Weed Beds In Whitechapel

One thing that was, most certainly, exposed by the horrific spate of Whitechapel murders that occurred between 1888 and 1891, was the horrors of everyday life inside the common lodging houses of Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Indeed, as journalists began grubbing around the area, desperately trying to find as much information about the atrocities and the victims of the atrocities as they could, they were confronted by the awful living conditions inside many of the common lodging houses of the district.

A group of people sitting and being served tea in a common lodging house.
People In The Kitchen Of A Common Lodging House.


It must be said that warnings had been sounded about the lawlessness of the lodging houses for several years prior to the advent of Jack the Ripper.

But the murders gave those warning a focus, and, in consequence, over the next few years, articles began appearing regularly in the newspapers urging that something must be done to rid society of the scourge of the common lodging houses.

The following article appeared in The Northern Daily Telegraph, on Wednesday, 7th August, 1889, and, even allowing for journalistic embellishment, the picture painted of life in a lodging house is, to say the least, truly stomach-churning!

In addition to the horrific details, the article also makes a point that had been made time and time again by social commentators; that the owners of many of the lodging houses were, in fact, “respectable” middle-class investors who lived far away from the dens of iniquity that they were happy to draw income from.

But, as the article pointed out, they ignored the threat posed by the lodging houses at their peril.

The article read:-


“A Tramp,” writing in the Telegraph, gives a vivid description of the common lodging houses of the East End, under the above title, which will help to instruct the ordinary reader as to life in the dens which have repeatedly been searched by the police in their quest for “Jack the Ripper.”

No man living, he says, could venture to speak the plain truth about lodging-houses; they are very good traps, wherein the police can often drop on some of their men as they want them; and that is about all you can say for the hateful places.

A group of men standing in front of a Common Lodging House.
A Group of Men Outside A Common Lodging House.


Take the very best “crib” that I was ever in – and it took me a good while to make all seemly again.

You turn into a narrow doorway, and a dishevelled trollop takes fourpence from you; then you meet a warm waft of air, which brings a complicated odour, and you find yourself in a long, low room, where a large, bright fire is burning.

There is nothing picturesque about the kitchen, and there is nothing comfortable; two or three men (we are all men) are busy cooking, and their shapes lurch in a fetid cloud, which spreads from one end of the room to the other, and catches your throat in its acrid grip, as if it would choke you.

Men sitting at the tables in a lodging house kitchen.
The Kitchen Of A Common Lodging House


Three parts of the company are more or less drunk, and they are drunk with the money of charitable men and women.

If kindly folks would form a sort of association and resolve never to give a penny to a tramp or cadger, then we might force a lot of sturdy villains to do some kind of useful work. Remember that the man who most arouses your pity is the man who has the most money to spend in liquor at night, and he has a good piece of steak or sausage before he begins filling his deceitful carcass with beer and gin.


In awful dullness, the night wears on.

The men compare distances and grumble out casual remarks.

As the time goes and fresh pots are filled, you get a tipsy howl now and again, and stray threats regarding possible fights are heard; one man aims a blow, and is instantly hauled out and thrown into the street; another follows, and then we settle to sodden silence, which is broken by another tipsy howl at times. It base, base, base.

The fire makes the fellows sleepy, but they are enlivened when they go up the stair, and talk drags on for some time.

Some take off all their clothes, others are content to lie down in their slimy, evil-smelling slops, and the general effect is terrible.


This is a good house, observe.

If a lad gets into such a place, there is nothing in the way of ill that he cannot learn – nay, that he will be forced to learn.

A deputy can do nothing; the police, from whom so much is expected, can effect little; while, if the deputy is a villain who is against the police, he can cheat them as he chooses in nine cases out of ten.


On the ugly, squashy poultices, which we call beds, there are fellows lying who have months of dirt on them; and even those who have been forced into baths in the casual wards get dirty in a day or two.

In a quarter of an hour, you long to call for the police; here are diseased men expatiating before comparative lads; here are past masters in unnameable vice holding forth amid sniggering applause.

The talk is indescribable; the actions are to be named only in a closed court of justice.

And people blame poor detectives who cannot always superintend whatever goes on in these revivals of the Cities of the Plain!

Things which, only a few years ago, were scouted by the very vilest on every road, are soon reckoned as venial little eccentricities; men and lads learn from each other; they pass on, thieving and begging, from point to point, and each of them is an emissary who bears corruption.

The beds inside a common lodging house in Spitalfields.
From The Graphic 24th April 1886. Copyright, the British Library Board.


The vermin are nearly always dreadful, and if you have a delicate skin it is best to go and sleep on the kitchen floor, for there are fewer insects there, and you can get better through the night of horrors.

I prefer generally to stand the worst out, and thus I could famish a tramp’s vocabulary villainy, which only a detective could equal.


I feel nauseated in the morning, and prefer not to wash.

There is one towel for a dozen men, and each towel hangs a week, so you can imagine the complicated variety of possibilities which may be spread from place to place.

It is easy as lying.


What can you expect for fourpence?

Not much!

And the tenements are capital properties for the owners.

This was my best house, and now we may go East.

The British Constitution and all its offshoots are mysterious to me.


Out by Leicester-square way, I sometimes see a policeman obsequiously fastening a cab door for a painted woman, whose eyes have the stare of semi-drunkenness; next, I hear that the police have brought up someone for keeping a disorderly house, and I see the painted woman with the spun-glass locks in front of the magistrate.

What does it mean?

Then I go to a licensed place in our Jack-Ripper’s hunting ground, and I find that the obliging person at the door lets couples pass in anyhow.

The constable can do nothing; he cannot ask each pair if they have brought their marriage certificate with them; and thus, by a fine stroke of humour, it happens that the authorities have licensed houses for the lowest and most odious vice, and they do not take any such precautions as are practised by the horridly immoral Belgians, French, and Italians. They have no authority.

Not long ago you might see a woman seized in a lodging house and carried off by main force to the hospital; all that is altered, and, in spite of the police, every lodging-house may become a prolific source of vice and death.

People in the kitchen of a Spitalfields Common Lodging House.
The Kitchen of A Common Lodging House. From The Graphic, 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


How should you like to live in a place where the sewer bursts up in flood-time, and the inhabitants must go through a deluge of filth that comes knee-deep into the ground floor?

That is a place over which a long fight occurred between a medical officer and the old obstinate vestry.

I do not think that the sewer is quite right yet.


Now, let us go back to Jack-Ripper Land.

Not far from our special “doss” there is a lair which we may call an unlicensed lodging-house.

Supposing that Blue-nosed Denny and Kitty-the-Cooser like to give a few friends house rooms, what can the police say? Can any sanitary officer meddle?

On paper, everything looks capital, but, in practice, the police are evaded constantly, and you may count the value of the regulations about zero.

A man may keep what is really a bad house and put his finger to his nose when the baffled police have gone.

Go into Denny’s place  – be careful as you escape from the passage because the sanitary arrangements are primitive here.

Denny and Kitty, and three couples more, are sprawling together on the floor amid an atmosphere that might be chopped into slices.

If Kitty likes to invite a child of fourteen and a companion, who is to say nay?

It is not a disorderly house; it is only a common lodging-house, and the law does not run there.


The lodging-houses and the quasi lodging-houses are huge pustules; and, oh when they burst, how the comfortable classes will curse their own neglect.

What? You keep at your gates homes worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, and you expect to escape devastation?

You will not.

The owners of property are too strong for you.

Property! Property gets money from lodging houses which spread nameless disease, nameless vice, nameless crime; property lets men and women live worse than Troglodytes; property permits revival of Cotytto’s foul festival to be played off every night in the centre of England.

The sooner you deal with “property” in Whitechapel, the better for everybody!”