Although the Common Lodging Houses of East London were a source of comment long before the autumn of 1888, the fact that almost all of Jack the Ripper’s victims had spent their final days and years inhabiting them focused a great deal of press attention on them and, as a consequence, numerous reports about the lodging houses and their inhabitants, appeared in the press throughout the whole period that the Whitechapel Murders were occurring.
This is particularly noticeable in the wake of the September 8th murder of Annie Chapman; largely as a result of it being widely reported that Annie herself had been ejected from a common lodging house in the early hours of the morning on which her murder occurred.
A PEEK INSIDE
On the 22nd September 1888 The Illustrated London News published an article that provided its readers with an idea of what life was like in these abodes.
The article was accompanied by illustrations that purported to depict some of the types of resident that might be found within their decaying walls, where they would be watched over by a deputy lodging house keeper, a character who was often a resident working at the establishment for their board and lodging.
A SPITALFIELDS LODGING HOUSE
“The licensed common lodging-houses of London are under official inspection; their managers are responsible for order and decency, and for cleanliness and the observance of sanitary rules.
The police may visit them at any hour of the night, and sometimes will come there in search of persons suspected of crime, for which reason it is more likely that the fugitive criminal will seek a private lodging.
Most of the inmates are comparatively innocent vagrants, either tramps who have wandered into London from the country, perhaps seeking honest employment, or regular haunters of the streets, beggars, idle loungers, and waiters for odd jobs, runaways from irksome employment, deserters of wives and children, and women deserted by their husbands, with those who have no ties of home or kindred.
TWOPENCE TO FOURPENCE FOR A BED
Social waifs and strays, the culpable and the unfortunate, some with a few pence or shillings to keep them from day to day, others not knowing where or how to get food on the morrow, others hoping to find the abode of a friend whom they believe to be living in this huge city, they are received indiscriminately, paying from twopence to fourpence for a bed, and they behave quietly, saying little to each other, taking their sleep as soundly as if they were in the grandest hotel.
The dreams that visit poor weary people, often hungry people, in such a dormitory, where the beds cover all the allotted space on the floor of each room, may be as bright and sweet as were those of happy youth in a rural home of peace and comfort, where the morning sunlight, when it entered the cottage window, was accompanied with the twittering of birds and the rustling of a fresh soft breeze in the summer leaves of trees.
FORLORN TWOPENNY BEDFELLOWS
As death, which finally releases the unhappy from life’s troubles and griefs, is said equally to knock in due time at the palace doors and at the humblest of human dwellings, so does the kindly boon of slumber, the temporary oblivion of present woes, “sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds,” condescend to solace the forlorn twopenny bedfellows of a Spitalfields lodging-house.
It is not, however, in the sleeping attitude, which no doubt would make an interesting picture, that our Artist has sketched the figures of a few of these poor folk, but awake in the daylight, fully conscious of their actual position, some of them painfully oppressed with anxiety, others tolerably indifferent, being old customers of Fortune, relying on her continued favours more than on their own deserts.
THE AGED PROFESSIONAL BEGGAR
One of the latter class is the aged professional beggar, whose venerable visage, with his ample white beard, might have qualified him to earn a fair income in the painter’s studio, as a model for saints and sages, if the temptation of rum or gin, at inconvenient morning hours, did not render him incapable of keeping an appointment.
THE CONTENTED PHILOSOPHER
Another is the perfectly contented philosopher who lives on an allowance of ten shillings a week from his respectable son-in-law, and who has realised the truth that “man wants but little here below,” only a suit of clothing, warm though shabby, a bit of something to eat, with a cup of coffee, and a “turn-in” at night.
THE ANXIOUS MOTHER
Very different is the situation of the anxious mother, widowed or forsaken, with her babe in arms and the hungry little boy at her side; or the misguided and betrayed girl-mother, pondering the last desperate chance of pursuing him who has brought her to shame and sorrow. For these, indeed, there is still a refuge in the workhouse, and they will do well to claim it without hesitation.
THE PUZZLED AND FRIGHTENED BOY
The puzzled and somewhat frightened boy, who has evidently left his friends and repudiated his bounden duty with a view to precocious independence, should be narrowly watched by the police, and be consigned to a Reformatory on his first positive transgression of the law.”
AN IDEALIZED VIEW
Of course, it could be argued that The Illustrated London News article was somewhat at odds with other depictions in the newspaper accounts that portrayed the inhabitants of the lodging houses as a lawless and dangerous community of ne’er-do-well idlers.
But, it at least gives us an insight into a long vanished side of London.
And, when all is said an done, it was against the backcloth of these establishments that the Jack the Ripper saga was played out in the autumn of 1888.