The ‘Devil’s acre’: social conditions and local initiatives
> View of St Ann's Lane c.1850 <
The social conditions which existed in the middle of the nineteenth century in the parish of St Matthew’s were quite widely documented at the time. This area, between Victoria St and Great Peter Street, stood a few hundred yards from Westminster Abbey and a short walk from the Houses of Parliament. The area close to the church was commonly known as ‘the Devil’s acre’. According to J E Smith, writing in ‘Parochial memorials’ (1892) , Dickens described it in more detail as ‘the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for Tom cats’.
The area around St Ann’s Street, where the church and the original building of St Matthew’s School are situated today, were singled out by the author of ‘Ragged London’, when he compared it with the area near the gas works (between Great Peter Street and Horseferry Road) as ‘all brightness and purity’ which was in stark contrast to St Anne’s Lane:
‘Enter, a narrow street called St Anne’s Lane, glance at a fearful side place called St Ann’s Court, and wonder if ever such filth and squalor can be exceeded. The court had every feature of a sewer, and a long puddle of filth soaked in a hollow centre.
Many of the houses have no flooring in their passages, and there is nothing for the bare-footed children to stand upon but the black, damp, uneven earth. A child, dirty and half naked, was hanging out of one of the old-fashioned casement windows; and in the summer time, it is no unusual thing to see about fifty coarse women exhibiting themselves in the same manner’. 
The Revd Richard Malone, Vicar of St Matthew’s, also described the area when he reflected on his work in the parish in 1901:
‘The state of the streets was appalling; groups of gamblers were scattered at every corner and the police dared not interfere. There were no less than forty common lodging houses where men and women of all sorts and conditions obtained shelter for 3d a night. Broken down professional men, ruined men of education through drink, were often found amongst the inmates. I can recollect a former Fellow of an Oxford college, also an almost ragged clergyman and a bed-ridden man whom I found eating opium and reading Hebrew’. 
Richard Malone reflected ‘It was necessary that some new organisation should be undertaken.’ 
Action needed to be taken to improve living conditions, improve the level of education across the whole community and change their whole approach to life from a moral and spiritual perspective. These were major challenges when education was still not compulsory and modern social and health services were almost a century away.