Dorset Street, which was the scene of the awful murder of Mary Kelly on 9th November, 1888, had long held a reputation for being one of the poorest and most crime-ridden streets in the Victorian East End of London.
Indeed, numerous reports on the criminal classes that “inhabited” what was widely termed “the worst street in London” can be found in the pages of the 19th-century newspapers.
However, amongst the criminally-inclined residents, there also lived hard-working people who were just trying to survive, feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.
On the afternoon of Sunday, 11th January, 1857, the residents of number 17, Dorset Street were victims of a tragedy that shocked the locality.
The London Evening Standard, on Monday, 12th January, 1857, broke details of the tragedy:-
FALL OF A HOUSE IN SPITALFIELDS
“The greatest possible excitement prevailed this morning and the whole of last night throughout the populous and industrious parish of Christ Church, Spitalfields, in consequence of the following lamentable occurrence, which, unfortunately, was attended with loss of life and serious injury to several persons.
From the particulars obtained on the spot, it appears that in Dorset-street, near the parish church, are a number of extremely old houses, some of which are in a dilapidated condition; amongst the latter was one, numbered 17, in the occupation of not fewer than 16 families, the building being what is termed a double fronted house. The ground- floor was occupied by a family consisting of a Mr. and Mrs. M’Stay and four children.
A TREMENDOUS CRASH
Between two and three o’clock yesterday afternoon the various occupants were thrown into an indescribable state of consternation in consequence of a fearful crash taking place, resembling a clap of thunder.
For a second or so no one in the house could tell the cause, but before any of them had time to reach the door to get to the street the cause of such an unusual noise became manifest, for the lofty stack of chimneys, weighing several tons, and which towered high over the three stories of the premises, fell, and alighting upon the roof, forced it in, and the tremendous weight of bricks and mortar carried away in their descent the floors of two different rooms, until the whole of the debris settled upon the ground floor.
For some time, it was impossible to tell with any degree of accuracy, by those inside, whether an explosion had taken place or the house had fallen, for the volumes of dust sent forth and tho smoke from the chimneys completely obscured from observation any object in any of the rooms.
THE FIRE BRIGADE ARRIVES
Several of the neighbours, on hearing the noise, rushed out of their habitations, and seeing the dust and smoke arising so high into the air, very naturally came to the conclusion that the premises were on fire, and they forthwith dispatched messengers in sundry directions to call the engines, and in a very brief period the Brigade engine attended.
By that time the smoke and dust had in some degree cleared away, when a pitiable scene presented itself, for the rubbish in passing through the different rooms had struck a number of persons, and had seriously injured them; but what was still worse, on the ground floor were perceived a woman and five children, completely buried amidst the ruins.
The cries of the poor creatures for help were very distressing, and a man, named Henry Jenkins, regardless of the danger he ran of the remaining portions of the house falling, rushed in, and by pulling away the rubbish managed to rescue two children, who were nearly suffocated, and almost blinded by the dust from the mortar; these he handed to Police- serjeant Ball, of the H Division, and they were at once taken to the London Hospital.
After some time he also succeeded in getting out a child 15 months old, named Thomas M’Stay, who was frightfully crushed, and appeared lifeless.
DEATH AND INJURY
A medical gentleman having attended, he pronounced the child to be dead.
Another child, named Jane M’Stay, was next extricated from the ruins, but so terribly injured that she is not expected to recover. She was also removed to the London Hospital.
SPECTATORS KEPT AT BAY
Inspector Price, of the H Division, and Inspector Constable, with a strong body of police, at once hastened to the scene of the catastrophe to keep the immense crowd of spectators out of danger; and, at the same time, a messenger was sent to Mr. Pritchard, a builder and surveyor, for the purpose of shoring up the remaining walls of the building.
No time was lost by that gentleman in carrying out the necessary precautions.
Another person was subsequently found to be most terribly injured, viz., the father-in-law of Mrs. M’Stay, who was also removed away to obtain surgical assistance.
The premises in question belong to a Mrs. Knight, and they are sublet to a person named Price, who, in return, lets the various rooms out in separate tenements.
The other lodgers, at least so many as were at home at the time of the disaster, escaped, as is invariably the case in similar accidents, most miraculously.”
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD SUDDENLY ALARMED
The Heywood Advertiser, in its edition of Saturday, 17th January, 1857, gave a few more details:-
About one o’clock p.m. on Sunday, the neighbourhood of Spitalfields was suddenly alarmed by a loud rumbling noise in Dorset-street, almost instantly followed by clouds of dust bursting from the various windows and roof the house at No. 17.
This was succeeded by loud screams for assistance, and then three or four persons rushed from the street door, exclaiming that the roof had fallen in.
Mr. Joseph Price, inspector of lodging houses for the eastern district, was quickly on the spot, accompanied by Sergeant Gillis, H 52, and a body of police.
Great fears were entertained that a number of lives had been sacrificed, as the habitation was known to contain eight families, numbering from twenty-five to thirty adults and children.
A poor sail-maker, named M’Stay, occupying the basement story with his wife and children, was just turning the corner of the street to share their midday meal, when the alarm was given, and he soon learnt the grievous fact that two of his sons, aged eighteen months and three years, were still in the house.
INSPECTOR PRICE GOES IN
Inspector Price, in pursuance of his dangerous duties, forced his way into the apartment on the ground floor, which was nearly filled with bricks and rubbish, while an extensive aperture in one side of the wall made manifest the nature of the accident, for the foundation of the chimney had given way, and brought down the whole stack, four stories in height.
The children were as speedily as possible extricated, in a shockingly mutilated state, but yet alive; they were conveyed to the London Hospital by the police, but one of them, the infant, died on the road, and the other shortly afterwards.
AN OLD MAN’S LUCKY ESCAPE
An old man, named Cuthbert, escaped in a remarkable manner. He was found in the same room, but almost uninjured. He stated that while sitting in his own room, above and near the fire, the flooring sunk beneath his feet, and he with it, through the intervening floors.
All the other families were out of the house, or the loss of life must have been more lamentable.
The place is in a dangerous state, all the floorings aslant, and the walls in a tottering condition, until shored up by Mr. Pritchard, the builder, and the thoroughfare is stopped.
A large number of houses in Bethnal-green are in a dangerous condition, and the officers engaged in carrying out the provisions of the building act are incessantly occupied.”
The inquest into the death of 14-month-old Thomas M’Stay was held at the London Hospital over several days, the concluding proceedings taking place on Tuesday, 20th January, 1857.
The Shoreditch Observer reported on the hearing and the verdict on Saturday, 24th January, 1857:-
“On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. W. Baker, the coroner, resumed the inquiry at the London Hospital respecting the death of Thomas M’Stay, aged 14 months, who was killed by the fall of a stack of chimneys at No. 17, Dorset-street, Spitalfields, Sunday afternoon, the 11th inst.
Mr. Samuel Hill, the district surveyor, and Inspector Price, appointed by the Metropolitan Police Commissioners to survey old buildings, were present to watch the proceedings.
It will be recollected that the building in question was inhabited by sixteen families of the very poorest class of persons, and on the afternoon of Sunday, the 11th inst., about one o’clock, the brickwork of the chimney fell from the third floor to the basement, where the deceased and other children were sitting preparatory to dinner.
The falling debris struck the deceased, who was buried in the ruins. He was rescued and removed to the hospital, where he died shortly after his admission.
After several Witnesses were examined as to the falling of the building, Mr. Samuel Hill, the district surveyor, was called, and proved that the accident was attributable to the improper construction of the chimneys, which had been built without the “ties” for their security.
Mr. Inspector Price, the Government officer, deposed that as soon as the calamity occurred, every possible means were adopted by removing the inmates and making the property secure from further accident s.
The building was under full repair, and in a short time it would be in a perfect state of repair and ready for occupation.
OTHER DANGEROUS BUILDINGS
About 150 houses in the district had been condemned since the passing of the act, and upwards of 2,000 dilapidated buildings had been pulled down by order of the Police Commissioners.
The jury, being satisfied, returned a verdict of accidental death.”