Letters and news items chart the construction of a new road through the centre of the notorious St Giles slum, the “haunt of the drunkard and the debauchee”
St Giles in the 21st century is a polished commercial part of London’s West End, but in the 18th and 19th centuries it was one of the capital’s worst slums. The densely populated district was known as a notorious “rookery”, a word borrowed from the term for bird nests to describe the area’s chaotic maze of narrow alleys and overhanging buildings. It was described by Charles Dickens in 1839 as full of “wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper” where “girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walked about barefoot”. The area was also the setting for William Hogarth’s 1751 artwork Gin Lane, which depicted the squalor of the living conditions there.
In 1843, the same year that The Builder was founded, works began to break up the slum. Two new roads, New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, were built through the area, displacing its residents and forcing them further south to other slums in Seven Dials, Westminster and Bermondsey. Below are a series of letters, news items and an editorial charting the course of the clearances and the attitudes of Londoners at the time towards those who lived there.
Letter, March 1843
OPENING OF THE NEW STREET THROUGH ST. GILES.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE BUILDER.
MR. EDITOR, I am sure I cannot exaggerate the joy which we must all feel at the commencement of this long-projected scheme. Nobody that has ever walked through the filthy streets of St. Giles or has glanced at the hovels, I will not say houses, of its wretched inhabitants, can help feeling a sensation of pleasure at least commensurate with the pain which they must then have experienced. This proposed street or streets through it will be the first blow which corruption and immorality will have received in that quarter; but the attack has been made, and we feel confident it will not be the last. Already has the undertaking been begun, and we may anticipate the success and the numerous advantages, both moral and commercial, which must follow.
Our St. Giles has long been the avowed haunt of the drunkard and the debauchee. From it, as from a stronghold, vice has looked forth unmoved, and hitherto unmolested, upon the inventions and improvements of this country, and though commerce and the fine arts have advanced with long and rapid strides in other parts of London, yet this miserable portion has stood back, rendered perhaps more obstinate and hardened by the contrast. But a brighter morn is dawning upon this spot, the happy harbinger of a still brighter day, and we hope even yet to see the inhabitants of St. Giles as industrious and respectable as their fellow-citizens. How delightful must this thought be to all good people. How gratifying to behold a line of buildings rivalling our Regent-street and Oxford-street in splendour, stretching across these densely-crowded dwellings, erected as it were upon the wreck of all that is miserable and disgraceful. What a saving influence must the sight of wealth and industry have upon the inhabitants. The effect will be similar to that produced by cutting a deep drain through the rank vegetation of a morass, the useless filth and moisture must flow off, and leave fertility and abundance behind.
F. L. P.
News item, April 1843
OXFORD-STREET, EAST. Workmen have been busily engaged during the last few days in removing a portion in that well-known locality called “the Rookery,” known also as “Little Ireland,” the rendezvous of the natives of the Sister Isle, and of the lowest class of thieves. In a short time this, like many other ancient sites, will be lost to memory, as, in order to form the new street, a very wide extent of ground must be cleared, and, when removed, there will be one continuous line of street, leading from Hyde-park corner through the city to Mile-end, above four miles in extent.
News item, Feburary 1844
METROPOLITAN IMPROVEMENTS. The large space of ground in Broad-street, St. Giles’s, which has been obtained by the removal of the houses at the north end of Monmouth-street, is now open to the public, a granite roadway having been completed and laid down. The demolition of the houses, and the formation of the new thoroughfare, have added greatly to the improvement of this locality, as a very spacious thoroughfare has been made. At the end of Belton-street, adjoining the same spot, some houses have been cleared away, which has considerably widened that part, and, when paved with stone, will open the communication from Waterloo-bridge to St. Giles’s. In Belton-street (for the line of this new street) nearly half the houses between Broad-street and Long-acre are taken down on the west side. Among the number was the Guy Earl of Warwick public-house, which was established a great many years ago. Upon a site near to this house a chapel of ease to the parish church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields will be built.
News item, May 1844
ST. GILES-IN-THE-FIELDS. The locality called the Rookery, which is situated on the line of the new street that is to connect Oxford-street and Holborn, near Southampton-street, and which for many years has been the resort of the abandoned of both sexes, is about to be removed for the improvements in this neighbourhood. Sixty houses, forming Buckeridge-street on the north, and Church-street on the west, have been sold by private contract (it not being thought advisable to dispose of them by auction, in consequence of their low value), and several men are now employed in their removal. The purchaser of the property, which belonged to Colonel Buckeridge, has great difficulty in getting rid of the inmates, and in some of the houses, though the roofs have been taken off, they still remain. The occupants of the different premises to be cleared away have received notice from the Commissioners of Woods and Forests to quit, so that in a short time a wide area of ground will be open for the erection of the new buildings, including the large stone-yard in George- street, which belonged to the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, which was sold a few days ago, and the station-house of the E division, in the room of which the Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police have purchased three houses in Clerk’s-buildings, Broad-street, St. Giles’s, behind which cells are being erected.
Editorial, January 1846
A few days ago, four little children were tried before. Mr. Serjeant Adams, at the Clerkenwell Sessions House, for stealing some pocket- knives; and, being found guilty, with a recommendation that they should be treated with leniency, were mercifully sentenced to be imprisoned one month, and then to be well whipped with a birch rod. The consideration of this sentence, which fills us with painful emotions, is out of our province; but some statements which were made on that occasion are wholly within it, and demand attention.
A juryman remarked that all the boys appeared to have lived in the same court. Now, he knew of one court which was so densely populated, as to be beyond any conception. In that court there were not more than two parties who were married. He was sure, if so frightful a state of things were generally known - and many courts and alleys were there in the metropolis equally crowded - that vast good must arise, because it would not be allowed to continue so.
In some of the houses in these courts there were a large number of poor families crowded together, and amongst them every sense or feeling of modesty, of morality, or even of the slightest appearance of decency, was completely abandoned. Even within a stone’s throw of that serious-house, there was a court of such a description. If there were any man of a properly regulated mind who would venture to walk down that court on a Sunday afternoon, he would become the witness of a scene which would arouse his pity as well as his indignation.
The judge said that he fully concurred in this statement. The erection of good and open streets, was a great and important feature towards the amelioration of the social and healthful condition of the poorer classes of society, and happily that was now a subject which occupied the attention of the country. These alleys, or “rookeries”, as they were termed, were one leading cause of the demoralization of the lower classes of the population. During the last year or two he had missed one branch of the business of that court, and one that used to give him an immensity of labour and trouble, namely, the assault cases from the parish of St Giles. For a length of time he had been unable to conceive what could have produced this falling off in those cases, and it was not until he was accidentally mentioning the fact to a magistrate on the bench, that he was informed it was the result of the removal of the St. Giles’s rookery, which had been pulled down for purposes of the improvements at the end of Oxford-street. This of course at once explained the circumstance. If the public could but become acquainted with some of the facts that could be communicated by the governors of their county prisons, in reference to the habits of the young females of the metropolis, from twelve and upwards, who had resided in these crowded courts, they would find that all of them were ignorant, and destitute of any sense of the common feelings of morality or modesty. If the county could be induced to act concurrently in this and other matters of public and social improvement, a vast impetus would be given to the measures of social regeneration which were occupying the attention of the Legislature at the present moment.
The connection between ill-drained, ill- built, ill-ventilated, crowded dwellings, and the healthful condition, comfort, and morality of the community, is even now so little understood, that no assertion of it can be reiterated too often.
If the frightful state of the dwellings of the poor were generally known, said the juryman, it would not be allowed to continue so! If the county could be induced to act concurrently, remarked the judge, much could be done towards removing the evil - the cause of much crime and misery! Should not all, then, who can, strive to make these facts known? Should not all who have the power, labour to induce concurrent efforts in the various counties of the kingdom, to obtain an improvement which affects me and you, and all of us so much? It takes a long time to make the public hear. They require to be told a new truth many times, and in many ways, before they will appreciate or admit it; and, therefore, no opportunity should be lost of pointing out the fact, again and again, that by opening the windows of the poor, giving them good drainage, a plentiful supply of water and air, and otherwise rendering their dwellings salubrious, you are advancing their social condition, and lessening the causes of crime as well as disease, with all their attendant miseries, which spread in a wide circle around their origin, and may reach even you and your dearest friends.
To the Middlesex magistrates we would say, at all events look at home. Go to the crowded and ill-built court, “within a stone’s throw of your sessions house,” where scenes continually occur that would induce the pity as well as the indignation of every properly regulated mind, and use your powerful influence to obtain its improvement in a sanitary point of view, as a first and most important step towards the more reformation of its denizens.