Excavating London’s St Giles as Imaginative Place: Towards a dialogic relationship between literary studies and the urban humanities

Jason Finch


figure 1. Map of St Giles within London: built-up area in 1700 / LCC boundaries.
Figure 1. Map of St Giles within London: built-up area in 1700 / LCC boundaries.

This article analyses the territory of St Giles, a neighbourhood today part of central London. It does so as an application of Deep Locational Criticism (Finch 2016), a scholarly practice which insists on the interpretative application of multiple methodologies to what it labels as imaginative place conceptions. In the analysis, bigger stories are told about London, where St Giles is already known for its squalid past. London, according to Jerry White (2007, 449), is characterized by “intense and fractured localism” reflecting an “intricate class geography”. Its multiple stories and often unique and complex vocabularies are thus hard to relate both helpfully and accurately to developments elsewhere. But places like St Giles are revealing of moments when cities explode in size, when mass urbanization happens very fast, with local government and infrastructures struggling to catch up.

Urban literary studies is a growing field, but in addressing cities’ phenomenological qualities, so important to many literary texts, literary scholars need to investigate empirical materials more patiently and attentively that they so far have. Hence this article positions itself on the frontier between literary studies and the urban humanities, an emerging interdisciplinary field which, on one account, “integrates the interpretive, historical approaches of the humanities with the material, projective practices of design, to document, elucidate, and transform the cultural object we call the city” (UCLA UHI 2015). The objective is to open a dialogue. The study of literature can assist workers in the urban humanities by illuminating and suggesting the perspectives of individuals, but also by offering insight into the real-world power of acts of public naming and labelling. As investigations into the relationship between archaeology and history as disciplines by Gavin Lucas (2012) and John Moreland (2001) have indicated, the textual occupies and infests the material, while the material does the same with the textual.

Figure 2. ;ap of the parish of St Giles with key ‘rookery’ areas marked]
Figure 2. Map of the parish of St Giles with key ‘rookery’ areas marked]

A text needs to be understood in this context as an arrangement of words and visual images into a comprehensible and sequential form. As such, the category of “text” includes more than, say, an 1850s account of an impoverished area within the figurative structure of a novel such as Dickens’s description of the fictional London slum Tom All Alone’s in Bleak House as not just a “villainous street” but a “pit”, a hell on earth filled with a dehumanized “crowd” of people that “flows” like a river: it also includes a contemporaneous piece of journalism narrating improvements carried out by reformers in a filthy and overcrowded London street (Dickens 1853/1996, 330–334; Morley 1854; 1855). And beyond that, the category of “text” also includes a scholarly article of 2014 reporting on an archaeological excavation of the same street described in the journalism (Jeffries and Watson 2014). All three of these interactions between the textual and the material have portions of St Giles as their site yet also, implicitly or explicitly, relate these specifics to much broader conceptualizations of the lowest urban districts.

Underpinning the article is an idea of place as a dynamic interplay between power relations operating far beyond the perceptions of individual human beings, and the micro-impacts and experiences of multiple located individuals which constitute their collective sense of somewhere (Finch 2016, 29–31, 201–202). Work in philosophy and human geography from the 1990s onwards explored and renovated the category of place (e.g. Casey 1996; Malpas 1999; Massey 1994), closely paralleling the notion of “produced space” introduced by Henri Lefebvre (1974) and applied as a combination of the real and the imagined by Edward W. Soja (1996), notably to Los Angeles. Equally, discussions of London by urban historians have been enriched by consideration of what Pierre-Yve Saunier (1998, 435) calls “the ‘common language’ of urban thought”, meaning a shared concern on the part of agents in the modernising city of the nineteenth century with concepts such as centrality, the network, and the desirability of free, unimpeded circulation (Daunton 2000; Dennis 2008a). While urban historians necessarily ask what brought about change, the task in a literary study of place is quite different. Instead, the effort to animate the experiential qualities of somewhere, at some point in the past, involves connecting individual phenomenologies with structuring factors sometimes perceptible and debatable by people, at other times far from the textures of their everyday lives.

The London slum is an example of a conception of “imaginative place”. The slum has seemed to some activist scholars to be the cornerstone of modern urban existence (Davis 2006); to others (e.g. Mayne 1993), it has seemed something entirely “imagined”, no more than a media panic aimed at removing unsightly districts close to city centres and displacing their inhabitants, often replacing them with grand or more functional and infrastructural developments. In the later twentieth century, it was analysed as a “physical entity” and in its “social aspects” (Green and Parton 1990, 18; cf. Dyos 1966/1982; Yelling 1986; 1992). Since the 1990s, the slum has more usually been understood as a discursive construction, a lexical classification typically used to sweep away areas inhabited by human beings entitled to more control over their surroundings than they were allowed (Mayne and Murray 2001), or as a metaphor for the unconscious, or dark sides of urban life (Koven 2004). There has as yet been little effort to explain the links between the slum as media-driven “sensation” (Gaskell 1990, 3) and the practice of slum clearance, however, and understanding of the impact of lexical classification on experiential realities remains lacking.

Understandings of imaginative place are enriched by efforts to grasp places as experienced presences rather than to interpret their underlying meanings. This is the approach to aesthetic experiences taken by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2004). For Gumbrecht, to produce an artwork or event is to make it physically tangible. His approach offers urban scholars the chance to appreciate the physical tangibility of lost city corners anew. This means paying attention to their bodily qualities: their motions, their smells and sounds. If Gumbrecht’s thinking originates in literary and visual studies, there is a rich parallel tradition of sensory history which is important to the developing urban humanities (Corbin 1982/1986; Smith 2007; Smith

2010). This article’s aim with relation to its specific object is, in Gumbrecht’s terms, to “produce the presence” of St Giles. The encounter between textual and material study enacted here is inspired by the actual practice of archaeologists in this precise area of London, and the way they write up their findings, as a reconstructed narrative achieved by unfolding different layers of the past as they are revealed at one point on the coordinates of the earth’s surface (Anthony 2011; Jeffries and Watson 2014).

The presence of St Giles is produced here firstly by an analysis of the power of labelling and naming districts within cities. St Giles in the early nineteenth century was where the words rookery and slum were coined (OED, ROOKERY; SLUM). This fact gives the area a peculiar importance in urban history, since a concept widely applied in other urban settings was born here. It also gave St Giles itself a mystique which, after slum clearances in the mid-nineteenth century turned it into an anonymous, barely existent, zone on the borders between hard-working Holborn, intellectual Bloomsbury and the consumption-oriented West End, could be reapplied by planners and marketers in the twenty-first century. The past of St Giles could be unearthed as a means of bequeathing a new identity onto it: as a quintessentially urban area. This lexical history is followed by an excursus into the personal which examines the areas claims to centrality, contained in the colourful blocks called “Central St Giles” which were completed in 2009 on the former site of a grey and impenetrable government building on St Giles High Street, opposite the eighteenth-century church of St Giles-in-the-Fields. Personal experiences including those of the researcher matter greatly in the formation of imaginative place conceptions and should be among the tools of urban analysis (Finch 2016, 24–36); they belong at the heart of studies such as this, but they are often hard to reconcile with other forms of evidence. The argument then proceeds by examining how the unique experiential qualities of St Giles emerged in dialogue with two key histories that framed the varied individual experiences had there: its administrative history as a civil parish and later a portion of a borough, and its place in the history of London landholding and landlord-tenant relations. The cramped position St Giles occupied on the fringes of exclusive aristocratic estates in one direction and the unique labour markets of the West End on the other, helped channel its identity. The article concludes by arguing that discursive acts of naming and labelling, historicized, contribute more than has been recognized so far to the formation of urban consciousness.

Birthplace of the “Rookery” and the “Slum”: A Lexical History of St Giles

St Giles takes its name from a leper hospital established in the early twelfth century at a road junction east of the City of London and north of the City of Westminster. In the Middle Ages, the hospital was surrounded by fields which it owned, and stood apart from the cities of London and Westminster (Riley and Gomme 1914, 117–126; Cockburn, King and McDonnell 1969, 204–212). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, St Giles was a point passed through by all travellers arriving in London from the west and north-west. Housing was built here by speculative builders at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. Then, it occupied the fringes of built-up London, hemmed in by the Duke of Bedford’s extensive properties to the north, in what became known as Bloomsbury, and to the south around the market at Covent Garden, and, to the east, by the ancient privately-owned lawyers’ territories of the Inns of Court (Clout 1991, 75; Whitfield 2006, 138). Suburban developments on the edge of London’s urban area were threatened from their creation with social failure or by a slide from respectable to non-respectable tenants, as the wealthy moved on to newly-built fashionably suburbs, typically further west, and declining rents necessitated subdivision and building on gardens. As early as the 1630s, King Charles I had attempted to restrict suburbanizing development by fining the aristocratic owners of the Bedford Estate for allowing large plots on their land to be subdivided into smaller houses (Sheppard 1970, 25–34). By 1720, St Giles was already getting the beginnings of a bad reputation, one that would stick to it for 140 years and remain, after that, as a memory. John Strype in his 1720 Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster identified it as a place of extremes among the newer suburbs, “with a mixture of rich Inhabitants, to wit, of the Nobility, Gentry, and Commonalty; but withal, filled with abundance of Poor” (Strype 2007, 4.75). In Strype’s 1720 map, at a time when this “abundance of Poor” could already be noticed in St Giles, the streets north of the parish church that a century later would be notorious as the Rookery, built in the 1670s and 1680s, were only a few decades old and the gardens behind the houses there were still reasonably intact (Anthony 2008, 16; Riley and Gomme 1914, 145–146; Strype 2007, 4.75).

The neighbourhood’s social slide continued. Between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century, St Giles was proverbial as the lowest section of what was called “the town”. This was the name given to the portion of London west of the ancient money-making and traditionally Puritanical City of London. The “town” had grown up after 1550 between the City and the other city, Westminster, which since late Anglo-Saxon times had revolved around not merchants, but the monarch. In seventeenth-century London town denoted both the new suburbs of areas like Covent Garden and Soho, and the sorts of fashions and pleasures including gossip and commercial sex which were available to those frequenting such zones and the parks nearby (OED, TOWN n. 4b and 7, especially quotations of 1711 and 1713, and nineteenth-century quotations in sense 4b). In 1799, Isaac Cruikshank pointedly indicated the setting of his print “Indecency” in “Broad St Giles”. This name was in use for a portion of the main road west out of London as it passed through St Giles. The print depicts a woman urinating in the street and asking a passer-by, the viewer or artist, as she does so, “what are you stareing at?”

Figure 3. ‘Indecency’, 1799 engraving by Isaac Cruikshank
Figure 3. ‘Indecency’, 1799 engraving by Isaac Cruikshank

To consider Cruikshank’s print, the word “broad” often doubled as a euphemism in England for, in the words of the original Oxford English Dictionary entry from 1884, “[l]oose, gross, indecent”; unashamedly lower-class, that is to say (OED, BROAD adj. 6c; compare sense 7a in which it is used for frankly dialectal pronunciation), with quotation evidence for this sense spanning the period between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Broad St Giles was wide but not stately: despite its prominence on two of the main routes in and out of London, it was a coarse, unsightly place. This was somewhere in which, somehow, many inhabitants through struggle “constructed a life” (Hitchcock 2004, 1), and the often necessarily public manner in which they did so also brought into the open emotions experienced by their fellow city-users which ranged from pity to contempt and derision.

A generation after Cruikshank’s image it was during the 1820s that this area introduced the words rookery and slum to the world (OED, SLUM n.1 2.a., ROOKERY n. 3.b). By then, St Giles was a district with a large and socially varied population, which contained within itself some small and extremely crowded groups of backstreets (Denford and Hayes 2012, 56–61; Green and Parton 1990, 61–82; White 2007, 31–32). From these particular backstreets the words slum and rookery emerged and became associated with the whole local government area of St Giles. “St Giles”, in effect, became a verbal means of indexing the otherwise unmentionable. 1820s London was overtaking Beijing as the biggest city on earth, and by the time of the 1841 census, its population of close on two million made it the most populous city that had ever existed (Chandler 1987). By 1850, Thomas Beames could write a book entitled The Rookeries of London in which St Giles was cast as the canonical type of a horrendously overcrowded London district indicating, implicitly, the future for other cities. Beames was a clergyman in St James, a more fashionable and wealthy portion of London’s West End or “town” not far on foot from St Giles who was horrified by what he discovered there. He blamed the terrible conditions endured by “human masses pent up in courts and alleys” on economic liberalism (“the unwritten laws of competition”) and explored the metaphorical comparison between humans and hundreds of birds nesting in the same few trees contained in the label “rookery” (Beames 1850/1852, 2), at the beginning of a wide-ranging and humane survey of other such London sites.

The word rookery calls for consideration. It was the more common Victorian term for what now is typically denoted by the word slum: an overcrowded and unhygienic portion of a rapidly growing city, where some of that city’s usual rules are suspended – “cut adrift from the cultural norms of bourgeois society” (Green and Parton 1990, 24) – but also liable to destruction at any moment by the authorities. In the specific origins of this now globally-applied term, in the one single, tiny, locality of the St Giles Rookery, slum at first chiefly denoted a single room where a lowlife character resided. The word rookery, too, as Beames’s application of it shows, began as a nickname for several specific streets immediately north and south of today’s New Oxford Street which at the beginning of the nineteenth century were filled with transients, recently-arrived immigrants and residents who had declined to there from every other social level. Many of them, reputation in Beames’s time had it, were prostitutes and thieves (Anthony 2011; Riley and Gomme 1914, 145–146; Finch 2013, 90–91).

First came “the Rookery” of St Giles, then, and afterwards the realization that every other Victorian city contained several rookeries or, in the neologism that became dominant in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, slums. The slum as a phenomenon in the globalized developing world of the twenty-first century is so widespread and of such consequence that the activist and geography Mike Davis (2006: see esp. 20–49; also Finch 2013: 86–7) could speak of a Planet of Slums.

Literary authors active between 1820 and 1850 who sought to thrill readers with the sights of London lowlife typically chose St Giles as a setting. Pierce Egan (Life in London; 1821, 274) associated the area with the “back-slums”, which he glossed as “[l]ow, unfrequented parts of the town”. Here town indicates not built-up areas in general, but precisely the fashionable portions of London, or those known or named in “society”, the houses of the leisured; the knotty complexity of the district is contained here, because to describe St Giles as “unfrequented” is not to say that it is empty (it is overcrowded, after all) or that no one from higher society goes there (they go there at night, and then only the more adventurous and predatory males). For the young Charles Dickens (Sketches by Boz; 1836), William Harrison Ainsworth (Jack Sheppard; 1839) and Douglas Jerrold (The History of St Giles and St James; 1845), the area was symbolic as for Beames: it was the lower polar extreme of the “town” (Finch 2013, 91; Flint 1987, 131, 143; James 2006, 124–5). In Nicholas Nickleby (1839/1998, 392), Dickens presents a decayed provincial actor called Mr Snevellicci announcing (in Portsmouth) “I’m to be found in Broad Court, Bow Street, when I’m in town” and so assuming the mantle of fashion as a man who spends part of his time “in town”. Broad Court was in the southern part of St Giles close to the glamour of the London theatres but equally close to some of the worst courts in the southern areas of the parish. St Giles appeared this way in the title of Jerrold’s novel The History of St Giles and St James. There, St James is a young male character from the fashionable end of the “town”, St Giles his equivalent from the Rookery who becomes a thief, a “young gallows-bird” when “hardly out of the shell”, in the words of St Giles’s “night-constable”, after he is arrested for pickpocketing the wealthy St James (Jerrold 1845/1847, 18). Using St Giles as a metonymic token for all that was squalid, low-class and disrespectful was widespread in the 1840s and 1850s: the novelist Anthony Trollope could allude to this proverbial status as late as 1858 (White 2007, 89).

In 1847, New Oxford Street was built, cutting through the most notorious portion of the “Rookery” and displacing about 5,000 of its inhabitants (White 2007, 32). Many settled slightly further east, in streets on the frontier between the parishes of St Giles and St Clement Danes which themselves were wiped out by road-building sixty years later when the north-south highway of Kingsway was constructed through the heart of the area. At the time of Charles Booth’s initial social survey in 1889, the former area of the Rookery around the church and old High Street of St Giles had 20–29 per cent of its population living in what Booth defined as poverty, but areas immediately to its east had figures over 40 per cent and even, in Saffron Hill and Whitecross Street north of the City of London, over 60 per cent (Clout 1991, 102). From the 1880s onwards, literary authors increasingly turned away from the West End fringes. George Gissing, in novels like Workers in the Dawn (1880) and New Grub Street (1891), was among the last to place London lowlife fiction there instead of in what overwhelmingly came to seem its natural site, the areas east of the City of London. For much of the twentieth century the area seemed a forgotten margin. At the end of the twentieth century Peter Ackroyd (2000, 143) called New Oxford Street “one of the least interesting thoroughfares in London, with no character except the somewhat dubious one of being dominated by the high-rise block of Centrepoint”.

But following this shift from notoriety to oblivion, in the twenty-first century the Rookery of St Giles has gained a place in the renovated twenty-first century mythology of London. This is precisely as a portion of the past which was for long ignored and even forgotten, as a portion only known by insiders. In the 2010s, St Giles has been rebranded as part of a Business Improvement Area (BIA) labelled “Midtown”, the name, it would seem, borrowed from  Manhattan  with  its  associations  of  go-getting  modernity  (Inmidtown  2015).  In “Midtown”, St Giles is grouped together with nearby Holborn and Bloomsbury (all within the borders of the former Metropolitan Borough of Holborn) as an area of ideas. Within this area, an edgy quality is provided by the presence here of the site of the Rookery, a fact taken up in publicity materials and activities created around the notion of “Midtown” including an activity for groups of people paying to participate called “Incredible Midtown the Game” (Discover Midtown 2015). Among the phenomena in the area offered to participants in this game, which seems in effect a tour of urban lowlife, are “the sly pickpockets of the St GilesRookery”.

The existence of a BIA relies on the willingness of businesses headquartered here to pay extra business taxes in order to clean and promote the area more effectively than local government will. The promotion involves the positioning of “Midtown” as an area with an authentically urban and even dangerous past. This frisson of danger introduced by the memory of the Rookery seems to re-emerge in “Incredible Midtown the Game” from writings and artistic exhibitions of the 1990s and 2000s concerned with this aspect of St Giles’s past. Notable among these are Ackroyd’s chapter on St Giles in London: The Biography (2000) and “The Secret Life of the Rookery”, an exhibition by the artist Jane Palm-Gold in conjunction with the Museum of London’s archaeologists, which took place in 2011 but grew out of her research into archaeological excavations in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Palm-Gold 2011).

Figure 4 (will be added later). Jane Palm-Gold, ‘The Crossroads Between Time and Eternity’. ©Jane Palm-Gold/DACS 2008,

Palm-Gold, like Ackroyd, identifies the area as a topo-symbolic “crossroads”, a junction at the old edge of London, a spot of transients, of passage.

Centre Point and Me: Experiences of Centrality and the Off-Centre

St Giles has in its past typically seemed slightly off-centre, a periphery of the West End, one of London’s two main centres. Its rebranding in recent times has been built around the assertions of centrality contained in the name Midtown (presented as the middle, or centre, rather than as somewhere in between the two poles of City and West End) and in the complex of buildings named Central St Giles. Central St Giles seems to be named as it is most directly because it occupies the portion of the parish of St Giles considered central because closest to the church and High Street (from 1900 to 1965 Central St Giles was a subdivision of the Metropolitan Borough of Holborn). But the name given to this office development, designed by globally-famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, like the renaming of the area as “Midtown”, is also an assertion that St Giles now is central rather than peripheral. Centrality, Pierre-Yves Saunier (1998) has shown, while often taken for granted as a core characteristic of cities, is understood and valued differently in different cities at different moments, sometimes as a desirable attribute, sometimes the opposite.

My personal experiences of St Giles are chiefly those of an outer Londoner, a suburbanite, in search of the centre. I used to play a game with a friend, a fellow Londoner and more than me a habitué of its streets. In it, the two of us would try to name the point that is the absolute centre of London. Charing Cross? Too far west surely, almost round the corner of the River into Westminster and in any case on the River, so in other words almost south of the River, which would never do. St Paul’s Cathedral? In the City of London: surely there is nothing to the east of there, only a few banks and the Tower of London; surely real London lies to its west. Viewed this way, everything was a little too southern or too eastern, too northern or too western, not itself the hub of events but on the edge of something unremarkable. One contender, briefly considered, was the 36-storey, 116-metre-high 1960s office block Centre Point by the architects R. Seifert and Partners (Pawley 2001).

Centre Point stands to the east of St Giles High Street (across that street from the site of the leper hospital). It occupies a portion of the site of the St Giles Rookery of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, due south of New Oxford Street, the highway cut through the Rookery in the 1840s. After its construction, Centre Point notoriously stood half-empty for a decade, towering alone over a shabby Victorian and Edwardian cityscape. But things change. In the 2010s, a new restaurant opened on the top floor of the tower, and it has been rebranded by business operators as an icon of the “Sixties”, rather than somewhere merely drab and monolithic (Centre Point Blog 2015). In the game, Centre Point was swiftly discarded. But before this happened I was drawn to it. It was across the street from Centre Point that, as a teenager, I used to emerge from the London Underground at Tottenham Court Road station then go in search of records and clothes to buy or want to buy. I went, in other words, in search of where it was happening, in search of something that, like the absolute centre of London in the game, I was never quite able to find. Centre Point’s very name was a declaration of its centrality. Yet its initial failure, until perhaps supported by Central St Giles and the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road in the 2010s, resulted from its lack of centrality in terms of West End property, in the 1960s property boom far easier to market when it occupied sites further west such as Park Lane and Baker Street.

It is hard to say whether Centre Point actually suffered because of some memory of its location atop the former rookery, in Egan’s “back slums”, low and “unfrequented”. But the repeated assertion of centrality in this area by those attempting to deal in it, whilst others repeatedly seem to have experienced it as transient or slightly off the main routes, contain some parts of its Gumbrechtian presence without any need to speak as Ackroyd and indeed Palm-Gold do of a mystical centuries-old influence transmitted by the lazar house and the later colony of Irish immigrants blackened with the name “Rookery”.

Frameworks for Experience: Parish, Landlord and Tenant

Specifics of London housing and street cultures are only understandable via a grasp of the interrelations between individuals’ phenomenological experiences and underlying, enduring, structuring elements. In consideration of an imaginative place such as St Giles, these two sorts of story can seem to operate not as historians have conventionally seen, with one side, whether the conscious decisions and motivations of individuals or determining forces that are beyond individuals’ comprehension, in charge of the other, but instead in a relationship of abrasion or periodic collision, with one sometimes scraping the other but with the two also, for spells, seeming quite independent of one another. At St Giles, such structuring elements include the civil parish as local government unit, and the prevailing customs of land-holding and tenancy, both operating within the specific local geography of this area.

Taxation and poor relief in early-nineteenth-century London were arranged at the local government level of the civil parish. Civil parishes were pre-industrial divisions typically dating from the eighteenth century. At the time of population explosion in the first half of the nineteenth century they and their tiny staff of officials typically struggled to cope with great increases in the numbers of people claiming parish assistance and in the number of corpses needing to be buried: a crisis in welfare and public health (Sheppard 1971, 83– 116, 247– 296; Sheppard 1998, 264–288). As a civil parish, St Giles formally existed from 1774, when it was established via a merger of the parishes (which remained separate ecclesiastical parishes) of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St George, Bloomsbury, until 1930. In that year, it was abolished as a formal subdivision of the Metropolitan Borough of Holborn, of which since the latter’s formation in 1900 it had been one of the component parts. The establishment by central government fiat of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855 and the London County Council in 1889, both efforts to manage the massively expanded city better, meant that the Civil Parish had been steadily weakened for many decades before that. But in the first half of the nineteenth century responsibility for the poor in parishes such as St Giles fell upon a fairly small and disgruntled group of not especially wealthy local property-owners paying the tax on property known as the rates. In neighbouring parishes such as St George, Bloomsbury, by contrast, the property-owners tended to be richer and the poor less numerous in proportion to them, so the burden on them felt far lighter (Green and Parton 1990, 72). The microgeographies of administrative boundaries thus matter to an understanding of the realities of experience in St Giles.

Beyond the composition of the rate-payers and the application of Poor Laws, another aspect of the civil parish needs to be taken into account at St Giles: the social geography of its territory [see figure 1/2]. The civil parish formed in 1774 was divided into a dramatically wealthier northern half and poorer southern half. Whereas Clerkenwell, two kilometres to the east and due north of the City of London, had been out of fashion with the rich since the end of the sixteenth century, early Victorian St Giles contained a new haute-bourgeois suburb: Bloomsbury. The southern part contained the site of the leper hospital, the parish church and the roads named “St Giles High Street” and “Broad St Giles”, making it easy to see why the concept of “St Giles” used by Cruikshank, Jerrold, Burn and others in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century used the name of the whole parish in a way one might label quite unfair: for the polar extreme of London associated with poverty, beggardom, drunkenness, filth, overcrowding, and thievery. Again, the literary scholar of St Giles considering its topography and actual boundaries (see Boundary Commissioners 1885), will nuance an understanding of what the ideological or discursive construction of “St Giles” actually meant when, for example, Jerrold names or nicknames a character St Giles (as if he were a stereotype, an embodiment of the rooks of the rookery, or as if he were an embodiment of the tragic parish as a whole).

Most properties in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London, and specifically in the western portion of the centre which had grown up between Westminster and the City, had been built as single houses intended for one family with servants. Instead of being tenanted like this, they ended up being let out floor by floor or room by room. Tenants rented from a head tenant who was sometimes a leaseholder, someone holding a lease on the property usually of several decades’ length, sometimes renting the whole house from the landlord or the owner of the freehold. The latter, or ground landlord, was the actual legal owner of the territory on which the building stood. London was a patchwork, with extensive zones covered by estates with a single owner, while some areas had multiple freeholders of small plots crammed together (see e.g. Croot 2009, 55–118; White 2007, 67–77; Whitfield 2006, 58 [an excellent cartographic representation]; Summerson 1945). Often it was speculative builders acting as leaseholders who actually built groups of houses and whole networks of streets, on the understanding that they were improving the property of an often aristocratic or institutional ground landlord.

Some ground landlords, particularly the wealthiest and those who controlled the most lucrative estates where houses remained undivided and appealing to wealthy tenants, were able to apply strict rules about behaviour on their estates. The Bedford Estate which developed most of what today is labelled Bloomsbury (its western half actually the northern portion of the post-1774 civil parish of St Giles) was run by the Russell family headed by the Dukes of Bedford (Croot 2009, 100; Sheppard 1970, 19–52; White 2007, 71–73). This estate’s “focus moved” in the early eighteenth century, from the Russells’ Covent Garden lands further south which had become occupied by the large, noisy and smelly wholesale fruit and vegetable market of London (Sheppard 1970, 27). Bloomsbury, north of the central part of St Giles around the church, had porters’ lodges on entrance roads to the estate and licences permitting the sale of alcohol in public houses there were not issued. One reason for this vigilance was the presence of the bad St Giles immediately south of the estate.

In the 1840s, the Bedford Estate owned some slum properties close to the market at Covent Garden, as the Duke discovered after the Royal Commission into the Sanitary State of Large Towns and Populous Districts presented its report, by Edwin Chadwick, in 1844 (Sheppard 1970, 40–48, paragraph 14). But the areas in which conditions were most acute and shocking to middle-class contemporaries (once publicised) were often those in which so-called house-farmers, ancestors of notorious later slum landlords like the twentieth century’s Peter

Rachman, made a living by buying the freeholds of multiple ill-maintained older houses, cramming them with short-term tenants and spending as little as possible on repairs (Baker, Bolton and Croot 1989, 198–204; Simmonds 2002). In 1843 for example, a solicitor named Charles Innis owned 55 houses in the St Giles Rookery (Green and Parton 1990, 68). Operating beneath such slum landlords, as Richard Dennis (2008b) has demonstrated, were lodging-house keepers, for example those who ran the houses in Spitalfields, east of the City of London, where the victims of the murderer known as Jack the Ripper slept when they could. Lodging-house keepers lived in portions of the premises they rented out and sometimes provided informal charity to the very needy as well as profiting from them.

By 1720, when Strype (2007, 4.75) mapped the Parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields (until 1774 only made up of what after that date would be its southern portion), St Giles was already a congested entry point to London, on the north-west edge of the built-up area. Here, main roads to the west and north-west of England including the main road to Ireland which ran via the port of Holyhead, entered London; within St Giles they then split, with at the eastern end of “Broad” St Giles Drury Lane running south-east to the Strand and the Thames, and High Holborn heading due east. The latter was the old main road entering the City of London from the west. This was a bottleneck, a narrow space through which people were forced. Peter Ackroyd, in an account influential on twenty-first century reshapings of the area, uses it as an emblematic “crossroads” in his “biography” of London (2000, 131–143). The historians working on a publication called Streets of St Giles for the Camden History Society, meanwhile, call the passage from St Giles High Street to High Holborn “London’s spinal cord” (Denford and Hayes 2012, 56). And yet, these roads and their accretions of poor suburbs with their rows of houses built semi-legally in what had been the gardens of bigger houses, hemmed in by aristocratic estates, made up a space of freedom. For such areas contained the possibility for almost anyone of getting a room thereabouts (or sleeping rough in corridors), and then going about “constructing a life”, as Hitchcock (2004, 1) puts it. In this, St Giles in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had a role later taken over by the immediate hinterlands of London’s main railway termini: King’s Cross, Euston, Paddington, Waterloo, Liverpool Street.

From the hemmed-in nature of St Giles, and more specifically the “old” parish, after 1774 the southern portion of an expanded civil parish, comes the specific geography of London respectability. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London there existed a vital contrast between visible respectability and the concealment with the connivance of everyone involved of the non-respectable. For two hundred years after 1630, urbanization happened in the area between the City and Westminster by haphazard processes of infill leading to steadily increasing densities of population. Charles I himself profited from what he appeared to condemn, by selling licences to the Russells and others permitting them on one site or another to break the overall rule against building on plots laid out as large houses with formal gardens (Sheppard 1970, 25–34), thus setting the pattern for the hypocrisy that would dominate the attitude of those in England’s higher social classes to what would become labelled the slums of London until the twentieth century.

Broad streets through which carriages could be driven tended to be highly respectable (and so public urination in one of them would be more shocking than in a backstreet, thinking again of Cruikshank). Side streets opening off these were less respectable. Less respectable still, the least respectable addresses in London, in fact, were the thousands of courts opening off side streets and main streets which were too narrow for any rider or horse-drawn vehicle to pass through, but these too had a wide range of levels of decency and respectability. Even within what could be labelled the slums and rookeries of St Giles and neighbouring parishes like St Clement Danes, there was a subtle but significant difference between the (better) “Broad Court” opening off Drury Lane, inhabited by Dickens’s Mr Snevellicci, and the (worse) Wild Court, to the east of there and tucked away behind the gardens and outbuildings of grander Lincolns Inn Fields and Queen Street, with cartographic evidence one means available to twenty-first century scholars of grasping these subtleties (e.g. Greenwood and Greenwood 1830/2001; Stanford 1862/2001).


The relationship between displayed and hidden, respectable and unrespectable, is the core imaginative structure within which the “London slum” of the nineteenth century which emanated from St Giles should be understood. St Giles, we have seen, was a legally-constituted civil parish with mappable boundaries, but it was also an idea, a metonymy. This had its origin in the southern and oldest portion of the parish where the High Street, parish church, and “Rookery” were, which could be understood together as the town centre of St Giles. This part of St Giles in the Fields was surrounded by other areas in which respectability was maintained to greater or lesser extents: more in St George-the-Martyr, Bloomsbury to the north east; less in cosmopolitan St Anne, Soho, to the west; patchily in St Martin in the Fields and St Clement Danes to the south. Respectability sounds a mere notion, but, as archaeological excavations reveal in their startlingly material way (Anthony 2011; Jeffries and Watson 2014), behind houses were their cesspits, and it was through the rear that servants and tradespeople gained access to them, while the master and mistress walked out of the front door into the broad, public street.

This article has presented the case that literary studies has a contribution to make to urban planning and rebranding discussions in the twenty-first century, for example when the top-down attempt to reclassify the area as “Midtown” emerges. Additionally, the article has addressed the problem of discourse in the history of urban phenomena such as the “slum” and the “rookery”. This is the problem which emerges when historians and geographers ask what the true nature of these phenomena was, leading them either to proceed in the assumption that there was such as thing as the slum because it has been labelled as such (Gaskell 1990; Green and Parton 1990), or to say that terms like slum and rookery are mere labels which should not be used because the slum was something “imagined” rather than real (Mayne 1993). It has proceeded by examining the materiality of the specific topographic zone in which the concepts originated, St Giles. Scholarly theory and practice in urban history and cultural studies still tend to keep materiality and textuality from infesting one another. The result is that the material force of naming and lexical acts of definition which connect the minutiae of St Giles in 1799 or 1855 to the global urban context of the twenty-first century have yet to be fully recognized. Finally, the article has pointed towards the possibilities contained in a much deeper engagement of literary studies with archaeologists’ modes of working and thinking the material.



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Jason Finch

PhD, Assistant Professor, English Literature, Åbo Akademi University.