Further to last week’s investigation into the mysterious bond that links Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury to contemporary British comedy, today’s outing is a further trip round the blasted landscape of St. Giles. Centre Point notwithstanding, Renzo Piano’s day-glo ‘Central St Giles’ development now dominates the locality: an arrangement of Lego-like orange, yellow and green blocks which can be seen with the naked eye from my flat in Crystal Palace six miles away. (Piano is also responsible for The Shard, which is even harder to ignore.) In its way, Central St. Giles is 21st century London’s equivalent of Hawksmoor’s St.George’s: an unintentional joke, a tinselly distraction in the midst of urban blight. As previously discussed, this was where Hogarth located Gin Lane, his celebrated image of London as Hell: that was in 1751, the height of the gin craze, when the district had something like 500 gin shops and 82 lodging houses. The slum became known as ‘The Holy Land’ in honour of its largely Irish population, and a ‘St Giles cellar’ was an 18th century colloquialism for the worst imaginable habitation. When the brewery on Bainbridge St. exploded in 1818, it flooded St Giles with 10,000 gallons of beer and downed eight unfortunates in their basements. Thomas Beames, writing in the middle of the 19th century, said that St Giles represented ‘the lowest conditions under which human life is possible’.
You get the idea. St Giles was a frightful stew of poverty and filth. By the Victorian period The Holy Land covered somewhere between six and ten acres, its precise boundaries being hard to gauge as the edges shaded in and out of more respectable streets. In Curiosities of London, John Timbs describes the rookery as: ‘one great mass, as if the houses had originally been one block of stone, eaten by slugs into numberless small chambers and connecting passages’. The Holy Land’s proximity to the West End made it a perfect refuge for thieves who were able to work well-heeled crowds before retreating to the rookery’s impenetrable depths. Its labyrinthine complexity, bolt-holes, and booby traps made pursuit of offenders as pointless as it was dangerous: a constable could find himself decoyed into an ambush in some dead end court, or simply tipped into a concealed cesspool.
Unsurprisingly, Dickens was all over this place. In A Gin Palace, first published in 1835, the young journalist indulges his revulsion for low life, whilst noting the glamour of the gin palaces themselves. Later, when he was fully established as great novelist and social reformer, Dickens returned to St Giles in the company of a group of armed police led by the legendary Inspector Field during a nocturnal tour of the city’s rookeries. On Duty With Inspector Field contains a description of the forbidding lodging house called Rats’ Castle, a crooks’ hangout in an ancient pile somewhere near Dyott St. (fittingly – but very debatably – built upon the ruins of a medieval leper hospital):
‘St Giles church strikes half past ten. We stoop low and creep down a precipitous flight of steps into a dark close cellar. There is a fire. There is a long deal table. There are benches. The cellar is full of company, chiefly very young men in various conditions of dirt and raggedness. Some are eating supper. There are no girls or women present. Welcome to Rats’ Castle, gentlemen, and to this company of noted thieves!’
This was not a raid: Field was merely putting on a show for Dickens, inundating the company with threateningly matey banter, showing them that it was his manor; and the novelist endorses the policeman’s gloating with lip-smacking fervour. They then proceed to a ‘tramps’ lodging house’, where families of desperately poor Irish are likened by the great social reformer to ‘maggots in a cheese’, before he mimics their speech for comic effect. By the time Dickens wrote this, in 1851, the Victorians were hacking away at the rookery, their road building schemes opening up the honeycombed warren to the light. New Oxford St., Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Rd. were all run through slum housing, residents left homeless amidst the rubble. But the demolition and social cleansing left St Giles permanently denuded; much of the rebuilding feels dead and even the Shaftesbury Theatre (1911) can’t offer much excitement.
But at least you can go for a drink beneath the theatre; at present, this rambling venue is occupied by a branch of The London Cocktail Club, a concern which has gobbled up a few of London’s wine bars over the past few years. It used to be an establishment called The Grapes, which remains vivid in my memory after a spectacular misadventure on my part, but I’ll leave that episode for another occasion. Right now I’m not in the mood for a cocktail, so I will retreat to the cosy downstairs saloon at The Toucan, a Guinness-themed pub on Carlisle St.. All right, it’s Soho not St. Giles, but there’s only a few yards in it; and, as basement bars go, it is unbeatable. I have, over the years, drunk a significant portion of my life away down there – on Guinness, naturally. They even offer Guinness cocktails, but that’s where I draw the line. (Black Velvet, Guinness and champagne, is a concoction that succeeds in wrecking two perfectly acceptable drinks, and looks, smells and tastes like something from a pathology lab.) Of course, my retreat to the Toucan is in my mind, a dredging of blurry memories as I look out of the window in distant SE19. The Toucan’s bars are ideal Petri dishes for Covid-19 to flourish; they will sell you a pint to drink outside, but the interior is closed for the foreseeable. Somewhere, a bell is tolling; and it tolls for me.