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The echoes of a dark past that resonate around the Rookery at St Giles

An escape route at the Rookery

Observing drug dealers in dark corners from her window inspired artist Jane Palm-Gold to follow in Dickens’ footsteps and investigate the wild history of St Giles

Published: 13th May, 2011
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THE ancient parish of St Giles has been my home since 2003. I look out on the churchyard and towards the new Lorenzo Piano building, the site of the notorious Rookery. 

During my first five years here, I looked on at the daily lives of crack users and dealers. This was a wild place and I began to document this mayhem in drawings from my window: the endless round of sparking up crack pipes and the scrabbling around in dark corners of doorways, a constant searching for fragments of “rocks”. 

The attempted murders and aggravated assaults and even the dead have made it into London’s Underworld Unearthed: The Secret Life of the Rookery – an exhibition which I put together and which opens next week at the Coningsby Gallery in Tottenham Street.

In 2004 I began a short course at Birkbeck College on 18th-century London history and realised that, if ever there were a locality that held on to echoes of its wild past, St Giles was it. 

The crack epidemic on the streets outside mirrored the “gin craze” in St Giles of old. 

Then I began to collect historical writings on this locality from those people who, in their time, bore witness to the same fascination, studying testimonials from fellow observers over a 150-year period. Many were social reformers such as Henry Mayhew and the Rev Thomas Beames. Others, like Dickens, drew their inspiration from the Rookery, attracted and repelled in equal measure by it. 

Artists often came here too and I have trawled many archives seeking out obscure works, some anonymous, others by well-known satirists like George Cruikshank, who, like me, loved this place. 

Until recently St Giles was a forlorn and dismal backwater yet still a village with a stoic community of great neighbours, dwelling around the Phoenix Garden. It was as if being on the frontline brought us all closer together. There were countless occasions where things kicked off on the street or in the vicinity, bringing everyone out, including the police. 

I witnessed some absurd things and turned these events into paintings. Sometimes even I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The “Crypt and the Crack Stash” was such a work that documented the unbelievable: a plain clothes drugs bust had to be abandoned in the churchyard. Four police officers searched the bushes against the church while the dealer protested loudly. They had to let him go. I went away and came back to my window and saw the dealer emerge triumphant from the gaping jaw of the crypt, clutching his stash, the jaw being the 18th-century gratings, prised apart with some force by his accomplice. 

However, another painting title, “A slum clearance exercise”, reveals much, done at a time when the idea of a St Giles renaissance was in the air, just before demolition began on St Giles Court.

The archaeologists from the Museum of London moved onto the site and I went with neighbours and then a few times alone. The germ of an idea for an exhibition was taking place – historical research and drawings merging into paintings, that bore psycho-geographical echoes and references to actual events in St Giles, albeit a few hundred years ago. 

The exhibition fuses paintings, historical writings and prints, St Giles slogans, folklore and aretefacts excavated by Museum of London Archaeology. I have my favourite bits: descrip­tions of Old Simon Edy, the infamous 18th-century beggar whose patch was Resurrection Gate outside St Giles-in-the-Fields church; another of Old Jack Norris the Musical Shrimp Man, who sounds quite fun until you read about him. 

Coiners flourished in Jones Court and Dickens visited Rats Castle, a den of thieves on Ivy Lane, accompanied by Inspector Hunt and a group of policemen. This was swept away in the mid-1840s to become New Oxford Street. 

My favourite artefact recovered from the St Giles excavation is the Fuddling Cup. This was used in social drinking games of the 18th century, although this particular example dates from the 1660s. I like to think that this is symbolic of St Giles and the gin epidemic to come.

The exhibition has taken six years to come to fruition. The Museum of London Archaeology have been enthusiastic throughout and are displaying some great artefacts. It has been wonderful to have them involved. I would also like to thank all the sponsors for enabling it to happen at such a chal­lenging time for the arts.

• London’s Underworld Unearthed: The secret life of the Rookery runs from May 17 until June 3 at the Coningsby Gallery, 30 Tottenham Street, W1. Admission free

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