I’ve spent a lifetime researching my family tree. It was never in the hope of finding an aristocrat, statesman, general or explorer among my ancestors. I just wanted to connect with generation upon generation of ancestors, probably all ditch-diggers and swineherds, who had clung on through thin and thinner, back into the mists of history. Ancestors who had endured the trenches of World War I, who had exhausted themselves in Victorian factories, lost their land in enclosures, lived or died through civil war, religious conflict, Black Death, feudal barbarity, invasions… you name it.
I spent years, before it all moved on-line, taking trips to London to squint at microfilm copies of census returns or thumb through massive indexes of births, marriages and deaths, ordering certificates and print-outs. I even wrote letters (a form of messaging predating email and social media, which relied on pen, paper and the Royal Mail) to likely suspects who might be distant second cousins nine times removed. It was certainly a stimulating intellectual exercise, joining dots, tracing clues, making inspired guesses.
What I finished up with was a family tree littered with hundreds of names (2118 at the last count), the vast majority of which were merely names, with dates attached, if lucky. Maybe a few photographs to go with them, but very little to flesh them out, except for the most recent generations.
Without famous bigwigs, worthy of biographies, the only thing I could home in on to make them more 3D was their homes. Not their houses, maybe, but their communities. Pinpoint a location, delve into its history, and you begin to get a picture of the people who lived there.
I had a great great grandmother, Mary Jane Burnand, born in 1840, whom I tracked down by registered births and marriages, to a census return of 1841. The infant Mary Jane was living with her parents Thomas and Jane Burnand and her maternal grandmother Sarah Lovett, at 13 Perkins Rents, in the parish of St John’s, Westminster. Thomas was a labourer. Grandmother Sarah was a lodging house keeper. I could make certain deductions from this, but what really paints the picture in glorious technicolour, is the history of the area. This was one case where I didn’t have to apply too much imagination of my own because someone had been there before me.
Perkins Rents is a short alley connecting Old Pye Street and Great Peter Street, between Great St Anne’s Lane (now St Anne’s Street) and Duck Lane (now St Matthew Street). It lies between Buckingham Palace to the west and Parliament and Westminster Abbey to the east. In the very first edition of his magazine Household Words, in 1850, Charles Dickens gave a detailed description of the area he had come to know as a parliamentary reporter.
“There are multitudes who believe that Westminster is a city of palaces, of magnificent squares, and regal terraces; that it is the chosen seat of opulence, grandeur and refinement; and that filth, squalor, and misery are the denizens of other and less favoured sections of the metropolis. The error is not in associating with Westminster much of the grandeur and splendour of the capital, but in entirely dissociating it in idea from the darker phases of metropolitan life. As the brightest lights cast the deepest shadows, so are the splendours and luxuries of the West end found in juxtaposition with the most deplorable manifestations of human wretchedness and depravity. 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 indescribable 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; and the law-makers for one seventh of the human race sit, night after night, in deliberation, in the immediate vicinity of the most notorious haunt of law-breakers in the empire.
There is no district in London more filthy and disgusting, more is seeped in villany and guilt, than that on which every morning’s sun casts the sombre shadows ot the Abbey, mingled, as they soon will be, with those of the gorgeous towers of the new Palace at Westminster. The Devil’s Acre , as it is familiarly known in the neighbourhood, is the square block comprised between Dean, Peter, and Tothill Streets, and Strutton Ground. It is permeated by Orchard Street, St. Anne’s Street, Old and New Pye Streets, Pear Street, Perkins’ Rents, and Duck Lane. From some of these, narrow covered passage-ways lead into small quadrangular courts, containing but a few crazy, tumbledown-looking houses, and inhabited by characters of the most equivocal description. The district, which is small in area, is one of the most populous in London, almost every house being crowded with numerous families, and multitudes of lodgers. There are other parts of the town as filthy, dingy, and forbidding in appearance as this, but these are generally the haunts more of poverty than crime. But there are none in which guilt of all kinds and degrees converges in such volume as on this, the moral plague-spot not only of the metropolis, but also of the kingdom.”
Dickens didn’t hold back. Neither did Cardinal Wiseman, credited with popularising the use of the term “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.”
In case words weren’t enough, one of Gustav Dore’s engravings illustrates it.
To add insult to injury, the overcrowded Devil’s Acre, close to the Thames, was a marshy swamp without sanitation, prior to the building of the embankment and the sewer that went with it, which made it an ideal breeding ground for cholera.
The area was notorious for prostitution – there’s a surprise – and the pub at the end of Perkin’s Rent, the One Tun was notorious as a school of “fobery,” maybe a model for Fagin’s establishment. Young boys were taken in to be taught the art of picking pockets.
I imagine it was the shocking closeness of the Devil’s Acre to the noble seats of power that induced reformers to involve themselves in its redemption. Heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts joined with Dickens in setting up a refuge for prostitutes from the area, and Adeline Cooper, with the help of Lord Shaftesbury, bought up the One Tun and turned it into a Ragged School for the poor.
The overcrowded slums remained until the 1880s. In 1876, eighteen houses in Old Pye Street were occupied by 459 people. In 1882, the Peabody Trust cleared the slums and replaced them with decent social housing for the deserving poor. I’m not sure what happened to those regarded as undeserving. By that time, my ancestors had moved on to other parts of London, probably with similar conditions. I can only admire their ability to survive, beget and bring forth, in optimistic hope for the future..