Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Rookeries of London, by Thomas Beames, 1852 - Chapter 7

[back to menu for this book]


Chapter VII

    We have before stated that the most aristocratic streets have a background of wretchedness,- this at first sight seems incredible. We are too apt to suppose that St. Giles's is the only very poor quarter in London. Artisans, gentlemen's servants, policemen, and others, must live somewhere, and we fancy that they form respectable colonies on the outskirts of the larger squares and thoroughfares. Mews, and other places of a similar description, take off a goodly proportion of domestic servants; still the better class of artisans and policemen are much straitened because of the dearness of lodgings the places where they live are destitute of most of the comforts and some of the necessary conveniences of life. Still we do not term their dwellings Rookeries, yet we maintain that few parishes are without a certain number of tenements which it would be difficult to describe by any other name. As a sample of this, let us survey part of the Berwick Street district of St. James, Westminster.
    In the time of Charles I. the whole of this district was, as yet, not built upon ; here and there was a solitary house surrounded with fields; the great thoroughfare, Piccadilly, was just coming into notice, for Lord Claren-[-107-]don, in the History of the Rebellion, speaks of Mr. Hyde going to a house, called Piccadilly, which was a fair house for entertainment and gaming, with handsome gravel walks with shade, and where was an upper and lower howling green, whither many of the nobility and gentry, of the best quality, resorted for exercise and recreation. In Knight's London reference is made to a petition, from Colonel Thomas Panton, bearing date 1671, which was read at the board of Privy Council, setting forth that the petitioner having been at great charge in purchasing a parcel of ground lying at Pickadilly, part of it being the two bowling greens fronting the Haymarket, the other part lying on the north of the Tennis Court, on which several old houses were standing; and praying for leave to build upon this ground, notwithstanding the royal proclamation recently issued against building on new foundations within a certain distance of London. In consequence of Sir Christopher Wren's favourable report, Colonel Panton obtained leave to build certain houses in Windmill Street, on the east corner towards the Haymarket, about one hundred feet in front, on the east side of Windmill Street, in the two bowling greens between the Haymarket and Leicester Fields.
    In the year 1662, orders were issued for the paving of the way from St. James's north, which was a quagmire, and also of the Haymarket about Piqudillo.
    The Piccadilly line of road is said to have formed, at its east end, the line of demarcation between the courtly [-108-] mansions erecting in St. James's Fields, and the small and mean habitations which, in Wren's words, "will prove only a receptacle for the poorer sort, and the offensive trades to the annoyance of the better inhabitants; the damage of the parishes already too much burdened with poor, the choking the air of his Majesty's palace and park, and the houses of the nobility; the infecting of the waters,- these habitations so complained of being continued and erected in Dogs Fields, Windmill Fields, and the Fields adjoining Soho." This then is the first mention we have of the district now assigned to St. Luke's, Berwick Street. The property, in this neighbourhood, belonged of old to Lord Craven. The famous Pest House was erected here for the reception of those stricken with the plague, where was what was called a lazaretto, consisting of thirty-six small houses; and near it, at the lower end of Marshall Street, was a common cemetery where some thousand persons were buried during that dreadful pestilence. Out of Wardour Street, which is the eastern boundary of the district in question, we are told by Strype, in 1720, "goeth Peter Street, which crosseth Berwick Street, falleth into waste and unbuilt ground; a street not over well inhabited. Here is a small court, but the right name is not given. Further northward is Edward Street, which also crosseth Berwick Street, and falleth into waste and unbuilt ground; nor is this street over well inhabited." Berwick Street is represented as being on the west of Wardour Street, beginning at Peter [-109-] Street, and running northward as far as Tyburn Road; it is described as a pretty handsome straight street, with new well built houses, much inhabited by the French, where they have a Church; and near it a Court with a freestone pavement, called Kemp's Court. About the middle of the street was a place designed for a hay-market, and a great part of the low ground raised with some of the houses built piazza-wise. Westward of this street, says the Annalist, " is a large tract of waste ground reaching to the wall of the Pest House, built by the Earl of Craven, which runneth from the back side of Golden Square to a piece of close or meadow ground which reacheth to Tyburn Road."
    The district we would now describe was evidently covered with small buildings towards the beginning of the last century, though a large space of open ground was still left unoccupied to the north. A square piece of stone is let into one of the houses in New Street, on which is inscribed the date 1704. Thirty years before this Sir Christopher Wren could complain of the small streets which were building, and the poverty of their inhabitants; and Fielding, in 1740, describes the mob, whom he calls the fourth estate of the realm, as encroaching upon people of fashion, and driving them from their seats in Leicester, Soho, and Golden Squares, to Cavendish Square and the streets in its vicinity. The site of we are about to describe was then in its infancy, covered with mean streets and houses, and appears, even a hundred years since, to have formed part of a district which had rapidly degenerated.
    [-110-] The particular spot to which attention is invited is bounded on the north by Cock Court, so called because of a low public house whose sign is the Cock; on the west by New Street, on the south by Husband Street, on the east by Hopkins Street. There is a mouldy, smoky, dilapidated air about the whole; some of the houses have evidently sunk much; others are closed up with shutters, the windows, in many cases, broken or mended with paper; some houses marine store shops, others inhabited by sweeps and costermongers; the usual number of idlers lounging about, so that should you stop a minute to make inquiries, a crowd of suspicious looking characters would assemble, many youths among them whose age averages from fifteen to twenty; the passages between opposite houses narrow, the pavement covered with decayed vegetable matter; Irish, the vernacular language of the inhabitants. This mass of buildings, so bounded as we have described, forms a quadrangle; it will be asked, is the interior or court of this quadrangle open? To this we answer, that the buildings which are exposed to view form only the outer lair of the colony which is established within these precincts. In the centre of this square, yet lodged in and confined by buildings, is a large cow-house, in which thirty cows are said to have been confined at one time, though, on the occasion of our visit, there were not much more than half that number: a space in this large cow-house was allotted to pigs, of which there was a goodly number. When you look at the area of these buildings, you will say that so many cows could not be collected together in a space so [-111-] confined; strange as it may seem, there are two stories in this building, the upper of which, as well as the ground floor, is filled with cows, and they are hoisted up in a sort of box very much like those used for the conveyance of horses by railroads. The stench arising from this packing of unwieldy animals in so small a space, and the near neighbourhood of the pigs, may be conceived. The houses in Husband Street flanked this cow-house, and their back windows looked out upon it. Between these dwellings of the poor and the place we have described were a series of excessively small, narrow, uneven yards not to appearance five feet in breadth, and this was the only open space allotted them. In summer, the smell from the cow-house must have been carried into every open window in the tenements described: if Husband Street on the south was thus affected, it will be asked how the dwellers on the north in Cock Court fared, small as the intervening space between the cow- house and this northern boundary is? Even this is rendered smaller by an intervening screen of wooden houses, the access to the habitable parts of which is by a covered staircase: the lower floor of this building is a sort of cellar in which were some rabbits belonging to the tenants. In one of the houses, the upper part was occupied by families: a proportion, though small, of these tenements is let out in lodgings; in a few instances trampers and nightly lodgers are harboured, and there is the usual crowding together of inmates common to Rookeries: by day it is not easy to calculate the number [-112-] of persons who sleep there. The houses are not so crowded as those in Church Lane or Saffron Hill, and there is not the same amount of squalid misery. It is said that instances are upon record of three families living together in the same room: in one room we saw three or four beds, but were told that they were all tenanted by members of the same family. The rooms are miserably small; mere closets, very dilapidated, quite unfit for human habitation, scarcely safe, below the level of the ground, with hardly any ventilation; until lately miserably, if at all, drained, their back parts very close in consequence of the cow-house we have described; so that the atmosphere is rendered still more fetid by the rank odour continually emitted from the animals confined. Some of the houses were occupied by chimney- sweepers, several by day labourers-some by men who get their living by selling baked potatoes. There are three costermongers living in one of these streets, from whom the potatoes are procured. Under the houses are large cellars, which are filled with these vegetables, and from which the tin cans of the vendors are replenished. There are also several rag shops in this part of the parish, the cellars being filled to overflowing with rags-which, at certain seasons, are carted away and sent to the paper makers. You are struck with the curious appearance of some of the lower windows in these houses,- old bonnets, veils, articles of dress, faded indeed, shorn of much of their original splendour, are exposed as if to tempt those who pass by; these are unlicensed pawn shops, where [-113-] women deposit their wearing apparel, and with the money thus obtained gratify their passion for drinking at the next public house. Sometimes they redeem the goods, yet too often never return to claim them; after a time the goods are sold, though, whether a year elapses, as in the case of pawnbrokers, before the sale takes place, we could not learn. In the streets opening upon the quadrangle to which we have limited our inquiries, are two or three houses where thieves are harboured. Inquests are common in this locality - many persons die by violence. Not long since, three women of the town were residing here, two of them sisters; the youngest died of concussion of the brain arising from a blow she had received from one of her companions in a scuffle. There are several low lodging-houses in Husband Street, where the charge is 3d. a night, or 1s. 6d. a week, Sunday Evening being considered, according to the law adage, a dies non, and therefore the lodgers pay only for six nights. The rooms are too small to admit of many sleeping together at the same time, accordingly, eight persons in a room seems as far as we could learn to be the maximum.
    It is gratifying to think that an attempt is being made, with what success it remains to be seen, to buy up this block of houses (to speak technically), and on their site to erect model lodging-houses: a Society established three years since in the parish have built some lodging-houses on the opposite side of New Street, which have been tenanted for some months; and, for the special object of erecting the building contemplated, the Society of which [-114-] Lord Jngestre is president, has agreed to co-operate with the Parochial Society, and endeavour to accomplish between them the good work, not doubting that funds will be provided for a purpose so desirable*.

[*Since this was written, the Committee of the Society have accepted the offer made them, and there is every prospect of the progress of the good work, if funds can be procured for the outlay.]