A name that crops up time and time again in the newspaper reporting about the social conditions in the east End of London, that were laid bare by the interest and commentary, that the Jack the Ripper murders generated, is the name of the Reverend, Samuel Augustus Barnett (1844 – 1913).
Barnett was the vicar of St. Jude’s church on Commercial Street where. along with his wife Henrietta, he laboured to bring relief and education to the poor of the area.
The Illustrated London News, in an article that was published on Saturday, September 2nd, 1893, featured a brief description of Barnett and lauded the difference his presence in the area had made to the poor of the district:-
THE REVEREND CANON S. A. BARNETT
“It was in 1873 that he went to St. Jude’s, Whitechapel, a parish on the borders of Spitalfields, close to the thickest array of common lodging-houses in London.
The dishonest element is great; the Jewish element no less strong.
It was a typical “slum” parish when Mr. Barnett went there; it is something very different now.
The homes of the poor were his immediate interest, and in them, by the aid of many friends from the west, he has effected a marvellous change.
Insanitary dwellings are now the exception where once they were the rule.
East and West were also brought together by the foundation of Toynbee Hall, a centre of light and leading, which has been a fruitful parent of similar institutions.
Mr. Barnett’s annual picture show is too familiar to need comment.
His work on the Board of Guardians and on the committee of the Charity Organisation Society is less widely known.
The general public, though little aware of the extent to which St. Jude’s, Whitechapel, has been a centre of new life in East London, are familiar with its Vicar as a writer on economic problems affecting the poor. He has been round the world and inspected their condition in many lands, and has returned with a new stock of health and experiences for the benefit of East London.”
THE BARNETTS IN 1888
In 1888, the Barnett’s were actively involved in trying to draw public attention to the awful social conditions in their parish which the Whitechapel murders had succeeded in exposing to the scrutiny of society at large.
To that end, on Thursday, September 20th, 1888, Samuel gave an interview to a reporter from The Globe newspaper in which he expounded his views on what needed to be done to improve both the quality of life and the conditions in the streets of the East End.
The article is interesting in that, prior to conducting his interview with Samuel Barnett, the journalist decided to take a walk around the immediate vicinity of St Jude’s church, and, in so doing, he has left us an evocative idea of the area at the time of the Whitechapel atrocities.
WHAT IS PRACTICABLE AT WHITECHAPEL?
A TALK WITH THE REVEREND S. A. BARNETT
“It was an unusual, and may perhaps be thought an odd, thing to begin a visit to the worst portions of Whitechapel by dropping into church; but St. Jude’s offered such a contrast to the dust and grime of Commercial-street that I could not resist the temptation to look inside.
Besides, the Rev. Mr. Barnett and Mrs. Barnett have done so much to civilise the neighbourhood that I was anxious to see how far their influence had made itself felt within the building.
TO RECORD THE VICAR’S ENDEAVOUR
And its very appearance gives one an impression of what this influence is like.
On the right-hand side of the entrance, and close to a beautifully modelled fountain in what appears to be Fulham ware, is a fine reproduction in mosaic of the well-known picture of G. F. Watts, R.A., declared by a tablet to have been placed there to record the vicar’s endeavour “to make the lives of his neighbours brighter by bringing them within the influence of beauty.”
Within the church, the doors of which are always open, one sees at once how this has been done, for the walls are hung with pictures, the subjects of which are more accurately described as being serious and suggestive, than as in the common sense religious.
There are, for example, “Love and Death,” “Death Crowning Innocence,” and “The Message of Death.”
A CONTRAST TO THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
What a contrast, I thought, to the gaudy reproductions that form the chief attractions of the cheap print-shops in the neighbourhood of Brick-lane; for what I on a previous visit had taken note of there were the pictures of gaudily dressed actresses, largely developed but sparsely clothed ballet dancers and female acrobats, which seemed to divide the honours of popularity with rough sporting pictures and unubiqitous chrome of the brightest colours, which seemed meant to represent the rude dressing-room of a company of strolling acrobats, where the clown smokes his short clay pipe, sitting on a barrel, and the tightrope dancer, solicitous about shoe-lace or garter, stoops to tie it, while the flashily-garbed proprietor exchanges words with an equestrienne, and various other members of the troupe are scattered about in miscellaneous dresses and postures.
Would those who regarded this work of art as a masterpiece relish the symbolism of the scholar’s death, I thought, as I stood before this striking work? Do they really care for the autotypes of the great masterpieces that are hanging from the pillars?
A WALK ALONG WENTWORTH STREET
And, so thinking, I passed out into the street, for previous to having a talk with Mr. Barnett I desired to refresh my remembrance of the squalid scenes of the recent murders.
Three minutes’ walk takes one from the quiet light of the church, with its solemn thoughts and memories, into the midst of Wentworth-street, and what a change it is! There you see the most sordid life of London in everyday aspect.
To say that the street is crowded is but to give the very faintest idea of what it is like. A pedestrian can hardly screw his way through among stalls bearing wedges of cake, or cairns of loaves, apparently all crust, or great heaps of stockings, which appear to be all single, or fruit, or jockeys’ caps, or trousers, or underclothing.
It is like Brick-lane, save that there are fewer of the sellers of elastic bands and cheap jewellery, beautiful gold rings – “see the ‘all mark inside,” shouts the vendor, “and the perfect finish only one penny each.”
And the women crowd round and buy the rubbish, three or four at a time, to be worn on their fingers, and often torn off after death, as was the case with Mrs. Chapman.
It seems a trifle, but the Whitechapel thief does not despise trifles.
Enter the houses, and you will see that they have been denuded of whatever will bring the price of old iron.
In some cases the very locks of the doors are torn off and sold.
Not being an experienced slummer I could make little of Wentworth-street.
The crowd was too great, and almost all women. Wonderfully fresh complexioned they seem to be up to a certain age, after which they appear to wither up as suddenly as “She,” in the Fire Fountain, or take the appearance of putty.
The conversation is Polyglot, with a preponderance of guttural Hebrew, and as intelligible as the inscriptions on the windows.
A WALK ALONG HANBURY STREET
To study them in detail, I walked up Hanbury-street, with its sanguinary memories. And what strikes one there is the plentifulness of the instruments with which the commission of crime is possible.
Before an open door a bullet-headed rascal, whose hair has a suggestive clip, is splitting firewood with a cleaver, in the light of a window a shoemaker is paring the heel of a boot with a knife nearly as large as a Venetian dagger.
That such instruments are readily used there is plenty of evidence to show.
A stout and rather pretty girl, with a brown shawl and an uncovered head, was coming down the street. I estimated her age at 19, when she stopped at a door and knocked, and I had a back view.
“Dear me,” I thought, “she is certainly older than she looks; she is bald!” but another glance showed my mistake. Her scalp had been partially removed by some bruiser’s axe, and it was the unhealed wound I had seen.
The number of those of both sexes who bore similar scars was almost incredible. It suggested much that the chance daylight visitor has no opportunity of seeing.
THE WORST LONDON STREETS
As Mr. Barnett had said in his letter to the Times that the worst district covers but a small area, I made careful inquiries as to what was really the worst, with the result of ascertaining that the most iniquitous dens are to be found in George-street, George-yard, Flower and Dean-street, and Thrawl-street.
If any adequate attempt is to be made to deal with the evil, these should be taken as a starting point.
AN INTERVIEW WITH SAMUEL BARNETT
As to what is really possible and practical, no one is better qualified to express an opinion than Mr. Barnett himself, so after seeing as much as I could with my own eyes I called at the vicarage of St. Jude’s, where I found the energetic vicar busy at the writing-table in his study, but in no way reluctant to give any information that might help forward the great cause he has at heart.
HOW THE EVIL BEGAN
“The origin of the evil,” he said, in answer to a question, “lies very far back. Indeed, it dates from the time when Essex House stood close by, and the neighbourhood became inhabited with doubtful characters.
Then thieves who preyed upon the City came to live here, and the police came to look upon the place as a preserve in which to hunt for notorious criminals. So it obtained a bad name, which attracted bad characters to it and kept good people away.”
IS THE AREA SAFE?
“Do you find it unsafe to go about yourself ?”
“No, I cannot say that I am ever disturbed, but crimes are of constant occurrence.
Yesterday afternoon one of our friends had his watch taken in broad daylight, and robberies and assaults art common at all hours.
You may frequently see a man or a woman in the street all gashed and covered with blood.
A few days ago someone wrote to the newspapers giving an account of outrages committed in the daytime.”
HOW IT CAN BE IMPROVED
“What do you consider the remediable evils?”
“Decidedly the worst of all is the system of under-letting. It works in this way – one gets it from another till it falls into the hands of a person who invests in a sack and rough iron bed and lets it as a furnished apartment.”
“To escape the law compelling common lodging houses to be registered, I presume?”
“Exactly. This room is then let at eightpence a night to anyone who comes, regardless of sex, and it is theirs for the night. You may imagine what this leads to.”
SHOULD THE STATE INTERFERE?
“Yes, indeed. These dens must be worse than ordinary houses of ill fame. But how would you remedy this – by State interference?”
“By no means; but by private purchase. These properties – if the old houses were pulled down and new ones built – would easily yield about four percent to the proprietors. We have already spent nearly £100,000 is this way, and find it works well. All our rents are taken by lady collectors, and they experience no difficulty. I would strongly advocate an extension of the system.”
“You do not think the State should interfere at all, then?”
“I do not say that. It is possible that something might be done by holding the proprietor responsible, and thus obviate the evils of under-letting; but that is a question for politicians.”
“Some practical steps might be taken at once, though; might they not?”
CLEAN AND LIGHT THE STREETS
“Oh, yes. The condition of the streets, for instance. If you have come through them you have seen for yourself.”
“Indeed I have; some of them are filthily carpeted with refuse and fish scales.”
“Well, they could be cleansed more frequently. And the lighting might be increased. Step the distance between the lamps (this I subsequently did, with the result that I found the lights at an average distance of about forty yards apart), and then compare them with the lamps in the City.
That in itself would make a great difference, and help to counterbalance the evil that arises from one house communicating with another, so that a man enters at one place, and, if anything alarming occurs, slips away through another street.”
TACKLE THE SLAUGHTERHOUSES
“Then about the slaughter-houses – I thought I felt the smell of blood in the street?”
“Yes, is it not dreadful? The creatures are driven up there to be killed, and the slaughtering is actually done close to the public thoroughfare. Why can they not have an abattoir, as in Continental, and, indeed, in many English, towns ?”
But here our conversation was interrupted by another visitor; so thanking Mr. Barnett for the information he had so obligingly supplied, I withdrew.”