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London Low Life

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Editorial Board:

  • Judith Allen, Indiana University
  • Peter Bailey, Indiana University
  • Sean Shesgreen, Northern Illinois University

Contributing essays:

  • Martha Vicinus (University of Michigan)
  • Donald Gray (Indiana University)

Source Libraries:

  • Lilly Library, Indiana University

Nature of the Material:

Material is taken from several of the Lilly Library’s renowned collections, including the Michael Sadleir Collection of London Low Life; the Virginia Warren Collection of Street Cries, the Chapbook Collection and the Pforzheimer Collection of George Gissing’s manuscripts. It includes:

  • Fast literature
  • Street ephemera – posters, advertising, playbills, ballads and broadsides
  • Penny fiction
  • Cartoons
  • A complete collection of Tallis’ Street Views
  • Chapbooks
  • Street Cries
  • Swell’s guides to London prostitution, gambling and drinking dens
  • Tourist guides and topography
  • Manuscripts of George Gissing

Scope of the Collection:

This wonderful digital collection brings to life the teeming streets of Victorian London, inviting students and scholars to explore the gin palaces, brothels and East End slums of the nineteenth century’s greatest city.

From salacious ‘swell’s guides’ to scandalous broadsides and subversive posters, the material sold and exchanged on London’s bustling thoroughfares offers an unparalleled insight into the dark underworld of the nineteenth century city. Children’s chapbooks, street cries, slang dictionaries and ballads were all part of a vibrant culture of street literature which has been remarkably preserved in the Lilly Library’s collection.

London Low Life is also an incredible visual resource for students and scholars of London, depicting in full colour maps, cartoons, song sheets, street cries and a full set of the essential Tallis’ Street Views of London – a unique resource for the study of London architecture and commerce.

This collection will be of interest to 19th century scholars researching: the underworld, slang, working-class culture, street literature, popular music, urban topography, ‘slumming’, prostitution, the Contagious Diseases Act, the Temperance Movement, social reform, Toynbee Hall, police and criminality.


The Michael Sadleir Collection of London Low Life

An essential collection of ‘fast literature’ and street ephemera, including broadsides, cartoons, playbills, advertising, ballads and penny fiction. Swell’s guides to the city describe prostitution, gambling and drinking dens.

The Virginia Warren Collection of Street Cries

We include all London street cries from the 18th and 19th century from this important collection.


Over 200 nineteenth-century chapbooks represent the literature sold and read on the streets by the urban poor of London.


This includes a complete run of the rare Tallis’ Street Views, a series of beautifully engraved directories depicting London street by street in wonderful detail, along with details of the businesses contained within each locale. These views provide us with invaluable insight into both the architecture and the usage of London’s buildings in the mid-19th century. We also include over 100 maps of Victorian London - some of which are very rare – enabling fascinating comparisons of the city during a period of massive change. Specialist maps show information such as electric lighting districts, sanitary inspectors’ districts and new railway developments.


We include many rare guidebooks and histories of London, designed for tourists of the city. These cover theatre, sightseeing, restaurants and practicalities, offering a fascinating insight into both the life of the city and its representation to visitors of the period. Many of the guidebooks were aimed at visitors of landmark events, such as the Crystal Palace or the 1862 exhibition.

George Gissing Manuscripts

The celebrated Gissing ‘Scrapbook’ from the renowned Pforzheimer Collection has been described by Dr. David Grylls as “an evidential goldmine…the single most important manuscript source that might be made available to Gissing scholars”. Clippings, ephemera and notes for works from the author of London novels New Grub Street and The Nether World are divided thematically into headings such as ‘low characters’, ‘gambling’, ‘London vulgarisms and superstitions’ and ‘private life of working classes’.

Reform Literature

Tracts, pamphlets and essays about London low life written by reformers reflect the Victorian middle classes’ altruistic interest in the ‘low life’ alongside the other, more prurient fascinations displayed elsewhere.

Contents List