If you peer at William Hogarth’s 1751 masterpiece of degradation Gin Lane, the only part of the scene depicted that exists today is the spire of St George’s church in Bloomsbury, which peeps up in the background as some kind of beacon of hope. The people in his picture needed that, but all they got was cheap, untaxed gin, virtually on tap. It provided momentary distraction from the poverty, criminality and prostitution around, and from the profits of farmers selling the grain from which the gin was made.
Degradation had been part of the DNA of this part of London ever since the Great Plague started there at the end of 1664. It was reckoned that every fifth shop sold gin to the helpless inhabitants, most of whom were addicted. A survey of the rookeries in 1849 found as many as 50 or even 90 people lodging in a single four room house, many of them Irish people fleeing the potato famine in their homeland.
When Frederich Engels visited the Saint Giles neighbourhood around 1884 he found “hardly an unbroken windowpane”, walls that were crumbling, doorposts and window frames loose and rotten. He observed: “Indeed, in this nest of thieves doors are superfluous, because there is nothing worth stealing.” He found piles of refuse and ashes lying all over the place and the slops thrown out into the street collected in pools emitting a foul stench. “Here,” he said, “live the poorest of the poor.” In London, The Biography, Peter Ackroyd observed that, “Only sex and drink could make the conditions bearable.”
As in so many other places in London, poverty rubbed shoulders with riches. The church of St Giles-in-the-Fields had to minister to the down and outs as well as its more illustrious residents such as Lord Byron, Shelley and Andrew Marvell, author of “To His Coy Mistress”.
One of the hapless tasks of the church wardens was to buy a final drink at the Angel pub next door (then called Resurrection Gate) for criminals as they were conveyed from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn. This is said to be the origin of the phrase “one for the road”, though other pubs on the same route also claim this dubious honour.
It would need a book to record all the people of note who lived here within spitting distance of the urban poor. They range from the second Lord Baltimore, founder of Maryland in America (though he didn’t actually go there), who is buried in the churchyard, to Luke Hansard who started the practice of taking down verbatim the words uttered by MPs in parliament.
The tide started to turn between 1842 and 1847 when a new major road, Oxford Street, was run through St Giles, leading to the demolition of the worst lanes. However, as when Victoria Street was built further south through the slums of “The Devils’ Acre”, the initial result was to worsen the situation for the poorest, because although the lucky few were moved from high to low density, the poorest were left, displaced from overcrowded accommodation with nowhere to go.
Looking at Renzo Piano’s multi-coloured luxury development in St Giles today, it is difficult to imagine the squalor it has replaced. Saint Giles-in-the-Fields is the only link with the past, still quietly doing all the things it was doing hundreds of years ago – except giving a last drink to prisoners on the way to Tyburn.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lot London can be found here.