Ragged London: The Life of London's Poor

Ragged London: The Life of London's Poor

by Michael Fitzgerald

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Ragged London describes life in the rookeries of London, where forty people would live together in one room. Although life was a constant struggle against famine, disease and violence, the people enjoyed a closeness that was moer than the result of overcrowding. Their lives were lived entirely within the 'mean streets' of their little corner of London. They were born


Ragged London describes life in the rookeries of London, where forty people would live together in one room. Although life was a constant struggle against famine, disease and violence, the people enjoyed a closeness that was moer than the result of overcrowding. Their lives were lived entirely within the 'mean streets' of their little corner of London. They were born and raised within the rookeries, earned their meagre living there, enjoyed life as best they could, dressed in the latest fashion, got married, had children, died and were buried there. The lack of cooking facilities led to them inventing the takeaway, and there was absolutely no sanitation. In the poorest district of all, St Giles, only a single water pump serviced the entire population. It was a closed world, although the population explosion of nineteenth-century London led to millions of new arrivals in the already-congested rookery districts. The areas were lawless to a degree that dwarfs contemporary concerns about crime. Though life as cheap in the rookeries, they produced some of the best soldiers and sailors in the British armed forces.

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Ragged London

The Life of London's Poor

By Michael Fitzgerald

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Michael Fitzgerald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6678-1


The Origins of the Rookeries

The problem of the urban poor in London became an urgent political concern from the 1830s onwards. The main focus of the attack on poverty became concentrated on those areas known as 'rookeries'. The term 'rookery' was first used to describe the dwellings of the London poor in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The earliest example of its use in print was by the poet George Galloway in 1792.

What was a rookery, and how did it differ from a simple slum? The Oxford English Dictionary defines rookeries as follows: 'a cluster of mean tenements densely inhabited by persons of the lowest class.' It was primarily overcrowding that distinguished a rookery from a slum. The fact that every part of the building from attic to cellar was inhabited earned its nickname – these dwellings were so called because of their imagined resemblance to the nests of rooks. Rooks live high up in the trees and gather together in vast numbers. In the same way, the human 'rooks' were crammed in to narrow spaces from basement to garret.

Experiments with a variety of plans designed to reduce poverty in London were carried out during the eighteenth century, and the proposal that found most favour with Victorian legislators was the workhouse system. This originated in the rookery of St Giles and tried to lead boys away from a life of crime and into productive employment. The problem of poverty became acute during the 1830s, and the generally adopted practice of 'outdoor relief' placed a serious financial strain upon the ratepayers of the poorer parishes, where the burden of poor rate expenditure was concentrated. The response of the government was to introduce a revised 'Poor Law' in 1834.

Under the new system, 'outdoor relief', while not formally abolished, was seriously curtailed. It was also hedged around with so many new restrictions and qualifications that the now mandatory 'workhouse test' drastically reduced the numbers applying to the parish for assistance. The architects of the new system declared proudly that this demonstrated that the majority of claimants under the old Poor Law were simply idle and impecunious and had no genuine basis for seeking assistance. Opponents of the workhouse challenged this argument fiercely. They pointed out that the conditions in them were so harsh and the process of applying to them for relief so degrading that many people preferred to seek help elsewhere. Family and friends, private charity, and of course criminal acts were preferred to 'troubling the parish'.

Conditions in the workhouse were certainly made as inhospitable as possible. In an ironic editorial, The Times suggested sending applicants for poor relief to prison and placing criminals in the workhouse, remarking that it might be hard on the felons, but that at least they deserved punishment, whereas the people in the workhouse were guilty of no crime other than poverty.

The reasons for the rise in poverty between 1830 and 1900 are complex. One of the principal factors was the decline of traditional London industries, most notably the clothing and shoe trades. A further contributory factor was the rapid rise in rents following the collapse of the building trade after 1825. Coupled with the reluctance of landlords in a shrinking market to repair and renovate their properties, these led to a serious deterioration in the physical condition of homes. The result was that the middle classes began to move out of central London into the suburban areas. This in turn left a stock of formerly 'genteel' housing unoccupied. Landlords responded by letting out the vacant properties to lodgers. Soon multi-occupancy of buildings became the norm in inner London.

The new tenants were largely casual workers, for whom periodic and seasonal unemployment was an everyday reality. When around forty of them were crammed into a single room, it was inevitable both that their health suffered from the extreme living conditions and that the physical environment of their home deteriorated further.

The increasing overpopulation of the rookeries considerably disturbed the more thoughtful middle-class Londoners. Reformers called on Parliament to legislate against the overcrowding and squalid conditions but could not agree a satisfactory remedy for the problem. Some, notably Lord Shaftesbury, called for programmes of renovation. Others, again including Shaftesbury, favoured building 'model dwellings' for the poor. Some called for the restoration of outdoor relief, others for the outlawing of 'middlemen', and some for the total demolition of slum properties.

Those who opposed reform generally argued that Parliament had no business seeking to interfere with the rights of property, that the workhouse constituted adequate provision for the truly destitute, and that those who chose to live in the rookeries did so from a conscious preference for overcrowded and squalid conditions.

London had a history of slums dating back to the Middle Ages, but the metropolis then was a compact city with a small and stable population. Its geographical extent was confined to the City of London, the City of Westminster and Bankside in Southwark. There were small suburbs to the east and west of the City and Westminster.

The old slum areas in the City of London and its environs started to become overcrowded following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The monks had provided education, care for the sick and maintained the poor from their charitable endowments and other income. The seizure of their assets by Henry VIII created severe problems for the London poor. People flooded into the city from the countryside looking for work. An agricultural depression and war with Scotland, with its accompaniments of men called up to fight and farms burned by raiding parties, added to the economic problems faced by rural workers. An influx of immigrants, particularly from Holland and France, added to the pressure on space, even though they settled, not in the City of London, but in the nearby suburbs. French hat makers moved into Southwark, Dutch, French and Belgian weavers to Spitalfields and Shoreditch, Dutch printers into Clerkenwell and Westminster, while the Belgians in Southwark introduced the brewing of beer with hops. This created a drink that was much stronger than the traditional 'ale' and which rapidly became very popular.

The increase in population also led to overcrowding, the rapid expansion of slum areas and multi-occupancy of dwellings. The foundations of the rookeries were laid, but it was nearly another hundred years before true rookeries arose in London.

The continuing expansion of London concerned the authorities to such an extent that in 1580 Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation forbidding any new building in the metropolis. The result was to increase overcrowding within the areas already heavily populated. It also led to a considerable expansion of the suburban areas immediately outside the city.

Far from improving the situation, this led to a considerable deterioration in housing conditions. The extreme overcrowding, made much worse as a result of the royal proclamation, was at least a contributory factor to the high death rate in London. During the Great Plague of 1665, over 100,000 Londoners died, 15,000 of them within the walls of the City of London.

It was not until the Great Fire of London in 1666 that the old slum areas of London were finally swept away. Though most of the City was rebuilt over the next few years, the government took care to prevent the creation of any new slums in the area. They also tried to remove as many of the existing ones as possible.

The entire population of London was evacuated during the fire, and found shelter in the surrounding areas – Moorfields (now Moorgate), Lincoln's Inn, Gray's Inn, Hatton Garden, Covent Garden and St Giles. Soon all these places were full of people and the homeless Londoners moved further afield, as far as Highgate and Islington. Tents were set up on open ground and refugees from the fire camped out for miles around. The fire made almost 80,000 Londoners homeless. Many of them had relied upon the income from letting out their homes to tenants and were now forced to appeal for public charity. The strain on charitable resources was enormous.

The owners of those buildings in the City that had survived the fire seized the opportunity to raise rents. According to one contemporary estimate, rents increased by 90 per cent; according to the more reliable evidence of Pepys, a civil servant, the rise was around 40 per cent. Many of the poor managed to return to their former homes in the City, but the majority were forced to move out. Clerkenwell, Holborn, St Giles, Shadwell, Stepney, Whitechapel and Wapping became full of refugees from London. The result was that the neighbourhoods turned into new slums and, within a short time, new rookeries.

It is difficult to overestimate the effect of the fire on the growth of London. In time the city would have expanded naturally, but the fire accelerated the process. When most of the City of London lay in ruins, finding a home in other areas became a necessity. Even when it had eventually been rebuilt, most of those who had moved out remained where they were. They had found new dwelling places, new sources of employment, new and better roads than the narrow and congested streets of the City. In addition, the new homes that were built in the City of London were far more expensive than the old ones had been. They were also, even if more fire-resistant, still liable to sudden and unexpected collapse. As the wealthy for the most part had also decided to migrate en masse to the West End, a whole new area of employment opportunities opened up.

Tradesmen, formerly shackled by the tight regulations of the guilds and livery companies, found that they could operate on a more straightforwardly commercial basis. Instead of being the throbbing and vibrant heart of England, as it once was, the City of London became a ghost town. It remained the financial capital of the country, but as an area in which to live, it was no longer viable. Even before the fire, Clerkenwell, Holborn, Hatton Garden and Spitalfields had begun to take away the traditional City trades of goldsmiths and silversmiths, jewellers, woodworkers, and even tailoring. Cripplegate remained the strongest area for gold and silverwork, but it too was technically outside the control of the City of London.

With the sudden opportunities for new building, property speculators sprang up. Perhaps the most flamboyant of them was Nicholas Barbon, whose extraordinary life and behaviour surprised even his contemporaries. Barbon bought up land after the fire and covered every available space with housing. The quality of his workmanship was poor, even by the standards of his day, and his methods of operation defied belief. If the owners of existing properties refused to sell their homes to him, he simply got his workmen to pull down their houses. For almost thirty years he was constantly involved in lawsuits, but was so adept at finding loopholes, at delaying proceedings, at appealing and counter-appealing, that he was rarely called to account for any of his actions. Instead of taking out loans to finance his development, he relied entirely upon non-payment of bills. His creditors spent years in costly litigation. He was no better at paying the rents on land that he had leased, being perpetually in arrears and refusing to honour his debts.

Not surprisingly, the quality of his homes was substandard. Unlike most builders in London, he ignored the new regulations, except as regards building in brick rather than wood. Some of his more successful undertakings, like Essex Street, Buckingham Street, Lincoln's Inn, New Square and Bedford Row, still survive. Most, though, collapsed completely only a few years after they were built. He died in 1698, regretted by none. The contemporary observer Narcissus Luttrell gave an amusing account of a skirmish between the lawyers of Gray's Inn and some of Barbon's workmen:

Dr Barbon, the great builder, having some time since bought the Red Lion fields near Gray's Inn walks to build on, and having for that purpose employed several workmen to go on with the same, the gentlemen of Gray's Inn took notice of it and, thinking it an injury to them, went with a considerable body of a hundred persons upon which the workmen assaulted the gentlemen and threw bricks at them, and the gentlemen at them again. So a sharp engagement ensued, but the gentlemen routed them at last and brought away one or tow [sic] of the workmen in Gray's Inn. In this skirmish one or tow [sic] of the gentlemen and servants of the house were hurt, and several of the workmen.

Two years after Barbon's death, the once compact City of London had swallowed up Holborn, Clerkenwell, the Strand, Whitehall and Shoreditch. Further east, Stepney, Whitechapel, Wapping and Limehouse were also becoming densely populated suburbs. Bankside to the south of the river expanded rapidly. The City of London was still full of empty houses and even the business districts had not yet recovered from the fire. Elsewhere in London, by contrast, the constant expansion westwards and eastwards continued relentlessly.

The writer John Evelyn cried out in astonishment:

To such a mad intemperance was the age come of building in the city, by far too disproportionate already to the nation: I having in my time seen it almost as large again as it was within my memory.

The frenzy of speculative building by Barbon and others of his kind finally persuaded Parliament that uncontrolled development in London could not continue. In spite of the new regulations that had been introduced after the fire, not only were the new homes collapsing with alarming frequency but smaller fires continued to break out in them.

The beginning of the eighteenth century saw further Acts of Parliament introduced to improve the standards of new buildings. Although they still permitted numerous unsafe structures to be constructed, they at least drastically reduced the risks from fire. The most important features of the new building regulations were to prohibit the then fashionable wooden eaves that jutted out from so many buildings in London. These were now hidden behind a parapet and covered up with brick or stone. It was also illegal to have wooden frames flush with the outer walls. These now had to be set back further, into the brickwork itself, with one side of the corner bricks now exposed.

The economy of London was buoyant between 1700 and 1750. This was a magnet for migrants from other parts of Britain and Europe, attracted by labour shortages and the opportunity to earn better money than was possible at home. Available property for rent was difficult to find, so landlords crammed houses from top to bottom with lodgers. The living conditions were overcrowded, but there was no shortage of people renting space in a rookery house. No public housing provision existed, and the cheapness of the lodgings meant that those living on subsistence wages could always find a bed for the night.

The lack of transport made it essential for people to live within walking distance of their jobs. Those who lived in St Giles were near the West End and its great houses, with its consequent opportunities for employment in domestic service. They were also near the Covent Garden market, where many of them became stallholders. The people in the East End were near the jetties where ships and boats loaded and unloaded their cargoes. They were also near the City of London, where they carried out a variety of jobs from clerical to manual. London south of the river was largely confined to the Bankside area of Southwark, primarily noted for its pubs, prostitutes and bear-baiting. West London was hardly developed at all, remaining a primarily rural region.

Until about 1815 the living conditions in the rookeries remained fairly constant. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars a building boom followed. The result was not only the rapid expansion of London but also the creation of entirely new rookeries. The first of these was Agar Town on the site now occupied by St Pancras station. North London soon saw two more rookeries arise, one the Battlebridge area around King's Cross and the other the new estate of Somers Town. South London saw the areas of Nine Elms and Lambeth arise from what, only ten years previously, had been sleepy Surrey villages. West London spawned two entirely new rookeries, Notting Dale and the Potteries of North Kensington. In the East End, the existing rookeries expanded and grew with the rise of the new docks, while the eastern districts of London also began to encroach upon the villages and suburbs of Essex. Soon places like Canning Town turned into new rookeries.


Excerpted from Ragged London by Michael Fitzgerald. Copyright © 2011 Michael Fitzgerald. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael FitzGerald is a Londoner born and bred. Among his writing exploits are titles on such diverse subjects as Streatham's local history and Hitler, and during his working life he was a chartered librarian, librarian of the London Transport Museum and front of house at the Sherlock Holmes Museum. He lives in London.

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