Turner’s Court: The forgotten slum?

Slums are about as Victorian as smog, deer stalker hats and sewers. The popular imagination has firmly situated them within a body of characteristics which define the 19th century city in contemporary culture. Pitiable living conditions, from the cotton worker’s dingy basement dwelling in thriving Manchester to the multi-purpose single rooms of the sweated labour workforce in Spitalfields, signify this was a period when despite the best efforts of individual philanthropists the extreme poor were left to seek out an existence in rotting, filthy, overcrowded lodgings. The trouble was the Victorian’s obsession with distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving poor often put the residents of the very worst housing in a category labelled ‘beyond help’. The criminal classes, which frequently had the run of these streets, assisted exponentially in condemning the locals to the undeserving pile. These are the regions which were coloured black in social investigator Charles Booth’s poverty maps and were inhabited by people who, according to Booth, lived ‘the life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship’ and whose ‘only luxury is drink’.

So far this is a familiar story. London’s semi-criminal districts are famous, particularly Covent Garden’s Seven Dials, the St. Giles slum south of Tottenham Court Road and Whitechapel’s Flower and Dean Street (which has a central role in the history of the Ripper murders). There is however one metropolitan locality which was notorious in the late 19th century which rarely gets a mention: Turner’s Court. Turner’s Court, populated with thieves, market porters, street sellers and ‘draggled’ women, is important because of its location. Situated minutes from the capital’s grandest statement of imperial and cultural success, Turner’s Court was the neighbour of Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. By the 1890s, when it was surveyed by Booth, it was an anachronistic throw back to the days when Charing Cross was awash with pockets of slum housing, the majority of which were swept away in the 1830s when space was carved out for the new square. At the end of the century little more shielded it from view than the shop fronts of St. Martin’s Lane.

Given the extent of metropolitan improvements in the vicinity, especially the creation of Charing Cross Road and Shaftsbury Avenue which entailed the demolition of St. Giles, it’s hard to pinpoint why Turner’s Court was left to fester. In all likelihood the nearby destruction of central London’s low class housing even drove the population of Turner’s Court upwards. Perhaps because it was tucked away (out of sight, out of mind) or because it wasn’t as extensive as other slums its clearance was not a priority. Maybe circumstances ensured its continued existence. The fact that no new road was destined to plough straight through it might have been what saved Turner’s Court from the bulldozers. Whatever the reason one thing is sure – the police had a nightmare imposing their authority on it.

Speaking to one of Booth’s researchers in 1898 Constable Albert Gunn recalls the violence faced by himself and his colleagues if they dared to enter the alleys of Turner’s Court. Having had cause to investigate the ‘smelly, airless place’ just three months earlier, one of Gunn’s team had had his bravery rewarded by a resident who slashed his throat. Turner’s Court was also a well known retreat for fingersmiths and muggers who, after snatching watches in St. Martin’s Lane, would withdraw to its streets for cover. Given the treatment meted out to police officers who followed them this must have been a successful tactic.

Turner’s Court is significant because it shows just how diverse the social and residential make-up of central London continued to be at the turn of the 20th century. For the most part of the 19th century London had been busy zoning itself off – the rich to the west, the middle class to the suburbs of north and south London, and the poor largely confined to the east (to brazenly generalise). Central London had spent much of this time ridding itself of its residents. Evictions were imposed to make way for new streets and railway lines whilst the clamour to escape its dirt and bustle and realise the suburban dream had hastened depopulation. Yet Charing Cross, despite a fall in permanent inhabitants, remained the home of everyone from ‘the Queen to the crossing sweeper’. It was truly a place where every member of the Victorian social strata could go about their business, where politicians could endorse the Empire, where tourists could luxuriate in the comforts of its modern hotels, where the culturally curious could visit the finest paintings in the country, and where thieves could find unguarded pockets and a place to hide.