There is much in a name, one significant phrase which spares circumlocution, and the reader, without wading through two or three pages, sees what you mean. We had not otherwise been bold enough to call our book

The Rookeries of London

There is a period in all languages, when words pass from the mint in which they are coined, their questionable origin is forgotten, and they are used among the current money of the realm of thought. We believe that such is the case with the word Rookery. The uninitiated may ask its meaning, and the philologist wish to know the stages by which it arrived at its present acceptation. It would be wrong to call the dwellings of the working classes generally Rookeries: in country villages they hardly lie close enough for that; they are not high enough – sufficiently crowded; there is not the same economy of space which The Legitimate Rookery demands.

Doubtless there is some analogy between these pauper colonies and the nests of the birds from whom they take their name; the houses for the most part high and narrow, the largest possible number crowded together in a given space, – common necessity their bond of union: though the occupation of the different tenants varies, yet they belong to the same section of the social body, having all descended to the lowest scale which is compatible with human life. Other birds are broken up into separate families – occupy separate nests; rooks seem to know no such distinction. So it is with the class whose dwellings we are to describe. We must speak of the dwellings of the poor in crowded cities, where large masses of men are brought together; where, by the unwritten laws of competition, rents rise and room is economised in proportion; where, because there is no restraint to check the progress of avarice, no statute to make men do their duty, they turn to profit the necessities of their fellow-creatures, and riot on the unhallowed gains which injustice has amassed at the expense of the poor.

We must speak of human masses pent up, crowded, crammed into courts and allies; here, as by a fatal attraction, opposite houses grow together at the top, seem to nod one against one another, conspiring to shut out the little air which would pierce through for the relief of those beneath. We must speak of men and women sleeping in the same apartment, whom, in some cases, not even the tie of relationship unites; of a married couple with their offspring, who have already come to the age of maturity, with a common dormitory; and we ask, if a malignant spirit wished to demoralise the working classes of the country, could he find a plan more congenial to his wishes? We must speak of stories piled on stories in the older part of our towns; not each floor, but each room tenanted by a family; in some cases the dormitory of several occupants, thrown together without distinction of sex or age in the chance scramble for the night’s lodging, each swelling the gains of some middleman, whose heart is seared by the recollection of his own poverty, and who learns to grind as he was once ground by others. We trust to the hands of the most ignorant and most injured, an instrument which even the best and the wisest can scarce wield as they should. We put an engine, fitted with momentous powers, into the hands of one trained to abuse it by a long course of oppression-of oppression which, under the name of custom and the sanction of law, eats into men’s hearts; their natures are insensibly changed by it; against which they first rebel, then bear with, then submit to, then acquiesce in, then adopt, then exercise, then defend, to the injury of their brethren. But of this we will speak anon: the middleman and the broker are persons whom we must sketch at length, when we have proceeded further. Are not these colonies Rookeries, if the description given by the naturalist be correct? “A Rookery, a village in the air peopled with numerous inhabitants: it is the nature of birds to associate together, and they build in numbers in the same or adjoining trees.” Rookeries they are, if rooks build high and lie thick together, young and old in one nest. Colonies are wedged up, not so much because of connection between families as by common wants and a common nature, and with the fierce discord and occasional combats of the inhabitants. The tenants of these Rookeries, like the birds from whom they take their names, have much in common-want, with its offspring, recklessness; they the pariahs, so to speak, of the body social, a distinct caste, yet not bound together otherwise than by common wants-with their jealousies, discords, and antipathies; as if it were not too true of them, as of others, that a man’s foes may be they of his own household.

Whence came these Rookeries? Were they prison colonies, safety valves, so many Alsatias needed for the wants, tolerated as the least of two evils by the authorities of all towns of above a certain population-allowed to fester, so they did not infect-upon sufferance, because they had their use-poisoned wells, yet girdled round by certain barriers which confined the pestilence within a given circle ? Were they formed by some greedy speculator or needy adventurer? Modelled after a common type, or, indeed, modelled at all? Have they grown out of the wants, or were they shaped by the policy, of the age? Are they peculiar to London, to England, to Europe? Are they sinks into which, as Tacitus says of Rome, everything bad and vicious flows? Is vice alone the bond of union among the inmates? Or, as the proverb says, Is it necessity which makes men acquainted with strange bedfellows in haunts like these? Do these Rookeries obey some general law, which assigns to a given number of people a certain pariah class, which, in its proportion to the other divisions, shall not vary; so that you cannot diminish them, or give them better dwellings, or fix the cubic feet of air each man shall inhale, the area he shall occupy, the amount of light which may be justly placed at his disposal, with something like a reference to what God intended for all his creatures, and of which they who would rob their fellows must do so at their peril? Are these Rookeries entailed on us by a law of our being, so that you allow men to build huts without the commonest comforts, without drains, without supply of water, where they live shut out almost from the air which feeds existence, and the light which comes down from heaven? Will you rest contented because you know these hovels will not want tenants, and that there must be human beings whose necessities these dens will supply ? Are men created for this state of social isolation? Do they come into the world, like the hero of Greek drama, to fulfil a hereditary curse, destined before they are born to a condition from which no human institution can shield them? Do men cling to these colonies through perverse adherence to the errors or traditions of their fathers because fancied immunities and privileges are connected with them; or because none better adapted to their comforts are ready to receive them ? Do these strongholds of corrupt antiquity yield advantages which decent habitations could not supply? When you plead for these anomalies, do you plead for some mysterious benefit which they alone appreciate who enjoy it; must efforts called forth and energies taxed on their behalf be abortive?

It might have been well to give some statistics on these points, were not the most perfect collection of reports ever placed within the reach of the Political Economist, the Poor Law Annual Reports, now sold for waste paper; still we may ask how these Rookeries grew to their present size, or degenerated, if you will, to their present abuse?

The subject is not without its interest; it falls within the compass of our plan, if we would consider Rookeries in the past as well as present tense. This vast Babel or Babylon, – as Cobbett called it, The Great Wen – whence came it? what changes has it seen? rather, more strictly, from what beginnings did these Rookeries grow to their present size? Do you mean to tell us, the reader asks, that the poor are worse lodged now than they have ever been, or only comparatively worse? because it occurs at once to us that there were plagues, periodical pestilences, making vast inroads, carrying off perhaps 10,000 men at a time, so that the great plague of 1665, which was supposed to have killed 80,000 people, was only the last of a series; so that the disorder, the sweating sickness, was fatal to thousands, and returned, as West Indians tell us the yellow fever does, at intervals, not fixed indeed, yet not varying much in their length! From this, it is argued, that London must be more healthy than it was, for such things are almost unknown among us. The cholera, in 1832, only swept away 6000, out of a population of nearly 2,000,000. The last ravaging disorder of which we know, the gaol fever, has long left us. Small pox, that scourge of our countrymen a hundred years ago, is much mitigated, seldom fatal, promptly dealt with, easily warded off and yielding readily to the remedies applied. Men gladly infer, it is a sort of opiate to our consciences, that there is less physical suffering among the poor than formerly-less absolutely and relatively. We think this an error. Let us look back then and see how men were lodged of old, and glean at the same time what information we can respecting those plague spots which still remain, and, under the name of Rookeries, are so unenviably notorious.

A great city then may present many objects of interest and be even architecturally grand, yet its grandeur be the screen of its deformity. Witness Paris, for instance, the centre of modern civilisation; walk through the streets in the very neighbourhood of the Louvre, and the Palais Royal, with their shelving pavements, the gutter in the middle, their narrow streets, no place for foot passengers, the lamps hanging from ropes and making you think you still, as in the Revolution, hear the cry, Away with him to the Lantern! Survey the whole district between the Port St. Denis and the river, look at the neighbourhood of P?re la Chaise, the Pantheon and the Luxembourg. Or again in Brussels, you walk through the beautiful streets in the neighbourhood of the Parc, you are delighted with the space they occupy, the lofty rooms in the houses, the evidences of luxury and wealth; you marvel at that combination of architectural beauty, the Grande Place, with its Hotel de Ville, the mansion which commemorates the cessation of the plague and others. You have scarcely turned from a spot that interests by its historical, equally as its picturesque associations, scarcely ceased to revel in the glories which Spain and Austria have bequeathed, when narrow streets, and fetid gutters, poison at once the air you breathe, and the thoughts you have evoked. Thus too in London, during the Plantagenet dynasty, we are feasted with accounts of shows and processions, the houses decorated with banners, the conduits running with wine, the gorgeous masques, the figures of angelic beings who greeted the sovereign, and we infer from these stories, not merely the riches of the people, but the splendour of the city in which they dwelt.

Despite of this, till within two hundred and fifty years from the present time, the houses were for the most part built of wood; the nobility and the sovereign alone seemed to have used a more durable material; the streets were narrow, the buildings with their pent-houses or projecting first story overhanging the causeway; each story, in fact, projecting further into the street than that below it; the roads were neglected, abounding with ruts or holes, and were generally narrow and unsafe.

In the reign of Elizabeth, the houses in the cities and towns were built in the fashion of those still in being at Staple’s Inn, the Holborn front of which is a fair specimen of domestic architecture towards the close of the Tudor period; each story projected over that immediately beneath ~t, so that when the streets were not very wide, the peoples at the top of opposite houses, might talk and converse with one another. Stowe even tells us, though one would think this is exaggerated, that they could shake hands together. To prevent decay of wood, it was enjoined, about the year 1606, that all persons should build the front of their houses with stone or brick.

We can scarce bring ourselves to believe that, three hundred years since, houses were generally built of wood, because so few specimens still exist; and yet, in foreign cities, many of the buildings are four and even five hundred years old. We have few specimens extant of very old houses, for the great fire of 1666 commenced in the neighbourhood of the Monument, and extended nearly to Temple Bar; and the streets which were not burnt down, were affected by the change which took place. Wooden houses are still to be found in the neighbourhood of the Minories, and in some old towns: in Bristol, Winchester, and other cities, they are frequently to be met with.

Building with brick only came into general use, in the early part of the reign of Charles.I. ; it was introduced by the Earl of Arundel, who imported the custom from Italy, where it generally prevailed. Carpets are luxuries comparatively of modern date; the palace of Henry VIII. was strewed with rushes, the floors were generally thus covered:- in many cases, the straw was suffered to remain a long time; bones and refuse meat were plentifully scattered about and became imbedded in the straw; the general want of cleanliness which prevailed, and the insufficient supply of water, coupled with the narrow and badly ventilated streets, produced the various plagues of which we hear so much. In few houses were chimneys found; the fires were kindled by the side of the wall, and the smoke was permitted to escape through the windows; the pallets on which men slept, were of straw, and round logs for pillows were in general use. It is not asserted, that there were no Rookeries then, but rather that they were common, and the distinction between the dwellings of the rich and poor not so obvious.

Many edicts were passed from the time of Henry VIII. to the Commonwealth, which forbade the erection of more houses in the suburbs of London, or, at least, encumbered the permission to build with so many conditions, that it became inoperative; London increased in spite of the resistance of the authorities. Such a prohibition multiplied buildings within narrow spaces, and whilst it made ground dear, confined a dense population within narrow limits; public fountains were the only cisterns which supplied the people with water; just as in foreign cities, especially in the German towns, the inhabitants derive their supply from conduits, which are constantly kept running for the use of the citizens; few, if any, of the continental cities being supplied with water as we are, by pipes communicating with the houses.

Few have not heard of the New River, and those who know the neighbourhood of Sadler’s Wells, may recollect the public-house, with a picture of Sir Hugh Myddleton for its sign, a grave and reverend Signior, in the rich dress of the age of James I bearded and bedizened as became a citizen of the ancient times, chain of office and laced ruff bespeaking civic dignity when it was wont to be valued by the best the city bred. London is more indebted to this good man than to any of its benefactors. In 1608 he began the good work; in five years that immense canal, called the New River was completed, and London ever since supplied  with water.

Has the improvement in the condition of the poor kept pace with that of the higher and middle classes? There are no houses, even in Rookeries, without chimneys, though 300 years ago they were comparatively scarce; but then, firewood was cheap, and so were cattle, and the diet of the labouring man, consequently, better than at present. It was the boast of Sir John Fortescue, speaking of those times, that the English lived far more upon animal diet than their rivals the French, and to this cause he ascribes their strength and courage. The people generally suffered through bad drainage, wretched roads, unhealthy houses, and want of water: the rich were victims as well as the poor. The accession of James I. was quickly followed by a destructive plague, the spreading of which was doubtless accelerated by the narrowness of the streets, and the crowded state of the houses, whilst every extension of the suburbs seems to have been resisted by successive administrations.

These anomalies have been, in a degree, removed improvement has swept on with mighty strides; pity that there should still remain the monuments of this olden time in the Rookeries of London, – that the close alley, the undrained court, the narrow window, the unpaved footpath, the distant pump, the typhus or Irish fever, should still remind us of what London once was to all, what it still is to the poor! The wealthy, we are told, hastened from the town when the plague was announced, satisfied that its ravages would soon be felt amongst them. The poor, with an accuracy which startles, can now tell the spot which fever, when it comes, will occupy; a fetid odour has long warned them that a nucleus is not wanting, – that neglect has spared materials for disease; and if we wonder that of old, enactments enclosed, as within a prison wall, the space already occupied by buildings in these days, the poor man dare not remove the dust-heap, which offends the nose and disgusts the eye, lest, he should be punished for breaking the parish contract with him who is pledged, but is slow, to remove it; he must wait till the heap is large enough to justify the dustman’s interference, to make it worth the functionary’s while to send a horse and cart for its removal.

We reckon our coal beds a great source of national wealth: the iron and coal of England are more available advantages, than the gold of Peru to the Spaniards who first discovered it; yet, in former times, coal was used sparingly, large forests, as in France, supplied fuel for the wants alike of rich and poor. We are thankful for the treasure which we not only possess, and so amply enjoy ; its use is not without some drawbacks, not merely that our public buildings are spoiled by it, but that it clogs and darkens the atmosphere, – it creates an incessant demand on the cleanliness of the poor,-it adds much to the unhealthiness of their dwellings, so that even Rookeries are blacker still, and another coating of coal smoke is added to the dingy hue, which is their congenial colour. This evil, were we in earnest, we might remove, and effect a positive saving in the consumption of coal.

It is often asserted, that London is better lighted, paved, drained, and supplied with water, than any city in the world; this improvement has only been arrived at by gradual stages in a long course of years. When Charles II. was restored, the early attention of the Legislature was directed to the lighting and cleansing of the streets, and the repairing of highways; the salutary effects of which were gradually communicated to St. Giles’s, and the novel exhibition was seen of candles, or lights in lanterns; these were directed by the Act to be hung out by every householder, from the time of its becoming dark till nine every evening, from Michaelmas to Lady-day. In the neighbourhood of St. Giles, 150 years since, there was a Rookery, for Strype describes Whetstone Park, at the back of Holborn, as being noted for its once infamous and vicious inhabitants, who, some years since, he says, were forced away. On this ground, which, from lying waste, was frequently the scene of low dissipation, houses were first erected by Mr. Whetstone, a vestryman of St. Giles, and from him it obtained the name of Whetstone Park. Strange comment this of the quaint historian, that this benevolent or speculating vestryman should have destroyed a haunt of vice, and erected houses which, we may suppose, were intended as an antidote to the evils described, and that about five or six years since, a fatal epidemic broke out in this very place which puzzled all the doctors.

This place is now inhabited by some of the lowest characters in London; and we may almost believe old Stowe, when he tells us that so narrow were some of the streets in ancient London, that people could shake hands across them; for this, if anywhere, might be done in the street called Little Turnstile, which is just at the back of Whetstone Park.

A change has come over us. The rich have room, have air, have houses endeared to them, by every comfort civilisation can minister ; the poor still remain sad heralds of the past, alone bearing the iniquities, and inheriting the curse of their fathers. Worse paid, do they breathe a purer air? Worse fed, are they better housed than their ancestors ? Regent Street attracts the eye! Rookeries still remain! Westminster, at once the seat of a palace and a plague spot; senators declaim, where sewers poison; theology holds her councils, where thieves learn their trade; and Europe’s grandest hall is flanked by England’s foulest grave-yard.