Mrs. Simpson's Regency Journal
After I had writ in my journal the last time, it did strike me, of a sudden, that whosoever doth read these pages after me, might not be abiding in Brighton and may not know of our Dark Heart. For such it be: a-pulsing away right in the middle of our town and not even suspicioned by most gentlefolk. Or not considered to be a suitable subject of conversation by those who do know of it. ‘Tis the area known as Pimlico.
Though it was already a blot and a shame upon this town by the time we moved here from Tunbridge Wells, folk say it came quickly about, once people had to leave tied cottages; and could no longer rely on being able to eat all year round. Because the same folk as had tended the land for generations, were being turned away for cheaper, convict labourers.
Well of course they drifted in to the town when they were turfed out of their villages; and so did cottagers with their one lone cow, or a half dozen stringy fowl left to them once the cottages were swept away.
They crept into the fields without the town where people grow vegetables and such on small plots (which be called, in Sussex, ‘Laines’ ) and some was even lucky and got to set themselves up a way to make a living. (Though for most of the poor women, specially those without their man, there be only one way they can feed their babes.)
But because of how this city be a-growing on so quick ( there be a builders dray on every street, it seems, these days)parts of these field were lately sold. Since when, the area on the edges of the town is fast becoming part of the town! They’re to be genteel shops and businesses for the middling sort, it appears. Already a new street has been built and some little shops already plying their trades. (Though why they should name it Gardner Street now all the garden there is cleared, makes little sense to me.)
Yet, right behind them is the worst rookery in Southern England, I’d wager. Where babies sit in the sun playing with days old fish-guts. Where people go barefoot all year round and, even, ( so the Brightonians tell me) go completely unclothed. My informants tell me they have seen, with their own eyes, young maids who, by appearance, would be as old as 12, going about naked as the day they was born!!
So now, when I do mention Pimlico, I am not speaking of London-town, but our very own area. ‘Tis a foul and evil-smelling den, with as many as 12 people living in a room the size of my kitchen pantry!‘Tis a place of forgotten people, and those that the Authorities would rather pretend do not exist: men and women and even youngsters deformed and decaying from disease; old people waiting for death, gross men who perform foul deeds at night.
While all about them swirls the filth from the tannery on the hillside, the human waste of folk who have no access to privies, the rotting guts of the fish which are cleaned, and even, God save us, the sad remains of the poor, malformed and bloody forms which starving or diseased women expel from their bodies on the very cobbles of the twitterns there.
There be no doubt in the minds of us Brighton folk that another plague be a-creeping across our land. This time we know true enough, that it be the sweating sickness. Of late, one or two news items have begun to appear which talks coyly of ‘illness’, but neither Mistress nor any of her gossips seem to understand that death be stalking ‘em.
Old Meg, who makes and sells dolly pegs and shares a rude shack in Orange Row, keeps me informed of events in Pimlico from whence I – and most in Brighton – expected to hear of hundreds of deaths and the spreading of infection to the whole area. Yet this hasn’t happened.
I have made up several bottles of physic and they be in demand – but not from Pimlico. Old Meg swears she has been a victim of the cholera (which be the writing-down name ) before now – as have many of those in Pimlico. She reckons that anyone who has survived it once has chased the demon away and is safe from it forever more: thus Pimlico be the safest area in Brighton now!
Of course I told her that no, twas just that she and her neighbors be too stubborn to give in to it. But she hath left me pondering.
Already, down by the strand, the fisher-folk have been burning barrels of pitch whose smell permeates the town. But none be lit in Pimlico. Old folk and the very young, be taking ill in the hovels and houses from Chichester to Rottingdean. And STILL Pimlico thrives.
Old Meg be no scholar – indeed, she can neither read nor write. But I have found myself going back to her words again and again. And while people scattered around and about our town take to their beds, I keep my eye on Pimlico and wonder if Old Meg hath got it right.