The Devil’s Acre was an article written by written by Charles Dickens exploring the notorious slum area around Westminster in the Victorian era known by that name. It was first published in Household Words on 22 June, 1850.
THE DEVIL’S ACRE.
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 juxta-position 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 steeped in villany and guilt, than that on which every morning’s sun casts the sombre shadows of 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, tumble-down-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. And yet from almost every point of it you can observe the towers of the Abbey peering down upon you, as if they were curious to observe that to which they seem to be indifferent.
Such is the spot which true Christian benevolence has, for some time, marked as a chosen field for its most unostentatious operations. It was first taken possession of, with a view to its improvement, by the London City Mission, a body represented in the district by a single missionary, who has now been for about twelve years labouring–––and not without success–––in the arduous work of its purification; and who, by his energy, tact, and perseverance, has acquired such an influence over its turbulent and lawless population, as makes him a safer escort to the stranger desirous of visiting it, than a whole posse of police. By the aid of several opulent philanthropists whom he has interested in his labours, he has reared up within the district two schools, which are numerously attended by the squalid children of the neighbourhood––each school having an Industrial Department connected with it. An exclusively Industrial School for boys of more advanced age has also been established, which has recently been attached to the Ragged School Union. In addition to these, another institution has been called into existence, to which and to whose objects the reader’s attention will be drawn in what follows.
The Pye Street Schools being designed only for children––many of whom, on admission, manifest an almost incredible precocity in crime––those of a more advanced age seeking instruction and reformation were not eligible to admission. In an applicant of this class, a lad about sixteen, the master of one of the schools took a deep interest from the earnestness with which he sought for an opportunity of retrieving himself. He was invited to attend the school, that he might receive instruction. He was grateful for the offer, but expressed a doubt of its being sufficient to rescue him from his criminal and degraded course of life.
“It will be of little use to me,” said he, “to attend school in the daytime, if I have to take to the streets again at night, and live, as I am now living, by thieving.”
The master saw the difficulty, and determined on trying the experiment of taking him entirely off the streets. He accordingly paid for a lodging for him, and secured him bread to eat. For four months the lad lived contentedly and happily on “bread and dripping,” during which time he proved his aptitude for instruction by learning to read, to write tolerably well, and to master all the more useful rules in arithmetic. He was shortly afterwards sent to Australia, through the kindness of some individuals who furnished the means. He is now doing well in the new field thus opportunely opened up to him, and the experiment of which he was the subject hid the germ of the Institution in question.
In St. Anne Street, one of the worst and filthiest purlieus of the district, stands a house somewhat larger and cleaner than the miserable, rickety, and greasy-looking tenements around it. Over the door are painted, in large legible characters, the following words; “The Ragged Dormitory and Colonial Training School of Industry.” On one of the shutters it is indicated, in similar characters, that the house is a refuge for “Youths who wish to Reform.” None are admitted under sixteen, as those under that age can get admission to one or other of the schools. Those eligible are such vagrants and thieves as are between sixteen and twenty-two, and desire to abandon their present mode of life, and lead honest and industrious courses for the future.
It is obvious that such an institution, if not carefully watched, would be liable to being greatly abused. The pinching wants of the moment would drive many into it, whose sole object was to meet there, instead of to subject themselves to the reformatory discipline of the establishment. Many would press into it whose love of idleness had hitherto been their greatest vice. As it is, this latter class is deterred, to a great extent, from applying, by the Institution confining its operations to the thief and the vagrant. Each applicant, by applying for admission, confesses himself to belong to one or other of these classes, or to both. If he is found to be a subject coming within the scope of the establishment, he is at once admitted, and subjected to its discipline. The natural inference would be, that the avowed object of it would turn applicants from its doors. But this is far from being the case; upwards of two hundred having applied during the past year, the second of its existence.
To distinguish those who are sincere in their application from those who merely wish to make a convenience, for the time being, of the establishment, each applicant, on admission, is subjected to a rigid test. In the attic story of the building is a small room, the walls and ceiling of which are painted with yellow ochre. Last year, for it is only recently that the house has been applied to its present purpose, this room was occupied by a numerous and squalid family, some of whose members were the first victims of cholera, in Westminster. The massive chimney-stack projects far into the room, and in the deep recesses between it and the low walls on either side are two beds formed of straw, with a coarse counterpane for a covering. Beyond this there is not a vestige of furniture in the apartment. This is the Probation-room, the ordeal of which every applicant must pass ere he is fully received into the Institution. But he must pass a whole fortnight, generally alone, his fare being bread and water. His allowance of bread is a pound a-day, which he may dispose of as he pleases, either at a meal or at several. He does not pass the entire day in solitude, for during class-hours lie is taken down to the school-room, where he is taught with the rest. But, with that exception, he is not allowed to mingle with the rest of the inmates, being separated from them for the remainder of the day, and left to his own reflections in his lonely cell.
A man, compulsorily subjected to solitude and short commons, may make up his mind to it, and resign himself to his fate. But no one will voluntarily subject himself to such a test who is not tired of a dishonest life, and anxious to reform. In nearly nine cases out of ten it unmasks the impostor. Many shrink at once from the ordeal, and retire. Others undergo it for a day or two, and then leave; for, as there was no compulsion on them to enter, they are at all times at liberty to depart. Some stay for a week, and then withdraw, whilst instances have been known of their giving up after ten or twelve days’ endurance. The few that remain are readily accepted as objects worthy the best efforts of the establishment.
The applicants, particularly the vagrants, are generally in the worst possible condition, as regards clothing. In many cases they are half-naked, like the wretched objects who make themselves up for charity in the streets. Their probation over, they are clad in comparatively decent attire, consisting chiefly of cast-off clothing, furnished by the contributors to the institution. They are then released from their solitary dormitory, and admitted to all the privileges of the house.
The tried and accepted inmates of the Institution have, for the two past years, averaged about thirty each year. They get up at an early hour, their first business being to clean out the establishment from top to bottom. They afterwards assemble at breakfast, which consists of cocoa and bread, of which they make a hearty meal. The business of instruction then commences, there being two school-rooms on the first floor, into one of which the more advanced pupils are put by themselves, the other being reserved for those that are more backward and for the newcomers. It is into this latter room that the probationers are admitted during school-hours. During school-hours they are instructed in the fundamental doctrines of religion, and in the elements of education, including geography–––particularly the geography of the colonies. The master exercises a general control over the whole establishment. The upper class is taught by a young man, who was himself one of the earliest inmates of the Institution, and who is now being trained for becoming a regular teacher. The other class is usually presided over by a monitor, also an inmate––but one who is in advance of his fellows. Most of those now in the house are able to read, and many to read well. Such as have been thieves are generally able to read when they enter, having been taught to do so in the prisons; those who cannot read being generally vagrants, or such as have been thieves without having been apprehended and convicted. They present a curious spectacle in their class-rooms. Their ages vary from twenty-one to sixteen, there being two in at present under sixteen, but they were admitted under special circumstances. With the exception of the probationers, they are all dressed comfortably, but in different styles, according to the character and fashion of the clothing at the command of the establishment. Some wear the surtout, others the dress-coat; some the short jacket, and others again the paletot. They are all provided with shoes and stockings, each being obliged to keep his own shoes scrupulously clean. Indeed, they are under very wholesome regulations as to their ablutions, and the general cleanliness of their persons. As they stand ranged in their classes, the diversity of countenances which they exhibit is as striking as are the contrasts presented by their raiment. In some faces you can still trace the brutal expression which they wore on entering. In others, the low cunning, begotten by their mode of life, was more or less distinguishable. You could readily point to those who had been longest in the establishment, from the humanising influences which their treatment had had upon their looks and expressions. The faces of most of them were lit up with new-born intelligence, whilst it was painful to witness the vacant and stolid looks of two of them, who had but recently passed the ordeal of the dormitory. Generally speaking, they are found to be quick and apt scholars, their mode of life having tended, in most instances, to quicken their perceptions.
Between the morning and afternoon classes they dine,––their dinner comprising animal food three times a-week, being chiefly confined on other days to bread and dripping. They sup at an early hour in the evening, when cocoa and bread form again the staple of their meal. After supper, they spend an hour or two in the training-school, which is a large room adjoining the probationers’ dormitory, where they are initiated into the mysteries ot the tailors’ and shoemakers’ arts, under the
superintendence of qualified teachers. They afterwards retire to rest, sleeping on beds laid out upon the floor, each bed containing one. When the house is full, the two class-rooms are converted at night into sleeping apartments. They are also compelled to attend some place of worship on the Sunday, and, in case of sickness, have the advantage of a medical attendant. During a part of the day they are allowed to walk out, in different gangs,––each gang iinder the care of one of their number. In their walks they are restricted as to time, and are required to avoid, as much as possible, the low neighbourhoods of the town. Should any of them desire to learn the business of a carpenter, they have the means of doing so; and two are now engaged in acquiring a practical knowledge of this useful trade.
Such is the curriculum which they undergo after being fully admitted into the house. They are so instructed as to wean them as much as possible from their former habits, to inspire them with the desire of living honest lives, and to fit them for becoming useful members of society, in the different offices for which they are destined. They must be six months at least in the house before they are deemed ready to emigrate. Some are kept longer. They are all eager to go,––being, without
exception, sickened at the thought of recurring to their previous habits of life. From twenty to thirty have already been sent abroad. The committee who superintend the establishment are anxious to keep forty on the average in the house throughout the year, in addition to sending twenty each year abroad. This, however, will require a larger fund than they have at present at their disposal.
Such is the Institution which, for two years past, has been silently and unostentatiously working its own quota of good in this little- known and pestilential region. It is designed for the reclamation of a class on which society turns its back. Its doors are open alike to the convicted and the unconvicted offender. Five-sixths of its present inmates have been the denizens of many jails––and some of them have only emerged from the neighbouring Penitentiary. It is not easy to calculate the amount of mature crime which, in the course of a few years, it will avert from society, by its timely rescue of the precocious delinquent. It is thus an institution which may appeal to the selfishness, as well as to the benevolence, of the community for aid: though not very generally known, it is visited by many influential parties; and some of the greatest ornaments of Queen Victoria’s Court have not shrunk from crossing its threshold and contributing to its support.
Curious indeed would be the biographies which such an institution could furnish. The following, extracted from the Master’s Record, will serve as a specimen. The name is, for obvious reasons, suppressed.
“John –––, 16 years of age. Admitted June 3rd, 1848. Had slept for four months previously under the dry arches in West-street. Had made his livelihood for nearly five years by picking pockets. Was twice in jail––the last time in Tothill-Fields Prison. The largest sum he ever stole at a time, was a sovereign and a half. Could read when admitted. Learnt to write and cipher. Remained for eight months in the house. Behaved well. Emigrated to Australia. Doing well.”
It is encouraging to know that the most favourable accounts have been received both of and from those who have been sent out as emigrants, not only from this, but also from the Pear-street School. It is now some time since a lad, who, although only fourteen, was taken into the latter, was sent to Australia. He had been badly brought up; his mother, during his boyhood, having frequently sent him out, either to beg or to steal. About a year after her son’s departure, she called, in a state of deep distress, upon the missionary of the district, and informed him that her scanty furniture was about to be seized for rent, asking him at the same time for advice. He told her that he had none to give her but to go and pay the rent, at the same time handing her a sovereign. She received it hesitatingly, doubting, for a moment, the evidence of her senses. She went and paid the rent, which was eighteen shillings, and afterwards returned with the change, which she tendered to the missionary with her heartfelt thanks. He told her to keep the balance, as the sovereign was her own––informing her, at the same time, that it had been sent her by her son, and had that very morning so opportunely come to hand, together with a letter, which he afterwards read to her. The poor woman for a moment or two looked stupified and incredulous, after which she sank upon a chair, and wept long and bitterly. The contrast between her son’s behaviour and her own conduct towards him, filled, her with shame and remorse. She is now preparing to follow him to Australia.
Another case was that of a young man, over twenty years of age, who had likewise been admitted, under special circumstances, to the same Institution. He had been abandoned by his parents in his early youth, and had taken to the streets to avert the miseries of destitution. He soon became expert in the art of picking pockets, on one occasion depriving a person in Cornhill of no less than a hundred and fifty pounds in Bank notes. With this, the largest booty he had ever made, he repaired to a house in the neighbourhood, where stolen property was received. Into the room into which he was shown, a gloved hand was projected, through an aperture in the wall, from an adjoining room, into which he placed the notes. The hand was then withdrawn, and immediately afterwards projected again with twenty sovereigns, which was the amount he received for the notes. He immediately repaired to Westminster, and invested ten pounds of this sum in counterfeit money, at a house not a stone’s throw from the Institution.
For the ten pounds he received, in bad money, what represented fifty. With this he sallied forth into the country with the design of passing it off–––a process known amongst the craft as “shuffle-pitching.” The first place he went to was Northampton, and the means he generally adopted for passing off the base coin was this:–––Having first buried in the neighbourhood of the town all the good and bad money in his possession, with the exception of a sovereign of each, so that, if detected in passing a bad one, no more bad money would be found upon his person; he would enter a retail shop, say a draper’s, at a late hour of the evening, and say that his master had sent him for some article of small value, such as a handkerchief. On its being shown him, he would demand the price of it, and make up his mind to take it; whereupon he would lay down a good sovereign, which the shop-keeper would take up, but, as he was about to give him change, a doubt would suddenly arise in his mind as to whether his master would give the price asked for the article. He would then demand the sovereign back, with a view to going and consulting his master, promising, at the same time, to be back again in a few minutes. Back again he would come, and say that his master was willing to give the price, or that he wished the article at a lower figure. He took care, however, that a bargain was concluded between him and the shopkeeper; whereupon he would again lay down the sovereign, which, however, on this occasion, was the bad and not the good one. The unsuspecting shopkeeper would give him the change, and he would leave with the property and the good money. Such is the process of “shuffle-pitching.” In the majority of instances he succeeded, but was sometimes detected. In this way he took the circuit twice of Great Britain and Ireland; stealing as he went along, and passing off the bad money, which he received, for good. There are few jails in the United Kingdom of which he has not been a denizen. His two circuits took him nine years to perform, his progress being frequently arrested by the interposition of justice. It was at the end of his second journey that he applied for admission to the Pear Street School. He had been too often in jail not to be able to read; but he could neither write nor cipher when he was taken in. He soon learnt, however, to do both; and, after about seven months’ probation, emigrated to America from his own choice. The missionary of the district accompanied him on board as he was about to sail. The poor lad wept like a child when he took leave of his benefactor, assuring him that he never knew the comforts of a home until he entered the Pear Street School. Several letters have been received from him since his landing, and he is now busily employed, and–––doing well!
Instances of this kind might be multiplied, if necessary, of what is thus being done daily and unostentatiously for the reclamation of the penitent offender, not only after conviction, but also before he undergoes the terrible ordeal of correction and a jail.
Further Reading on The Circumlocution Office.
Click here to discover more about the slum called Devil’s Acre.