By Sathesh Alagappan, Kerry Boxall, Nellie Alston, Philip Simms, Tom Allerston, Matthew Tullett, and Melissa Gowers.
The name Ellen Wren has become forever etched in the annals of Southampton’s history. Her life was perhaps a depressingly typical example of the hardships encountered by slum dwelling women in Victorian Britain. It was an existence consisting of extreme poverty, alcoholism, squalor and prostitution. However, it was the horrific nature of her death which shocked middle England, and finally elevated slum housing to the top of Southampton’s priorities.
Wren’s fifty-one-years alive were in the context of one of the most fascinating periods in British social history. This was a time of sparkling wealth and empire, yet these riches certainly weren’t seen by the lower echelons of society. Severe cyclical recessions and economic dips, such as the depression between 1885- 1888, were common, leading to mass unemployment in Southampton’s Docks area.
All this resulted in millions like Ellen Wren living in the infamous slums; squalid, overcrowded settlements, lacking any sanitation. Disease was widespread, with scarlet fever, typhus and cholera all endemic. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that life expectancy was low in the slums, with 520 out of every 1000 children dying before their fifth birthday.
Today, the slums of London’s East End are most remembered from the novels of Dickens and popular culture, but it is a sobering statistic that in 1890 the population density of Southampton’s slums was actually higher than London’s.
It was in this backdrop that Ellen was born to Rebecca and James Wren in Shirley in 1847, part of an impoverished family of eight. By the 1870s Wren drifted into a spiralling life of criminality. Like many washerwomen in the slums at the time, she was forced to support herself through prostitution. She had frequent brushes with the law, including charges of drunkenness and violent assault. Local paper the Hampshire Advertiser even described her as an ‘old offender’ in January 1872.
Given her history, it is perhaps darkly fitting that her last place of residence was on the infamous Simnel Street, one of the most reviled slums in the city. Council and medical reports in the 1890s had repeatedly called it ‘unfit for human habitation’. Furthermore, crime was rife, as shown by frequent reports in the crime pages of the Southampton Times.
In this bleak setting, Wren lost her life in a one room attic on September 24th 1894. Passing out after drinking a considerable amount of gin (colloquially referred to as Mother’s ruin), she suffocated on her own vomit, dying of asphyxiation. Such was the overpowering stench of waste and animal caucuses emanating from Simnel Street, the smell of Wren’s decomposing body went totally unnoticed until her Landlord came to collect rent days later, finding her corpse lying in a pool vomit.
The conditions of Wren’s death were so horrific that it quickly garnered national attention. The radical Southampton Times, which had long been pushing for housing reform, was quick to pick up the story. Wren became the centrepiece of its campaign for better housing. An editorial on 15th September 1894 called for the prevention of “people from dying in any house like dogs under such horrible conditions”, concluding it was a “serious reflection on our boasted civilisation”. As publicity grew, questions were even asked in Parliament on the matter.
The sensational fallout finally pressured Southampton’s previously disinterested Council into action. Southampton City Council appointed a committee in 1894 to investigate the endemic problem of housing. It devised a local act called, ‘The Southampton Improvement Scheme 1894’, which enabled Southampton to enact the powers of the national Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. Therefore, over the next twenty years, the old slums like Simnel Street were progressively demolished, giving way to more council run accommodation for the poor.
Whilst it is true to say that there had been calls for change before 1894, Ellen Wren’s death acted as a crucial catalyst. Despite this, currently Ellen Wren’s story has not received the public recognition it perhaps deserves. Her body lies in an unmarked pauper’s grave along with 20 other corpses. A commemorative blue plaque installed by Southampton Council remains one of her few modern testaments.