Sunday, October 08, 2006

Fire in the Docks

On the night of Polly Nichols murder, two huge fires broke out in London's docklands. One of the fires occurred in the warehouse of Messrs Dible and Co, Engineers, at the dry dock in Shadwell, and as well as gutting the building damaged the rigging of a sailing vessel, the Connovia, which was under repair there at the time. The other fire broke out in a liquor warehouse in the South Quay of the Pool of London. A journalist for one of the newspapers of the day was crossing London Bridge at the time and described the scene.

A more imposing spectacle than the fiery furnace seen from this structure I have not witnessed for a very long time. From out of the grim blackness of the well known pool leapt lurid flames of gigantic volume, rising high against a canopy of fantastic clouds and throwing the tapering masts into clear relief until they and their rigging looked like fairy cobwebs, illuminated by a strange, unearthly light. The effect was grand, and in the stillness of the morning, distinctly weird. From afar came the rumbling whirr of the hurrying engines and the muffled shouts of the lusty firemen as they battled bravely with a sea of relentless flame. As one waited and watched and saw the fire fiend leaping, as it were in triumph, until gradually it fell victim to overpowering forces, it gradually became evident that in a few short hours some hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of property had been sacrificed to the merciless enemy.

The photograph above is taken from London Bridge looking in the direction of where the fire would have been. Tower Bridge was still under construction at the time, and while the towers had been built, the connecting bridges had not. Beside it you can see Canary Wharf tower peeking over the top of the Tower Hotel, which obscures the approximate position at which the fire would have been.

For the poor folk of the East End there was not much by the way of entertainment to be had. If they could scrape the pennies together they could enjoy a drink at one of the many local beer houses, and there was always the Music Hall. But a good fire was a real draw, something the always gathered a crowd of spectators. One of these, at the Shadwell fire, was Emily Holland, who until just over a week earlier had been sharing a room with Polly Nichols at the Thrawl Street lodging house.

Following the fire she headed back there, and along the way became the last person, other than her killer, to see Polly alive.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Thrawl Street

The streets between Brick Lane and Commercial Street were dirty and narrow and filled with lodging houses of the meanest kind where a bed could be obtained for fourpence a night, or eight pence for a double. There was little in the way of privacy, the beds were crammed in together, separated into rooms by partitions which reached neither floor nor ceiling. The bedding was changed once a week no matter how many different people occupied the bed during the week, and the level of cleanliness was otherwise low.

One of these streets was Thrawl Street. The photo shows the current road which goes by that name, which does not follow exactly the line of the old road, but quite close to it.

The lodging houses were regulated, after a fashion, and the landlords were expected to keep good order. During the night a "deputy" would be on duty, and usually a watchman. The deputy would often know his regular clients and try to keep their beds for them where possible, but the life of a lodging-house dweller was irregular and itinerant. Very few of the houses would allow a bed to go on credit, if you didn't have the money in hand then you couldn't stay, but Edward Hoare tells us, writing in 1888, that "a regular frequenter of a lodging-house would be often allowed to sit by the kitchen fire till one o'clock, even if he had not the fourpence to pay for his lodging."

One ofthe rules of the lodging houses was that unmarried couples were not supposed to be allowed to occupy a bed together. In practice this was not generally the case, but the more regular houses would ensure that beds were only shared by couples who regularly stayed together. A woman would not be allowed to bring a different man into her bed every night. Some houses did allow this, however, and these were essentially known as glorified brothels. One such was The White House, at 56 Flower and Dean Street, where Polly Nichols had spent the previous eight to ten nights before the night of her murder.

However, on leaving the Frying Pan pub that night she did not return to this lodging house, but rather to number 18 Thrawl Street, which would be on the right hand side of the road in the picture, where she had been living previous to this, sharing a room with three other women, one of them one Emily Holland. On arriving at the house Polly settled down in the kitchen despite the fact that she had not the money to pay for a bed for the night. She arrived at around half past midnight, and remained there until somewhere around twenty past one, when she was told by the deputy that she would have to leave.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Frying Pan Public House

Anyone who has spent time recently in Brick Lane will be aware that the street is one of the most popular in London for Indian (and other ethnic) restaurants. The popular Sheraz Balti House stands on the corner of Brick Lane and what used to be Thrawl Street.

However, a look at the red brickwork at the top corner of the building will quickly tell you that this building was not always used for it's current purpose. Picked out of the brickwork in bas relief is a crossed frying pan motif and lettering which show that in 1888 this was a public house called The Frying Pan, and it was here that the first of the recognised Ripper victims spent her last evening.

Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols was 43 years old at the time of her death, although it was said in contemporary reports that she looked younger. She had been married at the age of 19 and had five children, but in 1880 she and her husband separated, apparently because he was unable to cope with the fact that she had started to drink heavily in the previous three years or so. Initially he had agreed to pay her maintenance of five shillings per week, but two years later when he learned that she had turned to prostitution he discontinued payment.

Between 1880 and 1888 she had moved around quite a lot. For the first three years she had been in and out of workhouses and had lived for a time with her father but had moved out due to constant arguing over her disollute lifestyle. For a few years she lived with a man named Thomas Drew and the pair appear to have lived quite respectably, Polly having shown up at her Brother's funeral dressed well. But this relationship ended and she found herself back on the streets.

In early 1888 she worked for at time in Wandsworth, in service for a respectable family, the Cowdrey's, who were deeply religious and teetotal. However this ended when she absconded with clothing worth over two pounds, and by August 1888 she was living in the lodging houses of Whitechapel, selling her body to earn enough for her bed for the night and a few pints of beer or glasses of gin in the Frying Pan.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The London Hospital

The London Hospital stands on the south side of Whitechapel Road in the very heart of Ripper territory. It had stood in this spot since 1757, and had been granted a Royal charter by George II the following year, although it's Royal title would not follow until 1990. In 1785 the first medical school in England was founded here, and by the late 1880's it was among the most important hospitals in the capital.

The hospital plays a large part in the story of the Whitechapel murders. Several of the medical students located here were among contemporary suspects, while another suspect who has emerged since, and who thrust himself into the investigation through articles written in the newspapers of the time, was an inmate here during the time of the murders. Also resident here at that time was Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man, who had come here in 1886 after being befriended by one of the resident doctors, Frederick Treves, and who would continue to occupy rooms in the hospital until his death two years later at the age of just 27.

It was to this hospital that Emma Smith was brought on the morning of her attack, by the lodging house keeper Mary Russell. Along the way she told Russell the story of the attack and pointed out where it had occurred. On her arrival she was treated by the duty house surgeon, a Dr G. H. Hillier, who found that the wound to her peritoneum had developed peritonitis, which would result in her death the following day. The police, meanwhile, heard nothing of the attack until two days after her death, on April 6th, when they were informed by the coroner that an inquest was to be held.

No arrests were ever made, and on the face of it we have to accept Smith's story that she was attacked by three men, one of whom she described as being no more than 19 years of age. Almost certainly she was not a victim of Jack the Ripper, but her killing would later be connected with those crimes by the newspapers. And it has been suggested that Jack may have been a member of the gang who carried out the attack, and that his taste for blood could have stemmed from this incident.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

On The Corner Of Wentworth Street

Taylor Brothers Mustard and Cocoa Mill stood on the corner where four streets met. Running South to North, Osborn Street became Brick Lane. Running West to East, Wentworth Street became Old Montague Street.

Passing along Wentworth Street from this corner, George Yard Buildings, where Martha Tabram would meet her end four months later, is almost exactly 100 yards distant. Virtually opposite the entrance to George Yard, running North, was another street, George Street. The name would change to Lolesworth Street within a few years. This street no longer exists, it has been swallowed up by the Flower & Dean Housing Project.

It was at 18 George Street that Emma Smith lodged, and it was there she was hurrying on the night she was attacked. She was so close to getting there, but on this street corner her time ran out.

The three men beat her and stole her money, and quite possibly one or more of them may have raped her. When they were finished, one of them concluded the attack by taking a hard blunt object, possibly a wooden stake or a metal railing post, and thrusting it deep into her vagina with great force, rupturing her peritoneum.

The total distance to her lodgings can have been no more than 300 yards at most. We don't know what exact condition Emma was in after the men left her, or how long she lay in that place, but we do know that eventually she picked herself up and staggered back those 300 yards. Every step must have been agony, she was bleeding internally and living on borrowed time. It was over two hours after the attack that she arrived.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

St Mary's

The Altab Ali Park stands on Whitechapel Road opposite the entrance to Osborn Street. This was the site of the St. Mary Matfelon Church, the original White Chapel which gave the district it's name, until it was destroyed during the blitz in World War II.

The canonical victims of Jack the Ripper number five. These are the victims which are generally accepted (although not always) as having been murdered by one single hand, and they seem to have been decided upon as a result of a memo from Sir Melville McNaughton, who took over the case as Chief Constable of the CID in 1890. In the memo he stated that "the Whitechapel murderer had five victims, and five victims only."

However, the Metropolitan Police files regarding "The Whitechapel Murders" include several other victims, of which Martha Tabram was one. But the first victim included in the file runs back even further.

Emma Elizabeth Smith fits a very similar profile to most of the other victims. 45 years old at the time of her death, she had fallen on hard times and wound up, as so many in her situation did, living in the lodging houses of Whitechapel and scraping a living by selling her body on the streets.

At about half past one on the morning of Tuesday 2nd April, 1888, the previous day having been Easter Monday, Smith was returning to her lodging at 18 George Street, via the Whitechapel Road, and it was outside St Mary's Church that she became aware of being followed by a group of men. Nervous of the situation she crossed the road and turned in to Osborn Street. The men followed and she took to her heels. To her horror they chased her, finally catching up with her outside a mustard factory on the corner of Wentworth Street.

Friday, April 14, 2006


This archway stands today at the entrance to a modern housing development which stands on the site of what were once known as the rookeries, Flower & Dean Street and Thrawl Street, some of the worst slum districts in the whole of London.

The arch is on Wentworth Street, directly opposite the entrance to George Yard, and as can be seen by the keystone, it was erected in 1886, two years before the Ripper murders began. It would have been one of the very last sights Martha Tabram saw before she turned and entered George Yard Buildings.

In the last 117 years, the matter of whether or not Martha was a victim of Jack the Ripper has been debated endlessly. She is not included on the list of five "canonical" victims, but many have argued very persuasively for her inclusion.

Her murder did not follow exactly the pattern of those to follow, but nonetheless was not a straightforward killing, thirty-nine stab wounds shows unusual savagery. Three weeks later the Ripper murders would begin in earnest, and the idea that there could have been two men in the district capable of such an act would be quite extraordinary. Personally I have always felt that Martha was a victim of Jack, and maybe not even his first.