For many years in the 19th century, Bell Lane in Spitalfields had a dreadful reputation as one of the most overcrowded enclaves in the whole of the East End of London. Indeed, in July, 1888, The East End News went so far as to describe it as ” …the worst area in all London.”
According to contemporary press reports, Bell Lane and its surroundings were so densely populated as to be unfit for human habitation.
Unfit for habitation it may have been, but for many people who ended up in the East End of London, there was little choice as to where they were forced to reside, and they did the best they could; and since Bell Lane’s reputation meant that the rents were relatively low, more and more people were crammed into its decaying houses and tenements, with the result that the living conditions grew worse and worse.
THE BISHOP OF BEDFORD ON THE ISSUE
At the height of the Jack the Ripper scare in the East End of London, when the murders had gone a long way towards exposing the dreadful living conditions around parts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, The Hackney and Kingsland Gazette, on Wednesday, 17th October, 1888, published the following article about a meeting of the Metropolitan Board of Works that had taken place on the previous Friday.
The meeting was addressed by the Bishop of Bedford, Dr. Robert Billing, who, prior to taking up the Bishopric, had been the rector of Christchurch, Spitalfields, in the parish of which Bell Lane was, and is, located.
OVERCROWDING AT SPITALFIELDS
“On Friday, at the Metropolitan Board of Works, Dr. Billing, Bishop of Bedford, on behalf of a deputation from the inhabitants of Spitalfields and others interested in that parish and the adjacent parts, was introduced by Mr. Ilsley, and presented on the subject of the Bell-lane and Pearl street Artisans’ Dwellings schemes.
He said that this was the third time he had addressed the Board on the subject.
As the rector of the parish of Spitalfields, he had been intimately acquainted with the district. He was now no longer rector, but as the new one had not yet been appointed he had been asked to represent his old parish.
THEY HAD DONE THEIR BEST
The local Board had done its duty, and had tried to the utmost to mitigate the evils of which they complained.
But, though they had done the utmost they could, their powers were limited and they had been utterly unable to make the place much less injurious to the people who lived there than it was before.
The area in question was 19,986 superficial yards, or over three acres, and it had a population of 2,807.
He might remind the Board that, when the last census was taken, it was found that there were in England and Wales 7 persons to each acre, in London 60, in Whitechapel 176, in Spitalfields 286, in Bell Lane 600, and in Great Pearl Street 600.
Of course, such density of population was injurious to the physical, as well as the moral, welfare of the people.
A LARGE SCHOOL MADE MATTERS WORSE
Besides, in Bell Lane there was a very large school, with about 3,600 children, and these large buildings and playground considerably reduced the area of the three acres which they found were inhabited by 600 to the acre, that gave a still greater density to the population.
The Board had on more than one occasion visited the Bell Lane area, and he remembered that the chairman experienced some very unpleasant sensations in going down into underground cellars, which many of these poor creatures inhabited.
DWELLINGS FOR THE POOR
He would call attention to the fact that all the ground cleared in the neighbourhood for the purpose of providing more sanitary dwellings for the poor was already occupied, and, for the most part, the tenements that had been erected had all been taken.
It was, therefore, absolutely necessary that the Bell Lane area should be dealt with for the purpose of completing the scheme of artisans’ dwellings which had been such a success in that neighbourhood.
They could not but admit that the Board of Works had done a great deal for them which would always redound to its credit, but, at the same time, a good deal yet remained to be done.”