St Giles: The psychogeography of London's Rookery

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,