Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Rookeries of London, by Thomas Beames, 1852 - Chapter 8

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[-115-]

Chapter VIII

    Among the worst districts in London, is the locality near Westminster Abbey, bounded on the north by Victoria Street, (which has displaced a host of obscure courts and alleys,) on the east by Dean's Yard, on the south by Peter Street, on the west by Stretton Grounds. Till the time of James I., this district was laid out in open fields, dotted at rare intervals with a few houses. The old picture of Westminster, in the reign of Henry VIII., represents the Abbey without the incongruous towers added in the last century by Wren. Westminster Hall, the Church of St. Peter, an old conduit, and St. James's Palace, are almost the only objects on which the eye rests. After this era, London extended from Charing Cross towards the Abbey, and a few scattered houses were, at intervals, erected. Stowe, who writes about the beginning of the seventeenth century, thus describes the district to which our inquiries are directed:- "And nowe I will speak of the Gatehouse, and of Totehill Street, stretching from the west part of the close. The Gatehouse is so called of two gates - the one out of the Colledge Court, towards the north, on the east side whereof was the Bishop of London's prison for Clarkes convict; [-116-] and the other gate adjoining to the first, on the south side, King Henry VII. founded an almeshouse for thirteen poor men, one of them to be a priest aged forty-five years, a good grammarian, the other twelve to be aged fifty years, &c. Neare unto this house westward was an old chappel of Queen Anne, over against the which the Lady Margaret, mother to King Henry VII., erected an almeshouse for poore women, which is now turned into lodgings for the singing-men of the Colledge. The place wherein this chappel and almeshouse standeth, was called the Eleemosynary or Almonry, now corruptly the Ambry, for that the almes of the Abbey were there distributed to the poore; and therein Islip, Abbot of Westminster, erected the first presse of booke printing that ever was in England, about the yeare of Christ, 1471. William Caxton, citizen of London, mercer, brought it into England, and was the first that practised it in the sayde Abbey, after which time the like was practised in the Abbeys of St. Augustine at Canterbury, St. Albans, and other monasteries. From the West Gate runneth along Totehill Street, wherein is a house of Lord Gray of Wilton; and on the other side, at the entry into Totehill Fielde, Stourton House, which Gyles, the last Lord Dacre of the South, purchased and builde new, whose lady and wife, Anne, sister to the Lord Buckhurst, left money to her executors to builde an hospital for twentie poor women, and so many children to be brought up under them, [-117-] which hospital her executors have begun in the field adjoining."
    During the struggles of the Great Rebellion, Sir Robert Pye, a courtier of the period of Charles I., had a fine house and garden near this spot, on the site of which, a few years afterwards, were erected Pye Street, Duck Lane, Stretton Grounds, and the adjacent alleys. Orchard Street, too, owes its origin to the same period, and is supposed to have been built upon the orchard belonging to this Baronet. Some say it was the site of the orchard of the Monastery. Of this now degraded locality, Strype, writing in 1720, says,- "Stretton Grounds is a good, handsome, long, well-built, and inhabited street which runneth up to Tothill Fields, almost against the new workhouse for employing Poor People; and hath on the West a passage into the New Artillery Ground, a pretty large enclosure, made use of by those that delight in military exercises. Pye Street lieth between Duck Lane and Great St. Anne's Lane, better built than inhabited. New Pye Street is a passage from Old Pye Street into Orchard Street, a pretty, handsome, new built place. Orchard Street very long, with good buildings, which are well inhabited. On the North side is a place called the New Way, which hath houses on the West side, the East being Sir Robert Pye's garden wall."
    In Walcott's "Westminster," recently published, it is said,- "In the New Way, the well-known Sir Robert Pye, the husband of Mary Hampden, the patriot's [-118-] daughter, resided where the present workhouse stands."
    On the 27th of January, 1741, Lord Tyrconnel, in moving for leave to bring in a bill for the better paving and cleansing the streets within the city of Westminster, said,- "It is impossible, Sir, to come to this assembly, or to return from it, without observations on the present condition of the streets in Westminster, - observations forced on every man, however inattentive, or however engrossed by reflections of a different kind. The filth, Sir, of some parts of the town, and the inequalities and ruggedness of others, cannot but, in the eyes of foreigners, disgrace our nation, and incline them to imagine us not only a people without delicacy, but without government - a herd of barbarians - a colony of Hottentots." Such was the state of the roads, we are told that, when the King's state coach passed along at the opening of Parliament, the ruts were so large, that faggots were thrown in to fill them up.
    It would seem that the materials for a Rookery were accumulating more than 130 years since ;-that, at a later period, Lord Tyrconnel was obliged to make the complaint detailed above;- that, from too common neglect, whilst improvements were made between the Abbey and the Bridge, the narrow courts and alleys which had grown up on the western side, were suffered to degenerate, till, in process of time, they became one of the worst resorts of thieves and prostitutes in the Metropolis.
    [-119-] A colleague of the author's, the Rev. Mackenzie Walcott, has kindly placed the following memoranda at his disposal. Mr. Walcott has shown great research in his "History of Westminster," and this contribution to the present work must prove interesting.
    "A considerable portion of the City of Westminster lies under high-water mark: New Tothill Street, 3 inches; the road by Mr. Elliot's brewery, 11 inches; and Palmer's Village, 12 inches. A creek of the Thames entered also at the river-end of the present Manchester Buildings, flowed into the St. James's Fields, and, turning southward, at the line of the modern De la Hay, Princes's, and Dean Streets, and again eastward, by Great College Street, formed the precinct of the Abbey or Thorney Island. At the time of the compilation of the Doomsday Book there was a village of Westminster, with arable land, and pannage in the woods for swine, gardens and cottages of the tenants of the Monastery. So low and unprotected the river banks continued to be even in the reign of the later Stuarts, that King Charles II. remonstrated with his Parliament on the quantity of water which surrounded the palace of Whitehall. The floor of Westminster Hall and the upper part of Millbank Street have been far more recently flooded by the overflowing of the Thames. In 1791, Privy Gardens, were inundated with a 'slimy river,' and boats plied in Palace Yard. The names of Downing and Fludyer Street, fix the dates of their erection. Until the middle of the seventeenth century, King Street did not boast a brick [-120-] house, although the principal thoroughfare to the House of Parliament; when the royal carriage passed through it on state occasions, faggots were thrown into the ruts. The lanes in the vicinity were infested by thieves and cutpurses: among a list of such proscribed houses in the reign of Elizabeth, furnished to the Prime Minister, we find one in the Palace, two in the Sanctuary, one in Tothill Street, and one close to the Abbey. Palings of considerable height were erected in Palace Yard, to fence off the passengers from annoyance by mud thrown up by the carriage-wheels. 'Dirty Lane,' a miserable narrow outlet, occupied the site of Abingdon Street. Petty taverns clustered round the Houses of Parliament till very lately. Along Millbank, was a row of houses facing the river only; a range of willow trees bordered a walk by the side of the Thames, frequented by the London apprentices even in the present century. On the site of Black Dog Alley, was the Abbot's pleasance; from it to the Thames eastward, extended the Hostry-garden of the monastic Guest-house. Bowling Street, derives its name, from the Benedictine's bowling green; and Orchard Street, from their fruit garden. Wood Street, in 1720, was a narrow alley composed of old boarded hovels. Barton Street and Cowley Street were built by the great actor, Booth. A vine-garden, in 1568, it appears occupied the site of Vine Street. North Street was begun in 1728, and St. John's Church in 1721. Smith Street, about the same time. Tufton and Marsham, and St. Peter's Streets, in the early part of the seventeenth century. [-121-] Palmer's Village, and the Pye Streets somewhat later. 'Artillery Place,' recalls to our recollection the butts for archery set up in Tothill Fields, the expenses of which were constantly defrayed by the Churchwardens of St. Margaret's. Fairs and duels often occurred in that area, which space afforded abundant harvest for cattle. In the time of the plague and the civil wars, it was made a burial ground: the Five Houses' stand on the site of the ancient lazaretto. A maze and a bear garden also found a place in the fields. Vincent Square, the Penitentiary, and Vauxhall Bridge, were erected in the present century. But the lower parts of the fields were little better than a mere marshy swamp. Gardeners, famous for their cultivation of melons, inhabited the 'neat houses,' so called, from the ancient manor of  'Neyte.'  Snipes have been shot on these grounds in the present century. In 1631, the Broadway Chapel was built on waste ground. The Tyburne was divided into three streams,- one flowed down the Horseferry Road, and afterwards became the boundary of St. Margaret's and St John's parishes; one into the scholars' pond; and the third down College Street, discharging itself by the Abbey Mill: from the last branch were supplied the brooks and runnels of Orchard Street and Duck Lane. A few pretty villas, in the reign of Elizabeth, were built along the banks of St. Anne's Lane, Pye Street, and Duck Lane; very few houses were yet built in Petty France or York Street; and extensive gardens were attached to those in Tothill Street. The miserable Almonry has [-122-] only recently disappeared, owing to the construction of Victoria Street. That desolate prison, the neighbouring Gate-house, was demolished in 1776."
     "It seems to have been the heritage of Westminster, by the force of custom, after the institution of the Sanctuary and the formation of its 'Thieves' Lane,' to become the shelter and resort of lawless characters, who find a fitting home in the dirty, narrow, uncleansed streets,- its miserable, undrained, dilapidated courts and alleys, reproduced and rebuilt time after time with the determinate purpose of receiving only the degraded and outcast of the population. The accumulations of filth in the courts without an outlet - the absence of water - the crowding of people - the contamination of vice and idleness - the filthy stenches - the boarded rooms not weatherproof-the despair of improvement and better situation - and the facilities offered for sinking yet lower, by low and numberless beer-shops and pawnbrokers, contributed thoroughly to demoralise the population. In the wretched New Pye Street, at high noon on a fine day, young thieves might be seen playing at cards, gambling on the public footpath. The Middle-man here has been in the habit of erecting tenements, formed upon the sites of old gardens or yards, and providing access to them only through the front door of what was once the main house; hence the production and reproduction of hideous stilling back lanes and courts, worse than the close garret, or over-crowded attic was before. Then these places, too often slightly built of wood coarsely put [-123-] together, crazy and destitute of every requisite for the maintenance of decency and cleanliness, are divided out by preference among weekly lodgers. What wonder if there be squalid misery and all the excessive sorrows of poverty, if in vain they struggle against the impurities of situation, and the uncleanliness of an air that breeds a constant malaria, and is the first place in which cholera, pestilence, fever, and every malignant disease appear. Added to these causes of wretchedness is the natural lowness of the ground, which requires the utmost resources of science to obviate its inevitable results; flooding cellars, densely peopled, with loathsome streams accumulating in the gutters and kennel-stagnant refuse waters emitting abominable smells - and noxious vapours increased by heaps of garbage by the road-side; - and we have to reflect, that within the short space of one century, during which we boast, that we have made the most wonderful advances in civilisation and science which the world has ever known, - these monstrous evils have grown up. How long shall they continue? yes, how long? Demolitions of Rookeries will only enhance the present suffering of their late occupants now daily driven into more compact wretchedness, unless there be, at the same time, improvements made in the dwellings which they are about to inhabit! While we admire the royal grandeur of the splendid palace of Westminster, and the newly completed front of Buckingham Palace, which will shortly be connected by a street, to be provided with every accessory of refinement after the most [-124-] improved methods of modern science, and be the residence of wealth and power; let us cast a thought upon those who have been rendered homeless by this great design. The Roman, the Maltese Knight, and the Saracen constructed vast aqueducts to supply their cities. In every foreign town a sparkling fountain throws up its jet of abundant waters: our wells in old days were famous for their clear streams : we want water now for draught, washing, cleanliness. Let humanity apply every resource to neutralise the ills that attend an over-crowded neighbourhood: while it relieves the faintness of hunger and takes off the rags of poverty, let it take away also the recklessness of destitution, fostered by those receptacles of want and disease, those lazarettos of spiritual sickness, and channels of immorality, - the putrid lane and festering court, swarming with every provocative to vice, with dismal crowds prowling about to beg and steal, and destined to premature death, or to fill workhouse and gaol, sinking down through misery into crime. Let the layman have a care for the body of his brother, and speed on the work of those who have, through rebuke and difficulty, and sometimes peril, in the name of their Blessed Master, for years toiled to lighten the darkness of that ignorance, and have, single-handed, gone forth to seek and to save the lost." [Thus far, our Friend.]
  
Turning out of the New Victoria Street, on the second street on the left hand, you come at once into a densely populated neighbourhood ; running at right angles to this street is the famous Pye Street-a long narrow [-125-] thoroughfare, intersected by various subordinate alleys, some of them worse than the parent causeway; the road is thickly strewed with decayed vegetables, and there are a number of young men and boys, from fifteen to twenty years of age, lounging about in groups-a great proportion of whom are juvenile thieves. At the west end of the street is a large Ragged School, held in two or three rooms, which were originally obtained for the purpose of a reading room, - these apartments are crowded with the children of the district. Passing eastward, you come to a cross street, which is called Duck Lane, dividing the rest of Pye Street from the upper part in which the school is situated. Duck Lane is portioned into low lodging houses and the resorts of thieves, where chance lodgers are harboured at about 3d. per night: there were the usual open doors - creaking stairs - broken railings - mouldy walls, with the whitewash pealing off - strings across the room with linen hanging to dry - worn-out bedsteads, with a scanty supply of clothing - grotesque, or old fashioned prints - old women cooking vegetables for dinner,- and here and there, in different rooms, a stray wolfish-looking dog. At night alone could you give a guess of the number harboured in a single room; until lately, especially in summer, they were crowded in certain periods of the year: but the Legislature has lately passed an Act, limiting the number of persons who can occupy each room in the house, apportioning a certain number of square feet to each individual. The character of the district may be [-126-] gathered from the callings exercised by certain of the inhabitants we visited. In one room, the floor of which seemed to be below the level of the house, was a man with a consumptive wife and several children, who was employed making mats, his children handing him the straws as he platted them together ; his address was good, though the furniture, the decayed and imperfectly mended floor, the scanty fire, and the ragged clothes of wife and children, indicated severe poverty. His history was this:- In early life he lived with his uncle, who was a corn dealer in Berkshire, and had been, it would appear, in a fair way of business ; misfortune came, (whether owing to speculations in the corn trade, or to the fluctuations to which that trade is subject, was not stated,) and the poor man was ruined; having been bred to no trade, he was obliged to take up this occupation, as that which most readily suggested itself to him as a means of livelihood. The next case which was offered to our notice was of a very different kind:- In a low narrow room were seated, at about ten o'clock in the morning or a little later, an old woman, the mistress of the house, and two young men; they sat on low stools crouching over a small fire: against the wall was pasted a printed notice, which defined the number of persons who might be lawfully harboured in a room of such dimensions as that in question; the old woman complained bitterly of the interference with her perquisites. There was a peculiar look about one of these men, which induced us to question him as to his occupation : he [-127-] had been bred a sailor,- had been at the battle of Navarino, of which he gave us a graphic account. He had been at Sydney, Calcutta, and various foreign parts, but at length had deserted owing to the following circumstance, according to his version of the story:- One day, he and a messmate observed a hamper with twelve bottles of brandy invitingly open upon deck - they could not resist this, and accordingly stole a bottle ; whilst drinking this, they were discovered by one of the mates of the vessel, who reported the circumstance to the captain, and our informant was duly sentenced to three dozen,-this led him to desert. He afterwards made some voyages in the merchant service; and having observed a great deal of jugglery in India, the feats of which he extolled as far superior to any thing of the kind in Europe, he became a necromancer, as he called himself, in which character he exhibits at different places, and thus obtains a livelihood.
    In this neighbourhood are located street musicians; some in the dress of highlanders, with bagpipes; some with other instruments, whom we meet so frequently. There too are the smashers, or coiners, who assume so many different dresses,-in the morning habited as cab men, in the afternoon as countrymen,- to personate a new character in the evening. Many of these men are, upon occasion, pickpockets. At right angles to Pye Street is Anne Street, which again is intersected by a variety of courts, among which is James Court. In this veritable cul-de-sac live many low prostitutes, and [-128-] poor Irish. In one of the rooms was a poor Irish widow with some small children; her history was melancholy, while, at the same time, it threw light upon some, among the many, causes of Irish emigration. She and her husband had lived in Cork during the fearful pestilence of 1847, or the Skibbereen fever, as it maybe more properly called. She had seen her brother-in-law, his wife, and three children lying dead on the same day; the fever attacked her, but not fatally. Soon after this, her husband had taken a pipe from another man who was smoking it, and, two days after, an ulcer formed in his throat which terminated in his death. The lone widow, upon this, was persuaded to emigrate to England by her son, who came over for the purpose of accompanying her in a cheap steamer; this youth earned his livelihood by carrying dust, unloading dust-carts, &c. The old woman spoke in very kind terms of the assistance she received from a Protestant Clergyman, a Dr. Graves; with all the warmth of the Irish character which endears them so much to those who know them, she pronounced a glowing benediction upon his head-  "May God give him a bed in heaven, and sure, why should he not!"
    Running up again parallel to Pye Street, is Orchard Street; the fronts of many of the houses in which, as well as the wood-work within, betoken the opulence of their former inhabitants, whom tradition represents to have been persons of rank. In one lodging-house, in this street, we are informed, on good authority, that there were sixty double beds; so that, in one house, a large [-129-] one it is true, 120 persons had slept in a single night: behind it was a spacious yard; and the cellars were rooms common to inhabitants, in which several men were xtaking their meals; in the yard at the back, were some dogs, and men lounging about. It is said, that the occupants of this house are not very select: there was a melancholy contrast between the carvings over the door and the elaborate front, and those who now tenanted the house; suggesting to us the change which in a hundred years hence, may come over some of the most fashionable localities in London.
    We are indebted to the kindness of Mr. Walker, the City Missionary in this district, for permission to make the following extract from a valuable pamphlet published by him:-
    "In giving a description of this district it will be necessary to look back to what it was twelve years ago; and whether looking at it in its physical or moral aspect, it required little penetration to perceive that it was a spot long neglected. I have described it on a previous occasion as being one of the most wretched and vicious districts which blot the map of the metropolis, - a busy nursery of vice and crime, and the very focus of a kingdom's worst criminality. Neither Whitechapel nor St. Giles's could vie with it in the scenes of depravity it could exhibit. It was not always a safe matter for a stranger to pass through it: if he did so, he would hardly be induced to pay it a second visit. The district contained 190 houses, which appeared [-130-] incrusted with the filth and smoke of generations. Wretchedness and ruin appeared on every side. Its population amounted to upwards of 700 families, or rooms occupied with about 3000 souls. Among these were 500 couples living in an unmarried state, besides as many homes destitute of the Word of life. Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.
    The cock-pit in the district, and the penny theatre in the neighbourhood, besides a few other buildings for purposes too dark to be recorded here, were the only training-schools for this class of the population. Young and old were alike left to grow up and pass away from time into eternity, without one to point them to the 'Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!'
    It is scarcely necessary to say that this district is occupied by a criminal population. How could it be otherwise? The midnight burglar, the pickpocket, the coiner, and the passer of counterfeit money, seemed to have their head-quarters here. These alone, with fallen females, occupied one-half of the district; and the remainder was possessed by beggars and hucksters. Of lodging-houses for travellers there are twenty-four, [-131-] and of public-houses there were seven. The courts in the district were the principal scenes of vice. A description of one will suffice as a specimen of the others. New Court contained twelve houses, with six rooms in each. I have seen and known as many as seventy- two persons living in one of these houses; and I recollect, in the course of three months, sixty-nine young persons being transported, and one executed at Newgate, out of No. 2.
    I might go on describing the streets and courts of the district; but, after all I should write, it would give a faint idea of what I have witnessed. I have seen upwards of forty policemen beat out of Old Pye Street, by the inhabitants, while attempting to take a thief."
    Before quitting this district, we must not omit to mention an admirable establishment set on foot by the Earl of Ellesmere, Lord Kinnaird, and others, in Peter Street, where, in three houses, are 117 beds, the charge made for each of which is 3d. per night. At the back of these houses are a series of cottages for families, which, having been recently erected, are not yet fully inhabited. In this establishment is a sitting-room for the lodgers- an excellent kitchen, washing-place, &c., and all the rooms are well aired and ventilated. The superintendant, who seems a shrewd clever man, is a Mr. Archer, part of whose life has been spent at sea. He appears to have established a very satisfactory state of discipline here, if we may judge from a cursory view. It must not be forgotten that rent, rates, and taxes are very [-132-] high in that neighbourhood. The receipts taken in the shape of rent for a year are .389 5s. 6d.

Salaries, house, expenses, &c. 139 0s 11d.
Bills, rates, taxes, &c. 66 9s 10d.
[Total] 305 10s 9d

The expenses would not have been so high but for the alterations and improvements made in the course of the year.