One of the most intriguing things about studying the Jack the Ripper case in the Victorian newspapers comes from discovering articles that provide an insight into daily life in the district where the Whitechapel murders occurred, and then reading about places that we actually pass, night after night, on our Jack the Ripper tour.
One place that we pass, is Hanbury Hall, on Hanbury Street.
The hall has now been restored to something of its former glory and hosts a delightful little cafe in which you can sit and watch the world go by, whilst, at the same time, absorbing the history that surrounds you.
IT SERVED THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
Originally built as a small Huguenot chapel, in 1719, it went on to accommodate many different congregations, before, in 1887, it became part of Christ Church, Spitalfields, and was renamed Christchurch Hall.
Here, the dedicated staff of the church attempted to minister to the needs, both spiritual and temporal, of the residents of one of the East End’s most poverty-stricken and criminally-inclined quarters.
The Dundee Advertiser, on Monday 25th November, 1895, published the following fascinating article, for which a reporter had paid a visit to a Sunday service at the Hall:-
A SABBATH IN EAST LONDON
A FREE AND EASY SERVICE
“It is probably an experience unique in the everyday life of douce, sedate Scotchman, who has been carefully trained in the fear of the Presbytery and all that pertains thereto, who owns a steadfast allegiance to the Auld Kirk of Scotland, and firmly believes in its tenets, to visit a place of worship on a Sunday where some of the elements were, to say the least, cast on free-and-easy lines.
Yet such was the case, and a more interesting service in its own distinctive way than that which weekly takes place in Christchurch Hall, Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, is probably nowhere else to be witnessed in or out of London.
CHRISTCHURCH HALL, HANBURY STREET
Christchurch Hall is an interesting edifice. It has been the scene of several religious mutations. It was originally a Huguenot Chapel. The locality in which it is situated is densely populated – Jewish to the housetops. The surroundings are anything but savoury. They are sloppy and evil-smelling, and a heavy traffic pours along the narrow thoroughfare from morning till night.
The hall is encompassed by closely-built tenements that once were the abodes of a different race – exiles from France, Huguenot refugees, who, for the sake of their religion, fled from their native land, and found shelter in England.
In Spitalfields, a large body of these people formed a community. It was there that they set up their complicated looms; it was there that they plied their delicate arts; and it was in this little chapel they peacefully worshipped after the manner of their fathers, all the while showing devotion to their native land which was as profound as it was heroic.
A few of the descendants of the Huguenot families are still to be found in Spitalfields, but they follow other callings and worship in other places.
ACQUIRED BY THE RECTOR OF SPITALFIELDS
The old meeting-house has for years been tilled by strangers.
It became a Baptist Chapel, and a portion of it is still used as a dispensary for the Jewish Mission, but the hall itself has been acquired by the Rev. J. H. Scott, M.A., rector of Spitalfields, for mission purposes.
The Church of England is doing splendid work in that part of London, and its workers, both clerical and lay – earnest stouthearted men and women – are zealous in their labours, and fight with a will to overcome the obstacles thrown in their way to overtake the social regeneration of the people – even on a limited scale.
SLIMY AND DIRTY RESIDENTS
Spitalfields and Whitechapel adjoin each other by the breadth of a roadway.
As compared with the denizens of the better parts of London, the inhabitants look slimy and dirty, while their voices are thick and bibulous. That is how it strikes a stranger. Nevertheless, there are many well-to-do hard-working people living in the busy neigbourhood.
They are the salt of the place. Costers and flower-sellers and peripatetic vendors of all kinds are conspicuously in evidence.
Hundreds work hard to earn an honest crust in all manner of lowly callings.
THE RECLAMATION OF THE UNDERCLASS
But, on the other hand, there is a vast subsidiary class, the dregs of city life, that are always grovelling in the dust. How these people live and move and have their being few know, and, except for the missionaries, few care.
They are here today and elsewhere tomorrow.
Ishmaelites they are, and, were it not for the law of the land, their hand would be against every man.
Indeed, law or no law, it is pretty much that as it is.
It is to the reclamation this submerged class that the Dean of Spitaltields and the organisations of his church are directing their energies.
Other influences are operating in the same direction, but it is to the former body, or to speak explicitly, to one of its curates, that an unusual method of attracting the unreclaimed of Whitechapel and Spitalfields is due.
The Rev. T. C. Collings, or Parson Collings, as he is styled, is a remarkable man.
He is young, full of energy, and intensely enthusiastic in his labour. His religious and political views are on a par. He is a full-fledged everyday Socialist, and believes in the doctrine of levelling down.
Tom Mann and Keir Hardie are his personal friends. He holds both in high esteem, and declares that Keir Hardie is one of the best friends the working man ever had.
John Burns and Parson Collings do not, as we Scotch say, “souther,” and his opinion of the elect of Battersea is not such that that gentleman would feel complimented thereby.
Holding political views of this cast, he is equally broad and Socialistic in his opinions upon Church government and its methods of dealing with the people.
He is indifferent in his walk and conversation whether he pleases or offends those who may be said to belong to the so-called higher orders of religious life.
He unhesitatingly expresses contempt for the fastidious kid-gloved devotee of a fashionable West End congregation. Sin, he says, is as persistently present there as it is in his own mission hall, and plenty too, but it is disguised like a sugared pill, coated with niceties, and therefore less unwholesome to look at. His object, he says, is to look at vice fairly and squarely in the face, instead of coddling it in the spirit of namby-pambyism.
Knowing his duty, he has struck out a distinct line of work for himself, and he seems to revel in it. He feels in his proper element when dealing with the miserable, forlorn waifs and strays that come under his supervision.
He acts on the principle of “Hail fellow! well met! with one and all. To raise them up, he comes down to their level, and speaks to them in terms of familiarity. There is no dignity about him – he styles himself a plain working man, and as such he has no sympathy with the polite commonplaces of so-called religious life. He wants to reach London life in its lowest and most degraded forms, and so far as gone he has no other ambition.
A CROWDED MISSION HALL
Parson Collings’ Mission Hall in Hanbury Street is crowded every Sunday afternoon.
What is the cause of the attraction? Is it the excellence of the service? Probably; but there is another cause. Mr Collings believes in appealing to the corporeal as well as to the spiritual wants of his hearers.
He, therefore, has the district placarded with posters, which not only give a list of the services, but add in bold, distinct type that there is to be tea and tobacco for everyone.
That intimation, in the language of the theatre, “draws.” It ensures a bumper house. There is no halting at the door; and, by the way, there is no “plate” staring one in the face at the entrance. The poor creatures of Spitalfields have few pennies, and never any spare. The most, if not all, dearly love a drop “o’ somethink,” and any loose copper is generally “melted” on that!
A VARIEGATED ASSEMBLAGE
The services at Hanbury Street begin three o’clock, and, long before that hour, a “variegated” assemblage congregate in front of the door, ranging themselves in the order of “twos,” after the manner of people waiting for the opening of theatre doors in the city.
At three the door is opened, and in they pour in.
Gracious! What a conglomeration of human beings!
The halt, the maimed, the lame, and the blind are there. The highways and byways have given up their denizens. The inhabitants of the parks, the pavements, the street doorways, the arches, and the hideous slums and “doss houses” flow past you in forlorn, tattered, haggard, miserable procession.
It was in truth a motley gathering. Young and old, men and women, and even children, pinched and careworn, pour into the hall, clothed in all manner of dilapidated raiment.
Only one woman was observed without covering to her head. All the others were dressed in fashions that had seen the light other days.
A regrettable feature was the condition of their footgear. “Banchles” were the order of the day, and the poor creatures took as much trouble to hide these unseemly discrepancies as ladies living under happier circumstances have been known to hide a hole that had unduly cropped up in the heel of an unruly stocking.
THE GOOD-LOOKING GIRL AND THE PROUD WOMAN
A rather good-looking girl made a slight attempt at display, and sported one of those full old-fashioned cloaks with hood and tassel behind, such as our youngish grandmothers wore in the heyday of crinoline. Very jaunty she looked too.
A conspicuous individual in the crowd was a tall, handsome woman, dark featured, stern and hard. She was poorly dressed like the others, but her deportment was superior. She sat a little apart, haughty, proud, indifferent.
Subsequent inquiry was made to who she was. No one knew. She was a stranger, induced to visit the hall by starvation, no doubt. What may she have been? No one could tell. A lady, probably an actress, possibly a ballet dancer, ladyhelp, or governess. Was not that case to look alter and inquire into? Certainly, and if she returned that would be done.
Such people were common visitors, but they seldom came twice. They had sunk so low that they shrink from their shame. They had known better things; and with happier associations and thoughts of former times continually haunting them, they shun the light as far as possible.
THE QUEER LOOKING OLD WOMAN
A tatterdemalion old woman, with towsy grey hairs, crept into the hall. She carried a handbag about as dilapidated and queer looking as herself. She sat down gingerly upon a chair, and placed the bag on her knees.
It was noticed that others had similar receptacles, or if not, bundles in their possession, all of which were kept firm hold of.
“What are these for?” was the query. “Have these women been marketing?”. The famous Petticoat Lane (now Middlesex Street) and other adjacent markets being open on the Sabbath, the question was a natural one.
“Ob, no, not by any means,” replied Mr. Collings. “These people do more than carry out the old Scriptural dictum – ‘Take up thy bed and walk.'”
“Why so? Why so ?”
THEY CARRY ALL THEIR POSSESSIONS
“Because they carry not only their beds in these shattered portmanteaus, but all their belongings. They have no homes, sir, and all their worldly possessions are wrapped in these rags.”
“Where do they sleep at night, then?”
“Anywhere or nowhere, the case may be. If they can scrape as much together as to pay for a bed in a doss-house, good and well. If not, they look out for the quietest and most convenient corner of street; and selecting some of the articles from their portmanteaus spread them upon the ground and lie down, the portmanteau making a convenient pillow.”
“They seem to be very careful of these articles.”
“And so would you if you had so few, considering also that these people have so much difficulty in getting them. But that is not the main reason that they hug them so closely. Oh, no! Why, sir,” continued Mr Collings, “if they laid them down for one moment at their feet the next they would be gone.”
A GREAT NUMBER OF THIEVES
“Are there so great thieves amongst you, then?”
“Oh, you innocent Scotty,”laughed Mr Collings. “There are people there that would steal the skin off your back, or your teeth out of your head, if you only winked your eyes.
Why, I have no hesitation in saying that there are some of the most expert “abstractors” in London amongst that ragged crowd at this moment. Why, they steal the very hymn books, and we have to keep a close watch upon them!”
That was a staggerer, and our hands involuntarily sought our pockets to see if our watch, money, and valuables were still in their proper places.
It may be mentioned that this act was repeated two or three times m the course of the afternoon.
“But it is to be hoped that they are not all of that type?”
GARROTERS, CRACKERS AND MURDERERS
“No, not all, thank God. We have a genuine case here and there. They will turn up at times, such as a poor docker, or coster, or clerk down in his luck, but, as a rule, they are no better than they are called. I have reason to state that my congregations are often composed of criminals of all grades, from the common slum thief to the cracker of cribs, the garrotter, robber – ay, and for all I know, murderer too!” and he looked grimly at his audience and shrugged his shoulders.
BETTER POSITIONS IN LIFE
“Do you often have visitors who have been in better positions in life?”
“Oh, dear, yes! We have had clergymen, doctors, barristers, Q.C.’s., and professional men of all kinds. Ay, we even had a Scotch Lord on one occasion. They filter down from one grade to another, and at last we catch them in our net.”
“What have been the causes of their downfall? Drink?” ‘
“Yes, drink and gambling. I consider gambling to be as bad, if not worse, than drinking.”
“Have you, or any other agency, been able to reclaim any of these unfortunate people?”
“I am glad to say that in one or two instances we have, although in the majority of cases we have not been successful.”
A CROWD OF LOAFERS
Reference has been made to the condition of the women visitors to Christchurch Hall. Odd-looking and seedy they were – even to the common street-singer, who spanked her disobedient child in the middle of an impressive discourse – the men, on the other hand, looked a mixed lot; weatherbeaten, unkempt, and dirty in the extreme.
It would astonish the onlooker to see stout, hulking young fellows hanging in rags.
A greasy, mildewed man patiently sat on a side form. His coat was ripped up the back from waist to neck, and exposed the skin.
“Couldn’t the mission provide that man with some sort of decent coat?” was inquired.
“Oh, yes,” was the reply; “but ten to one it would be sold for a pot of beer before night.”
Another, an old man, came shuffling in, carrying a huge ulster on his arm. He seemed to take particular care of it. Like the women with their portmanteaus, he rolled it neatly up, and sitting down, placed it on his knees. It was ascertained that this garment was the old man’s principal dwelling-place in spring, summer, and autumn, and that often at a pinch it did similar duty during the winter.
WEATHER-STAINED AND WORN CLOTHING
The clothing of every individual was more or less weather-stained and sadly worn. Their boots and shoes were a study. It was noticed that one man wore the “shauchled” remains of a “Wellington” on one foot, whilst the other was covered with a hob-nailed shoe, several sizes too large, and tied to his ankle to keep it tight.
The only decent-like man amongst the crowd was a dustman, and he looked like a king amongst this kenspeckle fraternity.
In addition to the universal sartorial dilapidation, there were other personal matters that were equally noticeable.
Facial adornments were common.
A young fellow, who might have been mistaken for a lightweight champion of the adjoining purlieus had had his “eyes” operated on. A neighbour kept him company. Like the Irish soldier he had got a stripe – across the nose.
Scratches were common. They were cheap, if we are to judge by their popularity.
The ladies are never behind where spots of beauty are concerned. One had two lovely black eyes; others sported one only.
Apart, however, from the incongruity of the assembly, and their uncouth and somewhat disagreeable habiliments, a more attentive or more responsive audience could not be desired.
THE CHOIR AND THE SERVICE
The platform, surmounted with the old Huguenot arms, was a plain open dais, with a few chairs and a table.
The choir was composed of a number of well-trained vocalists, who sang to the accompaniments of two zithers, two violins, a violoncello, and a grand piano.
The service of praise throughout was high-class, and the audience testified their approval by repeatedly encoring the solos.
The hymn “When He Cometh” was so exquisitely and feelingly rendered that the audience were enthusiastic in their approval and demanded a repetition.
SPLENDID VOICES IN THE CONGREGATION
As showing the diverse elements in the assemblage, it was a pleasure to note the beautiful and well-trained voices possessed by some.
A bloated woman, in a tattered and torn gown, sang in rich, full soprano, and amongst the equally tattered men there were some splendid bass and tenor singers.
Parson Collings, who presided, is supported by several clergymen and lay brethren, most of whom are veterans in mission work.
The service is opened by the well-known hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” – the singing of which is followed by short, simple prayer.
At this point, Mr Collings takes his coat off, and conducts the rest of the service in his shirt sleeves.
A GENERAL LIGHTING UP
Prior to introducing the speaker of the day, he takes out his tobacco pouch, and, filling his pipe, lights it. smoking away as congenial as if he were sitting in his own smoking room. This is the signal for a general lighting up.
Every man and woman who owned a “cutty” followed the example of the pastor, and soon the hall was filled with clouds of tobacco smoke.
Several gentlemen on the platform also lighted their pipes and smoked during the most of the service.
A POINTED SERMON
The principal speaker of the day, a cultured clergyman of the Church of England, delivered a plain, pointed discourse.
There was no attempt at patronising.
He spoke kindly, compassionately, and, in choice language, showed what was right on the one side of the picture, and, turning the other side gently round, pointed out the disastrous effects of wrongdoing.
The audience, smoking all the while, were deeply interested and frequently threw out the interjections of “hear hear” and loudly applauded the principal points.
The Chairman, laying aside his pipe and speaking in his shirt sleeves, also gave a short pithy address, remarking that, if a man wished to succeed in business, he had to work diligently, else he would end in bankruptcy.
It was the same with a religious life. They must put their shoulder to the wheel, if not, they would go down! down! down!
He did not wish that, and he and his friends were there that day for the purpose of taking them by the coat-necks and dragging them out of the slough. He would dare to do as much as any man ever did, and, with the help of Christ, he trusted he would save some of them yet.
Mr Collings resumed his seat amid applause, and, relighting his pipe, continued to smoke.
The Lord’s Prayer was afterwards recited, the audience entering into the repetition without taking the pipes from their mouths.
Several solos were sung, and the services were brought to a close with the benediction.
TWO “QUIDS” OF TOBACCO AND A JUG OF TEA
No one rose from the seats.
To many, if not all, the most important part of the ceremony had yet to be gone through.
The members of the choir, assistants, and clergyman, headed by the pastor, proceeded to the ante-room, and returned with numerous jugfuls of tea and substantial hunks of bread, spread with marmalade.
Mr. Collings took charge of the tobacco roll, and twisted off a couple of pipefuls in thorough professional style.
The people were soon supplied with refreshments; they were not long in disposing of them.
They left the hall as orderly as they had entered, and an unusually interesting service was brought to close.
A TRANSIENT CONGREGATION
“You say these people do not come every Sunday Parson Collings?”, was again asked.
“No, a few may, but the majority pass through this place as water passes through a sieve. Many are birds of passage, and, by tomorrow, you will find them scuttling through London, on their way probably to the country on a begging tour. Others again – those with the handbags, the street singers, fusee vendors, the broken-down coster, and those indigenous to the pavement, never leave London. They return when they find it convenient.”
“Do they feel grateful?”
“I have no reason to think otherwise. Look here, sir; this is a haven of rest to these weary wayfarers. Many of them I know have not tasted food for probably a whole day – perhaps longer. I have known them to want food for 48 hours, and last year we had two deaths amongst us, arising from sheer starvation.”
Mr Collings thereafter gave several instances of men who had fallen from high estate, and who, after undergoing long terms of penal servitude, were reclaimed by the influence of the Christchurch organisation.
A LACK OF FUNDS
He, however, complained greatly of want of funds.
Christians, he said, boasted of their charity, but he had failed to get much of it.
The Jews were his main contributors.
Clothes, bread, marmalade – anything – he remarked, he would gladly take.
He spent a small private income of his own on the work, as well as the greater portion of his stipend, and, at the same time, he had a wife and family to support.
The other day, a shopkeeper offered him a bag of potatoes if he would carry them to his mission hall. In an instant, his coat and hat were off, and getting the bag on his back he walked off with his prize. That is a striking instance of practical Christianity.
Many well-known gentlemen take an interest in this important movement.
For instance, Mr Tom Mann has repeatedly delivered addresses in the mission hall to that class of people, and he has always been rewarded with bumper houses, and received with enthusiasm.”