One of the things that always intrigues me concerning the history of the Jack the Ripper murders, is just how many different strands of interest the crimes manage to inspire in people.
Some people enjoy wandering the streets of modern day Whitechapel and Spitalfields to record the associated sites as they appear today. Others enjoy delving into the records to see what historical nuggets they can mine from them. Some people like to play the endless game of trying to identify the person responsible for the murders. Whilst, many people simply enjoy taking the opportunity afforded by the press coverage of the murders to look back on and study a 12 week period in London’s Victorian history.
One person whose work has delighted me for a long time now is Mark Hodgson, who has been sharing his interpretations of Miller’s Court and Dorset Street with us on our Facebook Page for some time now.
Mark has recreated the scenes that featured in Mary Kelly’s story using Lego, and the results are truly impressive.
I was, therefore, absolutely delighted when Mark agreed to being interviewed for a blog about his work.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK HODGSON
Q. Hi Mark. Could you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself?
A. I’m aged 55 and new to building with Lego, as an adult, having rediscovered its possibilities at the end of 2014, after a break of forty years!
I work in television post-production, but my hobbies have always included cinema and the history of horror movies. Tracing back the roots of modern horror takes us back to folk tales, superstitions and urban myths. But they also take inspiration from a few specific crimes.
For ten years, I wrote about hundreds of my favourite movies in an online blog, but then switched my creative urges solely to Lego.
My builds so far have been a mixture of movie homages and recreations of unusual architecture.
I know that these other interests may not qualify me as serious or respectful enough for an historically accurate murder site, but this model has been a very different project from anything else I’ve done.
Q. May I ask, what inspired you to begin creating these models?
A. I’d been aware of the Ripper murders since I was a teenager, basically because they were an unsolved mystery. The character kept popping up in horror movies on television through the years, but it was a TV documentary that prompted me to first read a book on the case (Evans and Gainey’s ‘The Lodger’).
At the time, I was convinced they’d found the murderer!
So, when Bruce Robinson came out with a completely different theory at the end of last year (2015), I was intrigued.
I’d already been impressed by Bruce’s research for his scripts for ‘The Killing Fields‘ and ‘Fat Man and Little Boy‘ (a film dramatising America’s first use of nuclear bombs).
The depth and breadth of his research was incredible, so when he launched a book on his own Ripper theory ‘They All Love Jack‘, after twelve years of research, I made the effort to be at the book launch.
This was presented in St Leonard’s Shoreditch Church, where Mary Kelly’s funeral once took place. Her murder struck me as the most tragic, Bruce asserted that the Ripper should have been caught by then. It was all the more ghastly because it took place indoors, in private, giving the murderer more time with the victim.
But, while reading the book, I was having great trouble visualising her surroundings. I couldn’t believe that the murder wasn’t heard by anyone nearby. The more I learnt, the more impossible her murder became. Her room, number 13 Miller’s Court, was at the back of a house, in a dead end, at the end of a narrow thirty-foot passage, surrounded by twenty foot high walls.
Jack The Ripper has become a British horror monster, a legendary figure like Frankenstein or Dracula. Most horror or thriller films about the murders concentrate on his identity and motivations.
As the focus of attention, he has reached a rather too familiar status. What impressed me about hearing Bruce talk was his hatred for ‘Jack’. He reminded me that the man was a loathsome monster. Bruce mentioned that he could have followed his suspect’s trail abroad and back, potentially uncovering further victims, but after twelve years he loathed being ‘in his company’ any further.
The book launch was moderated by Will Self who also mentioned Jack London’s 1903 account of dossing in the East End ‘The People of the Abyss‘ and Fiona Rule’s book on the history of Dorset Street, ‘The Worst Street in London‘. These added very valuable context to the lives and circumstances of the victims, rather than the murderer, and I ended up referencing Fiona’s book far more than any about the Ripper, particularly with details of the history of 26 and 27 Dorset Street.
Like my earlier Lego projects, I began building, not knowing how far it would develop, starting with the front and rear of the house that had been photographed.
The more I read and researched, I was able to start joining up the known pieces. I made the locations depicted in the outside and inside photographs taken for the police – knowing that the windows were the common wall. I still find it hard to believe that there aren’t more police photos of the site and that the press didn’t visit the building later on to get their own photos. It’s infuriating that such a famous event was so poorly documented, and that for such an infamous street, we have so little idea of how it actually looked. The frustration, that I couldn’t visit or even visualise the whole building, was a major motivation for me.
Q. Your focus has been on Miller’s Court.
Is there a particular reason why you chose this location?
A. Reading about 26 Dorset Street, it was very hard to imagine the layout of all of the surrounding rooms to Mary’s, including Miller’s Court itself.
Seeing Bruce’s book launch coincided with my newfound interest in Lego.
Not having bought a Lego set in forty years, I’d suddenly rediscovered its creative possibilities.
Not being able to draw or sculpt, I’d just spent ten years of writing, but needed something more physical. I’d already completed a few original projects, but particularly enjoyed making buildings that didn’t exist.
The outside of Mary Kelly’s room is usually depicted in sketches as sitting in a large, open, well-lit courtyard.
After a brief study of the fire insurance map, I wanted to show that the view of Miller’s Court through Mary’s windows was actually a brick wall less than ten feet away – the sides of numbers 11 and 12 Miller’s Court.
The sketches also usually omit that opposite her front door was the front of numbers 1 and 2, less than six feet away!
The more I built, the more this courtyard looked more impossible as a murder site – with one of her windows broken (which the man who discovered her body reached through to pull back her curtain) there was nothing to stop every sound in that room being heard in the court.
Q. What was your process for recreating the scene?
A. Looking through the contemporary evidence compiled in the ‘Casebook: Jack The Ripper’ website, I still only had pieces of a jigsaw. Six photos, a dozen newspaper sketches of varying accuracy, witness and police accounts of Mary’s murder.
A police floorplan sketch of the 1909 murder of Kitty Ronan in number 12 Miller’s Court provided a valuable clue to the layout of the tenements, built over the back gardens of 26 and 27 Dorset Street.
There’s also a detailed description of Miller’s Court made by a school inspector ten years before the murder, and of course the floorplan of the area in the fire insurance map, on which I based my dimensions.
But, in the end, trying to build a scale model of it all in Lego, there were still many ‘jigsaw pieces’ that refuse to fit together!
Initially I was flummoxed by how so many people lived in these rooms. Where could the occupants find their heat, light, drainage, water and lavatory? I had to answer all these questions somehow, somewhere in my model, for it to remain logical and faithful to the known facts.
Once I found a Lego minifigure dressed from the same time period as Mary, I opted to use that to guide the scale. I placed her outside the door, roughly like the newspaper sketch of her entering the building. Each Lego brick represents a foot in height. Each Lego floor stud represents ten inches. Also, Lego make doors, windows, crockery etc… to the same scale as their mini-figures.
I started with the most solid evidence, the police photographs, and started to build the back wall, number 26. This would also guide how big Mary’s rooms could be.
At the same time, I also built the front of number 26, using the two photos of the front taken by Leonard Matters in 1928, just before their demolition. This guided the width of the building and the placement of the alleyway between the front doors to 26 and 27.
Of course, by the time these photos had been taken, the front of number 26 had been bricked up – in 1888 the front room was described as ‘the shed’, that witness and neighbour Elizabeth Prater lived in (with her pet cat Diddles).
Some of the newspaper sketches show the front as being wooden, from which I’ve assumed that they were large wooden gates to access the storeroom for landlord Jack McCarthy’s grocery barrows.
Elizabeth Prater’s room is given as 20 Miller’s Court, which gives us yet another mystery about the building – where are all the rooms are between Mary’s, number 13, and Elizabeth’s? The number of rooms can only reach 20 if there are two lodging rooms in the attic, two on the second floor and three on the first floor. Basically, a room behind each window.
Mary was the only one to have two windows. I only built as far along to include the front door of number 27, partly because that’s all the 1928 photographs of the front show. But also because, at a guess, number 27 is roughly a mirror image of no 26. It would have been too much duplication of work and based on too many guesses to build any wider.
As it stands, I’ve included these few feet of number 27 for context, to include the fronts of all the tenement rooms, and therefore show the whole courtyard.
Despite the huge inaccuracies of many of the newspaper sketches, I still took a few details from them, unless contradicted by another source.
For instance, one sketch shows a floor to ceiling bookcase to the the right of Mary’s fireplace, another shows a cupboard there no higher than the fireplace. In this case, my model of the room is so cramped that a short cupboard wouldn’t easily be seen, so I opted for the full height option. Indeed, if her room used to be a parlour or kitchen, I could easily imagine there being high shelving on both sides of the fireplace in those alcoves.
Another example is the flowerpots on the upper window sill outside, a detail from one of the sketches of the courtyard.
The only references to colour in the whole model was that Mary might have owned a red dress and that the wooden shutters in the courtyard were green! I’ve included both details, but because the sketches and photos are all black and white, I had a free hand with the rest of the colour scheme.
I tried to make model easier to understand with colour, rather than always for realism. For instance brown pieces represent the wooden window frames, furniture and stairs, regardless of whether they were painted.
More important are the colours of all the brickwork, through which I’ve tried to depict some of the history of the building. Most of the outside is made up of Lego pieces that look like tiny brickwork, but these only come in half a dozen colours. The dark red bricks represent the original 18th century building that used to be in a far grander state, with a large garden at the back and probably a silk weaver’s shop at the front. The twelve tenement rooms were built over the back gardens of numbers 26 and 27 in the mid 19th century and I used a shabby dark grey brick for them.
As you can see, to be able to fit them all into the courtyard, with room for privy toilets, the back of number 27 had to be cut into, shortening their back parlour (probably a mirror image of Mary’s room) and the bedroom above it. This would then also have to be re-roofed, so I used different coloured roof tiles too. The huge two-storey wall, dividing it from the neighbouring properties at the side and back of the court, is shown in a light brown tan brick.
However, all of the walls in the courtyard were whitewashed up to the first storey (supposedly a safeguard against the cholera epidemic). This is clearly seen in the photo of Mary’s windows. This whitewashing is represented by light grey Lego bricks (I wanted something grubbier than white!) all around the court.
The dark staining near the ground, seen in the same photo, I reasoned was mould from rainwater or from the water pump – and this is represented by the light green Lego pieces.
I tried to use as much detail from that exterior photo as possible – you can even see the curtains through the larger window, which I then added to the room’s interior.
With all of my original models, I take them as far as they will go. They can be discarded after a couple of days of experimenting, but this project has just kept on growing.
I’m still curious to see the buildings as they looked before the tenements were added! Speaking of which, the original model, of just number 26, had to include a small section of the tenement rooms because they faced Mary’s door. To determine the placing of the front door and window, I did a rough build of all twelve rooms, to see how they all fitted into the space. Once I’d laid out the whole of Miller’s Court, I couldn’t resist building them up to the first floor.
By incredible luck, the whole of Miller’s Court can be seen in the corner of a photo of the demolition of the whole of ‘Duval Street’ as it was known by 1928, in readiness for an expansion of Spitalfields Market. I haven’t seen a high resolution version of this photograph, but squinted at the remains of 26 Dorset Street and the partly demolished court for clues. It certainly shows the roof of the back of the building and the height of the surrounding wall, even some of the chimneys.
One of the weird details was that the back of the house seems to have an overhanging attic, whereas the front of the building is flat all the way up. I would have balanced the look of the front and back of the roof, but there’s no arguing with the photographs.
Q. The models are incredibly detailed.
What original sources did you use?
A. Every image I could find and every contemporary report that was relevant.
For instance Mr Wrack’s 1878 school inspection report provided valuable measurements – the width and length of the passage from Dorset Street – giving the depth of the building and the dimensions Miller’s Court.
The distance between the facing tenements was only five feet! The report also mentions three privies and ‘a dustbin’, which at the time meant a brick built depository for the ash from everyone’s fireplaces. I added a privy at the end of the court and what I imagined the ‘dustbin’ to look like outside Mary’s window – it’s mentioned elsewhere to be in the yard, along with the water pump.
I was initially wary of how accurate the fire insurance floorplan was, but found that the dimensions matched the Wrack report. I therefore took the map as the template.
The annotations also refer to the mansard roofing and shows the boundary between 26 and 27 as being to the right of the passage way (as you look at the front). This is crucial to the dimensions of the upper floor rooms.
I also visited the area several times, taking photos of nearby properties that would have been standing at the time of the murder. I visited the wonderful Dennis Severs house, a weavers’ house in Spitalfields that has been filled with contemporary furniture the way people would have lived there. I was particularly interested in the windows, staircases and fittings. All the while, learning more about building techniques and local history.
While Fiona Rule’s book ‘The Worst Street In London’ asserts that number 26 Dorset Street had large windows at the front of the attic, providing weavers with the light to work by, the sketches (and the photo at the back) show only small windows. It appears that the attic was also much smaller than number 27’s.
Q. I particularly liked your depiction of Dorset Street, around the arch into Miller’s Court. How did you go about recreating this?
A. There are some wonderfully clever tutorials on building techniques using Lego, but they rarely solve specific problems.
I wanted to get as much detail from that photograph into the build.
As it was the only authentic view of the outside, taken at the time, I had to at least try and get this small section as accurate as possible.
While I was using brick-effect Lego bricks to represent the brickwork, all Lego arches are completely smooth, and look nothing like the building techniques that were used here. I therefore tried copying the technique (several times) with small individual Lego plates and eventually used an ‘illegal’ building method, in that it’s only held in place by gravity. This wouldn’t appear in an official Lego set as it’s far too flimsy!
Q. How long did it take you to recreate each location?
A. I’ve been working on this for the best part of a year. Scouring the internet, reading, watching several movies based on the incidents, several trips to nearby sites and old houses in Spitalfields, staring at 18th century roofs and doorways around London, building and rebuilding my Lego.
There’s also a wait each time you order additional Lego pieces, both old and new.
When I get into a project, it takes up most of my spare time.
For this interview, I also decided to build the upper floor and roof, so yes, it’s been a year since I started!
Q. This might seem like a silly question, but I’m intrigued to know how many pieces of lego went into each location?
A. I couldn’t honestly say, but it’s all getting rather heavy!
I’ve not furnished any rooms besides Mary’s and the general store at the front of number 27 Dorset Street – her landlord’s shop, which incidentally was open until 2am that night.
But throughout the inside I’ve built where I think the stairs and internal walls were.
There’s also a Lego cat in the room of number 20.
Q. For the interior of Mary Kelly’s room, how much was based on what we know and how much did you have to imagine?
A. Once again, the starting point was the crime scene photograph of her bed.
It took me a while to look at the crime scene photos as they truly are horrific.
I can cope with horror movies, knowing them to be artificial, but real atrocities haunt me. I can’t ever unsee them. I have a good memory for images and therefore like to avoid upsetting news footage, some documentaries and even medical programmes.
So I edited Mary’s body out of the photo, leaving only the details of the bed headboard, the back and side wall. What I think it shows is the wooden wainscotting and the construction of the bed. To me, there are the panels of a door behind her bed – I think that this is the door that was boarded up from the other side – and is constantly referred to as ‘the partition’.
I think that the other side of that mystery door was the staircase to the upper floors, leading from a side door within the passageway – a way of tenants getting into their rooms without them having to go through the shop door at the front. There’s also (an incomplete) police description of the furniture that was in the room.
From the size of the room (the police reckoned twelve feet from door to fireplace, and ten feet across) the furniture mentioned didn’t have many places to sit.
After the bed goes into the corner behind her door, and you take into account the fireplace and the windows, there aren’t many other configurations possible.
Some of the newspaper sketches of the scene were wildly inaccurate (the press weren’t allowed into Miller’s Court for weeks afterwards), so I only used details that tallied with the photos, adding a few glasses and bottles and even a replica of the print that hung on her wall, The Fisherman’s Widow.
The strange, smaller second window, I think was the original back door to the house. I reasoned that it had been bricked up because of the rainwater coming in from the court and the pump.
After Mary’s room, I’ve had to imagine the inside of the windows, the wash stand, the direction of the main staircase, ‘the shed’ interior, the layout of the court, the layout of the other floors. The roofs. All guesswork, but an attempt to recreate the clues we have into a possible whole.
I’m dreading an architecture expert or Ripperologist looking at all my work and picking holes in my decisions!
But with Lego, I can simply rebuild it as necessary.
Q. Why do you think the mutilations inflicted on Mary Kelly were so horrific?
A. I’ve not dwelt on the details of the murder. I’ve built Miller’s Court the way it might have looked when Mary was alive, partly to understand better the conditions she lived in. I believe the way these women lived and the layout of these buildings provide as many clues as the forensic details.
Q. Will you be recreating other locations?
A. This was the only one that really fired my imagination. A chance to see Mary alive again in a long ago demolished building.
While the medium is, on the face of it, a children’s plaything, I felt partly exonerated from the eccentricity of the project when I visited the Museum of London exhibition, earlier this year, of items from Scotland Yard’s ‘Black Museum’. One exhibit was the actual recreation of a murder scene in a similar scale to mine, but in cardboard, to help a jury understand the layout.
Q. What is the best way for people to view your work?
A. Photos of the Lego Miller’s Court, and most of the reference photos and contemporary drawings that I drew on, can be viewed by anyone in my online Flickr album.
A BIG THANK YOU
Mark. I’d just like to say a huge thank you for sharing your wonderful recreations and please keep us posted about any new offerings that you may do.
All images on this page are the copyright of Mark Hodgson. We have used them with his kind permission.