London’s Murder Streets

On February 6th, 1902 the following article, which took a close look at some of London’s most notorious streets, appeared in Pearson’s Weekly.

Interestingly, the article began with a jaunt through Dorset Street, which, at the time, had a dreadful reputation for vice and villainy, one not helped by the fact that a number of murders had taken place in it since the murder of Jack the Ripper victim Mary Kelly in November, 1888.

The article read:-


Meandering amid the swarming squalor of Spitalfields are many courts and alleys bearing a more or less evil reputation, but there is not one that can, to use a colloquialism, ” hold a candle” to Dorset Street.

“Murder Alley” is its local nickname.

A narrow, frowsy, squalid thoroughfare, ill-lighted and badly-paved; its very aspect, even to one ignorant of its history, has something sinister pertaining to it.

Chance pedestrians fight shy of it, instinctively. The police patrol it in couples. And well they may; for Dorset Street is dangerous.

A sketch showing Dorset Street.
Dorset Street, Spitalfeilds. From Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 2nd June 1901. Copyright The British Library Board.


To every other house is attached some grim legend of crime done or attempted.

Not a few boast of more than one actual murder committed within their walls; as, for instance, No. 26, where on November 9th 1888, Mary Jane Kelly was done to death, under circumstances of well-nigh inconceivable ferocity, by the homicidal maniac known to the world as “Jack the Ripper.”

This happened in a back room on the ground floor.


In the room above it, only a few months back, a woman, Kate Marshall, by name, just released from a long term of imprisonment, wantonly stabbed to the heart a sister who had taken her in, sheltered and befriended her.

A few yards further down the street is the common lodging-house wherein, last summer, a woman was butchered and mutilated by some man unknown.

On the opposite side of the road is a grimy-windowed hovel whose occupants seem rather proud of the fact that three separate murders have been committed there.

They will ruefully admit, however, on being pressed, that theirs were just ordinary commonplace ones; and in nowise equal, so far as dramatic interest goes, to those perpetrated at No. 26.

A view along Dorset Street.
Dorset Street, Spitalfields


Burton Crescent, so far as outward appearances go, is the exact antithesis of Dorset Street.

The houses are emblematic of stolid, heavy, middle-class respectability.

Yet the criminologist will tell you that some of the most mysterious and sensational crimes that have ever startled the Metropolis have been committed hereabouts.

Two, indeed, have become historical in criminal annals.


Just prior to Christmas, 1878, Mrs. Rachael Samuel, a well-to-do widow, living alone, was murdered at dead of night by an unknown assassin, who vanished and left no trace behind. Nothing whatever was removed from the house, although the victim wore much valuable jewellery, and a large sum in gold and notes lay ready to hand on the mantelpiece.

Wild theories were bruited abroad at the time. It was even hinted that the deceased woman was a Nihilist spy, and the crime the outcome of political vengeance. But no actual solution of the mystery was ever arrived at.


The other case was similar.

A woman named Mary Ann Yates retired to rest alone on the night of March 9th 1884, and next morning was found dead and cold with two wounds in her throat.

There was no possibility of suicide. No robbery was perpetrated. The chain on the front door, the locks and bolts, even the window catches, were all intact, nor did any of the other occupants of the house hear any unusual noise during the night.

Silently, swiftly, surely, the assassin bad done his dreadful work; obtaining access to his victim’s chamber, none knew how; and vanished as mysteriously as he came, no one knew whither.


In Woolwich, not far from the pier-head, is a street of ramshackle hovels, and the very lowest class of common lodging-houses, which has been known almost from time immemorial by the unflattering appellation of the “Dusthole.”

Doubtless, it possesses some other name, but it is doubtful if one in ten, even among those familiar with the locality, could tell offhand what that name is.

To the “Dusthole” migrates all that is vilest and worst, most helpless and most hopeless, from all the surrounding slums.

At one time murder was of such frequent occurrence there, that it was regarded as a mere common-place incident.

Even now a respectable person would incur grave risk in venturing there after dark.

To the military it is “out of bounds,” and strong pickets are stationed at each end to keep them from entering.

Once, and once only, was there found a policeman foolish enough to contravene the order which decrees that no officer shall patrol the street by night unaccompanied by a comrade; and he was set upon and beaten to death in pure wantonness, ere he had gone fifty yards.


“Don’t be afraid,” remarked a judge to a witness in a recent case, “you can’t take away the character of Stamford Street.”

The thoroughfare alluded to, situated on the south side of the Thames, and connecting the Blackfriars and Waterloo Roads, is a busy one, and to all outward appearance respectable enough.

But the secret records of Scotland Yard, if they could be produced, would more than justify the learned judge’s scathing commentary.

Stamford Street would be as thronged by night as by day, were it given to ghosts to walk, for murders well-nigh innumerable have been perpetrated therein.


In a house here, Neil Cream, the poisoner, committed the double murder – one of a long series – which sent him to the gallows.

A little further along, is a small unkempt-looking building, within whose walls no fewer than five persons have been done to death.


In the same district is Oakley Street, with a long series of capital crimes to its credit; the last case being that in which a seventeen-year-old Hooligan, named D’Arcy went up to a passer-by in broad daylight, demanded twopence for a pint of beer, and on being met with a refusal stabbed the speaker to the heart.

Even the denizens in the neighbourhood keep clear of Oakley Street when fogs prevail and after darkness sets in.


It is not, however, in the poorer districts of London, alone, that “Murder Streets” are found.

Park Lane is aristocratic enough to satisfy the most fastidious taste; yet it has half-a-score of murders to its credit, of which the best remembered is the butchery in April, 1872, of Madame Riel by Marguerite Dizblanc.


Harley Street, again, the “Park Lane of the medical profession,” could tell strange tales if walls could speak.

Maggie Clifford met her death here, and handsome Harry Conyers – two strange tragedies that stirred London deeply at the time.


Undoubtedly, however, London’s murder thoroughfare par excellence is St. George’s Street, E., better known to fame by its old name of Ratcliff Highway.

In one single house there – originally, and for many years, a Chinese opium den and gambling club – over twenty murders are known to have been perpetrated.

During the five years ending with 1870, more than a thousand serious crimes were reported to the police from this district, of which number thirty-three were murders, while no fewer than 128 were classified under the heading of  “attempted murder.”


Those were the “good old days,” when the “Highway” presented a scene of coarse debauchery, which was probably unique in Europe.

At that time the dance-halls, the foreign cafes, the “gaffs” and the opium houses, constituted together one of the sights of the Metropolis to view, which strangers were taken to as a matter of course, much as they were to St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey.

A favourite show place was “The White Swan,” known far and wide by its sobriquet of “Paddy’s Goose,” for years the uproarious rendezvous of half the cut-throats and thieves of East London.


Hard by was “Tiger Bay,” a narrow cul de sac, deriving its name from the fierce character of its denizens, and every one of whom would have deemed themselves eternally disgraced if they let the casual stranger in their midst depart without having heaved the customary “‘arf a brick” at him.

It was in Ratcliff Highway, it will be remembered, that the ruffian Williams butchered two entire families within a few days; and in a disused cellar, beneath the bed of the river, there were discovered, some years back, the skeletons of seven men believed to have been those of foreign seamen who had been drugged, robbed, murdered, and then hidden away there in place of being pitched into the Thames.”