Last Chance to See: London's Underworld Unearthed at the Museum of London

By Mel Jones | 01 June 2011
An image of an illustration of a police officer taking down a man's details as another man lies on the ground in a city street
© Jane Palm-Gold/DACS
Exhibition: London's Underworld Unearthed: The Secret Life of the Rookery, Museum of London, London, until June 3 2011

The Secret Life of the Rookery is an exploration of London's “most notorious slum” by a native of the modern day area, Jane Palm-Gold.

Inspired by her experience of living in the modern day parish of St Giles, she decided to delve into the history of the area she now calls home.
Renowned during the 18th century as an area full of prostitutes, murders and thieves, the area was so notorious up until a few years ago that police allegedly stopped attending 999 calls.

Jane's sketches of dealers and bodies sit alongside artefacts from the Museum of London Archaeology, historical drawings and quotes from social reformers of the day. 

Together these items weave a frightening picture of a place where a gin epidemic took place in the 18th century – one in four houses distilled gin which was so potent it would blind or kill people, from children to the elderly.

Social reformer Henry Mayhew claimed that gin “was taken to stave off the cold, as most of the residents of the area were extremely poor”, and many immigrants first set up home here.

The higgledy piggledy, cramped houses and alleyways were hidden by the grand buildings surrounding them, making it an easy place to go unnoticed and allowing the activity to continue unknown to passersby.

A warren of thievery and prostitution, police were impressed by the network of escape tunnels that had been dug by the criminals for an easy escape when authorities set up a station on the corner of the area back in the late 1800s.

Contrasted by an image of two drug dealers beneath a CCTV camera, it makes you wonder how far police intelligence has moved on. One person in the comments book noted that “nothing ever, ever changes.”

This is an interesting and thought-provoking exhibition which not only highlights the failings of an area, but also the presence of vice in society.

The ways in which they do it may change, but the human desire to detach from society remains the same.

  • Open 10am-6pm. Admission free.
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