When Charles Dickens called the streets around Old Pye Street (south of today’s Victoria Street) “The Devil’s Acre” he knew what he was talking about. Several other parts of London could claim to be the most destitute – Shoreditch, Saint Giles and Turnmill Street for a start – but none were quite as abominable as this territory a few hundred yards away from the sublimity of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
Indeed, it was its proximity to the Abbey that caused many of its problems. For centuries a large area of land outside the Abbey, thanks to a decree of Edward the Confessor, was a sanctuary where criminals were safe from the long arm of the law. It thus became a magnet for disreputables and the tradition lingered long after the abolition of sanctuary.
In the first edition of his Household Words, Dickens described the neighbourhood as “begirt by scenes of indescribable infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey.”
Horrific overcrowding – sometimes as many as 12 people to a room and with up to half the population engaged in thieving according to some reports, it is not surprising that it became a no-go area for the police.
In St Anne’s Lane, off Old Pye Street, a contemporary described a side court which had “every feature of a sewer, and found a long puddle of sewage soaking in the hollow centre. The passages of the low black huts on either side were like old sooty chimneys, and the inhabitants were buried out of sight in the gloom.”
Further down Old Pye Street in Perkins Rents was a pub called One Tun which has rightly been described as a school for pickpockets. It may well have been an inspiration for Dickens when he write Oliver Twist, though there are other candidates. It was rescued by philanthropist Adeline M. Cooper, who raised money to convert the pub into a ragged school.
The Devil’s Acre was rescued partly by the construction of Victoria Street around 1850 with its associated slum clearance and partly by the emergence of other philanthropists such as William Gibbs and George Peabody, who built modernised blocks of flats around Devil’s Acre for the poor and which are still very much functional today.
Well, actually, they were for the poor but not for the very poor, as you had to have a job to afford the affordable rents. And since they were far nicer and bigger – only a few to an apartment rather than over a dozen in the slums they replaced – it made conditions even worse for those ejected from the slums who had nowhere else to go. They were a marvellous advance but, as with so many reforms, there were unforeseen consequences. Meanwhile Devil’s Acre is long gone, a bit of Lost London we are happy to say “Good Riddance” to.
Read more stories of Lost London by Vic Keegan here.
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