We often think there are many Londoners living in poverty today, and of course that’s true, but if we take a look back in time, we probably would all admit things aren’t that bad for most of us.
Let’s take a trip back in time to London’s worst ever slum to see how bad things really can get in terms of poverty and neglect.
The streets around the Parish of St Giles in the Fields, just off Tottenham Court Road, had by the 18th Century become a place of true horror.
It was one of many terrible slum areas or ‘Rookeries’ as they were called in London at the time.
Originally, a chapel and leper hospital was founded at the site in 1120 by King Henry I’s wife Matilda.
A village grew up around it to serve the leper colony and the monastery. So it wasn’t exactly a great start.
Once leprosy began to die out, the hospital began to serve vagrants and beggars.
By this time it was already getting a reputation as a pretty grim place.
In 1665, the great plague started in St Giles and the first victims were buried in the St Giles churchyard. By September 1665, 8,000 people were dying a week in London and by the end of the plague year there were 3,216 listed plague deaths in St Giles parish.
Things went from bad to worse.
A survey of the Rookeries in 1849 revealed that in some four-roomed houses between 50 and 90 people found nightly lodgings.
In 1852, the churchman Thomas Beames travelled to St Giles as part of research for his 1852 book, ‘Rookeries of London’.
Sleeping on straw
Beames couldn’t believe what he saw and gives a vivid description of the slums where 50 people were crammed into some of the houses in the most appalling of conditions.
He described homes rented out as lodging houses each night so that five or six married couples would share the same room and children of all ages would sleep with their parents.
What was a sitting room by day would become a “common dormitory” by night. In many of the rooms people actually slept on straw.
Downstairs boys and girls would be lying on the floor gambling and thieves and prostitutes were taken in everywhere because people were forced to rent rooms to them out of poverty.
Eight people were sleeping in rooms as small as 6ft by 5ft.
Beames records 100 people sleeping in just one house on one particular night.
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He described one woman giving birth in a room where there were 11 other beds because there was nowhere else to go.
He wrote: “The change is marvellous: squalid children, haggard men, with long uncombed hair, in rags, most of them smoking, many speaking Irish; women without shoes or stockings – a babe perhaps at the breast, with a single garment, confined to the waist by a bit of string; wolfish looking dogs; decayed vegetables strewing the pavement; low public houses; linen hanging across the street to dry; the population stagnant in the midst of activity; lounging about in remnants of shooting jackets, leaning on the window frames, blocking up the courts and alleys; with young boys gathered round them, looking exhausted as though they had not been to bed.”
Water was only turned on at a communal tap twice a week and in rainy weather the homes flooded with water and sewage.
People scraped a living through theft and begging.
Beames describes a horrific back alley where: “There was a den which looked more like a cow-house than a room for human beings – little, if any light, through the small diamond panes of the windows; and that, obstructed by the rags which replaced the broken glass-a door whose hinges were rotting, in which time had made many crevices, and yet 17 human beings ate, drank, and slept there; the floor was damp and below the level of the court; the gutters overflowed; when it rained, the rain gushed in at the apertures.”
This truly was a hideous place and its horrors weer captured forever in etchings by the famous artist Hogarth.
As more of a collective social conscience developed in the 19th century, campaigners began to highlight the plight of the slum dwellers and residents who worked in the new factories and industries began to expect better.
‘No drain or sewer in the whole place’
The St Giles residents wrote to The Times in 1849 saying: “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.”
From the years 1844 to 1847, major clearance of slums began with the construction of New Oxford Street through the middle of the Rookery, but this merely increased overcrowding in the surviving buildings.
From 1851 sewers began to be laid in the area, and the water supply was improved. However, major concentrations of very poor housing remained, and poverty intensified in the Seven Dials district, to the south of the churchyard.
As happened in many of the London slum clearances, poor people tended to just be displaced when the slums were knocked down and moved to another area.
Many very downtrodden slums still existed in the south and east of London into the 1970s.
London’s great historian Peter Ackroyd was moved to write that the Rookeries embodied the “worst living conditions in all of London’s history; this was the lowest point which human beings could reach”.
So sure, we’ve got problems today, but we’re a far cry from this living hell.
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