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 independent.co.uk 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, www.coningsbygallery.com

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy