Victorian Britain witnessed urban growth unprecedented in human history. Nowhere was this more evident and alarming than in London, whose population grew from about 850,000 in 1800 to just under 5 million by 1890. The social costs of such rapid growth were paid in large measure by children of the poor and by women.

By 1850 over half of London's children were in the work force in order to keep their families from starvation, some beginning to work at the age of 5. In the building trades, they worked 52 hours a week in winter and 64 in summer. Domestic servants worked 80 hours a week year round.

Some children who couldn't find employment became "toshers"- scavengers who fought off rats in London's foul and collapsing sewers. Then there were the "mudlarks," who nourished themselves on scraps of bread from garbage heaps or on meat left on discarded bones.

Girls of 7 and 8 tramped the streets as vendors of watercress. Many would become tramps in another sense, moving on to a less reputable but more lucrative profession by their early teens. In 1857 The Lancet (Britain's leading medical journal), estimated that London had some 80,000 prostitutes, a huge portion of working-class females.

By the tens of thousands, the poor crowded into urban slums, where they were forced to rent space in overcrowded and overpriced tenements; some even paid for the privilege of inhabiting the crawlspaces under buildings. Until mid-century, they lined up at communal pipes once a week for their water, most of which came from the River Thames, which itself was one enormous open sewer.

Understandably such conditions were of enormous concern to social commentators, political activists, and British Christians.

Multifaceted missions

The most influential social reformer in Victorian Britain was the evangelical Lord Shaftesbury. He worked diligently in the 1840s with health reformers to secure a safe water supply; he lobbied for government regulation of lodging houses so the poor would not be taken advantage of by rapacious landlords; he campaigned to secure model lodgings for the disadvantaged, and harangued middle-class evangelicals into taking seriously the issues created by rapid urban growth.

Controlling laissez faire capitalism was considered only part of the answer. Well before Anglican ministers and Roman Catholic priests developed a reputation for inner-city ministry in the late 1800s, British evangelicals had already been at it. In the 1820s, the famous Scottish Presbyterian Thomas Chalmers developed a strategy to deal with rapid urban growth, based on his own experience in a Glasgow slum parish. He divided his parish into geographical sections and appointed an elder and deacon to oversee each; the elder focused on the spiritual needs of families, the deacon, on their physical and material needs. The method was adapted by "district visiting societies" throughout Britain and laid the groundwork for the rise of social welfare agencies.

By the 1830s, some evangelicals were adapting Chalmers's program to evangelistic ends. In 1835 the London City Mission was established to employ working-class men as evangelists in London's slums. The London City Mission was enormously successful by the end of the century; it had over 500 full-time workers in London. The "city missionaries" were evangelists, not social workers, but they enabled the poor to access private and public agencies that could address their physical needs.

London City missionaries gave social reformers like Shaftesbury and Edwin Chadwick tours of the slums, leading them by the hand through London's underworld. Eventually the London City Mission saw the formation of hundreds of slum congregations meeting in storefronts. Similar societies emerged, such as Ellen Ranyard's Bible Mission, which began in 1857 and employed working-class women as evangelists in London's slums.

Charitable giving also rose dramatically. Much of this money was channeled through hundreds of voluntary societies established to address specific social ills. These societies were normally organized, staffed, and managed by women, and much, if not most, of the funds were raised by women. The experience gained in these societies opened other doors of service and employment to women in the late 1800s. Most of these societies were distinctly Christian, and the majority were decidedly evangelical.

Forgotten evangelicals

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Christian response to the city has been one of the most ignored by historians: the one mounted by Christian churches themselves. Evangelical Anglican clergy were especially important because of Anglicanism's strength in urban areas. They developed a host of self-help schemes, including working-class savings plans ("savings banks") and "refuges" (shelters for the homeless).

When a hostile critic wrote attacking English evangelicalism in 1861, he had to acknowledge at least this much:

"It is to its credit that … the evangelical clergy, as a body, are indefatigable in ministerial duties, and devoted, heart and soul, to the manifold labors of Christian love. The school, the savings bank, the refuge—all the engines of parochial usefulness—find in them, for the most part, hearty supporters and friends. When the history of the evangelical party is written, it will be told of them, that … they … worked manfully in the pestilent and heathen byways of our cities, and preached the gospel to the poor."

Donald Lewis is professor of church history at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. He is author of Lighten Their Darkness: The Evangelical Mission to Working-Class London, 1828-1860 (Greenwood, 1986).