Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Little London

Little London Court is today a complex of smart, new offices, but the area once had the dubious reputation of being the meanest street in Old Swindon.

The area was named after a small community from London who settled there at the beginning of the 19th century. By 1807 it was known as London Lane and in 1855 as London Street.  Photographs exist of a thatched cottage still standing shortly before the area was flattened during the 1960s.

In 1850 George T. Clark, an officer from the Board of Health, made his damning inspection of Old Swindon.  There he found the town lacked a sewer system with the effluent from houses draining into cesspools.  All the town’s wells were contaminated while the public water supply was the dirty church pond.

Inspector Clark’s report and accompanying map published in 1851 noted blood flowing down Newport Street from one of three slaughter houses in the vicinity, tainted water on Prospect Place and a filthy open pit in Albert Street.  In 1848 even the local doctor had been laid up with typhus fever and the inspector reported continuous typhus fever during 1850-51.  In one house in Cricklade Street five children had died during a seven week period.

Albert Street, built in around 1848 and named after Queen Victoria’s virtuous husband, was the red light district of mid Victorian Old Swindon.  At the centre of this maelstrom of depravity was the Rhinoceros public house, once described in court as ‘the most notorious house in town.’  The first landlady at the Rhinoceros when it opened in July 1845 was Lucy Rogers, a former dressmaker.  Frequently the scene of bad behaviour where landlords flaunted licensing laws and one was even accused of the manslaughter of his mother in law. The property was demolished in 1963 to make room for garage extensions for Wiltshire Newspapers. 

When the substantial premises came up for sale in 1859 it was described as having five bedrooms on the first floor, a large bar, parlour, smaller bar, little back room, taproom, underground cellar, large brick and stone club room at the back with a shooting gallery, back kitchen with rooms over and back entrance from Back Lane.

One person who tried to make a difference in this den of iniquity was Angelo Vitti.  Born in Sette Frate, a small village in the Province of Frosinone, just south of Rome, Vitti stopped off in France before moving to England in the early 1890s.  He purchased the former Rhinoceros, by then a lodging house, and eventually bought up the adjoining cottages as well. 

But Angelo Vitti wasn’t the first to rent out rooms at the premises in Albert Street.  In 1881 Sarah White was the lodging house keeper at number 25 and 26 Albert Street where among her lodgers were musicians John Lewis, Henry Culverwell and John Fliseney.

‘Swindon has lost a colourful and romantic personality by the death of Mr Angelo Vitti,’ the Advertiser reported following Angelo’s death on Sunday April 21, 1940.  As a lodging house proprietor he became the friend, and earned the respect, of thousands of men and women, a genuine family man and a friend of poor people.

   1957: Little London, Old Town, Swindon

1957: Albert Street and Little London, Swindon

1961: Albert Street (Swindon)
1964: Albert Street during demolition, Swindon


Little London Court today

Angelo Vitti

Old views of Little London and Albert Street are published courtesy of Swindon Local Studies Collection - visit the website on www.flickr.com/photos/swindonlocal

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