush sellers and 'knockers up').

Battle of Bread: Tricks of the tally trade

Conversation with debtors of the "elephant-leech" tallyman - door-to-door sellers of goods on credit - courtroom tales of wives on the breadline and the defiance of Wiggins the shoemaker.

Battle of Bread: The dock labourer

Conversations with unhired men after the morning's scramble for work - a consumptive ex-boxmaker from Camberwell, his old-school docker nemesis and an ex-con looking for a fresh start.

Battle of Bread: The mud-lark

Met on the banks of the Thames - a grey-haired old lady on gleaning for coals and the conning of her old man, and an old 'lark' on the changing nature of scavenging (and what happens when bodies are found).

Battle of Bread: Doctor Quackinbosh

Encounters with purveyors of quack medicine, including a Brick Lane seller of 'miraculous tincture' for toothache, a Walworth Road cabalistic curer of rheumatism and an Islington street doctor.

Battle of Bread: Industrious dogs

Working dogs and their ways - "dog-taught" drovers' dogs, Punch and Judy performing dogs, begger dogs and 'Honest Bill', canine constable on the Blackfriars Road.

Battle of Bread: Slaughter work

The hand-to-mouth existence of the garretmaster - conversations with slop-work cabinetmakers, hawking their wares to cheap furniture shops (slaughterhouses), on their work and home life.

Battle of Bread: Only a coster

Covent Garden conversation with a general dealer (or costermonger) and his boy 'Chirper' on barrow-work and the advantages of fish over flowers.

Battle of Bread: Birds of a feather

Songbirds in the slums - the trade for 'fancy' birds, competitive singing 'battles' in London pubs and the jobs around the trade, including conversations with a husband and wife team of turf-cutters and a bird catcher.

Inside Newgate

Accompanying the warder on a tour of Newgate Prison (and expressions of horror at the condemned prisoners' burial ground).

A strange supper party

Description of a reformers' dinner for juvenile offenders ("prison fledglings") addressed by Mr. ----, convicted thief.

How the Sabbath's kept in the heart of the city

The City rag-fair, the Duke’s Place gold and silver fair, and Sunday drinking.

Evicted thieves

"What has become of the hundreds of members of the great thief family whose snug haunts and homes have been swept from the face of the earth?" Unforeseen effects of slum clearance in St Giles's, Spitalfields, Clerkenwell Green and Bethnal Green.


On the methods of Battersea Dogs Home and (unfounded) fears of rabies.

Barleycorn v. Sobersides

In "the notorious Seven Dials", St Giles, a report on a new temperance coffee-tavern - food, drink and clientele.

Portrait of James Greenwood