The women of East London in the late 19th century were a hardy bunch. Of that there can be little doubt. Indeed, the daily battle they were forced to fight in order for, not just themselves but often their children and husbands, to survive was, to say the least an epic one.
So, today, I thought I’d pay tribute to some of those long ago citizenesses by focussing, quite literally, on those who we can still remember from old photographs that were taken of them in the closing years of the 19th century and the opening years of the 20th century.
1. INSIDE A COMMON LODGING HOUSE KITCHEN
The majority of Jack the Ripper’s victims led transitory existences moving between the various Common Lodging Houses of Spitalfields. This photograph shows the interior of the Women’s Kitchen inside one such Common Lodging House. This one seems yo have been a particularly orderly one, whereas, if the press and police reports are to be believed the majority in the area were more sordid and decrepit than this one would suggest!
2. OUTSIDE THEIR HOUSES
People often used to gather on the pavements outside their homes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, the air inside some of the East End residences, inside which overcrowding was endemic must have, at times become absolutely stifling. However, as people sat outside, gossiping taking in the surroundings, they never knew when, or if, a passing photographer might decide to set up his cumbersome equipment and ask them to keep still for a few minutes whilst he recorded their evening sojourns for posterity!
3. THE WORST STREET IN LONDON
Mary Kelly, who many believe was the last victim of Jack the Ripper, was murdered in Miller’s Court on the 9th November 1888. The court itself was situated off Dorset Street, which used to run off the main thoroughfare of Commercial Street. Dorset Street stood, more or less, opposite the church of Christchurch Spitalfields, which is still a striking local landmark, just as it was in 1888. This photograph, taken in the early 20th century looks along Dorset Street, towards Commercial Street. Again, the women pictured seem to be enjoying a respite from the cramped conditions inside the residences that lined what was often described as “The Worst Street in London.”
4. RELAXING IN THE STREET
This image, shows Green Dragon Yard, one of the many tucked away thoroughfares that were dotted all over the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the houses themselves have long since gone, the Yard itself still exists, albeit it is now closed to public access. It passes from Old Montague Street to Whitechapel Road and it emerges onto the latter opposite the site of St Mary’s Church, the tower of which can be glimpsed in the right background of the photo. Again, we see a group of long ago residents gathered outside their properties, chatting and relaxing on some distant forgotten evening. I wonder what they would make of the fact that people all over the World would be looking at them a hundred and more years into the future?
5. STEP CLEANERS
People did tend to take great pride in their residences, no matter how squalid we might consider them to have been by today’s standards. One thing that is often commented on by the journalists and social commentators, who made the streets of London and her people their niche of expertise, is how women would often be seen scrubbing the steps that led into their properties. Mind you, when you consider that the City was, quite literally, a horse powered City and how filthy the pavements on the main thoroughfares would no doubt have been, you can just imagine how grubby the front steps of the houses could so easily become. In this photo, a group of servants scrub the front step of a property, although, I have to say, only one of them appears to be working. The lady on the right seems more concerned with the picking something off her companions shoulder!
Well, there you have it. Groups of former female residents of London whose images were captured for posterity. And, although there can be little doubt that a certain amount of staging the photographs was indulged in by the passing photographers, we are left with a wonderful social record of people and places that have long since vanished from the face of the earth.
Of course, we can glean nothing of their everyday existences – their worries, their sorrows, their hardships – by simply looking at images of them. I’m often left wondering what comments they made to each other as the photographer asked them to keep still whilst he took the photograph? I wonder what they were talking about in the hour or so before the photos were taken, and what they said to each other once their images had been recorded for posterity?
Sadly, we’ll never know. Yet, these wonderful old images, managed to capture frozen moments in time and have left us with an idea at least of some of those people who lived in the streets and the houses that we are able to walk along and past today. I wonder what they would have made of our modern age?