Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Rookeries of London, by Thomas Beames, 1852 - Chapter 2

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Chapter II

Whence sprang The Rookeries of London

    Various causes combined to produce them. Many, from the first, were intended for the occupation of the poor. In the parish of St. Pancras, you have streets of the class Rookery, which cannot be fifty years old; small houses are now building which will soon become Rookeries. Agar Town, in that immense parish, contains a squalid population, originally a band of settlers, who seem, as they would say in America, to have squatted there, and now it is almost impossible to remove them. In other districts, rows of small houses are constantly erected; the ground around them is not drained, and they are as so many depots for the investment of money by rapacious speculators. These houses are badly built, mere lath and plaster; built, we should think, by contract, solely as a profitable investment, with an evident desire to evade the provisions which the Legislature, at last, has been forced, from a sense of decency, to enjoin. In this attempt to neutralise Acts of Parliament, contractors have been eminently successful, owing to the want of a public prosecutor, whose business it is, as in France and other countries, to uphold the law. The recklessness of [-16-] poverty, the greediness of avarice combined,-what pledge have you that such dwellings shall serve more than the temporary purposes for which they were erected? No real reform will take place till the size, materials employed, drainage, &c. are fixed by Act of Parliament; dilapidated houses, insecure dwellings, all, in a word, which do not answer the purpose proposed, and will not bear the strictest examination, should be condemned by a committee appointed for the purpose. A wholesome check would soon be imposed upon the heartlessness of capitalists, and poverty protected in spite of self. A large class of the genus Rookery, are very ancient houses, deserted by those to whose ancestors they once belonged. The tide of fashion - the rage for novelty - the changes of the times, have also changed the character of the population who now tenant these buildings. In the dingiest streets of the Metropolis are found houses, the rooms of which are lofty, the walls panelled, the ceilings beautifully ornamented, (although the gilding which encrusted the ornaments is worn off,) the chimney-pieces models for the sculptor. In many rooms there still remain the grotesque carvings for which a former age was so celebrated. You have the heavy balustrades, the wide staircase, with its massive rails, or, as we now call them, bannisters; you have the strong doorway, with its carvings, the large unwieldy door, and those well-known features of the olden time, in keeping with the quaint and dust-stained engravings which seem to have descended as heirlooms from one poor family to another. [-17-] The names of the courts remind you of decayed glory,- Villiers, Dorset, Buckingham, Norfolk, telling of the stately edifices which once stood where you now breathe the impure atmosphere of a thickly-peopled court. A street, now remarkable only for its narrowness and dirt, is called Garden, because once there was a garden there some term of chivalry distinguishes another ; some article of dress, now in disuse, a third; some alley, without a pump, bears the pompous name of Fountain Court. The houses themselves are in keeping externally, with what we have described of the interior; the dark redbrick, the pillars, with their capitals and quaint figures, speaking of art called forth by wealth, and taxed to produce novelty, to stamp on the buildings in which he lived, the rank of the owner.
    In other parts of London, groups of small houses, with their background of courts and alleys, have been erected upon the site of large gardens, which formerly were the pleasure grounds of stately mansions. Two hundred years since, one side of the Strand consisted of the houses of the nobility; of these mansions, Northumberland House is the only remnant, the grounds belonging to which extended to the river. The famous Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the courtier in the times of Charles II., pulled down the magnificent house in which he lived; the site of it, together with the gardens, is occupied by streets which bear his name and title some of these are rapidly degenerating, and will become Rookeries, if no change take place in the social con-[-18-]dition of the poor; the beautiful water gate seen from the river, was the entrance to the grounds.
    Such are the general features of London Rookeries. We may be interested in inquiring how any particular nest of these buildings grew to its present size, or became appropriated to its present use. Men generally connect St. Giles's and Seven Dials with squalid misery and a degraded population; most people suppose that extreme poverty and abject distress are confined to this spot, and that pauperism in other parishes is merely comparative.
    To omit mention of the Minories, Saffron Hill, and other notorious plague spots,-we may safely assert, that very few parishes in London are without these haunts of destitution. The most aristocratic parishes, as they are termed, have a background of wretchedness, and are too often so many screens for misery which would shock the mind and make men avert their gaze, could they indeed see them as they really are.