St Giles: The psychogeography of London's Rookery

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

An exhibition of new works and artefacts charting the history of the notorious St Giles slum opens tomorrow

‘Rookery’ was the word used to describe this country’s most squalid slums in the mid-Eighteenth Century. The poet George Galloway described one in 1792 as "a cluster of mean tenements densely populated by people of the lowest class". Criminals, prostitutes, alcoholics and reprobates roosted in them noisily, ghettoised away from the rest of society.

St Giles parish, immortalised in Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, was the site of London’s most notorious rookery of the time. Home to a relentless tide of immigrants, coiners, sex-workers, thieves and addicts of varying kinds, it was synonymous with the gin craze and became a pit of lawlessness and violence so threatening that the police gave it a wide berth for more than a hundred years.

When the artist Jane Palm-Gold recently moved into a flat overlooking St Giles in the Fields churchyard, a central-London location a stone’s throw from Covent Garden’s Theatreland, Oxford Street and Bloomsbury, she found that the site of that famous rookery was still a den of vice 200 years on.

“I moved into the area eight years ago and it felt like I was living in the Wild West. We were surrounded by crack dealers and crack addicts. Any time you looked out of the window day or night there was someone sparking up in the doorway. I saw aggravated assaults, attempted murder, there were dead bodies here,” she told in an interview.

“I say all this, but I loved it! It is a fantastic place to live.”

What struck Palm-Gold when she began to research the St Giles area was the psychogeography of the place: the idea that despite the onset of two centuries, the structure and situation of the location has a causal effect on the problems and experiences of its dwellers. The parity between the gin epidemic and the crack problems of this century are plain to see.

Since Palm-Gold set up home in St Giles there have been considerable changes: the new Renzo Piano building has been built; there’s been considerable investment by local authorities; and the drugs problem has visibly improved. But “living on the front line”, as she describes her early experiences there, inspired the talented artist to create a body of work in the style of Hogarth and other artists who captured the unfortunate denizens of the area a couple of hundred years go.

“It was so wild for about four or five years that I started drawing the crack addicts,” she says. “At the same time I was doing a course at Birkbeck on Hogarth’s London. I started researching, accumulating knowledge, buying books and just reading reading reading about the history of St Giles.”

“The area has always had a large transient population. The roots of it go back to 1700 when a lot of common lodging houses were established there. It became a close-knit and claustrophobic situation. The Irish immigrants began subletting and illegal building work and people were just jammed in on top of each other.”

Artefacts uncovered by archaeologists from the excavation of St Giles Rookery go on display alongside Palm-Gold’s own renditions of the one-time ghetto at the Coningsby Gallery tomorrow for an exhibition entitled ‘London’s Underworld Unearthed: The secret life of the rookery’.

“It was probably more dangerous than any other area in London,” Palm-Gold says. “One of the authorities’ attempts to clean it up was to get the police to drive through the heart of it from New Oxford Street in 1845, and at that time you had the very worst criminals, the coiners in St Giles Court. All the residents crowded in there were looking after their own so a pitch battle broke out between residents and police. It spilled out into Bloomsbury Square.”

Among the artefacts lent to the show by the Museum of London Archaeology is an original ‘fuddling cup’, a three cup vessel used for drinking games which predates the gin epidemic, a baby’s feeding bottle and glass marbles and beads.

Prints from the museum’s collection include Gustave Dore’s 1872 piece ‘Thieves Gambling’ and an 1886 picture entitled ‘Children and Gin’ purportedly illustrating that little girls have a greater taste for the spirit than little boys.

The 15 paintings by Palm-Gold on display are a mixture of interpretations of old prints and new sketches inspired by the area.

London's Underworld Unearthed: The secret life of the rookery is at the Coningsby Gallery, London from tomorrow until 3 June,

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor