Children In The Common Lodging Houses

The Common Lodging Houses of Whitechapel and Spitalfields played an integral part in the saga of the Jack the Ripper murders. Indeed, it could be argued that these establishments provided the sordid backdrop against which the story of the Whitechapel Murders was played out.

It is, therefore, essential to understand the common lodging houses in order to gain an insight into the social conditions in the area in the years prior to and after 1888.

A group of men standing in front of a Common Lodging House.
A Group of Men Outside A Common Lodging House.


The Victorian newspapers were filled with stories about the conditions inside the lodging houses.

One issue that the newspapers, welfare workers and the courts attempted to tackle was that of children in the common lodging houses.

On April 11th 1887, for example, The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, featured the following report:-


“At the Bow-street Police Court, London, before Mr Bridge, on Saturday, two bright-looking little girls, named Elisa Spragg, aged 12, and Alice Brake, aged 10, were charged with begging in Northumberland Avenue, at half-past two in the afternoon of April 1st.

The offence was proved by a constable, and Mr Bridge remanded the defendants to the workhouse, pending enquiries into their antecedents.


Mr Laurence, the Industrial Schools officer, in his report on Spragg’s case, said that his enquiries showed that the parents had had a very miserable existence.

They had five children.

The father was addicted to drink, and had on two occasions deserted his wife and family. He had returned, but, owing to his ill-treatment, his wife had been eventually compelled to leave him.

The little girl, now before the court, had been, for nine months, in the street entirely on her own resources, and had obtained her living by selling flowers or sweeping crossings and begging.

Mr Bridge: It is an awful story. Last week she seemed to treat it as a great joke. It is absolutely necessary that she should be sent away.

Mr Laurence: It is the worst case I think I have ever had.

An order was made for the child to be sent to the Field-lane Industrial School, Hampstead.


Brake’s case was next reported on.

Mr Laurence said that he had ascertained that she left home about a week ago, and he had seen her frequently in the neighbourhood of the Strand.

She had been living with the other girl in a common lodging-house in Whitechapel.

Mr Bridge (in astonishment): Can common lodging-house people take such young children in? Are they allowed to do so without knowing them?

Mr Laurence: It is unlawful.

Mr Bridge: If they [the common lodging house keepers] are not punished they ought to be.

Mr Laurence: I am afraid they [the girls] have witnessed some terrible scenes.

Mr Bridge: Is there no means of stopping common lodging house keepers doing this? Make a report of it, and if there are no means of punishing these people an Act of Parliament should be specially passed for the purpose.

Mr Laurence: There are inspectors told off to report on lodging-houses.

Mr Bridge: It ought to be the duty of lodging-house keepers to report such things themselves.

Mr Laurence further reported that Brake’s father died five weeks ago.

Mr Bridge: She will come to absolute ruin if she is not sent to school.

Remanded, in order that Mr Laurence might procure one for her.”


A year later, if contemporary newspaper reports at the time of the Whitechapel Murders are to be believed, the plight of the children in relation to the common lodging houses had hardly improved, if at all.

One person who was determined not to let the matter go unchallenged was the inexhaustible Dr Thomas Barnardo.

On the 9th October 1888, Barnardo had written to The Times explaining how he had actually met Elizabeth Stride, at the Common Lodging House in which she lived in Flower and Dean Street, just a few days before her murder.

In his letter he explained how:-

“…the conversation turned upon the previous murders. The female inmates of the kitchen seemed thoroughly frightened at the dangers to which they were presumably exposed….”

He duly outlined a scheme he was proposing, whereby special lodging houses would be set up which would be exclusively for minors.

Each of the women present during his visit expressed their admiration for his scheme, and urged him to forge ahead with it.

Having learned of the murder of Liz Stride, he wrote that he had paid a visit to the mortuary to view her body and, “..I at once recognised her as one of those who stood around me in the kitchen of the common lodging-house on the occasion of my visit…”

A photograph of Dr Thomas Barnardo.
From The Illustrated London News, 30th September 1905. Copyright, The British Library Board.


By November 1888, Dr. Barnardo had actually purchased a Common Lodging House in Flower and Dean Street and was in the process of converting it to receive a nightly procession of waifs and strays.

However, in order for this new shelter to be fully functional he needed money; to which end, he wrote a letter to The Christian newspaper, soliciting the necessary funds from its readership.

His letter was reproduced in several newspapers throughout the country and, in its edition of 20th November 1888, The Guernsey Star reproduced Barnardo’s missive in full:-


“Dear Readers

You will have seen a little while ago, in my letter to The Times, which was reproduced in The Christian of October 12th, the record of a brief interview which I had had with the unhappy woman Elizabeth Stride, in a lodging-house in Flower and Dean Street, a few nights before she met her tragic doom.

In that letter I pointed out strongly – as, indeed, I had for years been doing through other channels – the urgent need which exists for taking some active steps to prevent very young children of the destitute class from being received into these awful Common Lodging Houses, where they are, of necessity, compelled to herd with criminal and viciously degraded men and women.

Although satisfied that nothing short of legislative interference will go to the root of the matter, I have, under a sense of deep responsibility, sought for some means to render immediate help to scores of these poor little Waif-Children who, by their poverty and by the inclemency of the weather, are forced to seek a lodging for the night in the only places open to them; and have also been constrained to take some action, the success of which might perhaps prove an incentive and an example to the Legislature itself.

After much prayerful consideration, I have resolved to open at once two common lodging houses, for Children only, in the very districts where Waif-Children most do congregate, to have these houses licensed in the ordinary way under the Act, and to put over each, as Deputies-in-charge, a wise and loving-hearted Christian Couple.


The doors of these houses would be thrown open every night to helpless Little Children at the nominal charge of one penny each; and while comfortable beds and a warm meal would be provided for the young inmates, and the fullest liberty given consistent with orderly behaviour, opportunity would be afforded for prudent efforts to win the Little Ones from the streets and to better things.

Wonderful to relate, one of the houses I have secured for this purpose is no other than the Notorious No. 34, Flower and Dean Street, the very house in which the poor creature lived who fell under the murderers knife on the morning of  the 30th September last.

A group of children on the East End streets.
Children on the Streets Of The East End.


Within the past few nights my own agents have brought in several little girls from 5 to 12 years of age, who had been wandering through the streets all night in the cold and wet and fog, clad in rags, half starved, and ready to faint with fatigue.

These children, emaciated, abominably filthy and covered with vermin, were carried by my co-workers to our All-Night Shelter at Stepney.

Had, however, such Lodging Houses as I now speak of been in existence, doubtless dozens of the like poor waifs would have sought their shelter.


The houses are ready to be opened without delay; but to carry my project into full effect, a sum of £1,200 is needed at once.

We must, as a first step, clean and repaint the premises from garret to cellar; furnish the rooms with plain common iron bedsteads; supply the necessary bedding and clothes; provide for the rent, and the salaries of those who will be in charge for the first six months; and defray other initial and incidental expenses.


I would only add, in conclusion, that I honestly believe that the readers of The Christian have seldom been invited to co-operate in a more important or more urgently-needed enterprise, and I do most heartily commend it to their prayerful sympathy. Any gift sent in response, will he gratefully acknowledged by return of post.

Such donations should be distinctly marked as for the “Children’s Lodging-House Fund.”

Earnestly praying that my Master will lay the needs of these, His helpless Little Ones, very heavily upon your hearts,

Believe me to be,

Your faithful Co-worker in His service,

12th November, 1888.
18 to 26, Stepney Causeway, London, E.”


Dr. Barnardo

The Common Lodging Houses of Victorian London

The Ragged Schools of Victorian London

A Body on the Table