Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Rookeries of London, by Thomas Beames, 1852 - Chapter 6

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Chapter VI

We like to know for what particular offences the justice and the wisdom of England thought proper to consign to dark and comfortless dwellings the working classes for whom religion bids us care, and in whose preservation is preserved a nation's well-being; at what particular era the custom was introduced, whether refractory Barons inflicted confinement in such tenements as a punishment on the commons who supported the sovereign; or whether when cities and boroughs first achieved municipal privileges, they thus tamed the spirit of rude retainers. We cannot thus look into the manners, habits, useful arts, and domestic comforts of an age, without being led to make comparisons between other and our own times;- we cannot trace Rookeries to their source without asking whether the interval was so great of old between the different orders of society; when the gulph widened,- whether the improvement manifest among the wealthier has penetrated to the poorer classes,- whether, enactments in more despotic times achieved reforms which public spirit should now accomplish,- whether with the monopolies granted to towns were associated obligations to their poorer brethren?
    [-91-] Among those districts which bear away the palm of vice, misery, and filth, there is perhaps none more famous than that part of London which lies between the Tower and the Isle of Dogs. There is a particular locality, however, forming part of this Cimmerian region, which may repay our investigation; it may be defined as the district bounded on the South by the Thames, on the West by the Minories, on the North by the Commercial Road, on the East by the basin of the Regent's Canal; this part of the town forms an irregular parallelogram, and is a spot which the sailors much frequent, because it is so near the shipping-it presents, accordingly, many features peculiar to such localities.
    Before we describe its present condition, it may be as well to examine the different stages of its growth,- what it was in old times - when and whether it has degenerated from some former palmy state into its present wretchedness.
    The district we have described above has, for the last three centuries, been more or less the rendezvous of sailors. If we look at the old map of London, published in Elizabeth's reign, many copies of which are yet extant, the Tower will be the chief object on which the eye, traversing the northern shore of the Thames, will rest. Beyond that fortress the expanse of open country is dotted by a few houses, which are seen here and there - they form, indeed, a short street at the edge of the water for about a mile, but the background is evidently laid out still in fields, with a stray cottage at intervals. The ground on [-92-] which Ratcliffe Highway, St. Georges-in-the-East, and Shadwell were built, was then a large and open manor, spread out in pastures, which at certain seasons were overflowed, and always therefore abounding in marshes,- in fact, a sort of Isle of Dogs - for this latter famed spot bids fair, within a few years, to be covered with warehouses, steam factories, lead and iron works, and, when drained, to be the centre of a thriving population. The far-famed St. Katherine's Docks are erected on the site of a hospital and convent, dedicated to St. Katherine. This religious house was founded in 1148 by Matilda, of Boulogne, the wife of our Stephen. It was not entirely swept away at the Reformation, but was changed into a sort of hospital, which still survives in the St. Katherine's Hospital in the Regent's Park. The remains of this convent were only removed in 1825, when eight hundred houses in this quarter were taken down to afford space for the new docks. Beyond this assemblage of buildings were green pastures, where the citizens practised the games of quarter-staff, riding at the quintain, bull-baiting, archery, and other martial sports. Here great assemblies of them often met: thus, during the rebellion which was headed by Wat Tyler, we read that Richard II. rode forth with his councillors and attendants to give that hardy leader of the commons a meeting; that this took place in an open space near Mile End, and certain concessions were made, which seem to have been recalled a few days afterwards, when the commotion terminated by the death of Wat Tyler. Stowe, the antiquary, [-93-] writing in 1608, says- "On the East and by the North of the Tower lieth East Smithfield, two plots of ground so called, without the wall of the city, and East from them both, was sometime a monastery called New Abbey, founded by King Edward the Third, in the year 1359. From the Tower to Aldgate ran a long continual street, in place of an abbey of nuns of the order of St. Clare, called the Minories, founded by Edmund, Earle of Lancaster, in the year 1293: many of them died of pestilence in 1515; in place of this house of nunnes are builded diverse faire and large storehouses for armour and habilements of war, with diverse workhouses serving to the same purpose. Neare adjoining to this abbey on the South side thereof, was sometime a farme belonging to the said nunnerie, at which farme I myself in my youth have fetched many a halfe pennie-worth of milke, and never had less than three ale pints for a halfpennie in summer, nor less than one ale pint and a quarte in winter, always hote from the kine, as the same was milked and strained. One Trolop and one Goodman were the farmers there, and had thirty or forty kine to the pail. Goodman's son being heyre to his father's purchase, let out the ground, 1st, for grazing of horse, and then for garden plots, and lived like a gentleman thereby. On the other side of that streete, lieth the ditch without the walls of the citie, which of old times was used to lie open, always from time to time cleansed from filth and mud as neede required, of [-94-] great breadth and width, and so deepe that divers watering horses, where they thought it shallowest, were drowned both horse and man. But now of late times the ditch is enclosed, and the banks thereof let out for garden plots, carpenters' yardes, bowling allies, and diverse houses builded. From this precinct of St. Katherine to Wapping in the West, the usuall place of execution for hanging of pirates and searovers, at the lowe water marke, there to remaine till three tides have overflowed them, was never a house standing within these forty years; but since the gallows being after removed farther off, a continuall streete, a filthy straight passage, with alleys of small tenements, or cottages builded, inhabited by saylors, and victuallers, along by the river of Thames almost to Radcliffe, a good mile from the Tower. On the East side and by the North of the Tower, lieth East Smithfield, Hogs Streete, and Tower Hill; East from them both was the new abbey called Grace, founded by Edward the Third, from thence Radcliff by East Smithfield, by Nightingall Lane (which runneth) South to the Hermitage, a brewhouse so called of an hermite sometime being there : beyond this lane to the manor of Bramley, called in record of Richard the second, Villa East Smithfield - Villa de Bramley, and to the manor of Shadwell, belonging to the Dean of Paul's, there hath been of late in place of elme trees, many small tenements raised towards Radcliffe. And Radcliffe itself hath beene also increased in building [-95-] eastward (in place where I have knowne a large high way with fayre elme trees on both sides) that the place hath now taken hold of Lime. Now for Tower Hill the place is greatly diminished by merchants for building of small tenements; from thence towards Aldgate was the Minories."
    The Rookeries of this neighbourhood, then, are among the oldest in London. They are bona fide Rookeries built for the habitations of the poorest classes two hundred and fifty years since. Many of the buildings in this neighbourhood are of wood - for the Great Fire, that wholesale purifier of these iniquities, did not extend to the Tower; so that the long narrow streets, with their branches and intersections of courts and alleys, remain in a condition little removed from their original form. The streets are not wider, less tortuous; the alleys are, as formerly, culs-de-sac-the only entrance from the street; and if the main thoroughfares are uneven, the road narrow, the houses crumbling with age, with fronts of every variety, what must the background be? It is evident, at a glance, that the fire spared this and the adjacent districts; for the wide thoroughfare of our Butchers' quarter, Whitechapel, still retain some façades distinguished by the grotesque carving that remains; and we know that such external ornaments have not been in use since the time of Charles II.
    This part of London without the walls, then, owes its origin to the necessities of our growing community of sailors, and dates its rise from the reign of Elizabeth; [-96-] a period very glorious for the English Navy, when Drake. Frobisher, and others, contended with the Spaniard for the dominion of the seas. In those days, the distinction between the naval and the merchant service was unknown, and the victories of Lord Edward Howard and others added much to our commercial enterprise, and increased our commercial marine. It would be worth while to trace the progress of this colony to our own times. It must have increased rapidly, for, in the early part of the last century, the churches of Limehouse, Poplar, Bow, and others, were built; and within the recollection of many, those great emporia of merchandise - the Docks, were formed.
    Our business is, rather, to wade through the narrow thoroughfares distinguished by such variety of occupants, and having so many features peculiar to themselves. Go there by day, and every fourth man you meet is a sailor; you will hear German, French, Spanish, and even modern Greek, spoken by those whose dress at once connects them with our mercantile marine. Some are Negroes, many foreigners,-but the Jersey frock-the souwester, or tarpaulin hat-the pilot coat and pea jacket - the large trousers gathered in tight at the hips - the rolling walk as though the ship was pitching beneath them - the low quartered shoes with large bows, are characteristics of a race, which, whether at home or abroad, are distinguished in a moment from the rest of the population. Public houses abound in these localities: it is difficult to conceive how so many can thrive; [-97-]  but they are interspersed with shops also peculiar to such districts,-slop-sellers; from the capitalists, whose ample window is hung round with everything which can catch a sailor's eye, or sound the depths of his pocket, to the small retail tradesman whose stock in trade has exhausted his funds, and who depends almost for bread upon his daily earnings. Ship joiners - ship carpenters - mathematical instrument makers, with their sign-posts of gilded captains peering through telescopes, - provision shops  - rope makers - vendors of ship biscuits, even ship booksellers, - ironmongers - dealers in marine stores, are strangely mixed together.
    We have said that public houses occur at frequent intervals, and have wondered how they are supported? when night comes, our wonder ceases. These centres of attraction are fitted up with everything which can draw sailors together; there is an ample space upon which the door opens called the bar, in form perhaps square or semicircular, where various beverages are served out as they are called for, and where a motley group of men and women are lounging crowded together, most of the men in the dress of sailors. Behind the bar are large, lofty, well-lit dancing rooms,- the walls of which are decorated with nautical scenes very fairly painted: in one compartment is a shipwreck; in another, a vessel on her beam ends; in another, a vessel in full sail- perhaps a man of war; in another, men are reefing top- sails ; in another, there are all the incidents of a stiff breeze; in another, a ship is labouring in a heavy sea with [-98-] all the indications of a gale of wind; in another, Greenwich Hospital, or Portsmouth Harbour, Southsea Common, &c. As soon as the evening sets in, the gas is lit, two or three paid musicians take their post at the top of the room, the floor is cleared, and dancing commences, many of the dancers in fancy dresses, especially the females; the men too are fantastically arrayed, some in Indian dresses, some as soldiers, but the mass preserve their usual costume : spirits are handed round pretty freely, and in the rear of the dancers are benches and tables like the boxes in a coffee room. In some of the houses professional singers are hired for the entertainment of the company; they sing in character, and a temporary stage is erected at the end of the room, with appropriate scenery, which forms a background to the singer, and gives effect, by its colouring and correspondence, to the subject of the song.
    Thus, in one house was sung Russell's well-known song of the Maniac; the scene was a dungeon, and the singer had chains on his arms. In another of these dancing rooms you had Eton College by moonlight; prospects familiar to tourists were represented in another. Several houses are frequented almost entirely by sailors; mountebanks are exhibiting their gymnastic feats on the floor, twisting their bodies into the strangest shapes, or rising from the ground with heavy weights upon their shoulders. In the neighbourhood were several houses of a worse description; some frequented by the petty pilferers who abound in London, men, who would steal an eye glass or [-99-] a pocket handkerchief; the thimble rig, the card playing, or, as they are called, cardsharping .fraternity, and men who sell fictitious sovereigns. The bar was filled with the motley group of men and women; vendors of pickled sprats, periwinkles, shellfish, &c. being scattered amongst the crowd, so that they might wet the appetite of the drinkers by the salt fish which they sold. In the dancing room many of the frequenters of the house were joining, with spirit and skill, in the dance, their partners evidently women of the town. In a third class of houses were professional thieves, men whose living depended upon thefts; they were evidently preying upon the drunken sailors whose ill luck had led them to places with whose abominations they were little acquainted. Women of the town were in league with these men; we were informed that they acted as so many decoys, and when the conversation between the sailor and the prostitute had been carried on to a certain point, the man, with whom she was in league, would come up and abuse the sailor for speaking to his wife; and, after a great deal of acting, the sailor would give a sum of money to be quit of a disagreeable charge. Some there are again who, when they have brought their depredations for the day to a close, resort to the public house, as to a club, where they can meet their confederates; so that each section has its rendezvous, which is, for the most part, frequented by the members only. Even among thieves, division of labour, as political economists call it, is recognised; and a proficient in the higher branches of [-100-] the art of thieving would think himself degraded by speaking to one who would steal pocket handkerchiefs; and, as there is an aristocracy even among thieves, so they have their separate places of assemblage.
    Sailors are proverbially ignorant of the world; they live for years together at sea; and having few opportunities of getting on shore, they never go far inland: whilst they are at sea, their wages accumulate, and they come home with full pockets, more imprudent than children. These houses owe much of their support to sailors, who, from their inexperience, are dupes of the first designing wretches they meet; but there are always a number of dens in the neighbourhood, where the worst evils are rife to which they are exposed. Among the foremost may be enumerated crimps' houses: these are places where the seafaring men lodge when on shore, where they are fleeced and preyed upon by designing knaves; where, when they come home intoxicated, they are robbed of large sums of money. We must devote a separate space to the portrait of the crimp, where he may be sketched as he deserves; at present it is enough to say that in all districts where sailors abound, there are several of these harpies and their lodging-houses-and that of these places there are the successive gradations, from decent looking houses to the lowest dens of infamy where,-if stories told, be true,- even a man's life is not safe, and where it is said, in days of burking, many a poor fellow was made away with. One of these houses was inspected, which seemed a decent specimen of the class; [-101-] the landlord was a foreigner, and it was a rendezvous for French, Italians, Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese, and modern Greeks. On the ground-floor, there was a small common room, garnished with prints on nautical subjects; a very fine macaw (for sailors love parrots like children) was flapping his wings at one end: this room was the place where the sailors took their meals; it opened into an inner chamber which seemed a kitchen, there were several men here sitting or lounging about, some drinking; the landlord and his wife were attending on them, and they were conversing in various languages. The landlord, though a foreigner, spoke English very fairly, and also French. On the first floor were three rooms appropriated as dormitories in which were several sailors asleep; the rooms were fitted up, like the cabins of steamers, with tiers; so that there were an upper and lower range of beds or rather berths, and thus a place was found for double the number of sleepers which it would have held if the floor alone had been occupied. On the night in question it was not inconveniently crowded; though it is scarcely fair to judge by the appearance of the place at an early hour of the night, for sailors are not very early people, and doubtless, at a later hour, the rooms would have been more filled:- the payment for the accommodation thus afforded, was 12s. a week for each lodger; this included bed and board but not spirits, which were paid for in addition. On the surface there was little except the dormitory to call forth remark.
    [-102-] The bare recollection of the use to which some of these rendezvous (doubtless of a lower class than that referred to) had been converted, is enough to make one shudder.
    Not far from this place was a house occupied solely by thieves: you entered, through a confined ill-paved alley, a long low house in the side of which was a door opening upon a narrow kitchen about twenty feet in length; the floor was uneven, the walls, long guiltless of whitewash, were stained with smoke; at one end a large fire-place, round which were gathered five or six thieves cooking their evening meal, or lounging on benches. It is often said, that villainy is stamped upon the countenance; if so, the men before us were favourable specimens, for certainly they were not peculiarly ill-favoured; perhaps there was something of the low narrow forehead about some of them, which phrenologists are fond of assuming to be types of the class; hut this was far from being universal. Their manner was courteous and civil; they made way, that we should have the full benefit of the fire, and entered readily and with great good humour into conversation. One of their number amused us much by playing off a series of tricks with a cup and ball, in which he evinced marvellous ingenuity. At the upper end of this room was a door, which opened into a small apartment where was the master of the house as it were on guard; he went to bed about two o'clock in the morning, and at that hour he was relieved by an assistant who took his place. A narrow ricketty staircase led [-103-] from the larger room to a first floor, in which were twelve beds in the same apartment occupied by twelve thieves; the linen was not dirty, and the bedsteads of iron, like those used in a hospital, and, except that the walls were more bare and bore the marks of age, the place was very like a sick ward minus the usual accompaniment of nurses, phials, lint and ointment. Over this again, on the second floor, was a similar room, in which fifteen men were sleeping; the charge was 2d. per head, per night; the doors were closed at two in the morning, and regular laws were established for the government of the body corporate, which seemed to be punctually and precisely observed-so that there is not only honour, as the proverb tells us, but law among thieves. A few streets further on, was a wretched alley branching off from the main thoroughfare-to which you proceeded by a tortuous passage; the pavement was broken and uneven, dotted here arid there with pools or puddles of stagnant water, which seemed to have accumulated and to have been of long-standing. The houses inclined considerably over the pavement with their ragged crumbling fronts-the first story particularly seemed to overhang the ground-floor, as though it had been originally built so; the roofs with their broken tiles, the plaster with which some of the houses were covered peeling off and the crazy doors by which you entered speaking of years of neglect. You entered by stooping down under a low doorway, and on the right was a small room ten feet by twelve, in which fifteen men, women and children, slept two or three in a bed; the men were entirely naked, covered only by bed-[-104-]clothes. In a sort of coal-bin, which, because of the stairs, was in shape triangular, were three more; and when, as upon this occasion, the door was shut, there was no opening for the admission of air. In summer, when that part of the town is full, the rooms are even more densely populated than at present; policemen tell you, that sometimes as many as thirty people sleep in one room. The upper floor was not so full, here also were the same fetid smell and want of ventilation,- the same scanty clothing, the same racking cough, the same crying of children, mixture of sexes, ages and callings, which are the common features of these Rookeries! In the heat of summer, if policemen may be believed, and they are not given to exaggerate, the inhabitants of these houses sleep perfectly naked, the heat enabling them to dispense with clothing; they think their linen will be cleaner if they put it aside for the night.
    The house alluded to was only one of a series; the occupants were not thieves but chance comers, tramps, sellers of different street commodities; many of them, from their brogue, evidently Irish. On entering another, the same scene was repeated, excepting that it was not so thickly peopled as its neighbour; we crossed the road, and came upon another back street in which were several lodging houses. In the first of these, in the rooms we entered, were seven or eight people sleeping, though there was accommodation for many more ; here the cabin fashion, with its row above row of beds, or rather berths, prevailed, so that the assertion might have been easily corroborated; thirty persons might have been here [-105-] located in a single apartment. Sheets seemed scarce things; in many of the houses there were no beds, but only mattresses strewed on the floor, and a few blankets thrown over the sleepers. In winter, the occupants may suffer from damp, as many of the floors are beneath the surface of the ground, and the water finds entrance under the doors and through the roof: they can scarcely be cold, for they are packed too close together; and you may well believe the writer in the Morning Chronicle, who, a short time since, asserted that 20 cubic feet of air were only allowed in such dens for the support of animal life, though 150 were the quantity required for health. In these lodgings 1½d. per night is the usual charge.
    The lodging houses we have described are only samples of the large class which may be found in this neighbourhood. In all places where sailors resort they seem to create such dens; not that they are favourable, as a body, to dirt and want of ventilation; but that they are the prey of a vast number of designing persons, male and female, of the lowest description, who gather round them the moment they are discharged, and who live by preying upon them. Released from the severe discipline and the confinement of a ship, they experience an exuberance of joy; they are like boys let loose from school, their habits lead them to drink, and when intoxicated they are the more easily ensnared. Thus Rotherhithe, Shadwell, Deptford, Woolwich, and Portsmouth, abound with dark courts and wretched alleys, where they who live by the imprudence of sailors are accustomed to reside.