The Despair Of Spitalfields

On Saturday, December 20th, 1924, the following article appeared in The Sphere in which the author, Thomas Burke, took readers on a nighttime wander around the streets of Spitalfields.

In the introduction, the editor explained that, for the subject of the article:-“Mr. Burke has taken the region of Spitalfields, which probably few of our readers know at first hand.”

The article read:-


At midnight, when the West is going vociferously to its night-clubs, its cabarets, and its supper dances, the streets of this corner of the East are silent.

We are in London, but far from London, and in these dark-hued alleys, all is quiet.

Here are the lodgings of the wanderers – wanderers from Russia, Bosnia, Lithuania, Esthonia, and the Ukraine – but they are not to be seen on the surface of the night.


Wentworth Street, a coloured bazaar of silk remnants, is dark and dispirited, the stones of Brick Lane are grassed over by vegetable refuse.

The old women who sit at street corners with baskets of cake have gone home, and the lodging-houses of Dorset Street are full.

From the main road comes a faint splutter of traffic, the hoot of a belated car, the smell of many weeks’ dirt.

Those who linger by the coffee-stall under the parish church, waiting for the potato market to open, murmur their talk into intimate ears.

Softly, now and then a figure shuffles from nowhere, is caught by the glow of the stall, brought for a moment to life, then fades again into a slinking nothing.

And, again from nowhere, comes the sound of a cracked piano and a voice crooning the air of “The Red Sarafan.”

A view along Dorset Street.
Dorset Street, Spitalfields


What is the secret of Spitalfields I do not know.

In the crowded life of other ignoble streets I am often conscious of a terror as strong as the terror of great deserts or of lonely hills, not the terror of solitude or the terror of the mob, but the terror of impalpable hosts.

In the suburbs at night you may wander through street after street, alike in length, in width, in the number and in the style of their houses and once you are inwardly aware that each street holds hundreds of immortal souls, each soul cherishing its own secrets of sorrow and hate, and misery and wrong, and that these streets multiply themselves around you for five miles then you will know that terror.


But though Spitalfields moves me, it is not by terror, but by the shadow of an incommunicable pain.

In every court and alley, I can feel that pain.

Around, above and below, people of alien race are resting or sleeping, and the air is laden with their hopes and dreams and despairs.

It is not the pain of poverty, for though these streets are streets of hovels and mean dwellings, there is much affluence here, it is a pain of the spirit, the pain of those for whom no spot of the world is home.

They are not of their own country nor of London.

Here and there they are suffered to rest awhile, but always there is something that drives them on and their pain goes with them, and a voice brings it to Spitalfields in the air of “The Red Sarafan.”


You cannot see them, but they are there, and lighted windows on ground floors of cottages, and far up the walls of the tenements give veiled hints of their company. Every window is charged with a potent spell touched with that sadness that hovers on the verge of all beautiful music.

It says nothing, yet one feels that it might at any moment say everything. It is the shining symbol of human life, a holder of all human secrets, to whose whisper we bend, though the words escape us. It gives only an evocative murmur, but from that murmur arise a thousand images. Behind it are common people doing common things, people like ourselves going about the casual occasions of every man within his own four walls.

But we do not know. We are outside it. It offers a riddle that is unreadable, and we wonder.


Often, wandering here and there, I have peered through lighted windows where the blinds were not drawn, and have seen queer things and foolish things, and ordinary things; yet even the casual action, seen through a window, is transmuted from perceived metal into fairy gold.

A woman pouring out tea for her husband is, in that moment, the early housewife, a man at a table mending a child’s toy is the eternal husband and the insignificant postures of everyday assume a hue of the magic that is with us in all our doings though we perceive it only when we are detached from it.

I remember a front window in Stepney, and a man sitting at a table, dancing a baby on one arm, and with his free hand painting his face with long green stripes. I remember a front parlour in Haggerston, and a woman in her nightdress putting three children, also in night-clothes, through a sort of signal drill with small Union Jacks. I remember a by-street in Pimlico, and a man lying full length on a sofa, practising blasts on a trombone. I remember a tea-party in a street near St. Luke’s on a March evening four men and one woman each wearing a paper hat of the Christmas Day sort, and looking at each other with unspeakable misery. Those streets for me hold the secrets of life itself.

There was nothing of romantic mystery there, the episodes I witnessed were the reasonable doings of reasonable people but they had forgotten to pull down the blinds, and they and their actions were arrested and fixed in a spiritual illumination, as the artist arrests and fixes some matter of fact moment whereby to express his vision of the human soul.

A view along Brick lane.
Brick Lane, Whitechapel, 1900.


But the close-drawn windows of Spitalfields elude you.

Through court and alley the misty singing calls to you, but what it has to tell of the life behind those windows you cannot know.

Those wanderers from the Balkans and those dwellers in the Ghetto are not, you feel, people like ourselves.

Of what is happening in their homes we can only guess.

It may be the evening meal, or a cabinet maker cabinet-making, or a girl singing “The Red Sarafan” or it may be some dark religious rite, for among the mixed races of the quarter these matters are often celebrated in the home or some sudden outreaching of a hand from a distant society upon one who thought himself safe.


But all that you can discover is melancholy.

Other streets, as I have said, are full of smells and refuse. Other streets are poor and mean and dimly lit. Every street, at midnight, where human creatures are asleep, is charged with awe and every street in daytime can evoke pain or sorrow or dismay in those who can read their faces the pain of Silverthorne Road on a summer morning, of Kingsland Road at noon, of Kennington Road at dusk.

But nowhere is the pain so ingrowing as here.


Its people have their joys and festivals. They have smart clothes and good tables. Their restaurants are kept busy by customers or by loungers whose affairs are often a matter for official curiosity. Their shops and stalls are centres of dark heads, eager eyes, and slow bargaining. There is colour, which so often goes with melancholy and reticent races, and there is gossip, and family joins family at the corners.

Yet over all is a sense of oppression, and at midnight this oppression holds the air unchallenged, and gives to a distant voice singing “The Red Sarafan” the unforgettable accents of the alien crying in a strange land.”