What is it about the East End of London that makes it so special?
As someone who has been leading tours around the area now since 1982, I have seen the East End in all its various incarnations and, I have to say, it never ceases to amaze me and intrigue me.
When I began the Jack the Ripper Tour I used to start at Tower Hill and, in those days, the area got rougher and rougher the further in to it you went. I also used to finish the walk over at the Grave Maurice next to Whitechapel Underground Station.
So the our was quite a hike.
Once passed Mitre Square, you really began to feel that the streets were changing. I used to joke – as we crossed the boundary between the City of London and the East End, as we went over Middlesex Street – that you could tell you were leaving the wealthy Square Mile of the City and entering the East End because the streets suddenly changed from spotlessly clean to being strewn with rubbish.
Then, as we passed the bulk of the Model Dwellings in Goulston Street, in the doorway of which Jack the Ripper’s only clue was discovered, a genuine feeling of menace fell across the streets. At the time the dwellings, which are now flats, were mostly derelict and gave off a truly creepy feeling.
There were also several slaughter houses in the area then, so, on certain times, a foul stench would assail your nostrils as you made your way through the streets.
Then, as the walk arrived on Commercial Street, we’d encounter the prostitutes plying their trade up and down the road, much as their Victorian counterparts had done almost a hundred years before them.
There was a discreet standing deal between them and the then landlord of the Ten Bells pub that they could use his toilets to freshen up as and when the need arose!
The area really was edgy back then. Of course, today it thrives on being nouveau-edgy and is popular with an arty crowd and is also seen and the scene for nights out.
There’s no doubt that the area has improved a great deal in the last 31 years. Streets that, back then, were derelict have now been gentrified. Pubs where the likes of the Krays once held court have either been tarted up to attract far more upmarket type than they once did, or else have been converted into Indian restaurants.
It is, and always has been, a great area.
But every so often, as I lead a Jack the Ripper tour through it, I find myself rounding a corner and remembering a, now vanished, aspect of its past and I found myself getting somewhat nostalgic about the bad old days. I guess I’m getting old!