East London At Night

For me, one of the delights of studying the Victorian newspapers in search of information on the Jack the Ripper crimes is the opportunity to glimpse the everyday life of the people of the area at the time of the atrocities.

The fact is that, for many years prior to the onset of the Whitechapel murders, the newspapers had had an almost obsessive need to publish articles that provided their readers with an idea of just how horrendous life in East London was; and, taking into account the fact that most of these articles featured some exaggeration, the vivid imagery that the articles provide us with is truly fascinating.

The following article appeared in The Graphic, on Saturday 12th August, 1871:-

EAST LONDON AT NIGHT

“Much attention has been directed in late years towards this portion of London – its poverty, its misery, its drunkenness, and its other vices. The two former calamities exist to a considerable extent, but how very much of them is owing to the two latter must be evident to anyone who has traversed the streets at night as much as I have.

Of course, any detailed argument on a question of this kind would be impossible in a sketch like this, and, as my personal observations were mostly taken from the surface of things, they are only entitled to a limited value.

Still, from my experience as a resident at the East End for six years, I have a strong feeling that I could prove my case.

OFFICIAL DUTIES IN THE EAST END

Five or six years ago, I undertook certain official duties, a portion of which entailed my visiting, on three nights a week between nine P.M. and six A.m., all the lowest localities of East London.

The range was a wide one; the points to which my inspections were directed extended from the City on one side to Shoreditch, Wapping, Bow, and Poplar in different directions on the other, of course, the delightful intervening neighbourhoods of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Ratcliff, and Stepney.

The emolument I received was too small to allow of riding, indeed, for four years I only used a cab twice; the time of night, or rather morning, generally excluded any other kind of conveyance.

ON FOOT BY NIGHT

So I travelled on foot, and my un-accompanied night-walk generally extended to a distance of from twelve to twenty miles.

In the early mornings, my circuit was still enough, but London takes a long time to quiet down into rest; indeed, there are some parts which may be said to be never in quietude, Whitechapel, for instance, where the latest revellers are hardly at peace before the early market business begins.

But very often my walk was lonely enough, and round the dock walls at Wapping and in East Smithfield, the passengers I met in the dark winter mornings were “few and far between,” and most of these appeared to be of a character which it would be charity to call doubtful.

But in summer time my attention was often directed to wayfarers of a more sedentary character; notwithstanding the opposition of the police, the number of men, women, and, alas, children, who during the warmer months spend the whole night in the open air would astonish some people; and, I am sure, for I have proved it, that many of them would not go indoors if they could, even at a very slight expense.

An illustration showing homeless people in Whitechapel in 1888.
The Homeless of Whitechapel. From The Illustrated London News, 13th October 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.

THE DANGERS OF THE DISTRICT

Before commencing my duties, I was warned by many people of the dangers of assault and robbery, which would be incurred by such continual night walks. And there seemed to be some reason in what they said.

Garotting and other forms of violence were rife enough at the time; and, although in the case of a respectably dressed person traversing the East End occasionally, the chances of his
being robbed may be infinitesimally small, still the hazard was certainly increased by the continuous frequency of my walks and the low neighbourhood in which they were exclusively taken.

However, all these fears on my behalf proved to be groundless; for during four years I never met with any mishap of consequence. I was constantly disgusted and annoyed, frequently insulted, but, with one or two trifling exceptions, I never had to resist real violence.

On more than one occasion I was witness to robberies which I was unable to prevent, but, in both cases, I believe the sufferers were the worse for drink.

And this is, in fact, the real secret of the matter; for I verily believe that in nine out of ten of the street robberies, advantage is taken of intoxicated or semi-intoxicated men.

A man being garroted by a gang of ruffians.
A Man Is Garroted. From The Illustrated Police News, 5th May 1894. Copyright, The British Library Board.

ADVICE FROM A POLICE OFFICER

An experienced police officer gave me this advice:- “When the streets at night are pretty clear of vehicles always walk in the roadway, especially when you pass the ends of courts; if you want refreshment never go into any of the low East End public-houses after nine or ten o’clock. If you do this and never show any watch-chain or jewellery, you will always be safe enough; but above all never carry any weapon, as you might be provoked to use it under circumstances which would not warrant such a mode of defence.”

So I thought it best to go upon the old principle, “Cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator,” [the empty-handed traveller sings before the robber] and never carried or wore anything worth stealing; also taking care that my dress was obscure enough to make any assault on me appear scarcely worth the risk.

AN UNFOUNDED FEAR

I was also told that a very customary dodge, in the early hours of the morning, when all the shops were closed, was to ask for tobacco, and then to take advantage of the victim’s unguarded position to commit a robbery.

Well, I found this also was an unfounded fear; for I have several times been accosted in this way and shared my pouch with sufficiently rough customers, and I never found it end in mischief.

But I always observed due caution, and never failed, if necessary, to tell my friend to stand clear of me.

So much for the over-rated dangers of the East of London at night.

A PLEASURE TAKING PEOPLE

The “East Enders” are certainly, as a rule, a pleasure-taking people.

During the winter season, the theatres and singing and dancing-halls are crowded.

I have often seen them turn out, and to judge from their appearance, nine out of ten of the audience were in the depth of indigence, and had no right, looking at the constant claims of poverty in these districts, to indulge in such amusements.

I scarcely know a sadder sight to any thoughtful mind than the egress of “roughs,” male and female, from these places of recreation.

Crowds leaving the Pavilion Theatre.
People Leaving The Pavilion Theatre.

DRUNKENNESS AND THE DERBY

Again, at the time of the Derby, the return of vans filled with those who had been to the race, was always a scene of Bacchanalian uproar, which I have often noticed with pain; not that one would not sympathise with the enjoyment of the people if it were possible, but seeing what I have seen, and hearing what I have heard under these circumstances, there was room for nothing but sorrow.

The races had no more to do with it than the Pyramids; it was the public-houses en route that did the mischief.

During the summer many who in the winter had been dependent on parochial relief were in comparatively easy circumstances.

Anyone might imagine that these people would abstain from any boisterous pleasure excursions. No; these are the very people who “make night hideous” with their yells on return from Epping Forest, Woolwich Gardens, and other East End places of amusement.

Many a poor and respectable man – not one of your pet “working men” mark! but a needy clerk on perhaps a 100l a year – has his rest disturbed by the very fellows who he has helped to keep in the winter.

He feels bitterly enough that he cannot afford his wife and children such expensive excursions.

THE DEMON DRINK

The one giant evil of East London is drink: the more a man earns the more he drinks, and his family is little the better.

In the very sorest times of distress, I believe it is true that public-house receipts did a little fall off, but I never saw much difference in the wretched gangs who are turned out at closing time, or in the amount of rollicking jollity in the streets.

As a resident in the district, I was perfectly eaten up by poor-rates, which I could ill afford to pay, and all this glorification of inebriety in every district I visited seemed a perfect insult to my own privations.

A group of people drinking outside a pub.
Victorian Drinkers Outside A Beer Shop on Whitechapel Road.

RATCLIFF HIGHWAY AND WAPPING

The maritime excesses of Ratcliff Highway and Wapping are of a somewhat different character, and, if there can be degrees in immorality, perhaps more excusable; at all events, they are more amusing than the beer-besotted revellings of the “British workman.”

The dissipations of the sailor are a well-worn theme, but as far as my experience of them goes, the greater part of the victims’ were foreign sailors; and, from inquiries I made, I believe that the “Sailors’ Home,” and other beneficent institutions of this kind, have accomplished much good.

Although I have been told in tones of regret that “the Highway’ is not what it used to be,” still it is quite lively enough from midnight until about two or three o’clock in the morning.

There is a narrow street, called “Bluegate Fields,” leading out of Ratcliff Highway into the Back Lane, Shadwell, which bears about as bad a reputation as any street in London.

They used to say that no policeman was ever allowed to go down this street alone, and I believe there was some truth in the story.

I have seen sights in this street in the early summer mornings which will not bear description; the dancing in the open-air in broad daylight would sometimes have been quite worthy of the most degraded savages of Polynesia.

THE BEAUTIES OF WHITECHAPEL

And yet, with all its drunkenness and dissipation, East London, notwithstanding what has been called its “dead level of brick and mortar meanness,” is not wanting in beauties, at least at night and in the early morning.

I will say nothing of the Tower and its surroundings, so often extolled, but would speak of less well-known scenes.

There are few more picturesque town views than that of Whitechapel, looking eastward from Aldgate, just as the sun is rising.

The houses are many of them old and gabled, and all of a diversified character, giving a most varied street-line: and, in the clear morning light, you can see nearly a mile down the broad open road; even Whitechapel church having a beauty of its own.

The bridges over the dock entrances to the river in Wapping and Shadwell are also interesting scenes of still life in the earliest twilight portion of the twenty-four hours.

The involved tracery of the masts and rigging stands out against the clear sky with a vividness which would puzzle a good artist to do justice to; and the reflection of the lights from the opposite side of the river and from the shipping at anchor struggle for pre-eminence with the early dawn.

BRICK LANE AND HIGH STREET POPLAR

For those who enjoy the somewhat grotesque scenes presented by a great accumulation of men, women and children, most of them intent upon marketing, and others on a critical survey of the bargains made, I would recommend Brick Lane, Spitalfields, High Street, Poplar, and one or two other frequented thoroughfares, about nine or ten on a Saturday evening.

But few vehicles are passing, and the whole roadway is crowded, the pavement being lined with stalls and costermongers’ barrows.

The noise of the cries is deafening, and the uproar and confusion are enough to bewilder both buyer and seller.

But it seems as if the people enjoyed it, and the shopkeepers do not complain.

A view along Brick lane.
Brick Lane, Whitechapel, 1900.

FEW PEOPLE WOULD LIVE HERE

Few would ever live in the East End of London, who were not compelled to do so. There is one charm which it has for some people, who would rather “reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

If you can only make noise enough you need not fill any very elevated position to be one of the chief men of your district.

The rich manufacturers and shipowners, as a rule, live away, and many indeed of the best shopkeepers.

This is not one of the least evils that affects the East End; thus, like Ireland, this poorest region of London suffers too from “absenteeism.”