A Body on the Table

The common lodging houses of Spitalfields and Whitechapel are integral to the Jack the Ripper story. Almost all the victims – with the exception of Mary Kelly – were staying at one of these houses at the time of their murders, and all of them had led transient existences, flitting between these establishments, in the years leading up to their deaths.


The police appear to have been convinced at several stages of their investigations into each of the murders that the solution to the mystery of who was responsible for the crimes lay behind the doors of the common lodging houses – and we know that, in the wake of several of the murders, one of the first things that the police did was make extensive door to door enquires at these establishments.

Ultimately, these enquiries ended up proving futile, as the police never did trace the perpetrator of the crimes. But that’s not to say he wasn’t hiding out amongst the transient populace that lived within them for varying periods of time – sometimes just a single night, sometimes several months, and sometimes several years.

A group of people sitting and being served tea in a common lodging house.
People In The Kitchen Of A Common Lodging House


As a consequence of this, anyone researching the history of the Whitechapel Murders – or, for that matter, studying the social conditions in the streets of the East End of London in 1888 – inevitably ends up trawling through vast amounts of information about the common lodging houses that is contained in the press cuttings of the era, as well as in the official records of the period.

And, in so doing, you often come across little nuggets of information that offer a tantalising glimpse of the everyday lives of the men, women, and children to whom these establishments were home.


Once such story that, depending on how you view it, will either intrigue, raise a smile, or cause you to reach for the sick bag, was reported in Reynold’s Weekly Newspaper on the 29th December 1889.

The article, which almost has overtones of Fawlty Towers, informed readers that:-

“At the meeting of the Whitechapel Board of Works Mr. Kearsey called attention to the fact that on December 14th a man died in a common lodging-house at Henenge-street, Spitalfields.

The body was laid on a corner of the kitchen table.

On Saturday and Sunday nights 350 people slept in the lodging-house. Two great fires were kept going in the kitchen, and food was cooked and eaten in the same room.

The body lay on a portion of the kitchen table during the whole of the time, with simply a few rags placed round it.

For three days and nights the body lay in the room and could be seen by everybody there.

Men and women inside the kitchen of a common lodging house.
The Kitchen of a Common Lodging House.


The Reverend J.H.Scott, rector of Spitalfields, said that he understood there was no mortuary in Spitalflelds to which it could be removed. He trusted, however, that no reflection would be cast upon the people in charge of the lodging house.

Mr. Kearsey said that he did not wish to cast any reflection upon the lodging house, the local authorities were responsible.

The relieving officer was written to, but he wrote back to the effect that he had no power, whilst the Coroner’s office said that the body must lie there till the inquest was held.


There was some difficulty between Coroners Macdonald and Baxter.

The bodies in Coroner Baxter’s district were removed to the mortuary, but in Coroner Macdonald’s district, the bodies were compelled to lie until the inquest was held.

He hoped that the same mortuary accommodation would eventually be found in the two districts.

Dr. Loane, the medical officer for the district, said that up to the present time, by the courtesy of the guardians, they had generally been able to get bodies removed to the guardians’ mortuary, but unfortunately, that very day the guardians’ tenancy of the mortuary had been terminated, so that, although in the south district he had received particulars of a death which occurred that morning, there was absolutely no mortuary to which to remove the body. ( Cries of “Shame.”)


Mr. Tarling, L.C.C [London County Council] said that he should like to know how it was that the body was left all the time without being placed in a shell. In the whole course of his life he had not heard of a more monstrous thing.

Mr. J. Hall said that Coroner Macdonald would not allow any of his “clients” to be removed into Whitechapel.

He should rather suggest that the vicar of Spitalfields might get over the scandal by allowing the vault of Spitafields church to be used as a mortuary.


Spitalfields at present had no mortuary whatever; and, as the law stood, it would not allow a body to be removed from Spitalfields to Whitechapel.

The Rev. J. H Scott said that he was about to make the same suggestion himself, as he did not know of a more suitable place. They could authorise the sanitary officer to place bodies there.

The whole matter was ultimately referred to a mortuary committee to deal with.”


So, there you see one of the problems that confronted the authorities in Spitalfields when it came to dealing with those who died and required removal – there was no mortuary to take them to.

Keep in mind that the aforementioned event occurred less than a year after what many people believe was the last murder in the Jack the Ripper crime spree, that of Mary Kelly on the 9th November 1888.

However, despite the article mentioning the fact that neighbouring Whitechapel had a mortuary, in truth that mortuary was little more than a shed; and a constant gripe made by the medical men, who were expected to perform post mortems on the bodies of the various victims, concerned the lack of adequate facilities in which to conduct their work.

Sadly, the article makes no mention of the reaction of the actual residents of the lodging house to the fact that they were expected to go about their business for several days with a dead body on a table.

After all, one thing we do know about the lodging houses is that the kitchen was the centre of everyday life and the residents spent a great deal of time there.

Perhaps they were too busy fighting their daily battles for survival to care that much?

After all, if the numerous press reports are to be believed the scenes that they saw in the streets around them were gruesome enough. So the fact that a dead resident remained in the kitchen for several days was, doubtless, no worse than many of the horrible things that they witnessed in the streets day in and day out in the Victorian East End of London.