Hidden London

St Giles

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Camden

The area just east of Tottenham Court Road station is properly known as St Giles, but the term is rarely used, perhaps because this was once London’s most notorious neighbourhood. It came into existence in the year 1101, when Henry I’s wife Matilda founded a hospital for lepers here. There have been three churches of St Giles-in-the-Fields; the present one dates from 1734. Until the mid-nineteenth century the St Giles district was a ‘rookery’ – a home for every kind of villain and misfit – conveniently close to the rich pickings offered by the gentry up west. Its slums provided refuge from the officers of the law, who would seldom venture into the warren in pursuit of a fleeing criminal. The turning point came in 1840, when the police defeated a gang of counterfeiters after a battle lasting several hours. Seven years later the slums began to be cleared as the authorities forced New Oxford Street through the district in a deliberate act of decontamination by demolition.

The much-signposted but little known St Giles Circus is now just a crossroads: the junction of Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street and New Oxford Street. The circus is overlooked by the 385-feet tower Centre Point, which was London’s only bona fide skyscraper when it was built in 1964. Developer Harry Hyams came in for heavy criticism because he left the building empty for many years, content to benefit from the escalation in its capital value while he paid no rates. A hundred squatters occupied it in 1974. Now a grade II listed building, Centre Point’s tenants include the Confederation of British Industry. Recent intensive policing has driven drug vendors and users in this direction from Charing Cross and King’s Cross, and St Giles has once again acquired a reputation for illegal activities.

St Giles church
click for area map (opens in a new window)
St Giles Circus is overlooked by Centre Point, London's first true skyscraper

William Hogarth’s shocking drawing Gin Lane, published in 1751, depicts the evils wrought on St Giles by the unfettered activities of London’s distillers.

Postal district: WC2
Further reading: Edward Grey, St Giles’s of the Lepers, Longmans, 1905

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

 
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