A little-known corner of Westminster, with a bleak, bleak past.
The Devil's Acre, Dickens called it. "The most deplorable manifestation of human wretchedness and depravity." It was widely regarded as London's most atrocious slum — indeed, this was the place to which the word slum was first applied. But the Devil's Acre was not in the more famously impoverished East End. It fell under the morning shadow of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
This was a place known both for its crushing poverty and as an openly acknowledged den of criminality. "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," wrote Dickens in 1850.
But where exactly was the Devil's Acre? And what's there today?
Slums in a swamp
The Devil's Acre, a set of five or six streets immediately west of Westminster Abbey, was an area of unimaginable poverty. Infant mortality rates were abysmal. Rooms were shared by up to 12 people. The conditions could scarcely be better designed for the needs of rats, fleas, cholera and typhus. Pye Street in particular was notorious; an "openly acknowledged high street of thieves and prostitutes... there is nothing for the barefooted children to stand upon but the black, damp, uneven earth," noted John Hollingshead.
Cardinal Wiseman, writing in 1850, described the "Haunts of filth, which no sewage committee can reach – dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten." He called it a slum, the first time the term was used in this way.
Cleric and school teacher Frederic Farrar witnessed the suffering first hand: "I think it would have been difficult to have found a spot more full of crime. The whole street drank hard while such plunder lasted. I received a message one day to administer Holy Communion to a dying girl in Pye Street. She was in the last stages of consumption, and her story was to the effect that her husband lived on her wages, which he forced her to obtain by a life of sin... She summed up her repentance in one sentence: "I have worked very hard, and I am very tired."'
If you were to compile a book of the worst places to live, anywhere, ever, then the Devil's Acre would have made the frontispiece.
Why this particular set of streets fell into such poverty is not difficult to untangle. This was never prime real estate. For much of its history, the Devil's Acre was waterlogged and swampy. Medieval references call it Bullinga Fen, a name almost gurgling with marshy miasma. When development came in the 18th century, the mean houses were soon occupied by the poor and the outcast. Some accounts suggest that the neighbouring Abbey and its rights of sanctuary served as an attractant for thieves, debtors and other refugees from the law.
Slums, built on marshland, beside a place where the lawless could find sanctuary. This was never going to be the next Mayfair.
A model for Fagin's den?
The name "the Devil's Acre" was commonly used among the area's residents throughout the 19th century, but it was brought to wider attention by Charles Dickens who explored its deprivations in an essay for Household Words in 1850. The author would have been familiar with the area since at least the early 1830s, though, having worked round the corner as a Parliamentary reporter. It's long been supposed that Dickens drew inspiration from the Acre when writing descriptions of Fagin's den and the Bermondsey slum of Jacob's Island (where Bill Sikes meets his end) in Oliver Twist.
Dickens set Fagin's den on Saffron Hill in Clerkenwell — a very different part of town. But there's an intriguing twist to that location, if you'll excuse the pun. To this day, a pub trades on Saffron Hill called the One Tun. By coincidence (or perhaps not), the most notorious spot in the whole of the Devil's Acre was also a pub called the One Tun — famed as a training ground for pickpockets. Dickens supposedly used that real-life pickpocketing school as his model for Fagin's shady academy. He transposed it to a different part of town, but still set it in the locality of another One Tun (renamed as the Three Cripples in the novel).
The devil turfed out
With influential figures like Dickens and Wiseman on the case, the Devil's Acre quickly became infamous. Something had to be done. And, almost immediately, it was. In 1851, Victoria Street was driven through the area, wiping out over 3,000 homes in one stroke (and, no doubt, causing even bigger problems for many of the unfortunate residents).
The new thoroughfare cut through the slums but did not delete them entirely. Many of the most impoverished streets, including Pye Street, remained to its south. But towards the end of the century, the remaining houses were finally cleared away and much more salubrious Peabody dwellings were built in their stead. While the area remained relatively poor, it never again fell into outright poverty.
The Devil's Acre today
Despite the incursion of Victoria Street and a complete rebuilding, much of the Devil's Acre street pattern remains intact. Old Pye Street still forms the backbone, while those sturdy, health-giving Peabody blocks look good for another 100 years.
There's little here to suggest that this was once London's direst quarter, but you can find hints. In 1872 the great French illustrator Gustav Doré made a sketch of the slums towards the end of their gradual replacement. He captured a then-new block of gabled residences, towering over the remaining hovels below. A similar (possibly the same) gabled block still stands today on Perkins Rents, giving us a tangible link to the past.
Another memory can be found in one of the many residential courtyards of the Peabody buildings. High on a wall, on the southern side of Old Pye Street, sits a plaque remembering the One Tun. Here we learn that the den of pickpockets was turned into a ragged school, to help the local youth learn a vocation other than swiping handkerchiefs.
The Devil's Acre today is a quiet, mostly residential place, devoid of filth and dark corners. It remains on the doorstep of the Abbey and Parliament — indeed, we saw a former Chancellor of the Exchequer cutting through. It is almost impossible to imagine Hollingshead's bare-footed children scampering around on the "black, damp, uneven earth" today... unless, that is, you happen to time your visit to coincide with major roadworks.
All photos by the author, Matt Brown.