The County Council And Castle Alley

One of the big problems that confronted and frustrated the police in their hunt for Jack the Ripper, was the fact that the murders were occurring in an area that was made up of lots of narrow unlit passageways and alleyways that enabled the Whitechapel murderer to commit his crimes and then leave the scene of his crimes unobserved.

Although the riper murders shone the light of public scrutiny into these thoroughfares, the movement to change the layout of the area had been underway for many years prior to 1888, and efforts to improve the district would continue for many years after.


In July, 1889, Alice McKenzie was murdered in Castle Alley, a dark and dismal snickleway that led off Whitechapel High Street.

The narrowness and overall dismalness of this alley had, for several years prior, been the subject of much comment in the local press, and this latest Whitechapel murder led to alls for the local auhority to “do something” about its condition.

A policeman finds the body of Alice McKenzie.
From The Penny Illustrated Paper, July 27th 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


However, by 1894, nothing had been done, and, during a meeting of the London County Council, held in April, 1894, the matter of widening Castle Ally was again broached.

The East London Observer carried the following report of the proceeding in its issue of Saturday, 14th April, 1894:-

“On Tuesday last, the Council considered the following report and recommendation brought up by the Improvements Committee respecting Castle-alley, Whitechapel:-

“We have had before us an application from the Whitechapel District Board for a contribution of half the cost of a proposed widening of Castle-alley, which is a narrow thoroughfare connecting Whitechapel High Street and Wentworth-street.


For some part of its length Castle-alley has a width of 31 feet, but for a distance of 59 feet from its junction with Whitechapel High-street, the thoroughfare becomes merely a narrow footway, partly covered in, and only 3 feet 6 inches wide.

The proposition is to make this footway open to the sky and to increase the width to 10 feet, at an estimated cost of £2,000, a sum which we consider reasonable.

An illustration showing the entrance to Castle Alley.
Castle Alley From Whitechapel High Street. From The Penny Illustrated Paper. July 27th 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The District Board states that it is impossible to give greater width than 10 feet, as on the eastern side of the alley, the side which would have to be set back, there is a railway blow-hole.

It is to be regretted that a greater width than 10 feet cannot be obtained, but we think that even that width would be such an improvement upon the present state of things that the Council would do well to assist the District Board with a contribution.


The entrances to the public baths and washhouses and to the Old Castle-street Board School are in Castle-alley, and these tend to increase the traffic from Whitechapel High-street.

The District Board states that the traffic is increasing, and that complaints are constantly made of the condition of the narrow portion of the alley.


We recommend – ‘That subject to an estimate being submitted to the Council by the Finance Committee required by the statute, the Council do contribute, on the usual conditions, one-half of the net cost of widening Castle-alley, as shown upon the plan forwarded by the Whitechapel District Board, such contribution not to exceed the sum of £1,000.'”


Mr. Westacott (St. Pancras), had given notice to oppose the recommendation, and he accordingly proceeded to move:- “That it be referred back for further consideration.”

He said that he did so because this proposed improvement was entirely a local one, and the district ought to bear the whole cost.

It could not be said to be at all of a metropolitan character, and the general body of ratepayers ought not to be called contribute towards it.

The policy of the Council had always been to refuse to assist such local improvements, and he hoped that policy would not be departed from.


Mr. Cornwall (Fulham) seconded the motion, and said that, time after time, similar improvements had been before the Council and had failed to get any contribution because of their being of a strictly local character.

Fulham had suffered in this respect among others, and he saw no reason why Whitechapel should be an exception to the rule.


Mr. Hollington (Mile End) remarked that if there ever was a metropolitan Improvement this was one.

The District Board said that they could not make a roadway through to meet the road made some years ago by the Metropolitan Board Works, because of a blow hole for the underground railway.

There was a large Board School and baths and warehouses in Castle-alley, which caused considerable traffic.


Mr. Thomas Catmur (Whitechapel), who has taken particular trouble in regard to this much-needed improvement, said that he thought perhaps the Council would like to hear from him, as the representative of the district.

It was quite clear that the mover and seconder of the motion to refer this recommendation back, did not quite understand the matter.

This thoroughfare, Castle-alley, led from the busiest part of High-street, Whitechapel, through Wentworth-street into Commercial-street.


There were other like thoroughfares running from the High-street into Hounsditch, and persons desirous of going north-west or north-east used these comparatively quiet streets to save time.

The District Board had been negotiating with the railway authorities, but could not get the blow-hole or ventilator removed.

So, at last, as they could not do all that they wanted to do, they resolved to do what they could, and convert this court into an open paved way, some ten feet wide.

He had been on the Improvements Committee for two years, and all that time it had been their policy, continued by the Council, to encourage local authorities to carry out these small improvements.


He was not going to parade the poverty of Whitechapel before the Council, but he might remind poor members that it was not a rich district, and their rates were very high.

He felt confident that the Council would generously adopt the report of the Committee.

Upon a show of hands, the motion to refer it back was lost by a large majority, and the recommendation of the Committee was adopted.”