The secret life of the rookery

From interview by Matilda Battersby for The Independent of 16.5.11:

” ‘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”…

St Giles parish, immortalised in Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, was the site of London’s most notorious rookery of the time…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…

Since Palm-Gold set up home in St Giles there have been considerable changes…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.

“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…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’…

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