The London Rookery; A Victorian Slum
One of the things thats draws me to 19th century London is the dark, dingy portrayal of the poor and the destitute shown through the eyes of so many artists; poets, writers and more recently, film makers. Sure these are all symbols in time, an artists point of view. I don’t expect there actually was a couple who decided to murder and cook the inhabitants of Fleet Street (Sweeny Todd) and make them into pies. We are not expected to take it literally, we are expected to gather our own understanding of what the artist is trying to tell us about the period. Tim Burton demonstrates the disillusion of the poor and the struggle of class and power. It was a society entirely wrapped in status. A society where a man could take what he wanted, if he knew the right people. The irony of feeding lawyers to lawyers and making a tidy prophet is in my mind absolutely brilliant. It represents the jostling that was taking place around this period. Social mobility was a concept forming, slowly yes, but it was definatly there, lingering in the background ready to shed its dingy rags. For those that haven’t seen this film and before I move away from fiction on to more solid ground check out my favorite song from the film; A Little Priest and revel in the beautiful irony of it all.
So inspired by this film and others I wanted to find out how accurately they portray the backstreets of London and during my reading one place kept coming up as a single representation of the poor in London; The Rookery in Parish of St Giles. A rookery was the historical name given to a city slum. It is said that the term is linked to the nesting habits of the rook bird. The bird prefers to nest in large colonies, squashed together, which for a noisy and cramped living space much like the rookeries of London. They were also known as “Little Dublin” or “The Holy land” because much of the population where Irish. There was a large influx of Irish immigrants in the Victorian Era, many of them victims of The Great Famine (1845-1852), where approximately 1 million people perished.
It is quite bizarre to discover that the two most famous Rookeries in the South of England where right next to Holborn where I now work, and in Southampton, where I grew up. There are many descriptions of the squalor and desperate nature of these places, Peter Ackroyd describes it as embodying “the worst living conditions in all of London’s history; this was the lowest point which human beings could reach before death took hold of them” but the best descriptive summary I have read comes from Charles Dickens’ Sketches by “Boz” (of course).
“Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three … filth everywhere — a gutter before the houses and a drain behind — clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.”
We can really get a feel for the filth and desperate nature of the people who lived in these rookeries. If we were to compare it to London today it would be a dilapidated squat housing heroin addicts and prostitutes. Though these rookeries where cleared away, on the outside, they have just become even more buried. Instead of streets of slums and vagrants in the 18th and 19th centuries now we have disused warehouses and factories of heron addicts.
In case you don’t know where St Giles Parish is, it’s just next up from High Holborn (now one of the central business districts). Drink and prostitution prevailed in these areas. The streets housing at one point was controlled by just eight people. This would filter down into letters and sublets and room lets as if they were a network of drug dealers. Each house could contain up to four or five families in the day and many more at night. People were encouraged to share a bed so that they could sell twice the amount. Much like some of the hostels you find around Europe today, though I imagine it was somewhat different sleeping next to a drunk, stinking, horny vagrant than sharing a mattress with an italian backpacker. Sex was encouraged as was drinking and alcohol was sold very cheaply.
It seems that just as Burton portrays in Sweeney Todd the lower classes were stamped on by the upper classes. Much of the situation these people found themselves in had been thrust upon them by an unfair system. Who wouldn’t drink themselves in to oblivion if they were starving, cold and regularly subjected to sexual harassment, rape and violence. Many of them were victims of a famine and had no choice but to flee their country. It also seems that non of this has gone away it’s just changed into something else and moved to a new area or morphed into a new body, a new victim.
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