A Night Spent In Whitechapel

It is fascinating to be able to venture back and walk the streets of the East End of London as they were in the Victorian era. Of course, it is impossible to actually do so physically; but thanks to the numerous articles that appeared in the Victorian newspapers, it is possible to do so in our imaginations.

On Monday the 7th of October, 1872, a correspondent from the Morning Post took readers on a night time journey through the streets of Whitechapel:-



“Leman-street, Whitechapel, is not an attractive thoroughfare. It is not a place, for instance, in which one would care to spend one’s honeymoon, except, perhaps, on the homoeopathic principle of counteracting one sort of dreariness by another.

But of all the quarters of the metropolis this is in some respects the most interesting.

For squalid misery it is outdone by Bethnal-green, where hundreds of the descendants of the old Flemish weavers live in a condition of abject poverty, and are only kept from starvation by their annual gains on the Kentish hop-grounds.

It is not a Quartier Breda, like parts of Pimlico. It has not an almost exclusively seafaring or ship-serving population, like Limehouse or Stepney. It is not exactly an Alsatia, for the metropolitan police are paramount even here.

A view along Leman Street.
Leman Street, The Broad Road To The Docks.


But for a combination of queer social elements, of squalid poverty and boisterous amusement, of crime and mutual charity, of vulgar vice and of elevated sentiment, Whitechapel is unequalled.

And, as one of that half of the world which has to confess its ignorance of how the other half lives – and dies – I was not sorry to seize a recent opportunity of passing a night in exploring the district.

When I say that we visited five or six theatres, two or three “penny-gaffs,” half a dozen music halls, dancing saloons without number, lodging-houses of every sort, more than one thieves’ kitchen, opium-smoking establishments kept for the benefit of Lascar sailors, and restaurants where stewed eels formed the principal pabulum, that we climbed up to garrets which our guide described as the very worst in London, and assisted at the wake of a sailor killed in a street fight, it will be admitted that we made the most of the occasion.


I venture also to think that an account of our experiences may possess some interest for your readers.

At half-past eight in the evening we left the Leman- street Police-station with the inspector and sergeant who were to be our guides; and more cheery, pleasant, intelligent companions could not easily be found.

They knew every nook and corner of the district, they took us down courts and alleys into which, if any lone stranger should chance to penetrate, he would be not indeed murdered, for nothing would be gained by that, but robbed of whatever he might chance to have about him – possibly not even excepting his clothes.

If in his sober senses, indeed, perhaps he might be spared this last indignity, but it is no uncommon thing in a certain neighbourhood for the police to find a sailor wandering about the streets in the early morning in the costume of our first parents, having been stripped of his clothes, he knows not where, by some harpy, he knows not whom.

Even the veriest teetotaller would run great risk of being hustled and robbed, and would have small chance of recognising his assailants in the crowd of dirty faces.


The police, however, find that the most predatory and most dangerous inhabitants take good care to keep on good terms with them. “I have never been insulted in all the years I have been here,” said our inspector; the sergeant added, “Why, if I were to say in that thieves’ kitchen that I wanted my pocketbook which I had left at home, 20 of these lads would start up and offer to get it. And what is more, any one of them would bring it safely.”

By the whole population inspector and sergeant were received with the greatest cordiality, and we obtained a reflected popularity with everybody, from theatrical managers down to opium smokers.


Our first visit was to the “Garrick” Theatre in Leman-street – as pretty a little house as one would wish to see.

For the small sum of one penny you may here have your marrow chilled and your blood frozen in the gallery, while admittance to the more aristocratic parts of the house may be obtained for a threepenny-bit.

The piece seemed to be a melodrama; but, though during our short stay there were one or two dagger thrusts and pistol shots, I fancy that Sir Charles Young’s “Montcalm” would beat the east-end drama in murders and seductions, and not a single character talked about “kisses that kill and beauty that betrays.”

The high moral sentiments were cheered by the “gods” to the echo, and the occupants of the penny gallery showed the keenest appreciation of the great lesson illustrated by the triumph of Virtue and the repulse of Villainy as effected by means of a horse pistol.


However, the entertainment was really too good to be allowed to detain us long from our explorations; and we made our way to one of those public-houses with music rooms attached which appear to be much in vogue in this part of the town.

But the Licensing Act, if it has not made people virtuous, has at least cast a gloom over the purveyors of cakes and ale; and a little dwarf with a large fiddle was almost the only occupant of a room which had been the scene of many a merry meeting in the days before Mr. Bruce held the seals of the Home Department.

The dwarf was loud in his complaints. His occupation was gone. His trade was ruined. He should “want a ‘lead’ himself now, ‘stead of helping other people in theirs.”

What was his occupation, we inquired, and what on earth was a “lead.”

“Well, you see, if any on ’em here gets into trouble (this is the euphuism for being brought under the arm of the law) they wants a trifle when they goes in, to keep the family out of the workus’, and then perhaps they wants a trifle when they comes out to start fresh with like. So they sends round a card to their friends and has a meeting at a public; I plays a tune or two, and what with a bit of singing and perhaps a bit of dancing, the friends gets their pecker up and comes down with the dust free enough. I’ve knowed a man’s friends so rally round for his ‘lead’ as he’d collar three or four ‘quid’ (sovereigns) from it. But Lor’, with your licenses, and your beaks, and your police – no offence, sir – them ‘leads’ is pretty well knocked on the head. Like a few cards, sir ?”


We took some cards, and very queer productions they are, all with a sort of family likeness to each other, and appointing meetings for the benefit of some unfortunate person who has either been sent to prison, or is in hospital, or has lost wife or child and wants money to bury them.

Each card is usually headed with a few lines of doggerel; for instance:-

Stretch forth your hand as a brother
Remember that life’s but a span
‘Tis our duty to help one another
And do a good turn when we can.”

Which appears to be a great favourite.


Then follows an announcement that, “A friendly lead will take place on Monday next, at the Spotted Boar, Colchester-street, Whitechapel, for the benefit of Bridgett Shea, who has been laid up with a bad hand, and needs your kind assistance. Chairman, Little Teddy; vice, Ike Oakley; conductor, Young Mad Tom. The smallest donation thankfully received.”

Sometimes the phrase as to the “bad hand,” which may be interpreted as conveying graceful allusion to certain gyves vulgarly known as handcuffs, is more or less varied.

“William Cole, better known as Nubley,” simply announces himself as “in trouble.” “James Green ” is “in a difficulty.” Somebody else has “had a misfortune. ” The precise extent of the misfortune of “Charles Wigg, better known as Bummy,” is indicated by a statement that he “has been laid up for six months;” but most of the beneficiaries merely announce that they “need your kind assistance” without entering into details.


Then there are the appeals on behalf of those whose crime is not moral, but, like that of the inhabitants of “Erewhon,” actually physical.

“John Limber, better known as Jack Knifey,” has “suffered from a long illness, and has a bad leg, which prevents him from following his employment.” “Knifey” appears, like Messrs. Moses and Son, to keep a private poet, who is just the reverse of the modern poets whose grammar is perfect and their sentiment unintelligible. In this case the grammar is unintelligible and the sentiment obvious:-

“You Muses assist me, and lend me your aid;
Tis for poor Knifey, a good-hearted blade.
He needs your kind assistance, to his friends now he write,
He hopes you’ll gather round him on this night with a good heart’s delight.”

One likes to see how the lines grow longer and longer, as if expanding with the poet’s sympathies, until at last the slowest Alexandrine would not be long enough to express his feelings.


Then there are lead cards for Andrew Marshall, “who has unfortunately met with an accident while dancing;” for a lady who has a “smashed toe ;” for “the aged parents of John Whybra, who was unfortunately drowned;” for the funeral expenses of children, husbands, wives, and so on.


We were unable to be present at one of these leads, but from all we could learn about them there seems to be no doubt that they afford opportunities for the display of much of that mutual helpfulness of the poor which is so general, and that the contributions of the friends in proportion to their means are often enormous.

It may seem odd that this generosity should require strains of a fiddle to evoke it; but after all in another class of life there are such things as fancy fairs, and contributions for the most worthy object are often only forthcoming under the pleasing titillation of a fashionable preacher.

However, if our friend the dwarf may be credited, the days of leads are doomed, for under the new act the publicans fear lest the notes of music should imperil their license – a license which does not permit the tripping of “many- twinkling feet” on the sanded floor.


It is astonishing how early the streets in the east become quiet.

Here, perhaps, there is some altercation, generally ending amicably, between a policeman and a more or less drunken sailor, and there a man is cursing his wife for drinking his earnings and interfering with his work.

If the Education Act had been a little longer in existence he would probably describe her as:-

“An Evil Genius, all his plans deriding.
Doubling his troubles, and his cash dividing.”

As it is, he is obliged to stigmatise her in language which could only be reported by an extensive use of blanks.


Abstaining from taking part in this domestic difference, we pass on to a great lodging-house in the neighbourhood of Ratcliff-highway.

The ground floor is occupied by 40 or 50 men who are smoking their pipes or cooking their supper.

Thursday is, it should be remarked, rather too near the end of the week to admit of the repast being very luxurious. Those men that earn regular wages generally have them paid on Friday or Saturday, and on those days they will bargain with the butcher for some “stickings,” or will even give a shilling for a pound of steak. But this style of living cannot be kept up throughout the week, and we saw little but bread and tea in course of consumption on the occasion of our visit.

All round the room are lockers for clothes and other property. You may hire one of these lockers for 5d.. and have 4d. of that sum returned on giving back the key. This seems at first rather an elaborate way of paying a penny; but, of course, it is meant to prevent the loss or the theft of the key.

A photo showing the interior of a common lodging house kitchen.
A Common Lodging House Kitchen


For a bed 3d. has to be paid, and we ascend into a big room for single men, which contains 23 beds. It has been newly whitewashed – every bedroom in a lodging-house under inspection is whitewashed in April and October – and appears pretty clean.

The sergeant turns down a counterpane, and, as far as can be seen, no small game are to be found in this covert.

The sheets are dingy, as might be expected from the occupations of the people who tenant them and their imperfect appreciation of the virtues of soap and water; and, considering, too, that these sheets have always to serve for a fortnight, and, frequently, it was admitted, for a month, there was nothing to shock one; and the ventilation was so good that an old gentleman in spectacles who was reading in bed in the middle of the room complained of the draught, and ex- pressed his decided preference for breathing air warmed in other people’s lungs rather than that coming direct from the winds of heaven.

The beds inside a common lodging house in Spitalfields.
From The Graphic 24th April 1886. Copyright, the British Library Board.


From this we went to the quarters of the married people, each pair of whom were in a sort of box something like the high pews in vogue before the days of ecclesiastical restorations, the sides being carried up to the height of seven feet or so, but admitting a free current of air to pass over them.

For each of these boxes a charge of 6d. a night is made, and the use of fire and of hot water ad libitum, in the kitchen below, is thrown into the bargain.


The lodgers in this house are of almost every class.

That old man, without shirt or coat, and stretching bare arms through his waistcoat as he deals greasy cards on the table, is a general “cadger,” doing a day’s work at the docks occasionally, but not very often.

He is playing at “twenty-fives,” the favourite card game of these people.

That stripling with a ferret-like face has been “in trouble” once or twice, but earns a pretty regular living now as a “long-shore” man.

As for the burly man in the corner who is cracking jokes to an admiring party round him, nobody knows how he keeps himself. He has had plenty of ups and downs, and just now is the time for the downs, but he evidently bears his misfortunes cheerily.

Numbers of the company are known to our guides, not, for the most part, as guilty of any grave crime, but possibly as having upon one or two occasions in their lives transgressed the limit which separates the “drunk” from the “drunk and disorderly.”