The murder of Mary Kelly, on 9th November, 1888, focused public attention on the squalor and criminality that was rife in an East London thoroughfare that had the unenviable reputation of being one of the worst – if not the worst – streets in London.
This reputation continued into the 20th century, and numerous newspaper articles appeared that highlighted both the squalor of the street and the apparent savagery of the conditions under which the inhabitants lived.
These articles provide us with an intriguing glimpse back at a long-lost East End thoroughfare, and allow us to, in print at least, come face to face with its inhabitants, many of whom would have lived through the horror of the Whitechapel murders.
However, it is also worth noting that, on many of the occasions when Dorset Street was “attacked” in the press, people would write in to make the point that the street was being unfarly maligned and that it was, in fact, no worse than many other London thoroughfares.
DORSET STREET AND THE SLAUGHTERHOUSES
One such article appeared in The East London Observer, on Saturday, 22nd November, 1902:-
“Local authorities,” says The Toynbee Record, “happily, become more and more active, but, at the beginning of the season, two old abuses appear to be flourishing.
Dorset Street is still uncondemned.
SMALLPOX IN THE STREET
Small-pox, although it laid upon the street a contribution of eighty cases, has not aroused public opinion to require an action which will do away with an abuse which has cost the ratepayers thousands of pounds, and annually destroys hundreds of human lives.
CHILDREN SURROUNDED BY VICE
A walk through the street, even at midday, reveals the depths to which human nature can sink, and the sight of children playing in the midst of such vice and squalor stirs indignation as well as pity.
Police, sanitary officers, and visitors, all mark Dorset-street with the blackest mark, and yet it is said to be safe within the law.
The other old abuse which is still flourishing is the practice of slaughtering animals in the old-fashioned slaughterhouses in the Whitechapel High-street.
The practice involved the driving of the cattle through the crowded and often slippery street, which is cruel to them and bad for onlookers – the boys taxi girls – who sometimes look out for the unhealthy sensation of watching animals going to be killed.
THEY STILL FLOURISH
The Houses with their smell of blood, and the slaughter-men, make a feature which would not be endured in a self-respecting neighbourhood.
Reports have, again and again, condemned the existence of such slaughterhouses, but they still flourish.”
MR. CLARK’S OUTRAGE
The article provoked the ire of a local by the name of Mr. J. Clark, and, on Saturday, 13th December, 1902, The East London Observer published the following letter that he had sent to the Editor of the newspaper, in which he accused the author of the previous article of being unfair to the residents of Dorset Street:-
TO THE EDITOR
With reference to a paragraph appearing in the issue of your paper dated Nov. 22nd, and headed “Dorset Street and the slaughter-houses,” permit me to point out that, just as Toynbee Hall supplies a great need, so too does the much-maligned Dorset street supply a home and habitation for many poor and deserving persons.
NO MONOPOLY ON VICE AND SQUALOR
Kindly allow me, too, to remind the gentleman responsible for the “Toynbee Record” that Dorset-street has no monopoly “of vice and squalor” – the precincts of Toynbee Hall itself leave very much to be desired; this is my personal experience.
I would suggest that Toynbee Hall do not assume the air of the proverbial “superior person.”
TOYNBEE HALL AS BAD
An acquaintance of mine who formerly attended Toynbee Hall was compelled to remain away owing to his being troubled too frequently by various common types of insect life that are very foreign to his personal habits.
Therefore I would suggest that the “Toynbee Record” looks around and cleans up its own house prior to criticising other quarters.
I am, obediently yours,
J. CLARK. 142, West India Dock Road.
9th December, 1902.”