A depiction of the “rookery” of St. Giles parish, in 1800; it was perhaps even more noisome and squalid than this sketch suggests. Note the pig.
The bells of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, according to a church report, “are in very fair condition, and, in spite of their great age, work very well.” They are more than three hundred years old, and yet are still heard every Thursday lunchtime. But the history of this London parish stretches back much further.
In familiar and almost characteristic fashion, there was a Saxon church on the site of the present St. Giles. Drury Lane, once known as “via de Aldwych,” was the main road leading towards Watling Street from the settlement of Lundenwic, or Covent Garden; at its northern end was a village cross and a chapel administered by “John of good memory.” Upon this site, in the first years of the twelfth century, were established a chapel and a hospital for lepers; they were dedicated to St. Giles, himself the patron saint of lepers. The establishments lay among fields and marshes, their contagion kept apart from the city. But St. Giles was also the intercessionary saint for beggars and cripples, for those afflicted with misery or those consigned to loneliness. He himself was lame but refused to be treated for his disability in order that he might practise self-mortification all the more fervently.
The invocation of sorrow and loneliness, first embodied in the twelfth-century foundation, has never entirely left this area; throughout its history it has been the haunt of the poor and the outcast. Vagrants even now roam its streets and close to the church there is still a centre for the homeless.
The grounds belonging to the hospital, which eventually became the parish of St. Giles, are now roughly delineated by the triangle of Charing Cross Road (formerly Hog Lane and, even earlier, Eldestrate), New Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. It remained a refuge for lepers until the fifteenth century, when it seems that it also made provision for the very poor and the infirm; it was, in the words of a London County Council survey, a “peculiarly London institution.” A village sprang up beside the refuge, with small shops catering to the needs of the inmates; Gervasele Lyngedrap (linen-draper) is one of the late medieval merchants mentioned in the hospital records. At the time of the Reformation the establishment was dissolved, and the chapel transformed into the parish church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. The first post-Catholic building was erected in 1631, but by that time the nature of the district had changed. Always an ambiguous and ill-defined area, hovering between city and country, in the ninth century it had been on the Saxon highway and, as London grew more prosperous, its trade and traffic had increased; there were taverns and hostels for travellers. Another kind of wanderer arrived when, by proclamation of Elizabeth in 1585, many foreigners were ejected from the city itself and settled in the vicinity. These in turn were followed by the vagrant and the impoverished. Meanwhile, the position of St. Giles, outside the city and close to Westminster, attracted various notables who built grand houses among pasture grounds recreated as gardens. By the seventeenth century St. Giles was known for its startling contrasts between rich and poor, the latter clustering to the south of what is now New Oxford Street. It remained in that unsettled state for several centuries. “Numbers of the habitations seem calculated for the depth of misery,” one chronicler of the parish wrote in the nineteenth century, “others for the extremes of opulence.”
It functioned, then, as both entrance and exit; it greeted arrivals and harboured those who had been expelled from the city. It was in every sense a crossroads. A gallows and, later, a “cage” or “pound” were placed on the spot where now Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street and New Oxford Street meet. Beneath St. Giles Circus, as it is called, exists the crossroads of the “Northern” and “Central” lines of the Underground system. St. Giles has also been the crossroads between time and eternity. “For a shroud for a poor woman that dyed in the cage,” reads one notation in the churchwarden’s account. Even after the gallows had been removed, in the late fifteenth century, St. Giles was still the guardian of the threshold to death; all malefactors on their way to the “Tyburn tree” halted at the aptly named “Resurrection Gate” of St. Giles-in-the-Fields where they were given a bowl of ale to comfort them on their journey. It might almost be described as a local celebration, since St. Giles was remarkable for nurturing the hangmen of the day, as well as being the second largest source of those who were hanged. In the words of an old lyric: “St. Giles’ breed, better hang than seed.”
That final drink upon the rite of passage was appropriate in another sense, also, since the parish was celebrated or condemned, according to taste, for the number of taverns and the incidence of drunkenness. The White Hart, established in the thirteenth century, survives in name at least by the corner of Drury Lane, but many others have crumbled to dust—the Maidenhead in Dyot Street, the Owl Bowl in Canter’s Alley, the Black Bear, the Black Jack, the Black Lamb, the Vine and the Rose. The Maid in the Moon, off Drury Lane, has now been curiously succeeded by the Moon Under Water along the Charing Cross Road. There is another connection with alcohol; the present Grape Street is aligned with the old vineyard of the hospital.
This is also the neighbourhood where William Hogarth set Gin Lane. The tradition of the last drink or “the St. Giles bowl,” according to John Timbs, the author of the nineteenth-century Curiosities of London, had “made it a retreat for noisome and squalid outcasts.” But no description can match the outrage and despair of the eighteenth-century engraving. Hogarth has established the essential spirit of the place where vagrants still sit in small groups drinking ale from cans—the emaciated young man, the drunken woman with syphilitic sores, the suicide, the hasty burials in situ, the child about to fall to its death, all these reflect in exaggerated detail the reality of St. Giles as a centre of death-dealing drink but they are also uncannily prophetic of the early nineteenth-century slums known as the “Rookeries” which would arise on the identical spot some fifty years later.
Another calamity was visited by drink upon St. Giles-in-the-Fields in 1818. A great vat of the Horseshoe Brewery, situated just north of the crossroads, exploded and released approximately ten thousand gallons of beer; stalls, carts and walls were washed away in the flood and the beer quickly filled the cellars of the vicinity, drowning eight people. Gin Lane and Beer Lane met in confluence.
The cellars that proved so fatal have their own history. “To have a cellar in St. Giles” was a catchphrase for squalor and misery. As early as 1637 the churchwardens’ accounts refer to “the great influx of poor people into this parish … persons that have families in cellars, and other abuses.” These lower rooms acquired their reputation for foulness because of the locality itself: St. Giles-in-the-Fields was known for being “damp and unwholesome.” A parliamentary Act of 1606 had condemned Drury Lane and its environs as “deepe foul and dangerous to all who pass those ways.” A report by Christopher Wren complained of its “noisomnesse,” as it was surrounded by marshland, conduits and open ditches; and in the same period an inquiry at Westminster complained that the area “was very much overflowed with water” and had become “exceeding miry, dirty and dangerous.”
was dangerous in more than one respect since, from Drury Lane and the little courts beside it, emerged that pestilence which became known as the Great Plague of London. In the last weeks of 1664 the first people to be visited by that contagion were living at the northern end of the lane, opposite the Cole Yard where the fourteen-year-old Nell Gwynne dwelled. The outbreak “turned people’s eyes pretty much to that quarter,” as Daniel Defoe put it in his Journal of the Plague Year, and the sudden increase of burials in the parish led everyone to suspect “that the plague was among the people at that end of the town.” So this unlucky spot was the source of the great distemper which threatened to destroy the greater part of London’s citizens before being purged by fire. Many of the houses were closed down, and in his diary for 7 June 1665 Samuel Pepys noticed “much against my will” the red crosses daubed upon the wooden doors. The area was in a curious way blamed for the virulent disease—“that one parish of St. Giles at London hath done us all this mischief” Sir Thomas Peyton wrote—and it seems likely that its ambiguous status as a resort for the wretched and the outcast was now responsible for its dire reputation. The refuse of the city were, in a most threatening form, coming back into the city.
Yet this was not the end of St. Giles’s unhappy history. Waves of poor settlers generally inhabited its large buildings which over the years were converted into tenements and cellars. It is not too fanciful to suggest that the spirit of St. Giles himself influenced the journey of the poor to the parish of St. Giles since, as a direct consequence of its earlier history as a hospital, it was known for the scale of its charitable relief. The mid-seventeenth-century accounts of the parish note: “Gone to Tottenham-court Meg, being verie sicke, 1s. 0d…. Geven to the Ballet-singing Cobler 1s. 0d…. Gave to old Fritz-wig 0s. 6d…. Pd a year’s rent for Mad Bess £1 4s. 6d.” There are many references to relief granted for “poore plundered Irish,” to families “that came oute of Ireland,” and in fact that nation was to maintain its hold upon the area for two centuries. But the French also came, and those expelled from the city for vagrancy, as well as black servants reduced to beggary who were known as “St. Giles blackbirds.” In this quarter there emerged a tradition of mendicity which it has not wholly exorcised; as early as 1629 there were calls for “idle persons” to be taken up and within a generation complaints that the parish was the resort of “Irish and aliens, beggars, and dissolute and depraved characters.”Three generations later the area was considered to be “overburthened with poor.” The whole history of London vagrancy can be understood by proper attention to this small territory.
Most poignant, perhaps, is the unhappy fate of individuals who appear in the annals of poor relief. In the mid-eighteenth century “Old Simon” lived with his dog under a staircase in a ruined house within Dyot Street; a contemporary description of him by J.T. Smith in Book for a Rainy Dayis similar to that which could be given of late twentieth-century vagrants: “He had several waistcoats, and as many coats, increasing in size, so that he was enabled by the extent of the uppermost garment to cover the greater part of the bundles, containing rags of various colours, and distinct parcels with which he was girded about, consisting of books, canisters containing bread, cheese, and other articles of food; matches, a tinder-box, and meat for his dog.” The presence or companionship of a dog seems to be a permanent characteristic of the London vagrant.
“Old Jack Norris, the Musical Shrimp Man” lived, some seventy years later, in the same street (now renamed George Street). A beggar, engaged in the “cadging ramble” under the guise of selling shrimps, he starved to death or, as the jury put it, “died by the visitation of God.” There was Anne Henley, who in the spring of 1820 died in her 105th year in Smart’s Buildings. “She used to sit at various doors in Holborn to sell her pincushions. She was short in stature, mild and modest in her deportment, cleanly in her person and generally wore a grey cloak.”
At the time of writing, a large woman, with a shaved head, sits on New Oxford Street between Earnshaw Street and Dyott Street (which has reacquired its old name); she carries bags filled with newspapers and talks to herself continually, but she never asks for money. It is not clear why she should choose each day the same very public position, unless we were to surmise that the old lure of Dyott Street has not been wholly lost in the rebuilding of the area. A young man, with close-cropped hair and steel-rimmed glasses, sits and begs near the corner of Dyott Street. On St. Giles High Street, between Earnshaw Street and Dyott Street, the steps and doorway of a disused office block are used by middle-aged men who beg money for “a cup of tea.” St. Giles is indeed still a haven for beggars and vagrants, among them the woman who sits surrounded by pigeons in a urine-stained corner off High Holborn, and the old man who is always drunk but never begs by the Dominion Theatre where once the brewery stood. Vagrant youths beg from passers-by around the corner of the theatre. They lie in sleeping bags directly across the road from the YMCA hostel, emphasising that the place of transients in the life of St. Giles has never faded.
On the threshold of St. Giles, where the great road of High Holborn passes the entrances of Southampton Row and Proctor Street, vagrants can always be seen singly or in groups as if they were guardians of the area. They also linger in the churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, whiskered, red-faced, dirty, drinking spirits like the generations who came before them.
In this spirit of individual narrative we can note the end of the characteristically short lives in this neighbourhood, as recounted in the parish record, like those of “Elizabeth Otley, and one Grace, who were killed by the fall of a chimney in Partridge-alley … one Farmer’s child in the Cole-yard, drowned in a tub of water … a dead man, being thrust in the eye by a footman … one Goddid White, that drowned herself … a girl in Hogg Lane, that hanged herself … the deathe of a childe that parte of the limbes were bitt off by a dog or cat, at my Lord of Southampton’s house, in Long-fielde … a male child murdered, and layed at the backside of the King’s Head inne … indictment against Priscilla Owen, for biting her husband’s finger, which occasioned his death.”
There is another way of describing its inhabitants. In pictorial narratives they are seen as emblematic of a certain urban type, whose depraved or drunken character leads inevitably to an early demise through illness or upon the gallows. Death, then, becomes once more the province of St. Giles. The fatal stages of Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress are set in Drury Lane, and in a neighbouring night-cellar the “Idle Apprentice” is arrested for murder before being dispatched to the gallows. Another of Hogarth’s infamous characters, Tom Nero in Four Stages of Cruelty, is a St. Giles charity boy. He also ends upon the gallows. Death was rife within the parish in another sense, since St. Giles had the second greatest rate of mortality in the entire city.
The poor can also become the creatures of another narrative device, when their lives are retold by those with a taste for neo-Gothic sensationalism or prurience. Charles Dickens was repeatedly drawn to this area, either alone or in the company of police inspectors, and immortalised one of its most celebrated thoroughfares in his “Reflections upon Monmouth Street.” Tobias Smollett wrote of “two tatterdemalions from the purlieus of St. Giles, and between them both was but one shirt and a pair of breeches.” In 1751 Henry Fielding, another great London novelist, published his own account of infamous proceedings in St. Giles where “men and women, often strangers to each other, lie promiscuously, the price of a double bed being no more than three-pence, as an encouragement for them to lie together: That as these places are adapted to whoredom, so are they no less provided for drunkenness, gin being sold in them all at a penny a quartern … in one of these houses, and that not a large one, he [Mr Welch, high constable of Holborn] hath numbered fifty eight persons of both sexes, the stench of whom was so intolerable, that it soon compelled him to quit the place.” Drink, sex and smell are here mingled in a heady compound designed to titillate the senses of those fortunate enough to be able otherwise to avoid the area; these are precisely the scenes and scents which Fielding could not have presented within any of his official fiction but in the guise of sober reportage he could indulge his novelistic appetite for the “filth” and “noisomness.”
It is not necessary to emphasise that the lives of the St. Giles poor were indeed wretched, and that there were dirty houses of assignation in the parish; but it ought also to be remembered that the great London novelists, such as Dickens and Fielding, created a strange shadow-play of urban imagery. Their own occluded or obsessive characters mingled with the darker forces of the city to create a theatrical and symbolic London which has on many occasions supplanted the “reality” of various areas.
The most sensational accounts of St. Giles-in-the-Fields were reserved for the first decades of the nineteenth century. This was the time of the Rookeries, an island of cellars and tenements roughly bounded by St. Giles High Street, Bainbridge Street and Dyott Street. Within this unfortunate triangle, before New Oxford Street was constructed to lay waste the slums, were Church Lane, Maynard Street, Carrier Street, Ivy Lane and Church Street together with a congregation of yards and courts and alleys which turned the area into a maze used both as a refuge and as a hiding-place for those who dwelled there. “None else have any business there,” wrote Edward Walford in Old and New London, “and if they had, they would find it to their interest to get out of it as soon as possible.”
“The Rookeries” were also known as “Little Dublin” or “The Holy Land” because of the Irish population which dwelled there. But there were thieves, coiners, prostitutes and vagrants as well as labourers, road-sweepers and street-sellers. The lanes here were narrow and dirty, windows of decaying tenements were stuffed with rags or paper, while the interiors were damp and unwholesome. The walls were sagging, the floors covered in dirt, the low ceilings discoloured by mould; their smell was altogether indescribable. Thomas Beames, in The Rookeries of London, described how these sinister streets were “crowded with loiterers … women with short pipes in their mouths and bloated faces and men who filled every intermediate occupation between greengrocer and bird-catcher.” Its inhabitants were also “squalid children, haggard men with long uncombed hair, in rags … wolfish looking dogs.” Behind some of the most populous and busy streets in the capital were these areas of stale inactivity and impoverished languor; it was one of the many permanent and formidable contrasts within the city. The night lodgings here were known colloquially as “beggar’s operas” because of the drink and tumult which were encouraged.
For many generations there was also an annual carnival of beggars in the vicinity. In fact only sex and drink could make the conditions bearable. An official report in 1847 states that one room in a house “was occupied by only three families in the day but as many as could be got into it at night.” More than twenty people were often found in one small space, together with the wares which they sold in the street, oranges, onions, herrings and watercress being the favoured articles. In one alley behind Church Street there was a chamber like “a cow house” where “seventeen human beings eat, drunk and slept.” In this fearful place “the floor was damp and below the level of the court.”
Once again the peculiar dampness or fetidness of the parish is emphasised, the “noisomness” of which Wren and others had complained. The area was filled with vermin of every description and, in these conditions, there were innumerable cases of fever, cholera and consumption. Thomas Beames found a young man with a fatal consumptive cough—“he was quite naked, had not a rag to his back, but over him was thrown a thin blanket, and a blue rug like a horse cloth—these he removed to let us see there was no deception.” In many cases of mortal disease “those stricken were left to die alone, untended, unheeded, “they died and made no sign” … without a word which betokened religious feeling on their lips, without God in the world …” Nobody was beside them to murmur “St. Giles, protect them!,” because the presiding saint may be said to have fled the vicinity. The Irish behaved in a reckless and violent manner because they believed that they had entered a “heathen city.” “The Rookeries” embodied the worst living conditions in all of London’s history; this was the lowest point which human beings could reach before death took hold of them, and to the Irish it seemed that the city and its inhabitants were already given over to the devil.
They were given over to the landlord, however, and not to the devil. London is established upon commercial profit and financial speculation, and the pattern of its housing has followed similar imperatives. It has grown largely from speculative building, advancing in succeeding waves of investment and profit-taking while being momentarily stilled in periods of recession. The parish of St. Giles was a particularly interesting case of exploitation. A small group of individuals owned the housing stock of the area—eight people, for example, owned about 80 per cent of the houses in the Church Lane quarter—and they in turn let out the streets one by one. A person for an agreed sum rented a street by the year and then let out certain houses on a weekly return, while the proprietor of each house rented out separate rooms. The person who rented a room would then take money from those who inhabited a corner of it. It represents an absolute hierarchy of need, or desperation, in which no one assumed responsibility for the dreadful conditions which prevailed. They were instead blamed upon the “Irish” or the vices of the “lower orders” who somehow were seen to have brought their unhappy fate upon themselves. The caricatures of Hogarth, or of Fielding, damn the victims rather than their oppression.
There also emerged the “mob” of St. Giles, an undifferentiated mass of common human beings who posed a threat to order and security. In one armed raid upon “an Irish ken,” as reported in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, “the whole district had become alarmed, and hundreds came pouring down upon us—men, women, and children. Women, did I say!—they looked fiends, half naked.” Here the demonic language of the heathen city is applied to the tormented themselves. But if we look more closely at this “mob,” it will perhaps become more variegated and more interesting. It was often assumed that, because St. Giles was a haven for transients, it was therefore inhabited by a wholly transient population. But in fact the evidence of the settlement and examination books of the period reveals that the population was relatively stable and the movement in the parish took place only within sharply defined boundaries; the poor, in other words, clung to their neighbourhood and had no desire to move outside it. When later redevelopment of the area removed many parts of “the Rookeries,” their inhabitants migrated to adjacent streets where they lived in even more overcrowded circumstances. It is in fact a general characteristic of Londoners that they tend to conduct their lives in a relatively restricted area; it is still possible to find people in Hackney or Leytonstone, for example, who have never “gone West” and, similarly, inhabitants of Bayswater or Acton who have never travelled to the eastern portions of the city. In the case of the paupers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, that territorial imperative was very strong; they lived and died within the same few square yards with their own network of shops, public houses, markets and street contacts.
The great social topographer Charles Booth described St. Giles-in-the-Fields as the repository of “ordinary labour” but this term, like “mob,” hardly does justice to the nature of employment in this quarter of outcast London. There were knife-grinders and street-singers, dealers in vegetables and makers of door mats, dog-breakers and crossing sweepers, bird dealers and shoemakers, hawkers of prints and sellers of herring. More exotic trades, too, flourished in the neighbourhood.
Until 1666, when houses were built upon it, the southern region of the parish was a wasteland known as Cock and Pye Fields. It was not properly urbanised until 1693, however, when seven streets were laid out to meet at a central pillar and thereby form a star. This area was known as the Seven Dials. Perhaps the symbolic dimension of this late seventeenth-century development materially encouraged the presence of the astrologers who assembled here. There was Gilbert Anderson, “a notorious quack” who lived beside the inn called the Cradle and Coffin, in Cross Street; there was Dr. James Tilbury at the Black Swan by St. Giles-in-the-Fields, who sold the herb spoonwart supposedly mingled with gold; W. Baynham, who resided a few yards away at “the Corner house over against the upper end of St. Martin’s Lane near the Seven Dials, St. Giles,” was able to inform his customers “Which shall win in Horse or Foot races”; again “near the Seven Dials in St. Giles, Liveth a Gentlewoman, the seventh daughter of a Seventh Daughter” who could divine the result of pregnancies and lawsuits: “SHE ALSO INTERPRETS DREAMS.” Another famous quack and alchemist lived “by St. Giles Church, where you may see over the door a printed paper,” where he promised to reveal the workings of “Sulphur and Mercury,” and there was the notorious Jack Edwards who lived “in Castle-street in the Parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields” where he sold medicines, pills and potions for the treatment of humans and animals alike. All of them can be found in The Quacks of Old London by C.J. Thompson.
These examples of what we might now term alternative medicine are taken from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but the neighbourhood has never lost its oblique reputation for occultism and strange practice. In succeeding years the Freemasons, the Swedenborg Society, the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn have established themselves in the same parish. A few hundred yards from Monmouth Street is the Atlantis Bookshop, which remains the most celebrated depository of occult literature in England. Here again may be another example of that territorial imperative, or genius loci, which keeps inhabitants and activities in the same small area.
Jack Edwards was a ballad singer as well as a doctor, and the ballads of Seven Dials were as notorious as the events and people whom they commemorated. James Catnach of Monmouth Court was the first begetter and promoter of the broadsides, songs and pamphlets which circulated through the streets of eighteenth-century London. They cost a penny each, hence the term “catchpenny” as a tribute to his marketing skills. He was forced to take the coppers to a bank, however, because no one else would touch them in case of infection springing off the metal. The reputation of Seven Dials was always dark and disturbed, although Catnach himself remedied his own position by boiling the pennies in potash and vinegar so that they became bright once more.
There were five other printers of ballads in the immediate vicinity of St. Giles, publishing street literature with titles such as “Unhappy Lady of Hackney,” “Letter Written by Jesus Christ,” “Last Dying Speech of …” These broadsides were, for the people of London, the real “news” passing from hand to hand; in many instances it was disruptive or polemical news, concerning events which affected the citizens themselves. There was one mid-eighteenth-century ballad, for example, which was issued from Seven Dials and which concerned the local workhouse—“The Workhouse Cruelty, Workhouses turn’d Gaols, and Gaolers Executioners.” The death of “one Mrs. Mary Whistle” in the institution became the subject of popular resentment. There were also ballad complaints about the conditions of paupers and beggars, many left to die in the very same streets from which the ballads were issued. In that sense St. Giles-in-the-Fields, perhaps because of its raging population and its awful mortality, acted as an alternative source of authority. That made it a suitable haven for “coiners” who were in effect issuing another kind of money, in the process helping to disrupt the system of commerce and finance which cast so palpable a shadow over the impoverished inhabitants of this area.
It is appropriate, also, that the parish should be the haunt of prostitutes and a harbour of “night houses.” The courts and lanes adjoining Drury Lane were the most notorious for the trade and it was here, in his London Labour and the London Poor published between 1851 and 1862, that Henry Mayhew recorded the statement of one woman “over forty, shabbily dressed and with a disreputable unprepossessing appearance.” Mayhew’s accounts are a remarkable and affecting source of street life as well as street anecdote. His veracity and accuracy have sometimes been questioned, largely because he was part of a generation of mid-Victorian writers who tended to sensationalise or fictionalise the events and inhabitants of the “great wen.” But the general tenor and candour of Mayhew’s transcriptions can be trusted, as in this unhappy woman’s story: “I lodge in Charles Street, Drury Lane, now. I did live in Nottingham Court once and Earl Street. But, Lord, I’ve lived in a many places you wouldn’t think, and I don’t imagine you’d believe one half. I’m always a-chopping and a-changing like the wind as you may say … I don’t think much of my way of life. You folks as has honour, and character, and feelings, and such, can’t understand how all that’s been beaten out of people like me. I don’t feel. I’m used to it … I don’t suppose I’ll live much longer, and that’s another thing that pleases me. I don’t want to live, and yet I don’t care enough about dying to make away with myself. I arn’t got that amount of feeling that some has, and that’s where it is.” Mayhew declares that “she had become brutal,” but in fact the city had brutalised her.
Her fatalism, however, has not necessarily been shared. D.M. Green, in People of the Rookery, remarked that because of its dreadful conditions St. Giles contained “the seeds of revolution.” It is a curious chance, then, that in 1903, the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party should take place on Tottenham Court Road itself; it was organised by Lenin, and resulted in the separation of Bolsheviks from Mensheviks. As the author of Lenin in London, Lionel Kochahs, has put it, “It is almost true to say that Bolshevism as a political party was actually founded in Tottenham Court Road.” So the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields did indeed contain those “seeds” of violent social disruption, even if it were a species of instinctive and distant revenge.
• • •
The area around St. Giles was, in the language of the period, a “sore” or “abscess” that might poison the whole body politic, with the unspoken assumption that it must in some way be purged or cauterised. So between the years 1842 and 1847 a great thoroughfare known as New Oxford Street was run through it, leading to wholesale demolition of the worst lanes and courts with an attendant exodus of the poor inhabitants—although most of them moved only a few streets further south. The language of the body was once more used by contemporary moralists who characteristically celebrated the fact that “one huge filthy mass” had been dispersed. Yet the heady atmosphere of the place was by no means removed; the exiled poor simply lived in conditions worse and more overcrowded than before, while the premises and shops of the new street remained unlet for some years. It was still a damp, dismal and “noisome” place to which few new residents could be attracted. And so it stands today. New Oxford Street is 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. The building towers above the site of the old “cage” and gallows, and may perhaps be considered a fitting successor to them. It is an area now without character or purpose, the home of computer suppliers, an Argos superstore, some indistinguishable and undistinguished office buildings, and shops designed for the trade of passing tourists. There are still the vagrants lingering in the recesses of the area as a token of its past, but where there was once life and suffering there is now a dismal quiet from which St. Giles himself can offer no deliverance.