The Rookeries of London is a mid-19th-century report that explores the typical living conditions in London's 'rookeries'. It was written by Thomas Beames, a clergyman who was driven to investigate the subject after witnessing dire living conditions and extreme poverty within inner-city London. Beames draws on his own eye-witness accounts of rookeries and argues that one’s environment has a direct impact on education, lifestyle, and crime.
Towards its end, Beames reveals the book's main purpose: to call for a parliament Act to 'remedy' the problems he has witnessed.
What was a rookery?
‘Rookery’ is a 19th-century term for the densely populated, low-quality housing found within slum areas. They were overcrowded, scantily equipped, poorly ventilated, and unhygienic. Many families lived within a small, single room. By squeezing dozens of people within one building, corrupt landlords gained high financial returns.Beames describes three of London’s most notorious rookeries – St Giles, Saffron Hill and Bermondsey. He writes, 'A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours'.
Where do rookeries appear in Oliver Twist?
The Rookeries of London, is partially set within real slum areas. Indeed, Beames makes reference to Oliver Twist, which suggests that the novel helped to raise awareness of these living conditions.
Fagin, Sikes and the child pickpockets live within Saffron Hill. Jacob’s Island, Bermondsey, is vividly described by Dickens and also serves as the site of Sikes' death. As the subject of Dickens's appeal in the 1850 Preface, Dickens, like Beames, strives to convince readers that Jacob’s Island is a real place.
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Novels such as Oliver Twist have made Victorian child-thieves familiar to us, but to what extent did juvenile crime actually exist in the 19th century? Drawing on contemporary accounts and printed ephemera, Dr Matthew White uncovers the facts behind the fiction.
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