‘The slum was a labyrinth of lanes, courts, and alleys, where vice, depravity, and crime could be found in abundance.’
The Devil’s Acre was a notorious slum near Westminster Abbey that existed during the Victorian era. The slum had its origins in the Middle Ages, during which the abbey’s monks offered a haven to criminals and debtors.
It was little more than a dismal swamp, and home to a community of beggars, thieves and prostitutes. Police only made rare visits to the area and when they did, the local residents strongly repelled them.
During the mid-18th century, the gardens and courtyards were built over and replaced by cheap housing that lacked ventilation, drainage and sanitation facilities. By the 19th century, the area was the centre of poverty, vice, and crime in London. In 1850, Charles Dickens gave the area its infamous name, ‘the Devil’s Acre’. Several other parts of London could claim to be the most destitute–Shoreditch, and Saint Giles for a start, but none were as horrendous as this area just a couple of hundred yards away from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
The slum was a labyrinth of lanes, courts, and alleys, where vice, depravity, and crime could be found in abundance. With no sewage system, swarms of the vast population lived in filth. Disease was rampant, including typhus and cholera.
Dickens was one of several philanthropists who were shocked that such an area could exist at the very heart of the British Empire. Westminster contained the seat of government as well as the prestigious Westminster Abbey, yet was also the home to thousands living an existence of inhumane despair and crime.
The two existed side by side, often pretending as if neither existed. In 1855, a lodging house in the area was reputed to have held 120 people.
The plight of children in the area, many of them street orphans, also shocked those who went into the area to help. The City of London Mission felt that the area was so depraved that it had to be re-conquered for Christianity. For the last half of the 19th century, its missionaries compiled reports on the area based on door-to-door visits in the neighbourhood. One report by missionary Andrew Walker described the extent of the depravity. He was shocked to discover they took street orphans off of the streets into the School of Fobology or in other words, pick-pocketing. Based in the One Tun pub in Old Pye Street. The ‘Fagin like’ master of the school gave them a master class in the art of pick pocketing. This shocked one wealthy philanthropist Adeline Cooper into buying the pub and converting it into a ‘Ragged school’ with the help of the famous social reformer Lord Shaftesbury.
The pollution of the River Thames had reached its peak in the Great Stink of 1858, and it forced Members of Parliament to support Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system for London. Once there was no longer sewage flowing into the public’s drinking water, cases of cholera became almost non-existent. The Devil’s Acre, which had always been a poor area because of the marshy ground it stood in beside the River Thames, was now separated from the river by the Embankment wall. With the development of Victoria Street, the land became prime building land and the old shanty town was no more.
The former residents that remained were the ‘deserving poor’ who found themselves re-housed in social housing provided by George Peabody with sanitary conditions that insured that cholera would never haunt the residents of Old Pye Street ever again.
TALES OF LONDON’S DARKER HISTORY
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