Street Lighting In The East End

As the Whitechapel murders intensified, along with the fear and panic that accompanied the aftermath of each atrocity, more and more attention was paid to the part played by the district in which the crimes were occurring in facilitating the perpetrator in the commission of his crimes and in aiding his escape afterwards.

One thing that was attracting an awful lot of comment by October, 1888, was the fact that the lighting in many of the streets in Whitechapel and Spitalfields was virtually none-existant.

In early October, 1888, the Whitechapel Board of Works passed a motion demanding that Sir Charles Warren, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, increase the number of police officers in the area.

Warren responded by demanding that the Board of Works improve the lighting in the area in order to enable his men to better police the district by night.

The problem with both arguments – the lack of policing and the lack of adequate street lighting – was that both of them cost money, and many parts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields were not exactly in a position to invest in either amenity.

On Saturday, 6th October, 1888, The London Daily News published the following article which took an in-depth look at the dangers posed to the local residents by the lack of lighting:-


“Resolved, that this Board regards with horror and alarm the several atrocious murders recently perpetrated within the district of Whitechapel and its vicinity, and calls upon Sir Charles Warren so to regulate and strengthen the police force in the neighbourhood as to guard against any repetition of such atrocities,”

“Go to,” adroitly retorts Sir Charles Warren, “Look to your lamps. The purlieus about Whitechapel are very imperfectly lighted, and the darkness is an all-important assistant to crime.”

There can be no doubt in the mind of anybody who knows the “purlieus of Whitechapel” that the Commissioner has fairly scored one against the Whitechapel District Board of Works.


“You are decidedly of the opinion, then,” was a question addressed to Chief Inspector West, “that if your division were generally better lighted it would tend materially to render many forms of crime more difficult and the capture of criminals more easy? ”

“Most certainly,” was the ready rejoinder. “Look even at this Commercial-street. It has always appeared to me to be very insufficiently lighted – a broad and important thoroughfare like this. It is none too brilliant now. Lying just off it there are some of the lowest of lodging house’s, and you can see how easy it must be for rough characters to snatch from the persons passing along and rush off into their dens in the darkness with very little chance of their being identified or followed.

But wait until the few shops are closed, and the public house lights are put out, and see then how wretchedly the street is lighted, and what opportunities there are for all sorts of mischief to go on.”

An image of Commercial Street filled with horse drawn carts and carriages.
A view Along Commercial Street. The Britannia Pub, On The Corner Of Dorset Street Is To The Left.


Looking up this main thoroughfare, it is impossible to deny that there is much force in what the officer says, and turning into the minor streets and lanes in the neighbourhood the opportunities afforded by the murky condition of the streets for the perpetration of crimes of violence are very apparent.

Put out the public-house lamps at twelve o’clock, and shut up one or two little shops, and you have – for instance, in Fleur-de-Lys-street – a dismal little lane suggestive of almost anything bad.

Obscure thoroughfares like Elder-street, Quaker-street, Blossom-street are all of them open to the same criticism, and a very little exploration will convince anybody that in most of them there are deeper depths of gloom, affording really startling facilities for vice and crime.


“Look here, sir,” said an anxious and despondent woman to the officer who was looking round one of these murky lanes last evening, “We may all be murdered here any night. This door’s open all night long. People may get down in the cellar or out in the back yard, or up the staircases, and none of us can prevent ’em.”

The house passage widened out into a sort of washhouse, and behind this was a very nasty yard, all in utter darkness.


The District Board of Works say, and reasonably enough, of course, that they cannot be held responsible for this. It is the landlord’s affair.

But as a matter of notorious fact, in all the poorer quarters of London, the landlords do not look to the security of their tenement passages and backyards, and cannot be made to do so.

And, it is a fact which certainly seems to afford a strong reason why at least the actual streets should be well lighted.

In many cases, however, not only is the lighting of the streets -very insufficient, either for comfort or security, but yards , for which the authorities are certainly responsible are entirely neglected.


Take as an illustration of this Pope’s Head-court in Quaker-street.

It opens from the street by a public passage, and the yard itself is in utter darkness. The lodgers in an adjacent public-house have a way to it by a back gate.

Seen at any rate by night it has the appearance of a place specially planned for deeds of crime and vice, and the unfortunate people who have to grope their way to their rooms through the dirt and darkness are loud in their complaints.

“Been here six years,” said a rough-looking occupant of a room in the court, “and never had no key, and I never had the front door locked. Look at that staircase leading up to that place there – anybody may get up them, and do just what they like. I have begged the landlord to give us a lock on the door, and a key. But not he; he takes no notice of us, and he don’t care a curse whether we gets murdered or not.”

The lighting and cleansing, at least of this court, seem to be the work of the District Board, and the circumstances under which this nasty little retreat was found – quite incidentally in the course of an inspection of the street – certainly suggested the probability that many others of a similar character might have been found by further search in the same neighbourhood.

Some of the courts and streets inspected in this poor neighbourhood were very fairly lighted, but every here and there one was found in which apparently the greatest economy of lamp-lighting had been practised, in consideration of the fact that the flaring lights of public houses sufficiently supplemented the street lamps up till midnight.


After midnight, however, such streets are terribly gloomy.

Let anyone go down Spital-street, for instance, after twelve o’clock at night, and, say whether throat-cutting and “snatching” and general vice are not suggested by the murky darkness of the locality.

From there go on to Buxton-street and thence into Code-street-not only wretchedly lighted, but ankle-deep in mud, by the way.

A sketch of Dorset Street.
An Illustration Of Dorset Street Copyright, The British Library Board.


These are in the immediate neighbourhood of Hanbury-street, which is itself for the most part very poorly lighted.

In this street, it will be remembered, it has already been shown that large numbers of the houses are let out in tenements, and the street doors and passages are open all night long.

The terror of many of the people at the time that murder was found out in one of these houses was intense.

Said one woman, “There are unlocked cellars down under these houses, and the yards are all open, and we may any of us be murdered in our beds.”

A photograph showing Hanbury Street.
Hanbury Street As It Was


Last night, as a small party of inspection moved about the neighbourhood, there were abundant indications that this terror bad by no means subsided.

Again and again, appeal was made that something should be done for their greater safety, and the general anxiety and sense of insecurity must unquestionably have been greatly intensified by the unsatisfactory lighting if the streets.

“When this public-house is shut up,” said the police inspector, “how could I possibly make out anything going on a few yards off.”

The lamps, it may be, are not too far apart, but they are feeble flickering things wholly behind the times.


Now, it must not be supposed that we are singling out the Whitechapel district for especial censure. Much of the evil character of Whitechapel as a region of slums and filth and squalor is purely a matter of tradition. It may have been true of it a generation ago, but it is true no longer as regards by far the greater part of the district at least.

In lighting and cleansing ard general management, Whitechapel is at least on an equality with localities in the south and north, and even in many parts of the west.

But there are 70,00 people here, and, among them, a police sergeant observed last night that he had in the district assigned to him no less than 6,000 residents in common lodging houses.

Of course, they will include a serious proportion of the criminal and cadger class, and although lighting and patrolling that might be sufficient elsewhere, it may very well be wholly insufficient among a population like this.


Having regard to the character of the population, Sir Charles Warren says unequivocally that the neighbourhood is very imperfectly lighted, and that the darkness is an important assistant to crime.

The District Board of Works will, we understand, shortly have the Commissioner’s letter under consideration, and the reply they may be expected to make is that they do not increase their lamps for precisely the same reason that Sir Charles Warren does not increase the number of his men. Lamps, like policemen, cost money, and the lighting of Whitechapel cannot be rendered more brilliant without a serious addiction to the rates.

Roughly speaking, every street lamp represents a hundred pounds capitalised. That is to say, the annual maintenance of a lamp costs about the interest of 100l, and altogether the lighting of the entire district costs in round figures 6,000l, a year.

It is a good round sum no doubt, but if it is really true that an increase of light would tend decidedly to the suppression of crime it seems very probable that the addition of even another 5,000l and the doubling of the light would be a good investment.

But a good deal less than this-would effect a great improvement in the safety and comfort of thousands of people, and very much the same may be said of many other large districts of London.


At no very distant date, it may be that science and public spirit may combine to banish darkness altogether. Science, indeed, is quite ready to undertake the business off-hand, and to pour over any section of London such a blaze of light that slums and passages and back yards can no longer give shelter to deeds of darkness.

But funds, alas are not yet forthcoming. As yet we prefer to spend our money in providing plunder for thieves, and in maintaining them when we have caught them, in spite of all the difficulties of darkness.

No doubt we shall be wiser someday, but an intelligent comprehension of these matters is like the revolution of electric lighting – a matter of slow and gradual progress.”