London has always had an underworld, a dangerous side. Just go out late on a Saturday night and you’re sure to see a fight. For many, the hint of danger is one of the city’s attractions, at least if you don’t have to deal with it full time.
Back in the 18th and 19th century, there was nothing attractive about the St. Giles Rookery. It got its name because tiny apartments were stacked atop one another like birdhouses. Only the poorest of the poor lived there–the beggars, the prostitutes, the gin addicts. Especially the gin addicts. Gin was a national addiction, a cheap way to get blasted. Gin addiction was immortalized in Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane, showing a drunken mother accidentally knocking her baby over a railing while a tradesman hawks his tools and a man hangs himself within view of an uncaring crowd.
Hogarth was no teetotaler. He liked a good drink, as his engraving Beer Street shows. It’s the same scene, gentrified. Industrious drinkers of real ale prosper and flirt in clean, attractive surroundings. It must have seemed like heaven to the denizens of the Rookery.
A new exhibition by the Museum of London looks at the lives of these nearly forgotten people, thanks to an excavation the museum sponsored at the site of the old Rookery. London’s Underworld Unearthed: The Secret Life of the Rookery features finds from the excavation along with contemporary and modern depictions of this Hell on Earth.
The finds remind us that these were real people living here. Children’s toys, simple crockery, and trick glasses used in drinking games give us a glimpse of their lives, and the gin bottles hint at how many of them died. The modern art, created by Jane Palm-Gold, draws comparisons with today’s urban blight. The permanent collection at the Museum of London is well worth a visit too in order to get a better understanding of one of the world’s most fascinating cities.
The show runs until June 3 at the Coningsby Gallery.
[Hogarth prints courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]