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The Devil’s Acre

Written by Johanna Lemon and Peter Daniel

One of the areas hardest hit by choleraimg was what was then known as the ‘Devil’s Acre.’ This section of London would have been located in what is currently the prestigious heart of Westminster. Yet at the time of the cholera outbreak, the Devil’s Acre was little more than a dismal swamp, home to a community of beggars, thieves, prostitutes, and charlatans. It was said that it was the area most ideal for housing criminals of all types as the police only made rare visits to the area—and when they did the local inhabitants vigorously repelled them. Charles Dickens’s campaigning magazine ‘Household Words’ featured the area in its very first edition in 1850 and helped to popularise the infamous name that had been given to an area that lay between the pillars of state; Westminster Abbey (Church), Buckingham Palace (Crown) and the Houses of Parliament (State). The streets that encompassed The Devil's Acre were Old Pye Street, Great St Anne's Lane (now St Ann Street and the location of Westminster Archives) and Duck Lane (now St Matthew Street) in the parish of Westminster St Margaret and St John.

Dickens himself had come to know of the Devil’s Acre as a young parliamentary reporter and was determined that his magazine would raise awareness of the problems there and shame those very same pillars of state into action:

‘There is no part of the metropolis which presents a more chequered aspect, both physical and moral, than Westminster. The most lordly streets are frequently but a mask for the squalid districts which lie behind them, whilst spots consecrated to the most hallowed of purposes are begirt by scenes of indescribably infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey.’









 

The area was low lying, close to the river Thames and built along the ancient course of the river Tyburn. This made the land prone to subsidence and thus unsuitable for buiding. By 1850 the area was considered one of the worst in London and thought of as the centre of poverty, vice and crime. As Dicken’s Household Words coined the term the ‘Devil’s Acre,’ Cardinal Wiseman’s comments were to mark it down as the ‘original’ slum:

‘Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and courts, and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity, and crime, as well as of squalor, wretchedness, and disease; whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera; in which swarms of huge and almost countless population, nominally at least, Catholic; haunts of filth, which no sewage committee can reach – dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten.’

(This passage, first published by Wiseman in An Appeal to the Reason and Good Feeling of the English People on the Subject of the Catholic Hierarchy, was widely quoted in the national press, which led to the popularisation of the word slum to describe bad housing. )

Dickens was one of a number of 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 1846, Dickens was approached by banking millionaires Angela Burdett-Coutts to help her do something for the ‘fallen women’ of the Devil’s Acre. Together they set up a refuge for former prostitutes in Shepherd’s Bush called Urania Cottage.

The plight of children in the area, many of them street orphans, also shocked those who went into the area to try and 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 that street orphans were taken off of the streets into ‘the School of Fobology’ which was 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. Angela Burdett-Coutts was also a prime mover in the ‘Ragged School’ movement, which sought to provide basic education for poor children. Her involvement in education in the area was long term and eventually she helped to build a school for local children, that still bares her name in Rochester Street, SW1.

Until something was done about the living conditions of the people then much of the philanthropic work instigated by Dickens and his contemporaries would have little effect. However, overcrowding was exacerbated by the building of Victoria Street. John Hollingshead wrote in his book ‘Ragged London’ (1861 that Victoria Street had divided "the diseased heart" in half, pushing inhabitants into the surrounding areas. The 1861 census for Old Pye Street shows that a single lodging was home to over one hundred and twenty people. All in all, the proximity this area shared with the poisonous Thames, its extensive overcrowding, and its immense lack of proper sanitation made it a breeding ground for diseases such as cholera.

The pollution of the River Thames had reached its zenith in the Great Stink and Members of Parliament were forced to support Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system for London. Joseph Bazalgette’s Thames Embankment was created between Chelsea and Westminster to house a new central sewer that collected London’s sewage for treatment further east at Beckton and Crossness. Once there was no longer sewage flowing into the public’s drinking water cases of cholera became almost nonexistent. The Devil’s Acre, which had always been a poor area because of the marshy ground that it stood on 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 depicted so famously by Gustav Dore 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.