Having been interested in the work of Hogarth for some time I decided to trace a path through his version of London using some of his most famous works.
Gin Lane and Beer Street were published by Hogarth almost simultaneously in February 1751. (Paulson, 1993, p.18). The two pieces are set in the West Central region of London, in the old civil parishes of St Giles and St Martin in the Fields respectively. My first point of call was to find out where the images were set, there are few visual clues to lead the viewer as to the location of the engravings settings.
The way to find out was to look at the churches in the backdrop, after looking at these and doing some investigative work it became clear that Beer Street was set in the parish of St Martin in the Fields, as depicted by the grand spire of St Martin in the Fields parish church, and Gin Lane was set in the nearby parish of St Giles, indicated by the broken and dilapidated spire of St Giles In The Field in the background.(Ackroyd, 2001,pp.131-3) (Schama, 1988, pp.153-5)
I started my walk outside the church of St Martin in the Field. The area depicted in Beer Street. Hogarth shows the area then was prosperous, the only shop that is closed on the street is the pawn shop. The inhabitants are jolly, well fed and obviously well off. The area today is not much different, it is the entrance to the West End, bordering Trafalgar square and Westminster.
It was however, surprisingly quiet, and I discovered a wealth of shop lined alleyways to explore. Cecil Court was an interesting discovery, and was one which felt relevant to my exploration, as it featured a wealth of book shops and a print sellers stocking caricatures, although I couldn’t quite afford a Hogarth of my own.
I made my way to the sites where the parish of St Giles had stood. The area around the Seven Dials had been developed following the restoration of the monarchy in the hope that it would attract the great and the good of London society, however it came to represent examples of the most extreme deprivation and poverty that London could offer, home to one of the most notorious slums in the city as reported by Thomas Beames in Chapter 3 of ‘The Rookeries of London ‘.
The Rookeries, as they were colloquially known, were regarded as the worst of the housing that the city could provide. Even in the first decades of the 19th century the area was regarded as a place where only thieves, tramps and vagrants lived, not much different from Hogarth’s harrowing depiction of the area in ‘Gin Lane’ (Porter, 2000,p.326) and described by Thomas Beames as “one of the lowest conditions under which human life is possible” (Beames, Ch.3, p 19).
Walking around the area now it is difficult to imagine such a place ever existed. The Rats Castle, once the most dilapidated slum building, was demolished in 1845. It was bitterly cold on the day of my walk and I couldn’t help but think how utterly hopeless life in this area must have felt for those forced into damp crumbling buildings, living in squalor, during Hogarth’s time.
It seemed no surprise then that an area with such notoriety for harbouring the very base layer of London’s people would warmly embrace the most notorious drink of all, Gin.
The gin they drank was not the same as we drink today, it was more in the same vein as moonshine, poor quality alcohol mixed with ingredients like turpentine and sulphuric acid that would kill anyone with a weak constitution.(Dillon, 2004,p.168). I can’t confess to being a fan of Gin , after one too many misadventures, so I found it hard to understand how it could become the notorious epidemic that it did. However, the conditions of the slums of St Giles were a veritable breeding ground for addiction and crime, and one where, it seems, Gin may be your only escape from the horrors of everyday life.
The number of Gin houses in London in 1730 is estimated at being equal to, or more than, 7000 and by 1733 the total volume of gin being produced in London legally was eleven million gallons, that’s 14 gallons per person, per year, this total doesn’t even factor in the innumerable number of illegal underground gin distilleries as well.
The St Giles area was a hotbed of Gin-Parlours. City officials reported that one in fifteen buildings in the City of London was a gin shop, but in St Giles’ parish that number rose sharply, there were around 2000 houses in the area and 506 gin shops, putting the total at around one in four (Dillon, 2004, p254). Scenes would not have been much different to those depicted in Hogarth’s engraving.
A series of Gin Acts were passed in the hope of curbing the production,distribution and consumption of the drink, but the 1751 act was the most successful. It increased licensing and duty on who could sell the spirit and as a result consumption of the spirit fell from 8.5 million gallons in 1751 to 2.1 million in 1760.
I eventually reached the church of St Giles in the Fields. This is reportedly the one whose spire we see behind the chaos of Gin Lane. The church spire doesn’t look much different but the area has undoubtedly changed since the engraving was made.
It is now almost unrecognisable, the streets are no longer lined with gin palaces but with designer boutiques and artisan coffee shops. St Giles High street is no longer the road to a hellish slum but rather it is lined on either side by modern glass office buildings.
The side streets are not areas of vice and crime but home to some very interesting enclaves of shops, Denmark Street being my favourite. I took an unexpected detour here to examine some 1960’s guitars that were well beyond my student budget.
At this point I was tired, it was cold and I had been jostled by enough tourists to put me off ever walking around central London again, but for the sake of authenticity and commitment to my subject I decided that I must end my day at a place mentioned frequently by Hogarth, in works such as Industry and Idleness and The Four Stages of Cruelty, the site of the Tyburn Tree.
So, off I went, leaving Denmark Street I made my way straight down Oxford Street, on a Saturday dinnertime, in the run up to Christmas. I was already beginning to regret my decision.
However, there was method in this madness. I had just walked from one of the most notorious areas in the city, and one of the stops on the way of the final route from the infamous Newgate Prison to the gallows known as the Tyburn Tree.
St Giles in the Field was also home to the ‘St Giles Bowl’, where a bowl of ale was given to the condemned person. A small moment of refreshment for those traversing the route to Tyburn for the first and final time.
This is a well-trodden route, executions took place here from 1571 to 1783, with around 1200 people meeting their fate at the end of this road, and the public spectacle of an execution was sure to bring out the masses. The procession could take anywhere up to 3 hours to complete because of the sheer volume of people who turned our to cheer, jeer and pray for the condemned, and because it was not uncommon for the condemned person to stop more than once for a drink on the way there. (Porter,2000,p.185)
There is something eerily evocative of the descriptions of the crowds who lined the streets for an execution and the experience of walking the same route on a busy day today. The pavements swell with people and the feeling of urgency is in the air. It’s difficult not to feel anything but exhausted by the time you reach Marble Arch at the other end of the road.
However those on the hunt for the looming silhouette of the gallows will be disappointed , it takes more than a little hunting to find the exact spot, which as I found out, ends up being on a traffic island in the middle of a busy road. Not a very dignified final resting place at all.
This walk took me through the history of a very turbulent time in London’s lifetime, and I have learnt a lot. From the deprivation of St Giles and its rat filled houses to the brutality of the spectacle of public execution. The areas and the buildings may have changed and become more prosperous since Hogarth depicted them 265 years ago but the same streets still echo with the memories of these past events. In the case of Oxford Street,it seems, in one way or another, many of us venture out to replicate these events every weekend.
Ackroyd, P. (2001). London. 1st ed. London: Vintage, pp.131-3.
Dillon, P. (2004). Gin. 1st ed. Boston, MA: Justin, Charles & Co., p.168.
Dobie, R. (1829). The History of the United Parishes of St. Giles in the fields and St. George Bloomsbury. Combining strictures on their parochial government, etc. 2nd ed. London: Henry Bickers, pp.135-6.
Knight, C. (2014). London – Volume 3. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.268.
Paulson, R. (1993). Hogarth. 1st ed. Cambridge: Lutterworth, p.18.
Porter, R. (2000). London, a social history. 1st ed. London: Penguin, p.326.
Samuel, R. and Stedman Jones, G. (2016). Culture, Ideology and Politics (Routledge Revivals). 1st ed. London: Routledge, pp.100-1.
Schama, S. (1988). The embarrassment of riches. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp.153-5.
All web resources are hyperlinked.