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In the Beginning ...

A poor neighbourhood

map of Aldwych area of London north of King's College with poorer areas highlighted by darker shades of blue and blackBooth poverty map of King's areaThe Rookery and Ratsnest were districts to the north of the new College - St Giles's, Covent Garden, Holborn and Drury Lane - comprising a heady mix of overcrowded slums, a market, noisy theatres, clubs, pubs, restaurants and shops considered potentially dangerous to the health and morals of unsuspecting students.

The district had long been the haunt of the more destitute and criminal elements of society: Hogarth's 'Gin Lane'. During the eighteenth century it was described as 'infested with…vile people…There are frequent outcries in the night, fighting, robberies and all sorts of debaucheries'.

A young Charles Dickens, compiling his Sketches by Boz in the 1830s, wrote in vivid detail about the notorious gin shops of the Rookery.

There was, he wrote, 'more of filth and squalid misery near those great thorough-fares than in any part of this mighty city'. Dickens continued:

The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined… Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three - fruit and 'sweet-stuff' manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a 'musician' in the front kitchen, and a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one - filth everywhere - a gutter before the houses and a drain behind clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.

The online exhibition Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor, curated by Dr Ruth Richardson for the Special Collections library here at King's, offers more information on the Charles Dickens and his depiction of poverty in this area in the nineteenth century. 

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