On Saturday February the 8th, 1879, The Globe published the following article about conditions in some of London’s worst slums, and in Flower and Dean Street in particular.
Flower and Dean Street was one of the East End’s most notorious thoroughfares at the time of the Jack the Ripper crimes in 1888; and it was, in fact, at one of the lodging houses on Flower and Dean Street that ripper victim Elizabeth Stride was residing at the time of her murder.
The article, although published some nine years before the Whitechapel murders, is of great interest because it provides us with a vivid insight into the area from which Jack the Ripper’s victims was drawn, as it was before the murders made the neighbourhood a byword for vice and villainy.
“To say the least of it, it seems an anomaly that, while every precaution that a wholesome regard for the safety of person and property can suggest is adopted to keep in check the malpractices of thieves and ruffians, we permit them to herd together, and make no objection to their appropriating certain streets and places, where, undisturbed, they may enjoy the fruits of their infamous industry, and hold council, fearless of the ear of honesty, regarding future depredations.
Possibly the system has never been candidly advocated or openly defended when it has been attacked, but taking facts as we find them, it is fair to assume it is one to which the police authorities are not averse.
Nowhere is it better known than at Scotland-yard that these breeding and abiding places for the dangerous classes exist.
ALL OVER LONDON
No quarter of the great metropolis is free from them.
The West-end has its great ruffian nests almost under the shadows of the Houses of Parliament; within a stone’s cast of the Angel at Islington in the north the collection of a crowd is the signal for scores of thieves of the worst stamp to appear on the scene as if by magic.
In the south of London as many professional depredators as would fill Horsemonger-lane Goal might be caught at a single cast of the net in and about the New Cut; whilst London-in-the-East might, if it felt so disposed, produce at a single day’s notice a greater number of blackguards of the pure, home-bred kind than all the rest of the metropolis combined.
THE POLICE KNOW THE THIEVES’ QUARTERS
Place in the hands of a police-inspector of any experience a map of London, and in five minutes, with a lead pencil, he will be able to “spot” every thieves’ quarter within a circuit of three miles of St Paul’s – and a hideously blotched affair that map would be when he had done with it.
A CONVENIENT SYSTEM
It has been urged that it is a convenient system; that since there always must be rogues and robbers amongst us, it is an advantage to keep them separate from honest folk; and that, what perhaps is of scarcely less importance, it simplifies the duties of the policeman. He can make tolerably sure if a street robbery is committed, say, in Southwark, that he will find the individual “wanted,” if not in Mint-street, in Kent-street.
At all events, it does not take very long to investigate the localities mentioned, and in both the robber is well known.
It is of no use casting about for him in that neighbourhood. He is away from home – off into the country probably, until the hunt cools a little.
When he returns – as return he must to his old haunts and his old associates, or how is he to earn a living? – the police will hear of it within a very few hours, and if it still be desirable he can then be captured.
In simpler cases, where the culprit depends on his luck in avoiding identity, the police commonly lay hands on the offender at his accustomed haunt almost before he has regained his breath after running off with the plunder.
There is, of course, an advantage to the public in this, and from such a limited view of the matter to encourage the domiciling of all the thieves of a district in one particular street is thief-catching made easy.
IS THE PRICE TOO HIGH?
But, on the other hand, it is gravely questionable whether it is not an advantage bought at too high a price.
There is comfort in community, and considerable encouragement to continue in the paths of evil if everyone perambulating the same promenade is hail fellow, well met.
Whether a man be honest or a thief, his first purpose is to provide for himself an agreeable maintenance, and genial relaxation when the labour of the day is at an end; and these advantages are secured to the professional depredator when he is permitted to house and neighbour with those of his own calling, and to enjoy family gatherings and pleasant evenings, when business as well as pleasure may be freely discussed.
Besides this, children are born in “thieves’ quarters,” as in all others, and how a child can fail to become a thief when it is shamelessly reared amongst thieves is not easy to understand.
Take one particular example of these thief-preserves.
LONDON’S FOULEST AND MOST DANGEROUS STREET
Within a short distance – certainly not more than a thousand yards – of the heart and centre of the City of London there has existed for the past fifty years, and still exists and flourishes, what is perhaps the foulest and most dangerous street in the whole metropolis.
When one reads occasionally of unfortunate travellers waylaid and robbed, or captured and held to ransom by Italian brigands in their native mountain fastnesses, with pity for the victim is mingled not a little indignation that the constituted authority should not be able and willing to put an end to a state of things so scandalous.
Flower and Dean Street is not a mountain pass, neither is it situated in a wild and isolated part of the country.
It is within a stone’s cast of Spitalfields Parish Church.
It opens out of a broad thoroughfare, and one that from early morning until late at night is alive with vehicular and pedestrian traffic; Commercial Street – that is its name – is, in fact, the main highway between Bishopsgate Street and Whitechapel.
Yet, from the Commercial Street front to the Brick Lane rear, and taking, say, at this spot a square quarter of a mile, may be found as appalling a stronghold of ruffianism and vice as ever disgraced civilisation.
A TANGLE OF LOATHSOME ALLEYS
It is not Flower and Dean Street alone.
There are Thrawl Street and Great and Little Keat Street, and others, all netted together in a tangle of alleys and courts of the worst kind.
THE UGLIEST IS FLOWER AND DEAN STREET
But the ugliest street of all is Flower and Dean Street.
It is scarcely more than a week ago when two respectable men chanced to pass through it at an early hour in the evening, and were set on by a few ruffians infesting the houses. One gentleman was knocked down and robbed, and when his friend ventured to remonstrate he was served in the same way.
It is not the first time that such things have happened in this delectable street by many ascore.
It is notorious in the neighbourhood that, even in broad daylight, it would be long odds against the rash wayfarer who exposed his watch-chain in Flower and Dean Street escaping unmolested.
IT IS WHAT IT IS
It is not a street of merely a few houses.
It takes a couple of minutes to walk through it at a brisk pace, and from top to bottom, and on both sides, it gives asylum to notoriously bad characters.
Its pathway is narrow and dilapidated, its cobbled roadway miry and pestilent.
This much, however, must be said in its favour. It makes no pretence to be other than it is. It does not hypocritically put on a false front of decency in order to lure the unsuspicious stranger.
WRECKED AND ABANDONED HOUSES
The tall old black houses on either side are as utterly wrecked and abandoned-looking as its worst class of inhabitants.
The House-doors- knockerless, paintless, and battered on their lower panels with visitations of hobnailed boots – stand ajar, or, if shut, may easily be opened by pulling the string that dangles outside, and which is connected with an interior latch.
A peep into the passage discloses boards rotten and mud-coloured, and with splintery gaps that would be bad at night time for unwary feet.
Besides this may be seen the dilapidated stair-case that leads to the upper regions, with, perhaps, a glimpse of the dreadful “yard,” with its sights and smells unspeakable.
THE RESIDENTS DO NOT INVITE SCUTINY
The residents of Flower and Dean Street do not invite the scrutiny of the passerby as regards their domestic economy.
As a rule, the parlour windows are boarded up, and the windows are smeared on the inside with some colouring matter, that makes them impenetrable to daylight.
The first impression is that such dreadful-looking places must be uninhabited – that this is a neglected and fast-decaying collection of edifices on which the district surveyor has set his seal as being unfit for human habitation.
And, in truth, in the daytime there is no great amount of life or activity apparent in the place.
VISIT IT AT NIGHT
Here and there may perhaps be seen, thrust out at an upper casement, a close-cropped head, backed with a liberal display of naked shoulders and tattered shirt, or the upper half of a dreadful-looking female, her hair still uproarious from last night’s orgy at the Frying Pan (the title of the public-house at the corner of the next street); but he who would see Flower and Dean Street in its true colours must visit it at night.
In its true colours emphatically, the houses being strangely variegated in hue, and looking particularly hideous on that account in the fitful blink of the lodging-house lamps.
RED, BLUE AND YELLOW LODGING HOUSES
The majority of the dwellings are lodgings, and there are “red” houses and ” blue” houses and “yellow,”so called and known by those who patronise them. A colour is easier to remember than a number, and perhaps one is less likely to make mistakes if driven to seek hasty sanctuary.
The lodging-houses are all duly “registered.”
The fact is in all cases announced on a board nailed above the doorway, no matter how dilapidated and forbidding-looking the domicile may be.
The circumstances of a lodging-house being registered “according to Act of Parliament” is supposed to be a guarantee that its bedrooms are light, airy, and not over-crowded.
THE COST OF A BED
Such pleasant conditions may be obtained in Flower and Dean Street, where a single bed is to be had for fourpence or a double for sevenpence, but the suggestion appears more like a grim joke than sober reality.
Perhaps, however, the dormitories are not so crowded as they otherwise would be because of the lodgers following nocturnal pursuits which engage them until the frustrating dawn.
But they do not all set out “to work” at dusk of evening.
If they do, a great number find easy jobs, and are home early.
From eight to nine o’clock until past midnight the hideous narrow thoroughfare is all alive and alert with men and lads and women and girls, seeking whom they may devour – all excepting those who have recently devoured somebody and are now hilarious from having washed down the meal with strong waters.”