The Devil's Acre


It was in the year 1959 that I first found myself in London. I was nine years old and by sheer happenchance was placed in a small Catholic school in Great Peter Street, right in the heart of Westminster. It was a good place to be, and for about a year I was free each lunchtime to play with my friends around all the local streets and in all the courtyards of the Peabody and London County Council estates that filled the area. These streets formed an acre or two of land just south of Victoria Street, almost in the shadow of Westminster Abbey itself. Roughly speaking, the site was bounded by Abbey Orchard Street, St Anne's Street, Great Peter Street and Perkin's Rents, and through the middle of it ran Old Pye Street. This, I have only recently discovered, was the site of one of the most notorious slums in London, a deeply depressing and dangerous place that Charles Dickens called 'The Devil's Acre'.


Here below is a map from 1868 by Edward Weller showing the area of 'The Devil's Acre'. Great Peter Street can be seen running west to east through the middle of the image, and Old Pye Street can be seen parellel to it and just to the north of it. Further north of Old Pye Street is Orchard Street, now known as Abbey Orchard Street. The big street at the top left of the image that cuts through this old grid pattern is the new Victoria Street, built in 1851.  Note the way it slices through Orchard Street on its way towards Westminster Abbey. The cloisters of Westminster Abbey can just be seen to the top right of the picture.


The area of The Devil's Acre
Map Of London 1868, By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S.
Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S.


In Medieval times the area was known as Bulinga Fen, which extended from the present Victoria Station eastwards to Westminster Abbey on Thorney Island. This name is recorded by Osbert de Clare (died c.1158) who was a monk and prior of Westminster Abbey.


By the Nineteenth Century the area was often called Tothill Fields.  Tothill means "lookout hill" or some high point from which the surrounding area could be seen or from which signals could be made. It is probable that within this very flat and low-lying fen there was an ancient mound which became known as Tothill, or "toot hill". Finding the exact location of this Tothill is difficult, but it has been suggested that it was located at the place where Horseferry Road turns east to run down to the Thames. The map below shows the spot, just above three ponds south of Horseferry Road.



This is a detail of the Map of London by John Rocque, 1746, which shows the "Road to the Horse Ferry" turning east, and depicts a mound at the turning point which could be the original Tothill.


With the building of Victoria Station and Victoria Street during the nineteenth century, the district became known as Victoria. The old names of Bulinga Fen and Tothill Fields almost completely disappeared from history.  The only rememberance is in the the name of Tothill Street, which runs between Westminster Hall and St. James's Park Undergound Station.


In 1959 the marks of the Second World War were still present in the form of bomb sites scattered all around, and there were lots of low walls around the LCC or Peabody buildings that had short stumps of iron railings sticking up from the cement work, because the railings had been cut off to provide iron for the war effort. That is how I got to know it as a young boy: an inner London area, working class through and through and still filled with memories from the War.


Great Peter Street

View of Great Peter Street as it is today. My school was on the site of the black and white striped building at the left side of the road, beside the well-known pub called The Speaker. At the right, with scaffolding, are the buildings that once had their railings cut off for the war effort.
Image taken from Google Street View.


For me, the best thing of all was to go with my friends just a few hundred yards up Great Peter Street to Westminster Abbey, which became our favourite playground. It was such a wonderful place with so many hidden corners and strange medieval spaces to explore. Filled with ancient treasures, it was always a joy to visit.


Although tourism was starting to increase in those days and access to the Abbey was soon to be restricted, we tended to go in via the cloisters, which gave direct access to the east end and the sanctuary area (you cannot do that today, so don't even try). Here was the Coronation Throne with the Stone of Scoon under it, now removed and sent back to Scotland. Here also were tombs of many of the ancient kings and queens of England.


For a young boy from the provinces, this was a really splendid place to be and it did make me feel I was at the very heart of Britain. The fact that Parliament was also just a few more yards away and that Buckingham Palace was about half a mile to the north west added to the sense belonging, almost like ownership.


Sometimes we could spend the whole hour of lunchtime taking a circular route from school in Great Peter Street to Westminster Abbey, then up Whitehall and into Downing Street, which was open to the public at the time. At the far end of Dowing Street there are steps that lead down to a little park at the side of Horseguards Parade. From there it was just walk through St James's Park, then through the streets past St James's Park Underground Station and back across Victoria Street to our school in Great Peter Street.


But at the time I was ignorant of the intervening history of my little acre or two of land around Great Peter Street. I did not know that in 1850 that Charles Dickens first published his magazine "Household Words", and in it he described the way Westminster was made up of superior quality streets existing right next to the most deprived slums. Having been a young parliamentary reporter, he was certainly familiar with the area, and he described it as follows:



"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 juxtaposition 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 is seeped in villany and guilt, than that on which every morning's sun casts the sombre shadows ot 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, tumbledown-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."


Dickens was not alone in seeing the horror of the place, which was a Catholic slum at the very heart of the British Empire. A leading figure in Catholicism at the time was Cardinal Wiseman (1802–1865) who was the first Archbishop of Westminster following the re-establishment of the Catholic Heirarchy in England and Wales in 1850. He included a description of the Devil's Acre in his work "An Appeal to the Reason and Good Feeling of the English People on the Subject of the Catholic Hierarchy":


"Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and courts, and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity, and crime, as well as of squalor, wretchedness, and disease; whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera; in which swarms of huge and almost countless population, nominally at least, Catholic; haunts of filth, which no sewage committee can reach – dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten."


Notice Cardinal Wiseman's use of the word "slums" in his description. In the mid nineteenth century the word slum simply meant a room, generally a room at the back of a house. Such rooms could be squalid and could be let out to tennants. They could be accessed by back alleys that ran between rows of houses. The Cardinal's use of the word "slums" was influential in it was picked up by the press and was widely reported and became applied as a general term for deprived, squalid housing, making the Devil's Acre the original "slum".


Old Pye Street formed the centre of this area, and it was here that street children were brought to the One Tun pub to be taught the art of fobology, pick pocketing. Dickens had already found a good name for such a teacher of street orphans, Fagin, and he placed Oliver Twist, Fagin and Bill Sykes in a different slum, Jacob's Island south of the Thames, which was even more disgusting than the Devil's Acre. However, Old Pye Street may have been the inspiration for the story. In fact, a philantrophist friend of Dickens, Adeline Cooper, was so horrified by what was going on at the One Tun pub that she bought it and turned it into a ragged school.


The One Tun Ragged School

Photograph of The One Tun Ragged School, c.1870. It was located at the corner of Old Pye Street and Perkins Rents

Photo courtesy of The Museum of London.


The French artist Gustav Doré visited England many times between 1869 and 1872 with the aim of drawing everyday life in the city. In 1872 he published a book called "London: A Pilgrimage", which contained 180 wood engravings of many picturesque aspects of the city. He tended to concentrate on the areas of poverty in London, and was criticised for it, and among the images he produced was one of The Devil's Acre, illustrated below.


Devil's Acre
Doré's woodcut shows part of the Devil's Acre just before it was cleared.


Doré's woodcut shows part of the Devil's Acre south of Victoria Street just before it was completely cleared during the 1870s. In the centre of the picture is a grouping of old decrepid hovels and a chapel which ran along the north side of Old Pye Street. They are seen here from the back, that is, from the north. They are overshadowed by a large new housing block at the right, which still survives today. The block is Rochester Buildings, constructed in 1862 by the philantropist William Gibbs, and which fronts the south side of Old Pye Street at the corner with Perkin's Rents.


Rochester Buildings
Rochester Buildings today. Note the high baroque pediments that are very clearly depicted in the Doré  woodcut.
Image taken from Google Street View.



 In the background of Doré's woodcut can be seen the Victoria Tower of the new Westminster Palace, which had been completed in 1858. It is curous that Doré has chosen to show the old hovels in a burst of sunlight, while Old Pye Street and the new housing development along it are in deep shadow, like a dark canyon. This may be because Dore actually saw sunlight streaming in over the hovels from his point of view, making it a picturesque sight.


The view Doré has depicted is possible only if he was located on the upper floor of a building in the newly constructed Victoria Street. There is only one surviving building in Victoria Street dating from the first phase of its development in the 1860s, and that is The Albert pub. Built in 1862, it was originally called The Blue Coat Boy, but was purchesed by the nearby Artillery Brewery and renamed The Albert in honour of Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, who had died in 1861. This pub, with its upper floors giving great views over the south side of Victoria Street and looking towards Westminster is almost certainly the place from which Dore sketched the Devil's Acre as it was in 1872.


The Albert in Victoria Street
The Albert pub in Victoria Street. Doré would have drawn his picture from one of the iron balconies on the upper stories.



View from The Albert

This map shows the angle of view Doré would have seen from The Albert, looking east towards Westminster.

From the Map Of London 1868, By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S.


In 1877 Rochester Buildings were sold to The Peabody Trust, who continued development of the area and created what is now called the Abbey Orchard Estate.


The reason for the development of this dreadful slum hard by Westminster is simple. At the begining of the eleventh century, Edward the Confessor built a palace and a church, to become known as the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, on land that was then an island, called Thorny Island. It was a roughly triangular patch of firm ground bounded by two branches of the Tyburn, which flowed down to the Thames. The problem was that the land to the south-west of Thorny Island was marshland of little value. During the thirteenth century the Abbey was rebuilt as the magnificent church we see today, but the difficult marsh beside it remained a place of neglect that was hard to build on. It was often flooded at high tide. It therefore became the home of the poor and dispossessed in small, hovel-like dwellings, and it remained that way till the Thames was held back by an embankment and the land drained. The slums were finally cleared in the later nineteenth century, but the tradition of it being a working class area remained.