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Victorian London

The Emancipation Act

In 1829, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed and for the first time for 300 years it was no longer illegal for Catholics to have churches and say mass. In June of 1835, three Italian priests arrived at Tilbury. They were members of the Institute of Charity, founded by Antonio Rosmini, and later to become known as Rosminians. They introduced into England a new form of clerical dress, the Roman collar or dog collar. Queen Victoria’s London was in marked contrast to the city Edward I presided over six centuries earlier. The population had risen from 40,000 to over three million. Parks were the only open spaces in a densely overcrowded city.

For Charles Dickens, the slum areas surrounding St Etheldreda’s and Ely Place became the very heart of the quarter he made his own. Ely’s former fields of saffron had by Dickens’ day turned into the city’s most atrocious slums. It was to Saffron Hill that Dickens had the Artful Dodger take Oliver Twist and it was nearby that he sited the infamous Fagan’s Den and Thieves’ Kitchen. It was to Ely Place that David Copperfield went to visit Agnes, the woman he loved, at the house of Mr Waterbrook. A “gloomy street” was how Dickens described Little Britain as the location for Mr Jagger’s office in Great Expectations. Bleeding Heart Yard is also featured in Little Dorrit. The Yard takes its name from one of Sir Christopher Hatton’s descendants.Lady Elisabeth Hatton, so legend has it, was found brutally murdered with her heart torn from her still pumping blood. The condition of St Etheldreda’s continued to deteriorate. The pitiful state of its surviving fabric was lamented by one eminent Victorian gentleman:

Surely it is not too late or quite vain to plead with those who are interested in the few remaining antiquities of our gigantic metropolis for the faithful and thorough restoration of a bulding so historically interesting and architecturally valuable

The opportunity for the restoration for which so many had pleaded did not arise for a further 20 years. Then the whole of Ely Place had to be sold to settle a lawsuit between the descendants of Charles Cole.

Cover Image ©The Trustees of the British Museum

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