In the early part of the 19th century, London was a thriving city, an important centre of trade and commerce with magnificent shops and houses, fine squares, streets and thoroughfares. But the city’s size and rapid expansion encouraged the growth of crime until it reached epidemic proportions and alongside – usually within a stone’s throw – of these prosperous areas flourished far seedier districts. Narrow alleys, streets and courts formed evil smelling, densely populated, labyrinthine slums known as rookeries. The term rookery probably evolved from the slang verb ‘to rook’, meaning to cheat or steal, associated with the supposedly thieving nature of the rook bird.
Any visitors to London who took a wrong turn into the rookeries found themselves in a lawless place where every conceivable vice and crime was committed among the gin dens, bawdy houses, brothels and filthy, overcrowded housing. A popular legend claimed that a traveller had entered Portugal Street on his way to the Strand and had never emerged, his ghost still searching for a way back to civilisation.
The areas of Covent Garden and St. Giles’ were generally known as the most dangerous and depraved in the country, if not in Europe. St. Giles’ Rookery, nicknamed the Holy Land or Rats’ Castle, was the most notorious of all. It centred on Seven Dials and comprised the area between Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street, which was even then a fashionable shopping area.
Few people would venture into the Rats’ Castle. Physicians and surgeons would not go in for fear of catching some disease or being set upon. One who did, William Blair, gave this description:
‘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.’ – Parliamentary papers 1816, vol IV
Rookery inhabitants had their own peculiar cant language too, called St. Giles’ Greek, which produced words such as diver (a pickpocket), hearing cheats (ears), smelt (half guinea) and topping cheat (the gallows).
In 1850, the novelist Charles Dickens was given a guided tour of several rookeries by Inspector Field of Scotland Yard. Dickens, Field, an Assistant Commissioner and three lower ranks (who were probably armed) made their way into the Rats’ Castle, backed by a squad of local police. The excursion started in the evening and lasted until dawn. They went through St. Giles, the Old Mint, and along the Ratcliffe Highway and Petticoat Lane and Dickens used the information in his writing, notably Oliver Twist, where Fagin’s den is set in the Rookery at Jacob’s Island.
Although the Select Committee reports of 1836 and 1838 on Metropolis Improvments instigated change by proposing demolition of the slums, building wider streets (such as New Oxford Street) and improving lighting, for a time this merely moved the problem on. 5,000 people were said to be evicted from the Rookery in the mid 1840s, but the population of nearby Church Lane became desperately overcrowded. Others went further afield to Field Lane and Saffron Hill, only to be moved on again in due course as change progressed. Charles Dickens himself commented ‘thus we make our New Oxford Streets, and our other new streets, never heeding, never asking, where the wretches when we clear out, crowd.’
The rookeries did not finally disappear until the end of the 19th century.
Flash houses were the colloquial names for pubs frequented by criminals. A combination of brothels, drinking places and centres for criminal intelligence, some were kept exclusively for young boys and girls. They were described at ‘hot beds of profligacy and vice’ and usually situated in the rookeries described above. Some, like The Finish in Covent Garden, were under the nose of Bow Street.
Most magistrates and officers of the law did not want to interfere with the flash houses. It was generally thought better to turn a blind eye to rowdy behaviour than to persecute the poor, but there was another reason for this attitude. It was said that the flash houses were at the centre of policing – remove them and law officers would be deprived of the means of detecting crime. Officers drank in the same flash houses as notorious thieves, and listened to their conversation – how else, it was argued, would they know what was happening?
At one time, law officers would have been treated badly had they entered flash houses, but by the time of the 1816 Select Committee report on the Police of the Metropolis, they mixed freely with the criminals. John Vickery, a Bow Street Officer, reported ‘I am always treated with great civility.’ This civility concealed more sinister happenings. Many officers were lazy, many were also corrupt. The Select Committee heard from several witnesses about ‘hush money’ and underworld bribes, while others warned that they did not want their names known in case of reprisals. An anonymous witness, known only as A.L., supplied the Committee with a list of flash houses known to the police, and gave detailed notes on receivers of stolen goods.
The Select Committee’s chairman, Henry Grey Bennet, reported:
‘There are above two hundred regular flash houses in the metropolis, all known the police officers, which they frequent, many of them, open all night: that the landlords in numerous instances receive stolen goods, and are what are technically called fences; that this fact is known also to the officers, who, for obvious reasons, connive at the existence of these houses; that many of house are frequented by boys and girls of the ages of ten to fourteen and fifteen, who are exclusively admitted, who pass the night in gambling & debauchery, and who there sell and divide the plunder of the day, or who sally forth from these houses to rob in the street.’
Many flash houses owners were indeed receivers, or fences. So were pawnbrokers, and coffee shop and lodging house keepers, and second hand clothes dealers. In Field Lane, Holborn, in the rookery bordered by Saffron Hill, Chick Lane and Field Lane, it was claimed that 4,000-5,000 stolen silk handkerchiefs were handled every week. The fences combined receiving stolen goods with training the child thieves who stole them, exploiting and holding complete control over their young charges. The committee heard of the example of Mrs Jennings of Red Lion Market, White Cross Street:
‘This is a most notorious Fence & keeps a house of ill fame. She has secret Rooms by Doors out of Cupboards where she plants or secretes the property she buys till she has got it disposed of. Innumerable Girls & Boys of the Youngest class report to this House as she makes up more Beds & the House is thronged every night. She sanctions Robberies in her House which are continually committed by the Girls on Strangers whom they can inveigle into the House and whom the Girls will bilk into the bargain, as their Flash Boys never permit a connection under such circumstances.’
Henry Grey Bennet was convinced that something must be done about flash houses. They were a cause of far more crime than they prevented, despite the arguments of some officers and witnesses, and corrupted youth; they were academies of vice.
Grey Bennet did not immediately succeed in closing down the flash houses – it would be 1820 before real reform began – but he and the Select Committee did start the ball rolling by placing before Parliament an astonishing body of evidence which led eventually to change. To find out more about the underworld of 19th century London, follow the links on my website for some recommended further reading.
Flash houses, fences, silk handkerchiefs and Henry Grey Bennet get a mention in my latest Regency romance novel Ice Angel. It’s currently available from Amazon, The Book Depository, Robert Hale, or your local library by quoting the ISBN number 9780709087847.