Byways Of Babylon

Pearson’s Weekly, on Thursday, 24th January, 1907 published the first of a series of articles that took readers into the byways and hidden courts of parts of the East End of London that they might not otherwise get to see.

The article gives an intriguing insight into the streets of London, but it is also interesting in that it pays a visit to the former mortuary, which by the time of the article had become a nature museum. to which the body of Jack the Ripper victim Elizabeth Stride had been taken, following her murder on the 30th of September, 1888.



By George R. Sims

Among the broad highways, through the main thoroughfares, from morn to midnight flows the full tide of life. It is there for every passing man and woman to see. The ebb and flow of the great stream, the tributaries that are ever adding to its volume, the cross currents, are ordered and regulated by the law.

You wander the highways at any hour of the night or day, and see much and learn much.

But if you walk in the byways with the eyes of understanding you will see more and learn more.

I have been walking the byways all my life, and I am still seeing and still learning. How many of us on business or on pleasure bent, and going constantly from our homes to the same spot, make any considerable variation in the route. Business men who walk to business, idle men who walk to their club, get in a habit of walking always along the main direct routes of London. Few ever turn into the side streets. Many are as ignorant of the by-ways along the main routes of London as they are of the by-ways of Benin or the off-turnings of Timbuctoo.

I have never written an “Off the Track” article yet about any district without “an old resident” writing to my Editor or to myself to say that I have been drawing on imagination. The writer of the letter had lived in the district for twenty or thirty years – sometimes all his life – and was yet completely ignorant of the secrets of its byways.


I do not profess to know all the by-ways. No man does. Life is not long enough to study them all – even if you had nothing else to do,

But if you wander in the byways of London and let me be your guide, I will promise you that the journeys shall not be uninteresting ones.

Most of what I have seen you shall see; most of what I have learnt you shall learn. But not all. Discretion is the better part of valour, and the discreet guide will always show the select company who have accepted his escort “just enough,” but never too much.


Here is a broad main thoroughfare that everybody knows. It is on the road to the docks, and by night or day it is interesting to the student of humanity.

Here you may see the newly-arrived immigrant from the land of the Tsar, in his Russian shirt and his high boots, trudging along with a small portmanteau in his hand, and taking his first look at London. He doesn’t seem particularly interested. He is rather anxious to find the street for which he is looking, where he has relatives who came here many years ago. He has the address on a small, well thumbed piece of paper. He shows it every now and then to a stolid English constable, who studies it carefully and then jerks a thumb in a certain direction, and the Russian immigrant goes on.

The language of pantomime is the real universal language. If I could have my way, it should be taught in every school of the kingdom.

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


Along this broad and busy thoroughfare walk or lounge Swedes and Germans, Lascars, Arabs, Turks, and Chinamen.

Some are new arrivals, some are living in well established “homes” for the stranger.

In this neighbourhood are homes for all nationalities – homes in which the particular language spoken is understood and the particular food required is prepared.

Into some of the smaller homes, boarding-houses, and hotels for these strangers within our gates we may later on penetrate when we find them in a byway. They are quaint places, some of these little hotels for the foreign wayfarer, and in them a strange company is often gathered.

There is one in which not long ago I found the olive-skinned, red-fezzed “Algerians,” as they were generally called, who were for many months familiar figures with their smart Oriental carpets and mats and gaily-embroidered cloths over their arms. They did not always find an hotel to shelter them. Sometimes, when they got far afield and away from the cosmopolitan accommodation of the great city, they slept under the stars.


Two of them quarrelled while they were travelling the provinces, and one killed the other in the quiet country spot in which they had laid down for the night.

The Algerian carpet-dealer, whom I had last seen smoking his cigarette by the fire in the guest-room of an “Arab” hotel in London, was found guilty and hanged. He asked for a cigarette a few minutes before he was taken to the scaffold, smoked it, and went without a murmur or a tremor to the end of his journey.


In a byway in another district stands the lodging-house which many of the Breton onion-sellers used to frequent when they were hawking the produce of their native Brittany in the streets of London.

Everybody knew those ruddy, sailor-like-looking faces under the Breton berets and the long ropes of onions that the men carried over their shoulders shoulders.

Many of them were fine, sturdy young fellows, who visited England every year, and had picked up sufficient English for the trade at the kitchen door, and everybody was sad when the news came that many of them, going back to their native land with the money they had gained, were wrecked almost in sight of their homeland and had gone down with the ill- fated ship to an ocean grave.

There will be foreign tongues to greet us when we turn out of the main thoroughfare in which we started our present trip, and in one strange place that we shall see there will be many memories of foreigners who were not only strangers but captives in our midst.


We leave the highway and turn through a narrow courtway, in which a number of young women are standing outside the houses hard at work.

There are dozens of nails driven here and there into the outside walls. You would wonder what the nails were for if you saw them when no one was about.

But now the nails are in use. Fastened to them is one end of the piece of sacking which the girls are making.

The court is largely inhabited by Irish people, and the girls are home workers. Sack making, rush and bass basket and bag making are staple industries in the Irish quarter of this particular district.

The girls, as they work in the narrow byway, sing Irish songs, and one or two are listening to Irish lads who are talking soft nonsense to them in a beautiful brogue only slightly weakened by the London atmosphere.

We are through the court, and we come to an old world square.


We are not far a the Thames, for we can hear the hooting of the great steamers and the tooting of the little tugs as they pass up and down from and to the Gateway of the World.

What a quaint old-world little square it is! We are not going into its history. We haven’t time for that. But we can tell that great folks once lived in some of the houses. Now many of them are let out in floors to foreigners.

Let us enter one and walk through into the backyard.

Here a number of Polish men and women are boiling old uniforms that were collected on the battlefields of South Africa. Khaki tunics are soaking in great steaming tubs. The little back-yard is littered with regimental tabs and numbers.

We go downstairs into the basement, and find a little room packed with Russian shoemakers. There are ten of them at work in such a small space that you wonder that they do not occasionally hit each other instead of the shoe.

This house has the air of having once been the dwelling-place of a rich English merchant, or perhaps a family of independent means. The hall door, now set back that the alien shoemakers, tailors and uniform boilers, and the upstairs tenants may pass to and fro, may have been opened by a powdered footman for my lady to pass out to her sedan chair.

There is a furniture dealer’s at the corner, where, outside a house that has still the grand air on it, tables and chairs and looking-glasses are set about in picturesque confusion.


If we are fortunate enough to get permission and a heavy bunch of keys, and are allowed to pass through this house and into the next and see all that lies at the back, we shall not have wandered into a quiet byway for nothing.

For here was once a court-house – the High Court of the Liberties of the Tower – and behind it is the prison, with the cellars and dungeons in which lay the foreign prisoners brought to this country during the Peninsular War.

The place is very lonely and very grim now. Some of it is used, or was when I saw it, to store odds and ends in, and in one room in the basement there was a savoury smell, as though the fire bad been used for cooking purposes.

A year ago you could enter it from Neptune Street through a public-house, the landlord of which had the keys. Today, I believe, that way is closed.


But the old prison is a wonderful relic of bygone days, whose very existence is unsuspected by the majority of Londoners.

There are English names among the foreign ones carved on doors and tables and forms.

Mr. Stockley, that gentleman to whom we are indebted for the pitch-plaster which was clapped over the mouth of the intended victim, is one of them.

And the poor debtors have left more than one pathetic inscription on the walls.


There was, and possibly some of it still remains, a subterranean passage from the dungeons to the river, along this underground way many prisoners passed to the Success, the old convict ship that took them from their country for their country’s good.

And because of this the old prison, in a cell of which only a year ago while wandering the byways I was locked up to see how I liked the darkness and a plank bed, was called the Sly House. A man entered it, and you never saw him again. He got his one last glimpse of London as he was put on board the Success bound for Botany Bay.

In the prison are fetters, leg-irons, and wrist-irons that have pressed on the limbs of famous captives, and on the tables and walls are names that tell of the great days of the British Army when it fought far nearer home than would be pleasant for our modern nerves.

And outside in the street there is not for the passer-by a sign or hint of any of these quaint survivals.


A turn out of the square, and we enter another byway.

In it lies an ordinary-looking yard of what appear to be at first sight ramshackle sheds.

But if we were to enter without permission, and unaccompanied, we should be considerably startled. For in these sheds and stables are wild beasts from all parts of the world.

Only those that are not too strong or too fierce are in the sheds. For the lions and the tigers brought over by the great importers in the season that alone permits them to land, for the first time, in our midst you must explore an unpretentious-looking building close at hand, and then you will find them in cages.

But if you are tired, beware how you sit down on an apparently innocent-looking crate with open wooden bars. Alligators and crocodiles are not pleasant things to sit upon.


We turn back into the main street again, and find odd byways running off it here and there.

Some of them are broad courtways, each with its own characteristic.

You might spend a day in these byways, and learn how little you know of London all the time.

In one court you will find only Catholic Poles. In another only sea-faring men and their families. Another court is entirely Irish. In another there are only Russian Jews.


Turn off the main street into a churchyard laid out with flowers and green plants, and round a quiet corner you will come upon a mortuary turned into a little natural history museum.

There you will make a curious discovery.

For here are beehives, and the bees are gathering honey in the very heart of a district where once Paddy Goose rang nightly with unholy revelry, and Tiger’s Bay shocked even that redoubtable byway traveller Mr. James Greenwood, the Daily Telegraph’s famous amateur casual.

At the end of the churchyard you may see the gravestone of the Marrs, on which is recorded the Ratcliff Highway horror that De Quincy immortalised in “Murder Considered as a Fine Art.”

A photograph of the mortuary turned into a nature museum.
The Museum In St George’s Churchyard Referred To In The Article.


In a minute you come to Gravel Lane and the Bridge of Sighs, and if you cross it you are in the Island of Wapping –  an island with quaint byways and wonders that not one Londoner in a thousand has knowledge of.

But we must not cross the Bridge of Sighs today. We will just glance from it towards Execution Dock, where once captured pirates and seaway robbers were hanged and the gallows stood, from which the dead hung in chains, that swung and creaked in the night wind, to give you an unpleasant sensation if you crossed the bridge into Wapping late and alone.

If we return to the highway and pass on to the end we come to a busy market corner and a railway station, and then once more we turn up a byway.


It is – or was, for many of the houses in it have been closed – one of the, moat terrible byways in the world.

It is a long, narrow alley, with a high blank wall on one side of it and a long row of dark dilapidated hovels on the other. From the window of a house you could stretch out your hand and touch the wall. There is just a narrow strip of God’s sky above, but you must stand in the centre of the alley and strain your eyes to see it. That high black wall could tell of terrible scenes it has shut in from view. The houses of this dark byway could tell tales more terrible still.

But we can only wander through the long, narrow, winding way of wickedness today and imagine what the place was in its days of degradation.

It is the long alley that once found itself infamous in print, and was called “The worst street in London.”

It is not good for us to linger long here. Let us turn back round the corner and retrace our steps, for in two minutes we can be in the green garden again, and sit in the sunshine and watch the London bees gathering honey from the London flowers.

We have walked warily in the byways on our first expedition. In our next we will enter some of the byway houses in other quarters, which the police only visit in order to invite the inmates to step outside and go for a walk in the direction of this police-station.”