Sunday, March 10, 2013

Hogarth, St Giles and Gin Lane

 By Grace Elliot

From serious historians to readers of historical romance, mention the area of St Giles, London, and images of poverty and squalor spring to mind. This area was perhaps made famous (or should that be infamous?) when the great Georgian artist, William Hogarth, used it as his setting for "Gin Lane" - a print that moralised about the evils of gin. So in this post, let's take a look at the history of the area.
Hogarth's "Gin Lane"
It was the St Giles Hospital for lepers [Giles was the patron saint of lepers] that gave its name to an area that also comprised of a monastery and chapel. The hospital was established by Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I around 1100 AD. The site was chosen because it was separated from the rest of London by fields and marshland, hence keeping the sick at a safe distance from the wealthy. With time a village grew up around the hospital to cater the brethren. The area was looked on as 'outside the law' and so criminals felt safe there, which in turn meant respectable people kept away, and social outcasts and refugees migrated in. 
Water-tank, St Giles. 1858
During the dissolution the monastery was broken up, by which time the parish known as St Giles in the Fields and had an established reputation for vagrancy and poverty. The houses, being built on marshland, were described as 'damp and unwholesome', and by 1606 a Parliamentary Act condemned the area as "deepe foul and dangerous".

Insanitary conditions inevitably linked St Giles to outbreaks of the plague, and after the Great Fire of London, parts were redeveloped in the late 17th century and became known as Seven Dials. As London expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Rookery grew out of St Giles - a warren of desperately inadequate housing, damp, dangerous, over-crowded and squalid: open sewers ran through buildings and cesspits overflowed.
Poverty in Seven Dials.
"The Rookeries embodied the worst living conditions in all of London's history; this was the lowest point which human beings could reach"
Peter Ackroyd

 In 1860 Henry Mayhew wrote a vivid description of the slums in A Visit to the Rookery of St Giles and its Neighbourhood:

 "The parish of St. Giles, with its nests of close and narrow alleys and courts… has passed into a byword as the synonym of filth and squalor."

Amidst such conditions there was little hope of enforcing law and order, and so prostitution and crime flourished. It seems the only way to tolerate the dreadful filth was to be permanently drunk and gin-selling and gin-shops thrived, in turn leading to yet more drunken and disorderly conduct…which takes us back to the beginning and Hogarth's print of "Gin Lane".

Grace Elliot is a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night.
To find out about Grace and her work please visit her blog:
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  1. Very interesting and accurate post. Enjoyed reading it. Thank you..

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth, I'm developing a bit of a 'thing' for Hogarth at the moment!

  2. Facinating. Thank you. I tweeted.

  3. Thank you for leaving a comment, Ella, - and also for sharing, very kind of you.
    G x


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