Down Whitechapel Way

Let’s travel back to Victorian Whitechapel in the year 1869.

Our guide for this time-slip journey will be the Penny Illustrated Paper, which, on Saturday, 1st May, 1869, presented its readers with an article that, whilst lamenting the fact that things had changed a great deal in the East End of London, captured some of the vibrancy of the streets of Whitechapel, whilst, at the same time, giving a vivid portrayal of some of the less than salubrious enclaves and locations of the district:-


In the strange region generally spoken of as “Down Whitechapel Way,” there is so much to attract the student of human nature that it would be difficult to do more than indicate the peculiarities of the inhabitants in the short space our disposal.

Taking the line of the main road from Aldgate to Mile End, the stream of life runs fast and carries on its surface so much flotsam and jetsam, so many waifs and strays of our poor humanity, such multiform objects for suggestion and reflection, that we are bewildered at the very outset of our journey, and require a strong head to keep us on our course without turning aside into all sorts of by-ways, and losing our reckoning among unknown bays and quicksands.

Furniture-dealers, brokers, bookstalls, herbalists, itinerant preachers, temperance lecturers, dealers in old clothes, old hats, old boots, old cutlery, old ironmongery, old keys, crockery, gingerbeer, fried fish, pickled whelks, hardbake, pills, and haberdashery line the pavement; Jew and Gentile hustle each other as they pass in knots from place to place; the gin shop doors are perpetually on the swing; the temples devoted to drinks which are announced to be “all iced” attract thirsty wayfarers from the blaze of the April sun, which thus early seems to bake the very pavement.

Sktetches of the various types of people to be encountered in Whitechapel.
Some Whitechapel Types. From The Penny Illustrated Paper, Saturday, 1st May, 1869. Copyright, The British Library Board.


There are all sorts of reminiscences, too, down Whitechapel way; old stories of the Three Nuns, the Black Bull, and other remnants of the old coaching times.

The Blue Boar, where Mr. Weller, senior, put up, with its sign like “cerulean elephant,” is an extinct animal; but the ancient Bull survives, good old quiet shadowy place, suggestive still of the ancient glories of the road when “commercial gents” drove their own traps, and the four-in-hand went “spanking” down long country roads (like the Brighton coach of the present day) with the guard blowing his head off at an attempt to perform “Rule Britannia” on his posthorn.

The Three Nuns, with its queer picture for a sign, has gone to decay, its once cosy parlour being turned into a concert-room, where everything looks as though the place had been furnished out of a “clearance lot” when the old inn was sold up.

“Gentlemen and lady amateurs” are requested to attend and contribute to the harmony in this hall of sweet sounds, which, being an apartment of limited dimensions, having once been no more than the snug parlour already referred to, must be rather trying to a singer with a “powerful organ,” and slightly redolent of tobacco-smoke when the “select company” are in full force – say, on a benefit night.


Much might be said of the queer outlying streets of this region – not Tiger Bay, not Fashion-street, and Flower and Dean-street and The Kate – the worst of London and thieves’ quarters, all of them most graphically portrayed in Mr. Thomas Archer’s “Pauper, Thief, and Convict” – but of “the marts” and the busy hives of men; old-clothes men, and marts for renovating and retailing those cast-off garments which are collected daily by the peripatetic Israelite.


Much, too, might be recalled of the days when a fair was held at Bow, and the irrepressible Irish population fell upon the show people and the gipsy encampments; and the fun of the fair ended in broken heads and the glory of the shillelagh, until, the news reaching the Whitechapel butchers and the slaughter-house men of Aldgate, they determined on deadly reprisals.

A butcher boy, mounted on swift pony, acted as aide-de-camp to the expectant force; and, when the Irish came out again to renew their attack, swift as the wind rode the eager youth – his horse all foam, his face red as the beef he carried – to bring the Whitechapellers to the rescue, armed with ox-goads and those “supplejacks” which were then the pride of the drover who knew his trade.

Then, every son of Erin who had grown “blue mouldy for want of a batin'” had his fustian jacket dusted to a tune that made him doubt the quality of his own ribs.


Those times have passed away, let us hope, never to return. Fairs have been abolished; and, had some more rational amusement been substituted for them, or had they been regulated instead of being abolished, we might have rejoiced.

As it is, however, nothing is more hopeless, dreary, and painfully suggestive than a holiday where people have no holiday influence and no holiday occasion to keep them from the fusty tavern and the bar where they set themselves on fire with poisoned gin.


It is true that down Whitechapel way the Hebrew element makes the street gaudy with gay dresses and cheap ornaments when “the people” make holiday; but the gentile’s notion of festivity seldom takes the form of external decoration; a flower chewed in the mouth, or a clean shave and an extra polish to his boots, is the extent of his recognition of the Graces.

We are speaking now of the festivity which keeps him to the streets; for his ordinary notion of a holiday is to be “on the fly,” which it is the Oriental phrase used down Whitechapel way to signify the absolute freedom of a gala season and its appropriate fluttering from bar to taproom.

They are very dingy moths; but then there are so many candles, and they are so often singed.”