The common lodging houses of the East End of London played a hugely important role in the saga of the Jack the Ripper mystery.
With one exception – that exception being Mary Kelly – all the Whitechapel murders victims were residents of various common lodging houses in the districts; and, in several cases, the reason they were out on the streets on the nights of their murders was that they had been ejected from a common lodging houses because they lacked the meagre sum required to pay for a bed for the night.
Life in the common lodging houses could be tough.
But, the fact that many of the residents spent months, sometimes even years, at the same lodging house meant that they built up a sense of camaraderie with other long-term residents, and. as result, there was a certain amount of community spirit in many of the lodging houses.
NEW YEAR’S EVE IN A COMMON LODGING HOUSE
Of course, the time of year when this spirit of community would come to the fore was over the Christmas period, and, as Christmas passed, and the New Year grew closer, the residents would often celebrate the passing of the old year and the coming of the new in the kitchen of their common lodging house.
On New Year’s Day, 1886, The London Daily News published the following article about how the residents of a Shoreditch common lodging house had spent their New Year’s Eve the night before:-
A NIGHT WITH CHARLEY
“One of the most interesting celebrations of the advent of the New Year was that held in one of the most frequented and locally famous common lodging-houses in the district of Shoreditch.
To the regular frequenters of this place an invitation had been issued to spend “a night with Charley.”
A GUIDING SPIRIT
Charley, otherwise Mr. Charles Powell, of the Church of England Working Men’s Society, has been for some eighteen months past a guiding spirit in introducing and maintaining a spirit of order, temperance, and Christianity amongst the very mixed category of people finding shelter here, and the outcome of his labours has been of the most noteworthy character.
IN THE KITCHEN
The celebration took place in the lodging house kitchen. This is a low but spacious apartment, the ground plan resembling the capital letter L. At either end of the letter is a huge fireplace, well provided with the necessary cooking utensils.
The walls had been freshly washed over with a tint of bluish grey, and they and the ceiling had been most freely and fantastically decorated by the joint labours of the inmates. Tissue paper of all colours formed into festoons hung from above, whilst inscriptions appropriate to the season were displayed on the walls.
The ingenuity shown in the use of the materials was very great, and the outer cases of exploded bonbon crackers had been utilised with great effect.
The place of honour was occupied by a large framed portrait of “Charley,” with an inscription wishing him a happy new year surmounting it.
GUESTS OF BOTH SEXES
Some 120 guests of both sexes were assembled, presenting that wonderful divergence of type and manner which the common lodging-house alone reveals.
There was the middle-aged woman who was eager to impress on all the fact that she had seen better days, and had never expected to welcome a New Year, as she put it, in such a place, but who nevertheless managed to eat a very hearty supper and to derive considerable amusement from the entertainment which followed this repast.
There was the broken-down commercial traveller; who still persisted in retaining this style and title, though his weary day’s tramp round Stratford and Plaistow had been devoted to the sale of a few children’s toys.
There were labourers of all kinds, street vendors, costers and sundry young men whose means of livelihood were, to say the let, problematic.
Yet one and all were as much on their good behaviour as they could possibly be, and at a word from the controlling spirit Charley, they brightened up in a fashion most pleasant to see.
TIME FOR SUPPER
Supper was the first item on the programme, and in a very few minutes, a number of willing hands had erected a range of temporary tables, formed of boards laid on tressels, and covered with strips of clean white calico.
Huge joints of roast beef, with an ample store of potatoes and carrots, were placed on the board and distributed by the aid of volunteer carvers.
Plum pudding followed, and was succeeded in turn by cheese and celery, half a pint of beer being allotted to each guest.
Supper being cleared away, sweets, oranges, and tobacco were handed, round, the Church Sisters from Kilburn taking part in this distribution of good things, the entire cost of which is defrayed by Charley, with the aid of a few friends.
TIME FOR THE MUSIC
Harmony was then the order of the day, the ditties being that curious blending of the comic and the extremely sentimental usual on such occasions.
At half-past eleven, Christmas carols were substituted.
As midnight drew near, the favourite hymn “Bright home of the Saviour” was sung in unison to the tune of “Home sweet home.”
Tune and words seemed to powerfully impress those present, the whole assembly sinking on their knees at a sign from Charly as the hymn progressed.
SING OUT THE OLD RING IN THE NEW
The closing verse was sung, and the singers remained a few moments in deep silence, broken suddenly by the neighbouring church bells announcing the close of the old year.
A short mission service was then read by Charley as a welcome beginning to the New Year, and at its close the inmates retired soberly to rest, each receiving a card as a memento of the occasion.”