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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

18th and 19th century London Rookeries

by guest blogger Laura Beers

During the 18th and 19th century, London’s slums were commonly referred to as rookeries. These areas were synonymous with overcrowded, unsanitary, and squalid living conditions. Poorly constructed, blackened dwellings were crammed together, forcing out natural light, thus creating gloomy streets and alleyways. Open sewers lined the narrow streets, strewn with carcasses of dead animals, where rats commonly scurried about uninterrupted.

Little children, or “street urchins,” ran through the muddy streets, skirting animal dung and dressed in tattered clothing. Women wore shapeless, faded dresses, grateful to have any clothes at all. People of all ages went to work but earned just enough money to survive.
Jacobs' Island
The most notorious slum areas were situated in East London, which was dubbed darkest London. However, slums existed in other parts of London, as well. Some examples are the Devil's Acre near Westminster Abbey, Jacob's Island, and Pottery Lane in Notting Hill.
The only available drinking water came directly from the River Thames, whose water was hideously filthy and gave off a terrible stench. At times, the Thames was so dirty that the top layer of water became a thick, black scum.

Recognizing the rookeries’ dire situation, a Parliamentary Committee was set up in 1816 to discuss the problems of the London slums, and explore what could be done to ease their suffering. Professionals were called in to give evidence and to share their firsthand experiences of the rookeries.

One London doctor, William Blair, had this to say:
“Human beings, hogs, and dogs, were associated in the same habitations; and great heaps of dirt, in different quarters, may be found piled up in the streets. Another reason of their ill health is this, that some of the lower inhabitations have neither windows nor chimneys nor floors, and were so dark that I can scarcely see there at midday without a candle. I have actually gone into a ground floor bedroom, and could not find my patient without the light of a candle.”

Unfortunately, many believed the rookeries were a result of idleness, sin, and the wicked behavior of the lower classes. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century, that journalists and social researchers began rallying support for an immediate public action to improve the slums’ living conditions.

Slowly, they garnered support in Parliament, only after they argued convincingly that the slums were caused by unemployment, lack of access to education, poverty, and homelessness.

Despite their efforts, the higher social classes mostly overlooked the people residing in the rookeries, but I doubt those inhabitants dwelt on it for too long. They were just trying to stay alive for another day.

-Written by Laura Beers
A Regency Spy Romance Author

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