The night was black, the wind moaning eerily, bringing with it the smell of excrement and rotting offal. The sounds of St. Giles rose above them – voices raised in argument, moans and laughter, and now and again the odd, chilling scream. St. Giles was enough to send the most intrepid woman running for her life.
– from Wicked Intentions by Elizabeth Hoyt
I absolutely love Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series and I wanted to learn more about St. Giles which features predominantly in each of the books.
The Rookery, St. Giles, 1850
During the 18th and 19th centuries, St Giles parish was the site of the most notorious rookery (see Footnote) in London. Standing between St. Giles church, Great Russell Street and Seven Dials, it was one of the worst slums in Britain…an area synonymous with overcrowding, poverty, filth and squalor. A warren of narrow alleyways and courts, it was the haunt of gin addicts and a haven for thieves, counterfeiters (coiners), prostitutes and beggars. Lawlessness and violence was so rampant that even the police gave the area a wide berth for more than a hundred years.
People lived in terrible conditions. The semi-derelict houses were divided up…often many families sharing a single room. Open sewers ran through rooms and cesspits were left untended. Residents complained to The Times in 1849:
“We live in muck and filth. We aint got no priviz, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place.”
Cholera and consumption were rife.
William Hogarth’s contemporary etching (1751) showing Beer Street and Gin Lane
I came across this vivid description from Rev. Thomas Beames’s The Rookeries of London (1850):
The Rookery was like an honeycomb, perforated by a number of courts and blind alleys, culs de sac, without any outlet other than the entrance. Here were the lowest lodging houses in London, inhabited by the various classes of thieves common to large cities,- the housebreaker, who did not profess to have any other means of livelihood; the tramp and vagrant, whose assumed occupation was a cloak for roguery; the labourer who came to London to look for work; the hordes of Irish who annually seem to come in and go out with the flies and the fruit, – were here banded together: driven by their various necessities to these dens, they were content to take shelter there, till the thief had opportunity to repair his fortune, and the labourer means to provide better lodging. The streets were narrow; the windows stuffed up with rags, or patched with paper; strings hung across from house to house, on which clothes were put out to dry; the gutters stagnant, choked up with filth; the pavement strewed with decayed cabbage stalks and other vegetables; the walls of the houses mouldy, discoloured, the whitewash peeling off from damp; the walls in parts bulging, in parts receding,-the floor covered with a coating of dirt. In the centre of this hive was the famous thieves’ public house, called Rat’s Castle; this den of iniquity was the common rendezvous of outcasts. In the ground floor was a large room, appropriated to the general entertainment of all corners ;-in the first floor, a free and easy, where dancing and singing went on during the greater part of the night, suppers were laid, and the luxuries which tempt intoxication freely displayed. The frequenters of this place were bound together by a common tie, and they spoke openly of incidents which they had long ceased to blush at, but which hardened habits of crime alone could teach them to avow. Even by day it was scarcely safe to pass through this district.
Contemporary etching showing poverty in St Giles
From the 1830s to the 1870s plans were developed to demolish the slum, as part of London wide clearances for improved transport routes, sanitation and the expansion of the railways. New Oxford Street was driven through the area to join the areas of Oxford Street and Holborn but the Rookery dwellers were not re-housed by the authorities. 5000 were evicted and many just moved into nearby slums, such Devil’s Acre and Church Lane, making those even more overcrowded. The unchanging character of the area, failing investment schemes and inability to sell new properties ensured that plans for wholesale clearance were impeded until the end of the century.
Footnote: The term “Rookeries” was used to describe slums and poor areas where inhabitants were packed into rooms like birds in a nest.