Avid readers of Regency romance novels may well have read a scene or two set in a "rookery," or, at the very least, found a reference to such a place in one or more stories. But what exactly was a rookery, how did they get their name and what was life like in such areas during our favorite period?
Rookeries during the Regency . . .
First, let us begin with the origin of this most descriptive word. According to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "rook" came into the English language from old German even before the Middle Ages. It was the name given to a Eurasian species of large black bird similar to a crow. These birds were very gregarious and vocal. It is believed their German name had its origins in the raucous calls they routinely made to one another. Rooks chose to nest in huge groups in the tree-tops, all very close to one another. Probably by the seventeenth century, a colony of rooks came to be known as a "rookery." The first attested used of this term in writing is dated 1704. By 1817, the term "rookery" came to be applied to the large breeding colonies of several species of sea birds. By 1831, large breeding colonies of seals, sea lions and even sea turtles were also called rookeries.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, the term rookery had begun to be applied to either lodging houses or city neighborhoods with very dense populations of people, as well. The first attested use of the word in that sense, in writing, was in 1713. And is it any wonder? Certainly in Britain, particularly in London and other large cities, the population grew rapidly through the eighteenth century as more and more people from rural areas flocked to those cities to seek ecomonic opportunity. But at that time, there was no real concept of urban planning and housing for the less affluent residents of most cities was thrown up wherever space could be found. There were also no building codes, so the majority of these buildings were rather ramshackle. Most of the people who lived in them, crammed in, cheek by jowl, just wanted some place to live within their budgets while they found a job and tried to improve their circumstances. The population in this kind of tenement housing seemed always to be growing, and most saw a significant number of births, on either side of the blanket, thus making them appear to be "breeding colonies" for their human residents. So it can be no surprise that such places began to be called rookeries.
However, it must be pointed out that the use of the term rookery to refer to a densely-populated slum or an area of high crime did not appear until the mid-1820s. It was not until 1824 that reference was made in writing to a rookery as an overcrowded area of London which was a "receptacle" for "wicked characters." From the last decades of the eighteenth century into the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the term rookery, when used to refer to an area of dense population within a British city, was a pejorative term. However, it was used in the sense of low-cost and often crowded housing, but not necessarily an area of high crime. In fact, during this period, many rookeries were inhabited by hard-working people, including families, surviving on limited incomes. Many of those people spoke and behaved in a crude or coarse manner, but they were not necessarily criminals. The majority of people who lived in rookeries did so because they had not choice. They were so poor they could not afford to live anywhere else. And certainly, some of these people may have turned to petty theft or prostitution in order to survive, but most would have preferred to make a living though an honest day’s work.
There is no doubt that during the Regency, rookeries in London, and other large cities in Britain, were densely populated, with a great many people crammed into inferior buildings, meagerly furnished and often with poor sanitation. But the majority of these people were not criminals, they were just trying to keep a roof over their heads and make a living, often in low-paying, menial jobs. Another feature of these areas was a rich street life. Most of the residents of rookeries did not have the wherewithal or the skill to cook meals for themselves, so street vendors selling cheap and easy-to-eat food did a brisk business. There were also street hawkers selling other items which might be wanted by the residents of the area. Loafers and those temporarily out of work might also be found on the street, chatting or otherwise amusing themselves. Of course, there were pick-pockets and prostitutes who did business along these same streets as well. Certainly, these rookeries may have housed some people who had committed petty crimes, but they did not make up the bulk of the population of such areas in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Hard-core, organized crime as it developed in the rookeries in the later nineteenth century had not yet taken hold during the Regency.
There may be a correlation between the establishment of the first official London police force in 1829 and the increase in organized criminality in the rookeries of the city. Those densely populated warrens of buildings were nearly impossible for the new police officers to properly patrol and oversee. And many people who lived there were suspicious of the new policemen, even if they were not criminals themselves, and would provide them with no assistance. Therefore, rookeries made ideal locations where the criminal classes could evade the law and from which they could launch their illicit activities. From that time, the rookeries of London, and other British cities, became increasing more dangerous and riddled with crime.
In Regency London, perhaps the most notorious rookery in the metropolis was St. Giles, which included the area known as Seven Dials. These areas were made up of old, run-down buildings which provided the cheapest, least hygienic housing in the city, inhabited by the very lowest of the unwashed classes. Gin-mills, flash-houses, brothels and gambling dens could be found peppered throughout the area, most of which were primarily patronized by the local residents. There is no doubt that life was hard and could be dangerous in St. Giles, during the Regency, but the kind of widespread organized crime about which later authors, such as Dickens, wrote, was only just beginning to emerge early in the early nineteenth century.
Interestingly, some Bow Street runners and other law officers of the Regency period reported that they were treated with civility by the residents when they ventured into the rookeries. It was also not unknown for what we would consider under-cover law officers to frequent flash houses. In such places, while enjoying a pint or a meal, they might overhear information about the activities of criminals they were tracking or investigating. Flash house owners often served as fences for stolen goods, so it was very common for criminals to frequent such establishments. However, many pawn brokers and lodging house-keepers in the rookeries were also full or part-time fences. Lodging house-keepers may have taken stolen goods in exchange for rent when a tenant had no ready cash. These less-public fences were not as easy to identify and were less likely to be exposed or apprehended.
There is no doubt that rookeries in the Regency were thoroughly unpleasant places, and were plagued by petty crime, but they had not yet degenerated into the truly dangerous and evil places which they became in the Victorian period. During the Regency, many of the inhabitants of these areas may have had little education, crude manners and coarse speech, but they were not necessarily involved in criminal activity. In fact, quite a number of those people abhorred crime as much as the residents of the more affluent areas of the city and may have cooperated with authorities, if surreptitiously, from time to time, in order to help reduce criminal activity where they lived. Some of the people who lived in rookeries even managed to improve their circumstances enough to enable them to move to more modest but decent areas of the city where they could enjoy a more respectable life.
Dear Regency Authors, it is important to distinguish between the nature of rookeries in British cities during the Regency and how they were described by authors like Dickens and Mayhew during the Victorian period. Regency rookeries were crammed with ramshackle buildings, sparsely furnished, with poor sanitation, which sheltered a vast range of poor people who could afford nothing better. But even though those people were poor, not all of them were criminals and many of them worked very hard to improve their circumstances so they could escape the rookeries. Quietly and covertly, some even helped the authorities to identify and apprehend petty criminals working in their neighborhoods. Certainly, it would not be a good idea for a gently-bred adult or child to wander into the rookeries during the Regency. However, it was quite possible that they might encounter some rough but kindly soul who would offer them aid and protection while they were there to ensure they came to no harm. And who is to say that some of the residents of Regency rookeries were not patriotic souls who did their part to identify and/or foil spies during the Napoleonic Wars. Other groups working for the good of the country or the city may well have had members who lived or worked in the rookeries, where they could gather all kinds of information. Regency rookeries were not pleasant places, but they were also not yet the sinkholes of vice and corruption into which they began to degenerate as the old king passed away and the Prince Regent was crowned George IV.