Yesterday, I needed to kill a morning in central London, but remain available to collect my daughter after a surgical procedure. A walk seemed the best idea, but having no sense of direction, I printed off a map. It was an eye-opener.
As a history lover, I had read how compressed London was in previous centuries, with areas of squalid poverty sitting cheek-by-jowl beside streets of unimaginable wealth; but the distances didn’t mean much to me. However, when I examined the 21st-century map, I was shocked.
- 13 minutes to walk from Bond Street station to Tottenham Court Road station (both circled in red)
In the 19th century, Mayfair and Fitzrovia (blue circles on the left-hand side) represented indecent wealth; whereas Seven Dials and St Giles were grinding ghettos of poverty and crime (blue circles on the right-hand side.) And in the modern day, even when weaving through the shoppers milling along Oxford Street, it’s only a 13-minute walk between locations. I was stunned.
To pull this into focus, let’s contrast the rich and poor, prosperity with poverty in a ‘then and now’ – showing the modern-day streets with images from the past.
Poverty: St Giles
The area to the east of Tottenham Court station is where we find the area previously known as St Giles. If you aren’t familiar with the region, that’s because in the modern day the name ‘St Giles’ has gone out of fashion, largely because of its deep association with slums and poverty, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The photo above sums up what I saw of St Giles yesterday near Tottenham Court tube station, as I made my way to Foyles bookshop. It was a grubby, grey, urban forest of concrete and tarmac; a place to pass through rather than linger. There was no greenery and no flowers, everything was artificial and man-made. A joyless urban landscape (with the noteable exception of Foyles’ bookshop, which I greatly enjoyed).
So what did St Giles look like in the past? The 18th-century artist, William Hogarth, sheds light on this; many of his most famous prints were set in St Giles, including Gin Lane (see below), Beer Street, The Harlot’s Progress, and The Four Stages of Cruelty.
Poverty: Seven Dials
The history of Seven Dials is intriguing because the street layout was deliberately devised, around 1690, to maximize the number of rentable buildings, intended as aspirational housing. With the architect, Thomas Neale MP, in charge things started out well enough, with the majority of the houses being occupied by well-to-do lawyers and the like. However, when Neale sold his interest in 1695, individual developers scented the opportunity to make money and standards plummeted. Within a relatively short period, tenants started sub-letting rooms, the number of inhabitants rose, and conditions deteriorated.
By the 19th century Seven Dials had a reputation for cheap housing and so itinerant workers and laborers flocked there; probably also attracted by the density of public houses found in the area. Over-crowding and crime reached such a pitch by the mid-1850s that 39 nightwatchmen were required to keep the peace.
So much for the poverty, now what of the prosperity that lay so close to the seedier side of 19th century London?
And today, the difference between London’s past and present is still marked, a contrast between tower blocks and elegant squares; but there’s an argument that poverty is better disguised. It makes me wonder how much has really changed and if we haven’t just got better at hiding things. What are your thoughts?