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The Devil's Acre

Penny Fortune Cards

With so much rich history behind this deck, I felt it important to share some of the backstory with all those who own the deck, or are interested in the concept.

I have grouped some information on the cards individually, to give you an insight on what shaped the design and the meaning behind the cards. You will notice if you have these cards that there are visual connections between the cards, to give a deeper feeling of completeness to the world of the Devil's Acre.

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Old Bill

The Old Bill is a slang term for the police. The Devil's Acre is exactly the type of place which would benefit from some stringent policing. Theives, prostitutes, fraudsters and charlatans were rife, the whole area was a hotbed for crime, and this was only the tip of the iceberg. Walking through these dark and dingy backstreets wasn't for the faint hearted, and you couldn't hope to rely on the friendly face of a police officer.

It was extremely rare for any member of the old bill to step foot into the acre. They actively avoided the area, it was essentialy a mob rule situation. Even if a strong-stomached or naive new recruit dared to venture into the Acre, they would have been very quickly turned on their way in the opposite direction.

Even though a police officer is a symbol of security and protection, there's an openness to interpretation here. Has the officer wandered into the Acre by accident? He does seem like a young gentlemen, perhaps naive. He might be at the right place at the right time, appearing through the smog and being a very welcome and surprising sight when you need him. Or maybe he's trying to impose law and logic on a situation which would actually work our better being dealt with in a different, maybe more emotional way? His situation and meaning is up to you.

"There is no part of the metropolis which presents a more chequered aspect, both physical and moral, than Westminster. The most lordly streets are frequently but a mask for the squalid districts which lie behind them, whilst spots consecrated to the most hallowed of purposes are begirt by scenes of indescribably infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey." - Charles Dickens



The famous 'One Tun Pub' in Old Pye Street, was reportedly running a School, where the local children of the Acre were being taken in and educated. A missionary from the church, who showed a keen interest helping those in the squalid streets surrounding Westminster Abbey, had been told of the school and decided to pay a visit. Upon inspection, they discovered that in reality, the children were being taught how to pickpocket and eventually used to further the owners criminal empire. Ring a bell with a famous story? Dickens was inspired after visiting a "school" such as this to write his second novel Oliver Twist. The story of the One Tun Pub parallels the story of Oliver Twist very closely except that the One Tun was converted into what was called a Ragged School, where the church took over the building as a missionary, and many were helped to choose a different direction in life.

This tied into both the pickpocket card and the urchin card.

In divination, the Tavern is still representative of a centre point of community and discussing deals and networking, as well as fun, singing, drinking but also being wary of going overboard and drowning sorrows. 


"I crossed over the road, and entered the openly acknowledged high street of thieves and prostitutes. It is called Pye Street, and has no mock modesty about it—no desire to conceal its real character. Threepenny "homes for travellers" abound on both sides-yellow, sickly, unwholesome places, many of them far below the level of the road, and entered by a kind of pit. Many of the houses have no flooring on their passages; and there is nothing for the barefooted children to stand upon but the black, damp, uneven earth." - John Hollingshead


In England by 1891, there were over 1 million women in some form of domestic service. That's 1 in 3 women between the ages of fifteen and twenty. There were of course older women too, but often they would have graduated to a cook, house keeper or governess and would be further up the hierarchy of the household.

A tax was levied on indoor male servants – and their wages were considerably higher – so only upper class families could afford to employ them. Women servants were cheap and generally more easily dominated and kept in their place. With women usually entering service at a young age, this was easier to mould them to suit the requirements of the family they served. 

There were positives to being in service and many lower class girls would have sought a way out of poverty by going into service. They didn't need to be educated. Upper class and Upper Middle class families would have been able to offer them accommodation, however meagre, and full board, which would have been a sense of security to many. Life would have been tough however, with long hours and often gruelling work. Some would have been lucky enough however to find a good family who treated them well, and maybe even progressed to a better paid position.

"I think it would have been difficult to have found a spot more full of crime. The whole street drank hard while such plunder lasted, an instance of the low life under the shadows of the Abbey. I received a message one day to administer Holy Communion to a dying girl in Pye Street. She was in the last stages of consumption, and her story was to the effect that her husband lived on her wages, which he forced her to obtain by a life of sin. She summed up her repentance in 1 sentence: "I have worked very hard, and I am very tired."Frederic W.Farrar


The area of Westminster has its origins in medieval times. The monks at that time who resided at Westminster Abbey would offer safe haven to the criminals and hunted, leading to the area next to the western gate of the Abbey being called "the Sanctuary".

Over time, this area became rife with crime and essentially turned into an expanded home of crime and debauchery. 

This gives the Abbey card an interesting juxtaposition. The pious face of the Abbey rising above the skyline, with the dark and immoral existance laid deep in it's shadow.

The kindness of the monks gave birth to these slum areas, and continued throughout the Victorian age to do missionary work to improve the area. It would have been a constant battle however, in close proximity.

"Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and courts, and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity, and crime, as well as of squalor, wretchedness, and disease; whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera; in which swarms of huge and almost countless population, nominally at least, Catholic; haunts of filth, which no sewage committee can reach – dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten." - Cardinal Wiseman

Cardinal Wiseman's uses the word "slums" to describe the Devil's Acre in the quotation above. In Victorian England, the word slum simply meant a room, generally a room at the back of a house. Such rooms would often be squalid and could be let out to tennants. They could be accessed by back alleys that ran between rows of houses. The Cardinal's use of the word "slums" in his piece of writing was influential and was quickly picked up by the press. After this was widely reported, it entered the general vocabulary to describe an area which is full of deprivation and squalid housing, making the Devil's Acre the original "slum".


"The Devil's Acre, as it is familiarly known in the neighbourhood, is the square block comprised between Dean, Peter, and Tothill Streets, and Strutton Ground. It is permeated by Orchard Street, St. Anne's Street, Old and New Pye Streets, Pear Street, Perkins' Rents, and Duck Lane. From some of these, narrow covered passage-ways lead into small quadrangular courts, containing but a few crazy, tumbledown-looking houses, and inhabited by characters of the most equivocal description." - Charles Dickens


Tower Bridge was completed in 1894. It quickly became a popular way to cross the Thames, allowing pedestrians free passage from one side to the other. Previously, they would have had to take a very long hike to another crossing point, or had to pay to use a nearby underground pedestrian subway.

A pair of high-level open air walkways were designed as part of the bridge, which were accessible by stairs. They were devised to allow pedestrians to use the bridge to cross, even if the lower section of the bridge was raised to allow ships to pass. These walkways between the towers however gained an unpleasant reputation as a haunt for prostitutes and pickpockets; they were seldom used by regular pedestrians, and were closed in 1910 to deter criminals from the area and keep the public safe. 

The bridge here is a way to get from A to B more quickly, connections, opportunities for new ventures...on the other side there's a warning to choose when you cross, time moves wisley and realise it's better to wait to cross safely than try to get over quickly by taking a short cut! Who knows who you'll bump in to up there.


“There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.” -

Oscar Wilde in his novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ 1891.

Drury Lane

The area of Drury Lane is is ancient. It had been inhabitited since Saxon times, and by the 1500's had become the site of a large Manor House and gardens, owned by the family which would give the area it's later name. After the death of the last Drury, the estates passed outside of the family and was demolished, being used to build rows and rows of housing. The last of the Drury estate was demolished and redeveloped in 1809. By this time however, Drury Lane as it was now known, had become one of the worst slums in London, dominated by prostitution and gin palaces like it's nearby neighbour the Devil's Acre. It was even noted for its seediness, in particular for prostitution in William Hogarth’s work The Harlot’s Progress.

The origins of the street’s famous theatre, the oldest in the city, dates from 1812. A previous incarnation had existed on the site many decades earlier, but was lost to fire. 

The idea that this theatre exists as a light in the darkness of the squalor of the street it sits on gave me the idea of falsness on one hand, with escapism and also something to dream about attaining on the other. The fact that upper class audiences would have flocked here from all over the city to watch the latest shows, is a perfect representation of the glistening gilt frontage of the theatre, masking the deprivation of it's surroundings. 

“It is a wretched hole… so low that we are unable to stand upright. Lying pell-mell on a mattress placed on the ground are Chinamen, Lascars, and a few English blackguards who have imbibed a taste for opium.” - ‘Figaro’, describing an opium den in Whitechapel in 1868.


Opium Den

With the expansion of London's Docklands, it became the largest and most important trading port in Victorian England. With this, trade with China and the Far East strengthened, with many exotic new products reaching our shores.

Opium was one of them. Although it was extremely popular to purchase opium-based tinctures such as laudanum for a wide variety of maladies, opium dens quickly sprang up in the backstreets of London. These were dark, unsavoury and dirty places. Although the dens got a bad press, many famous artists and writers of the day frequented them in a bid to tap deeper into their creative side.

The fact that these were stationed in the slum areas, besides the brothels and backstreet inns, they were seen in the same light. It was often a way to escape the struggles of life in the city of the time. Illness, poverty and death were a way of life. It's interesting to note that the upper classes as well as the lower working classes partook of opium, though it was usually seen as almost accepted for the rich, but the poor were seen as drug riddled delinquents for the same.

These dens became part of the fabric of the city, appearing in many famous novels of the time from Sherlock Holmes to Dorian Gray. 

The Acre was eventually cleared in an attempt to redevelop the area and its slums. Poor sanitation, especially due to its location by the often flooded low-lying marshlands, brought disease to many inhabitants. As with most slums of the time, however, it merely displaced the slum as opposed to improve the lifes of those who had lived there. Philanthropists of the time continued to drive social housing for those deprived families in the area, in an attempt to ensure clean, safe and affordable housing for all. Only with these passionate people and their vision did reform come and the area of Westminster and surrounding areas improve. 



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