Rookery

rookery (also sometimes described as a stew) was the colloquial British English name historically given to a city slum occupied by poor people and frequently also by criminals and prostitutes. Such areas were overcrowded, with low quality housing and little or no sanitation; poorly constructed dwellings were often crammed into any area of open ground, creating densely-populated areas of gloomy narrow streets and alleyways.

The term may be linked to the slang expression to rook, to cheat or steal, a verb well established in the 16th century and associated with the supposedly thieving nature of the rook bird. The term was first used in print by the poet George Galloway in 1792 to describe “a cluster of mean tenements densely populated by people of the lowest class”

Part of Charles Booth‘s poverty mapshowing the Old Nichol in the East End of London. Published 1889 in Life and Labour of the People in London. The red areas are “middle class, well-to-do”, light blue areas are “poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family”, dark blue areas are “very poor, casual, chronic want”, and black areas are the “lowest class…occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”.

Famous rookeries include the St Giles’ area of central London, which existed from the 17th century and into Victorian times, an area described by Henry Mayhew in about 1860 in A Visit to the Rookery of St Giles and its Neighbourhood. This, Bermondsey‘s Jacob’s Island and the Old Nichol Street Rookery in the East End of London were demolished as part of London slum clearance and urban redevelopment projects in the late 19th century. The Rookery of St Giles appears in Neil Gaiman‘s short story A Study in Emerald, as the place where the antagonist (Rache) and his sidekick (the limping doctor) reputedly take shelter after committing their (justifiable in their view) crime.

In 1850 the English novelist Charles Dickens was given a guided tour of several dangerous rookeries by “Inspector Field, the formidable chief detective of Scotland Yard“. A party of six, Dickens, Field, an Assistant Commissioner and three lower ranks (probably armed) made their way into the Rat’s Castle, backed by a squad of local police within whistle distance. The excursion, started in the evening and lasted until dawn. They went through St Giles and even worse slums, in the Old Mint, along the Ratcliffe Highway and Petticoat Lane. The results of this and other investigations came out in novels, short stories and straight journalism – of which Dickens did a great deal.

‘ Oliver Twist (1838) features the rookery at Jacob’s Island:

“… crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island.”

In Sketches by Boz (1839), Dickens again described a rookery:

“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 … 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.”

Thomas Beame’s The Rookeries of London (1850) also described one:

“The Rookery… was like an honeycomb, perforated by a number of courts and blind alleys, cul de sac, without any outlet other than the entrance. Here were the lowest lodging houses in London, inhabited by the various classes of thieves common to large cities… were banded together… Because all are taken in who can pay their footing, the thief and the prostitute are harboured among those whose only crime is poverty, and there is thus always a comparatively secure retreat for him who has outraged his country’s laws. Sums here are paid, a tithe of which, if well laid out, would provide at once a decent and an ample lodging for the deserving poor; and that surplus,which might add to the comfort and better the condition of the industrious, finds its way into the pocket of the middleman…”

Kellow Chesney gives a whole chapter, Citadels of the Underworld, to the rookeries of London. At their zenith they were a problem that seemed impossible to solve, yet eventually they did decline. Changes in the law, the growing effectiveness of the police, slum clearances, and perhaps the growing prosperity of the economy gradually had their effect.

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