Time Travel Explorer Blog

Rediscovering London's Rookeries

by Peter Watts 24. September 2010 15:51

As Matt writes in the previous post, one of the great joys of old maps and the TTX app is that they give you the opportunity to virtually explore streets of London that no longer exist. These streets will have disappeared for all sorts of reasons – fire and Blitz being uppermost – but some will have been taken out for what can only be described as social cleansing.


These were the Rookeries, the slums of Victorian London, mazes of narrow streets, courts and alleyways that housed London’s poorest citizens. There were half-a-dozen in London, nests of poverty, crime and disease, where families slept ten to a room and criminals could evade police by simply knowing which alleyway to escape through and which cul-de-sac to avoid. For a good read on the Rookeries, try Sarah Wise’s ‘The Blackest Street’, about the Old Nichol slum in Bethnal Green.


Victorian planners decided the best way to deal with the Rookeries problem was to remove them from the face of London, and so set about an extensive road-building programme that simply drove huge new roads right through the middle of the worst Rookeries. One such scheme was in Bloomsbury and you can see how it worked by using the TTX app and switching between the modern map and the Greenwoods’ one of 1830, focusing on Tottenham Court Road station.


Here, between Great Russell Street and St Giles High Street, was one of the most infamous Rookeries, the St Giles’s Rookery, which the Victorians swept away by building New Oxford Street. Although the streets of the Rookery ceased to exist; the poor simply moved a little further south, to Seven Dials, so the Victorians tried it again by building Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue.


You can see slum clearance in action in other part of London using the TTX app. Try exploring the area around what is now Victoria Street for evidence of the Rookery around Westminster Abbey, or the junction of Aldwych and Kingsway, which was intended to destroy the Rookery around Hollywell Street, the centre of the Victorian trade in pornographic literature. Pornography, of course, was never sold on the streets of London again.