Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
At the end of Denmark Street, where it joins St Giles High Street, stands the Church of St Giles in the Fields. The first Palladian style church in the country, it was built in 1734 by Henry Flitcroft, who has a nearby street named after him. A century earlier there'd been another church there, which replaced an earlier medieval church, long fallen into disrepair. Before that there was an even earlier Saxon church. The present church, we also find is on the former site of a leper's hospital and chapel built at the beginning of the 12th century, by Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I, William the Conqueror's youngest son. Leprosy ‒ a feared and fatal disease, whose cause people of that time knew little about ‒ was to be kept away from the main population at all costs.
"Gin Lane" by William Hogarth
The centre of London, before its West End grew up, had always been to the east, in what is now called the City. St Giles in the Fields really was in the fields back then. The site had been damp and marshy land just off a main Saxon road out of the town. Dampness, disease and death therefore seem to have been the prevailing themes around the area for at least a thousand years. There has also been a contrast of wealth and poverty. For here, where the million seller hits were written and recorded in the mid 20th century, you will also still find the chancers, the crackheads, the junkies, the thieves, the stunt-drinkers and some of the down-at-heel musicians who need to sell their instruments in order to obtain lunch money. It's seems that it's just always been like that.
"Beer Street" by William Hogarth
In early medieval times, a village of sorts ‒ shops and stalls providing goods and services to the leper hospital gradually grew up around St Giles. Merchants and great men wishing to move out of the City also began to build houses in the area. Pubs and hostels along the way now began to appear and soon, St Giles was a parish.
The poverty-stricken and reeking parish of St Giles also became the epicentre of the Plague, which in 1665, swept through London. Some sources of the time blame the area for spreading this disease which wreaked havoc on the wider population of the city and eventually upon the whole country. The overcrowded and squalid warrens of St Giles, with its scabrous attics, rat-infested cellars, its streets full of rubbish and ordure, was a place best avoided.
Round the corner from the church, in St Giles High Street is The Angel pub, a lovely old Victorian boozer, whose landlord in the mid 1980s, when I knew it, was an Ipswich man, whom I used to talk to sometimes. There's been a pub there for a long time. St Giles Church was also the last stop on the road for those poor souls en route from Newgate Prison to the Tyburn 'Tree' ‒ the gallows. Marble Arch now stands upon the site. At the Angel pub, the condemned were given a drink from the St Giles Bowl. The hanging cart would stop, along the way, somewhere near the end of Denmark Street and the ragged, stinking wretches destined for the noose were given their last drink. The St Giles Bowl contained, depending upon which sources you believe, either strong ale, or a concoction of alcohol and various narcotics to numb the victims, before they were launched into eternity.
In earlier times, there had been executions near St Giles Church, too. The alleys, gennels and courtyards north of Denmark Street, became known, from the early 19th century century as the Rookery. The Rookery was a continuation of the abject poverty, squalor and misery that had always been synonymous with the parish of St Giles. Poor people gravitated to the area in huge numbers, as they always had done. The mad, the drunk and the destitute ended up here. Later came the song-sheet sellers and the penny balladeers. This was the beginning of Denmark Street's long association with music, or what George Bernard Shaw called 'The Brandy of the Damned.' When they knocked the Rookery down in the late 1840s they cleared away with it much of the filth and degradation that inhabited its buildings and their cellars. What they replaced it with was a new thoroughfare called New Oxford Street. This is a strange, rather dark and windswept street which the traffic roars along, mostly, without stopping. It feels like a ghost street. I must have walked down it many times. There are businesses there too and yet, I've never really noticed much about it. It's almost as if it's a street that nobody wanted.
The area, as it was in the 18th century at least, is probably best illustrated in Hogarth's engravings from The Four Times of Day – Noon and two others Gin Lane and Beer Street. 'A cellar in Denmark Street' was once, according to the writer Peter Ackroyd, an expression meaning that you weren't doing very well for yourself in London.
"Noon" by William Hogarth
In that autumn of 1986, it was precisely to such a cellar, at 22 Denmark Street that the Cleaners from Venus arrived to begin their second album. Until that year it had been an 8-track studio. One of the last people to use it as an 8-track, in 1985, had reportedly been Ian Stewart, the Rolling Stones piano player, who died in December of that year. (TBC)