East End Distress 1890

One of the most distressing things you come across when you read accounts of everyday life in the East End of London around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, is the realisation of the sheer grinding poverty that the residents had to battle against as they attempted to survive and provide for their families.

Many of the men who lived in the area worked in the London Docks, and a vivid depiction of the hardships faced up to by East End dockers appeared in the Pal Mall Gazette on December 23rd 1890:-


“A representative of the Pall Mall Gazette made a few inquiries yesterday concerning the terrible tales of distress among the working-people of the East-end.

At the Dockers’ Union offices he was informed that Mr. Mann’s statements as to the starving thousands were in no way exaggerated.

The Australian strike has resulted in lessening the work generally to be done at this time.


One of the organizers of the union visited last week Fresh Wharf, Upper Thames-street, and this is his official report:-

“At seven A.M. 200 or 300 men were at the gates trying to get employment. A more unseemly sight I never witnessed at any of the docks in my twenty years’ experience. A number of them got on the rails of the gate, and as it was opened to admit a van or cart, the men still hung on it and swung backwards and forwards with the gate so as not to lose their place for the next call.

When the foreman came out the crush was something dreadful. The men climbed on the backs of each other, and on to the gate, about eight feet high. Two men climbed up the lamp-post and threw themselves on the other men, clambering on their shoulders to the gate.

In consequence of this crush the foreman was unable to select the union men, but he is to have a platform erected for his convenience.”


Mr. Kerwin, of the Tower Hamlets Mission Distress Fund at Charrington’s Hall, told our representative that there had not been so much distress in London as at present for many years, and that the money received by the Mission to meet that distress was less than it had been for over twenty years.

Mr. Kerwin said he had heard that other East-end charities were in similar plight, which he attributed to the subscriptions to General Booth’s scheme.

The Mission was bound to refuse any more applications for Christmas dinners, and would only be able to give about four hundred this year.

A group of men gather outside the Whitechapel Salvation Army Shelter.
The Whitechapel Salvation Army Shelter


Next our representative saw one of the Social Wings at the Salvation Army headquarters in Upper Thames-street – not far from Fresh Wharf.

The officer said that Mr. Mann’s estimate that 90,000 persons were at present unemployed in London was within the mark.

The refuges are being besieged and many have to be nightly turned away.

There is a fair demand for labour in the Bureau, but only such as arises at Christmas-time, when there are many boards to be exhibited and bills distributed.

The distress, our representative was told, has been largely increased by the employers at the docks taking on casuals – men who are generally unmarried and used to common lodging-houses.


On the morning of the 11th the Salvation soldier said he counted in the space of a square quarter of a mile, with Whitechapel church as a centre, no less than 150 homeless persons sleeping as best they could in the streets.

In one coal-shed in that district he found sixty men, women, and children huddled together, shivering too much to sleep.

“I will give you,” said the officer, “a sample of hundreds of cases of distress to be met with in the East-end.

A hard-working, respectable labourer has been out of work for thirteen weeks. He has a wife and two children, who are apprentices, and earn between them 6s. a week. Those six shillings have been all the family have had to live upon – and the rental of their rooms is 6s. 6d. a week, and, of course, that is all in arrears.”

It seems that the Army is at present taking no special steps to cope with the prevailing distress, but will doubtless do so before long.”

A group of homeless men gather in the Salvation Army yard.
Homeless Men In The Salvation Army Yard.


Two days later, on Christmas Eve 1890, the gazette published an account of the distress witnessed by one of its reporters who had undertaken a nighttime ramble around the afflicted district:-

“The account in the Pall Mall Gazette of Monday of the terrible distress in the East-end has already set humane people to inquire for themselves what basis there is for such statements, and how best to mitigate the sufferings of the homeless.

A Mark-lane merchant, having read in the Pall Mall the story of the ninety thousand unemployed, called at this office yesterday to announce his intention of going to see for himself the state of affairs in one part of the East-end, and of distributing small sums of money to any whom he might find homeless.

A representative of the Pall Mall accompanied him and some young friends 0f his in a nocturnal ramble which lasted for a couple of hours.

The statement that had chiefly attracted his attention was that of the Salvation Army officer, who said “he counted in the space of a square quarter of a mile, with Whitechapel Church as a centre, no less than 150 homeless persons sleeping as best they could in the streets. In one coal-shed in that district he found sixty men, women, and children huddled together, shivering too much to sleep.”


In the neighbourhood of Leman-street there is an attempt to meet such distress in the form of an institution where one may have a bed with supper and breakfast for nothing.

So said the courteous superintendent at Leman-street police station.


Well, to state the result of last night’s inquiry, the party met in Whitechapel-road a respectable-looking woman with her child, wandering disconsolate and in tears, without a home, and glad to receive a small sum to pay tor a night’s lodging.

Here, too, a German Jew, who kept a coffee-stall, declared that there were always some people he saw about with no home to go to.

But the hour (it was only a little past midnight) was too early, we were assured by different persons, for seeing things at their worst.


Close to Spitalfields Market an old crippled woman passed who, a policeman on the beat stated, was homeless.

Only on Saturday night last, a bitterly cold night, he had found a middle-aged man sleeping in a tub; and an old woman of seventy-five was discovered almost dead from exposure.



In a foul place called Paternoster-court, near Dorset-street, where one of the horrible murders was committed, people sleep on doorsteps and on stairs – yes, “dozen on ’em,” as a brutal-looking fellow exclaimed who was fortunate enough himself to have a bed.

Cut-throats abound in this squalid region, and we did not tarry in it long.

In another by-street, a gang of young fellows lounged about, who, said a policeman, were ever and again convicted of robbery with violence.


Doubtless many poor creatures are homeless after two or three in the morning, for it is then that, if unable to pay fourpence for a common lodging, they are summarily ejected.

In other common lodging-houses, where old women live, some who can afford it have a bed, whilst the rest sit up over the fire.

One lodging-house of a better class, which no visitor is allowed to enter, was tastefully decorated – for “Christmas ” – as an inmate explained.


How, one may ask, can many poor people be expected to pay 4s. 6d. rental a week, especially for hovels, judging by their external appearance, unfit for the lowest human being to inhabit?

Even the short ramble of last night is enough to convince the sceptical of the distress and starvation in the East-end; and, doubtless, authorities like Mr. Kerwin and the Social wing of the Salvation Army know well of what they speak.”


On 26th December 1890, the gazette reported that firebrand politician John Burns had focused his attention on the problem:-

“Hearing of the deep distress among the dockers, Mr. John Burns went down on Monday to see Mr. Tom Mann, and with him to discuss the best means of relieving it.

He found him full of the municipal workshops idea, “to which, in its proper form,” writes Mr. Burns, “I have no objection; but in the crude form discussed at the London Trades Council a few days back I have, as it is in that form hopelessly impracticable as a means of relieving the present distress.


I suggested to him, as a means of finding food and work for those without either, first, an appeal to the public for funds to provide food for the women and children, to be distributed by the men through their union to prevent waste, fraud, and demoralisation; second, to send a deputation to boards of guardians to urge them to relax the severity with which outdoor relief is generally administered, and to get the consent of the Local Government Board thereto; third, to wait upon the vestries and local boards to urge them to undertake at once such work as clearing the streets of snow, and after that the better cleansing of roads, streets, alleys’ and slums of the filth and garbage always to be found in the poorer districts.


In doing this the example of the Battersea vestry would be followed, which for the past five days has had hundreds of extra men employed in clearing the streets and properly sanding them.

If all the districts of London were to do this 6,000 men at least might at once get work for two or three months.”