From Sanctuary to Slum – The Devil’s Acre

If one peaked behind the curtain of Regency London’s glamorous ton balls, fine carriages and fashionable shops, one would see an entirely different world. A world that was steeped in poverty, crime and desperation.

Steps away from the majestic Westminster Abbey lay one of the worst slums in London: The Devil’s Acre. Like most slums it didn’t start off as one, it was a nice neighborhood with gardens and courtyards. The monks of the Abbey were known to give sanctuary to those accused of crimes and defaulting on their debts.

The monks’ “sanctuary” along with the burst of population in London caused the neighborhood to decline rapidly in the mid-1700s. Cheap houses were built, the streets became narrower and badly paved. Natural light barely penetrated the gloom of the slum. There was hardly any ventilation and no sanitation.

To make things even more deplorable, the neighborhood was so poor they couldn’t afford night soil, which was having someone collect the human feces gathered in cesspits (that were covered with soil). So instead, all the human waste was dumped into a stream called the Tyburn. But that’s not all! Westminster is in a low-land, and when the stream flooded the banks became a literal pile of s***.  The stench would’ve been indescribable.

People were packed like sardines in the dwellings, often 10-12 inhabitants lived in one room. And you thought sharing a room with a sibling was bad! Diseases such as Typhoid and Cholera ran rampant, as did criminals and prostitutes. The Devil’s Acre in the 1800s became synonymous with crime and immorality.

The conditions in the slum got so bad that it became a national crisis. When the stinky slum began to fester mere steps away from the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, it’s not surprising that members of the upper-class finally decided to get involved. I’m actually surprised the ton allowed it to get that bad!

Thanks to the Slums Clearance Acts in 1870s, The Devil’s Acre was cleared and the site was redeveloped with higher quality housing for the working poor.

My first book “A Gentleman’s Bidding” focused more on Whitechapel as a setting for one of my chapters. I’ll be featuring The Devil’s Acre in my next book, which will be Isabelle’s story.

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