For this exhibition we were initially inspired by the opulent nature of Mayfair, though we soon discovered that it has a dark and dirty history…
In the latter years of the 17th Century, London enjoyed an increase of prosperity, which resulted in a rapid growth of population. New and elegant suburbs began to cover the open country to the west. Mayfair was one of these. Most of the area was first developed between the mid 17th and mid 18th century as a fashionable residential district, by a number of landlords, notably Hugh Audley and later the Grosvenor family.
However, in the 18th century, problems developed with the growth of population in the area. Behind the small streets and fine houses there was poverty and overcrowding. Drunkenness, disease and infant mortality were rife. The library overlooks what was once a burial ground (now Mount Street Gardens). To the north of the ground, on the site of what is now 103 Mount Street, was the parish's workhouse, built in 1725, where the poor were given work, board, and lodgings. By 1762 the burial ground was full, and a new one was bought in the Bayswater Road. In 1854, an Act of Parliament was passed by which burial grounds in central London, such as the one overlooked by this building, were to be closed due to health risks.
Ron Dodd, who used to live in the basement flat (beneath the library) until recently, says that he and his wife would often hear strange noises upstairs at night when the library was locked up and there was no-one around.
As for the title of the exhibition, it is taken from Hugh Audley’s book, the full title of which is "The way to be rich according to the practice of the great Audley who begun with two hundred pound in the year 1605, and dyed worth four hundred thousand pound this instant November, 1662." (London : Printed for E. Davis, 1662) Hugh Audley owned this land and left it to his wife in 1662 More information about him seems to be difficult to come by, but Samuel Pepys makes several references to him and his book. Here are two excerpts:
“Coming by Temple Bar I bought “Audley’s Way to be Rich,” a serious pamphlett and some good things worth my minding.” (Friday 23 January 1663)
I hear to-day how old rich Audley is lately dead, and left a very great estate, and made a great many poor familys rich, not [left it] all to one. (Sunday 23 November 1662)
Another morsel of information that you may, or may not find interesting…In a survey carried out in 1840 in the neighboring parish of St John’s, it was found that
“The most popular literature which was read in the families of the working classes visited, consisted of the cheap periodical publications of the day; and the most adventurous, and unfortunately of the most licentious of these economical papers, were more attractive than the serious and really useful works of the periodical press. Serious books, however, slightly preponderated in number over theatrical or amatory books.”*
The Committee also surveyed the pictures found in working class dwellings:
|Theatrical and amatory||363|
|Rooms without any||633|
Clearly there were not enough serious ones.
* Report of a Committee of the Statistical Society of London, on the state of the working classes in the parishes of St. Margaret and St. John, Westminster
The survey of the Committee of the Statistical Society of London published in 1840 established that the average amount of weekly rent paid by working class families was 2s. 11¼d. This was felt to be exorbitant and “constituted a source of numerous and bitter complaints which were made to the agents of the Committee during their visits to the dwellings of the poor; and the amelioration of their condition can hardly be anticipated, while they are obliged to pay very high rents… High rents are an evil of a practical nature, from which the labouring classes in Westminster are severely suffering; and a sufficient proof of this circumstance is afforded in the fact, that large numbers of the families of the working population continue to reside, for months and years together, crowded within miserable dwellings, consisting of single rooms, of very moderate size for each family.”
Edwin Chadwick in his report into the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain in 1842 makes specific reference to Westminster with the lack of any organised sewage system: “the expense and annoyance of the cleansing of such places is avoided for years, until they are in the condition described by Mr. Howell, one of the Council of the Society of Civil Engineers, who has acted extensively as a surveyor in the metropolis: ‘…I am acquainted with numberless houses in Westminster where the cellars are constantly flooded, and having no drainage, the occupiers are obliged to pump out the water, which, from being stagnant, is foul and offensive. If in the performance of this necessary duty the matter becomes known, they are summoned to the public office and fined; however much, therefore, the evil is felt in permitting the continuance of stagnant water, the alternative of the time for pumping out is worse; they submit therefore to the lesser evil, and leave the water in the cellars’.”
(From the Report to Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department, from the Poor Law Commissioners)
In spite of improvements with the provision of social housing, when Charles Booth carried out his street by street survey (1898-1900) in connection with his work Life & Labour of the People of London, a number of streets in Westminster still merited the black (lowest class) and dark blue (very poor) classifications. Laundry Yard (alongside the gasworks) was “narrow & neglected. The rubbish a disgrace, pined children, fat women. One of the lowest places in Westminster.” In Chadwick Street the houses were “black & grimy, open doors, dirty children and bad faced women, all the normal signs of physical neglect and moral degradation”. Great Peter Street was “mainly composed of old houses, many single room tenements, a thoroughly bad women’s common lodging house” whilst the pubs had “their groups of vulgar, fat, slatternly lowest standard women gossiping round.”