Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Black Eagle Brewery

As Brick Lane’s most conspicuous and famous premises, Truman's Black Eagle Brewery was first built in 1660 on land belonging to John Stott who was also responsible for the layout of streets within its grounds. The brewery itself began operating in 1666 when Joseph Truman acquired the land when the industry was beginning to expand in the late 17th century. Such growth had been made possible by locating such industries east of the City where there was clean water (remember, the area was essentially rural at the time) and where prevailing winds would blow the smells and fumes away from the City of London.

Joseph Truman retired in 1730, leaving the business to his son, Benjamin and when Truman’s beer was handed out to the public during celebrations for the birth of the Duchess of Brunswick in 1737, it met with such approval that from then on Truman’s prospered. Benjamin was knighted by George III in 1760 and the brewery began to expand its premises, becoming the third largest in London. Thomas Buxton joined the company in 1808, as did Sampson Hanbury 27 years later and soon Truman, Hanbury and Buxton was the biggest brewing company in the world, even being name-dropped by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield. It is ironic that only Messrs Hanbury and Buxton had local streets named after them, though Ben Truman was appropriately commemorated with a beer bearing his name (Ben Truman’s, straightforward enough as a pint goes but not always kind to the palate or the guts).


Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Black Eagle Brewery continued to expand with new extensions being added as late as 1977, but its end came very suddenly and this once mighty business ceased trading in 1988.

However, whereas other large East End breweries were largely demolished and are now home to modern superstores, the Black Eagle, after a brief period of disuse, was kept intact and swiftly became the home of artist’s studios and gallery spaces. There was a time when much of the area surrounding the brewery was quiet, but today it is a bustling, cosmopolitan area, swarming with trendy media types who frequent places like the Vibe Bar and 93 Feet East, venues that have been created within the structure of the old brewery buildings. Entering the Vibe is a little voyage of discovery, as you climb rickety steps and walk through a creaking passageway flanked with even creakier staircases.


The redevelopment of the Old Black Eagle Brewery has opened up the once concealed streets that were formerly part of the infrastructure of this busy place. Barbecues, bars and shops line what looks to all intents and purposes like a service road running from Brick Lane, though believe it or not, this is actually Black Eagle Street, closed off for over half a century by large gates, but responsible for giving the brewery its name in the first place.

It is Covent Garden’s scruffy, idiot cousin. On the ad-hoc boulevard that was once Black Eagle Street, al fresco is the thing. A chilly Saturday afternoon, but the lure of Spitalfields anew still pulls them in. The air that was once laced with the fumes of brewing is now pungent with the odour of frying meat, oppressively sloppy salads, BYO lager and cigarettes. The tables are strewn with yellow polystyrene cartons loaded with chaotic, overfilled burgers, munched on slowly by people trying to line their stomachs with something quick but ‘real’ and talk animatedly at the same time. The soundtrack is predictably anonymous; funky loose urban beatswhich wash over the crowds without damaging street-credibility.


Are those four guys a rock band? Probably not, but for a moment they stand out as highly groomed, skinny fashion mannequins, a definite unit. Their individuality is short lived, for looking around the massf twenty-somethings, it is apparent that lots of men look like that. A uniform of stripy jumpers, skinny black jeans and pointy footwear, with hair sculpted, scraped and twisted into intentionally original, yet ultimately analogous styles where seeing past one’s fringe is secondary to being au courant. In fact, in Brick Lane’s trendy quarter, the men seem to make more of an effort over their appearance than the women, the latter often inconspicuous for their casualness. Studioline adverts spring to mind (firm hold! – sculpt your look! – 0% grease, 100% extreme structure!), such is the overwhelming evidence of cosmetic styling tools. There must be so many different chemicals adorning these modern punky manes that with one stray spark from a Marlboro light, the whole Black Eagle Brewery could go off like a millennium firework display, simultaneously halving the residential population of Shoreditch. (2007)

You might get the impression that I am not impressed by this rebirth and to be a bit curmudgeonly, I'm not really. For all its pretentions as the now place in London to live, create, dine and socialise, a lot of the desirable areas of Spitalfields and Shoreditch are pretty much still dumps. If you see local property advertised, they rarely show you the outside of it. Visit Grimsby Street to see what I mean. It all smacks of being a bit too knowing somehow, but I'm sure I'm just being an old grump. At least it's stopped the Black Eagle becoming another Sainsbury's.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Titties 'n' Beer

Courts and alleys from times past still exist along the Whitechapel Road, such as King’s Arms Court, Angel Alley and Green Dragon Yard, but the inns that named them disappeared a long while ago, whereas ironically, Nag’s Head Yard has long gone, but the Victorian version of the pub still stands. I say pub, but the Nag’s Head now passes itself off as a ‘gentleman’s venue’, a dignified way of advertising a specific type of live entertainment (nudge, nudge); to quote one anonymous review from an internet pub site:

“Well established London striptease boozer. Up to 6 charming ladies from all over the world. Very unglamorous room – mirrors, smoke and blokes – very sleazy – private dances, £10 a throw in a separate room. All full-frontal and explicit – Erica from Latvia is particularly charming – worth a swift pint now and again”

This is quite complimentary as it goes, but does set out the feel and intent of the Nag’s Head succinctly. This sort of pub is now less common in the area than they were a decade ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s just as well. I’m not a fan. However, before we leave the gyrating thighs, wobbling bits and drooling punters of the Nag’s Head, I must quote my favourite review of this place, in full, written by a customer who modestly calls himself Fred:

“Very attractive staff”


To my shame I did visit it once, in 1987. It didn't advertise its entertainments then and I'd gone in in all innocence (honest!). Here's what happened....

I’ve just had a rather bizarre encounter with a glue-sniffer in Durward Street and I’m looking for somewhere to have a drink. The Nag’s Head doesn’t look very inviting, you can’t see into it, but I reckon that if I’m too fussy, I’ll just end up walking around aimlessly looking for the ideal pub that probably isn’t there, so I take my chances. When I step inside, I’m immediately struck by how smoky it is and how busy it is. It’s absolutely crammed full of men in suits, city-types I imagine, but not a single woman in sight.

I get my drink and stand at the bar as that’s the only space, though I could really do with a sit-down. The barman goes to an old turntable at the back of the bar and puts a record on. It’s ‘Eyes Without a Face’ by Billy Idol – and then I realise why the Nag’s Head is full of men.

At the far end of the pub, I see a young woman wearing only lingerie step out of a side door. She walks onto a raised stage and, dancing in an incredibly provocative manner, proceeds to remove her attire. Every last bit of it. I’m only young and I’m actually a little taken aback by all this, to be honest. The clientele are quiet and respectful (no wolf-whistling here) and look on as if they are watching the news or something. After a few more minutes of naked squirming, the song finishes and the girl hurriedly picks up her clothes and darts back into the side door from which she came. Polite cheers. Bloody hell.

All that time, I was attempting to pretend that nothing was happening. The men go back to their conversations for a brief while until I notice the barman put on another record, only this time it’s ‘Wild Thing’ by The Troggs. Another girl emerges from the side-door, this time dressed as a schoolgirl. Oh dear, I suddenly feel very, very seedy. The costume may be different, but the act is the same, only this time, the gyration level has been upped. Nothing left to the imagination. As she goes rather stone-faced through the motions, I turn round to see the first act standing next to me in the admittedly tasteful lingerie she had thrown off only moments before. She’s holding a large jar with money in it and looks at me, smiling sweetly. I fumble in my pocket for some change and duly, though ashamedly oblige.

Naively I ask her, ‘Don’t you get paid for this?’ Smiling back, she replies in a soft eastern European accent, ‘Sort of. It’s more of a hobby really’. And then she’s off to the next group of men.


I’m nearly ready to go, but then I notice that the music has stopped, the second girl has finished thrusting her private parts at the front row and the pub is now emptying rapidly. Within minutes I am only one of about four customers left. Extraordinary. They obviously don’t come here for the traditional pub fayre and ambience, then.


To this day I still can’t hear ‘Wild Thing’ without thinking suits, smoke, school uniform and pubes.


Oh the shame of it all...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Mean Streets - Part Two

It has been said that as a result of the Whitechapel murders, the attention directed at the conditions in Flower and Dean Street et al by the burgeoning press of the 1880’s did more for the redevelopment of the area than any amount of philanthropy. In many ways that is true; the building of Commercial Street had failed to dissipate the slums and new thought was needed about how to deal with the awful problems that were blighting the area. However, this plan for redevelopment had already begun to take shape. Parts of Flower and Dean Street and George Street (renamed Lolesworth Street in 1893) along with other ‘unhealthy’ areas were demolished as early as 1883. In this plot of land were erected Rothschild Buildings, officially named Charlotte de Rothschild Dwellings in memory of the mother of Baron Nathan Mayer Rothschild, newly appointed beneficiary of the Board of Guardians for the relief of the Jewish poor and soon to become the first Jewish peer of the realm. They were opened in 1887 and after the Ripper scare were swiftly followed by Nathaniel Dwellings in 1892, taking up nearly the whole north side of Flower and Dean Street. It was here that Abe Saperstein was born in 1900, eventually to emigrate to America and found the famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. The rookery was rapidly disappearing, being replaced by tall, austere and ultimately serviceable accommodation, in some ways a precursor to the more modern towerblock. By 1897, rebuilding of the old Fossan estate was complete and the slums had all but vanished. Instead of the thieves, prostitutes and transients of the previous decades, the new tenants of this previously maligned area were predominantly the Jewish working class. House rules were strictly enforced and there was a sense of community for many decades. For a while at least, order had replaced chaos.

Jerry White’s book ‘Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block 1887-1920’ is a fascinating look at life in this compact neighbourhood and is thoroughly recommended. With a balance of excellent research, first hand accounts by former inhabitants and a noticeable affection for a world he arrived at too late to witness, White paints a vivid and ultimately charismatic picture of East End Jewish life at that time.


All things must pass, as the song goes, so what became of these exercises in urban, functional housing? This being Ripperland, trouble is never too far round the corner. By the 1960’s, the condition of the buildings (apparently, they weren’t actually built that well) had greatly deteriorated and the streets that once bred such awful conditions were on the verge of becoming a slum once again.

By the time Jerry White got there, in 1971, the buildings had been condemned two years previously. Smoke-blackened and ugly, they towered over the streets between them, blocking out the daylight. Many flats were unoccupied, tattered curtains flapped out of open windows and lower-storey shops and windows were mostly bricked up. The end was soon to come.

And come it did. The last residents departed in 1974 and demolition began immediately (this picture is of the corner of Lolesworth and Thrawl Street), which must have been no mean task – some of the dwellings were up to seven storeys high. The whole Fossan estate was about to undergo its second change in less than a century. By 1977, all the buildings had gone and Flower and Dean Street, Lolesworth Street and Thrawl Street were just tarmac and pavement lined with white hoardings.

This piece of Spitalfields, it seems, has always maintained its own identity. By the early 1980’s work had begun on the Flower and Dean estate, which was finally opened by Prince Charles in 1984 and for which the neighbouring streets benefited from an uncharacteristic spring-clean.Nathaniel Walk and Flower and Dean Walk, though named after their ‘illustrious’ predecessors, merely provide pedestrian access to the small flats and houses that pepper that 500 or so square feet. The Jewish inhabitants of yesteryear have, like everywhere else around here, given way to an Asian population. Thrawl Street is merely a name, winding round the back of the estate, though the old street signs still exist at the Commercial Street and Brick Lane ends. The original line of Lolesworth Street no longer exists in any form and neither does Flower and Dean Street, that most notorious of Victorian slums. All that is left is several yards of road coming from Commercial Street, blocked by a gate and a recently built sports area; what does remain was renamed Lolesworth Close in 1986. As if to remind us of its dubious past, this brief cul-de-sac is still the haunt of ‘working girls’ (as I have heard one tour guide put it subtly) after dark and the estate itself is now the stamping ground for numerous Asian youths, all tracksuits, baseball caps, cod-‘gangsta’ accents and a sense of urgency and hunger that so often accompanies modern street-gang culture. It is around here, in nearby Wentworth Street, that tour guides can expect grief, ridicule or even water bomb attacks.

But before we leave, there is one last memorial to a redevelopment that changed the area for the good. On Wentworth Street is a brick archway, the archway which once fronted the Rothschild buildings in Thrawl Street. Moved to its present position and cleaned up, its inscription reads ‘Erected by the Four Percent Industrial Dwellings Company 1886’, but I wonder - how many residents of the Flower and Dean estate know or care what its relevance is?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Mean Streets - Part One













Think of Whitechapel and Spitalfields in the latter half of the 19th century and one immediately imagines squalid living conditions, crippling poverty and vice. This is, to be quite honest, a sweeping generalisation, as many parts of the area were populated by respectable working-class folk, but there existed pockets of streets and alleyways in which you would be able to find, in the words of one observer, ‘the very worst that human kind has to offer’. One such pocket of depravity nestled in what was originally called the Fossan Estate, an area bounded by Commercial Street, Wentworth Street, Brick Lane and Fashion Street. Mentioned in these terms, the most notorious thoroughfares of East London have no identity; however, even casual students of East End history could not fail to be familiar with the names that are forever associated with the poorest slums of the most powerful city in the world – Thrawl Street and Flower and Dean Street.

This estate, little more than 500 feet square, was owned by the Fossan brothers around the mid-17th century and it was they who built Fashion Street (the name is a corruption of Fossan and nothing to do with the amount of clothing shops that still trade there today). In the 1650’s, John Flower and Gowen Dean built the street that was to bear their name followed by the construction of Thrawl Street by Henry Thrall (spelling was obviously a ‘fluid’ thing back then) in 1658. Joined by George Street that linked the two, the scene was set for a theatre of vice and crime which took place in the numerous alleys and courts that wormed their way through the fabric of the buildings – New Court, Fashion Court, Dale’s Place, Sugarloaf Court, Wilson’s Place, Keate’s Court to name but a few, each with its own neglected populace. This microcosm of the poorest class also spread further west to Dorset Street and north to Red Lion Street and Vine Court and it was intended that the construction of Commercial Street in the 1840’s would also serve to wipe these ‘rookeries’ off the map through demolition of the decaying dens that stood there. Unfortunately, this did not work as hoped – the displaced residents merely relocated to the surrounding streets, thus increasing the problems that already existed, as well as the overcrowding. If you think that my tongue-in-cheek account of East End life (in the introduction) was a bit over the top, then read this excerpt from Andrew Mearn’s ‘Bitter Cry of Outcast London’, written in 1883, as an example of what the Victorian age was capable of:
In one cellar a sanitary inspector reports finding a father, mother, three children and four pigs!
In another room a missionary found a man ill with smallpox, his wife just recovering from her eighth confinement and the children running about half-naked and covered with dirt.


And if you think that’s bad, get this:
Here are seven people living in one underground kitchen and a little dead child lying in the same room. Elsewhere is a poor widow, her three children and a child who had been dead thirteen days….

At its worse, the heart of ‘the abyss’ was rife with disease, prostitution, transience, crime and death from any number of causes. Half of all children born here at this time died before they were five years old. It hardly bears thinking about.

This focal point of outcast London, with its brothels, doss-houses and resident criminals and unfortunates of all kinds is important to our subject, for in effect it is the very centre of Ripperland itself, its hub, its Charing Cross, if you like.

The picture on the right shows 'The White House', a notorious doss-house at 56 Flower and Dean Street, c.1900.

During the autumn of 1888, the names of these streets appeared repeatedly in the press and official reports, usually because victims of the Whitechapel Murders were lodging there at the time or had recently been doing so. Emma Smith and Martha Tabram lodged at 18 and 19 George Street respectively and alleged victim Rose Mylett also resided at No18. Mary Ann Nichols had stayed at 18 Thrawl Street and 55 Flower and Dean Street. Elizabeth Stride had lodged at 32 Flower and Dean Street and Catharine Eddowes’ partner, John Kelly resided at No.55. Mary Kelly took lodgings in all three streets at one time or another before settling for the also popular Dorset Street.
It was this proximity that featured in the Royal conspiracy theory, whereby it was suggested that the victims of Jack the Ripper were acquainted, even friends. Some of them may have been familiar with each other, but that would be speculation and I’m not about to speculate here.


To be continued...

Friday, September 15, 2006

A visit to the National Archive

The National Archive (Public Record Office) in Kew is not really Ripperland, but must be considered as an extention, for it is here where they keep all the official Scotland Yard and Home Office files on the case, including the original 'Dear Boss' letter which was the first ever use of the name 'Jack the Ripper'. Phew, what a sentence.

Anyway, I have posted the following account elsewhere, but here it is:

In early May, I contacted the National Archive (NA) asking about the possibility of seeing the original ‘Dear Boss’ letter as part of the East End travelogue I am currently writing. The idea, I explained, was to talk about what it felt like to be confronted by such a notorious artefact, the letter that gave the world the name ‘Jack the Ripper’, with all its connotations, symbolism and enigmas. The person on the other end of the phone was a little confused by my request and I was eventually put through to somebody else who rather politely explained that they do not get the originals of such documents out as they have perfectly good facsimiles and microfiches to look at. As doing so would escape the object of my idea, I felt a little deflated as you can imagine.

However, not to be deterred, I made a personal visit to the NA in mid-May and spoke to two assistants at the enquiry desk. The first one was somewhat doubtful, but had the foresight to speak to her colleague who suggested I write personally to the Director of the NA, outlining my reasons for seeing the ‘Dear Boss’ letter. People seemed very guarded on the subject generally, but I thought if I could convince the Director that my intentions were honourable, I’d be halfway there. So I promptly wrote my letter. Hurrah! An e-mail reply came within days and was quite positive, though it once again put me onto another official at the NA, namely the Head of Document Services. It was going to be basically down to him. And do you know what? I rung him, told him my plans and he said yes. A date for viewing was promptly arranged.

For those readers who have not visited the NA, let me tell you that they’re pretty tight on security. They search your bag on arrival. Anything you are not taking with you to the reading rooms goes into a locker and what you do take with you goes into a transparent plastic bag. Cameras must be registered on your reading ticket. No pens, just pencils. No food, obviously. Then they search your transparent bag before you go up to the reading rooms. Then you can proceed, but not before you’ve swiped your reader’s ticket at the barrier. It’s beginning to sound a bit like Mission Impossible, isn’t it? However, once you’re past this initial security ritual, everybody is sweetness and light, incredibly helpful.On June 6th, I passed through the system and at the reading rooms was met by the Production Manager who promptly got me to fill in a form (the second that afternoon) saying that I conform to all procedures and rules of the NA. He then took me to an invigilation room, set apart from the main reading area.The room was quite small, lined with simple shelving and with a large central table area. There were several doors, one of which had a simple doorbell on it, one of those ones that sounds the Big Ben chimes. A CCTV camera pointed at the back of my head, not my best side I have to say and a TV screen rotated views from other cameras dotted around the reading rooms. It was a hot day, but the temperature was perfect.The Production Manager popped in and asked me if I minded waiting five minutes as he obviously had to retrieve the document from the safe room. I couldn’t say no, could I? In the room with me was an elderly American couple scrutinising some huge document or other, from which the lady read extracts into a Dictaphone. I kept overhearing phrases like ‘CIA’ and ‘deportation’ and there seemed to be an air of ‘national importance’ to the information they were gleaning. The man was wearing little earphones that ran from the Dictaphone and appeared to be blind.As I waited, I felt the palms of my hands go clammy as I began to refocus on what I had come here for.

I had already written half a side of notes, in pencil, when MEPO 3/3153 (the official Metropolitan Police file which contains the letter) was brought in and put in front of me.“I’m off now”, said the Production Manager, “but if you need to ask anything, just ring the bell and someone will see to you”.It is a hardback book, not unlike a photo album and is made up of pages of plastic wallets which are sealed on all sides. The various contents of this file are individually sealed in these pages.

On opening the book, the first thing you see is the covering note that came with the ‘Dear Boss’ letter, passing it off as ‘a joke’. Turn the page and there it is, in all its brown, tatty glory.


The ‘Dear Boss’ letter is the oldest looking document in the file. It is very discoloured and looks to all intents and purposes like it was soaked in tea. The folds are dark and ingrained and there are three small pieces missing, one of which removes part of the writing. On turning it over, one can barely make out the post-script at the bottom; in fact it is fair to say that you would not be able to make out what it says if you only saw it in its current condition.It is a strange experience having this letter in front of you. One should feel somewhat awestruck, but it was not quite so in my case and I think this is for several reasons. There have been excellent reproductions available for a number of years. The letter in the file looks no more or less like the photographic reproduction, made even more so by the storage method, which encloses it in a shiny plastic wallet. Photography was allowed, but was difficult owing to the glare of the lights reflected in the plastic. The preservation technique involved setting the letter into a solution which gives it a sort of border, making it look like it has been stuck onto a sheet of paper, whichever side you look at it from.The writing itself is very delicate, almost spidery, with light traces of bleeding through to the other side and is still highly visible; it is only the postscript that has suffered fading over time.However, I was looking at the thing that created the myth of ‘Jack the Ripper’, regardless of whether it was written by him. There were other documents in the file, including a hand written post-mortem report on Mary Kelly and a letter from Sir Robert Anderson regarding the Pinchin Street torso case.These documents were interesting in themselves, but do you know what item had the biggest impact? The envelope in which the ‘Dear Boss’ letter was sent. It made me feel quite uneasy and was plainly REAL. It showed evidence of staining and you could see the weave of the paper from which it was made. It was also surprisingly small. The words on the front (‘The Boss, Central News Office, London City’) had a cold, ominous feel to them, exaggerated by the knowledge of what it held within. I kept going back to the envelope, but was surprised at how looking at it made me feel, considering its more famous contents were sitting above. All in all, I spent an hour with that file.


At the end, I had to be present whilst an NA employee locked it into a cabinet, ready for transfer back to the safe room, but not before she kindly took my picture with it. It wasn’t until later that evening, in conversation with a friend, that I began to realise how fortunate I had been; I had begun to remember the importance and notoriety of that particular artefact.

Later, I asked the NA some questions about the letter and they very kindly replied. The letter and its accompanying documents are held in an NA safe room because it conforms to the following criteria: documents and other items of value to collectors for their format or their associations with famous or notorious individuals, organisations or movements. Basically, it sounds like an attempt to stop people overhandling it and probably stealing it (again). Other safe room objects include the 1225 Magna Carta, Shakespeare’s will, the Domesday Book, Hitler’s x-rays and original works by Milton and Ben Johnson.

The ‘Dear Boss’ letter is not very old in the scheme of things, but it does look very fragile. It is taken out of storage comparatively rarely. Apparently, it has been seen 52 times since 1999 – that being 27 times by NA employees (for presentations etc), 9 times by the Metropolitan Police and a mere 16 times by the general public, of which I must be no.16.

It is a fascinating item and I do consider myself fortunate to have been allowed a ‘private audience’ with it. I am incredibly grateful to the people at the NA who thankfully felt I was worthy and who continue to be helpful.


Oh and by the way, they search your transparent bag on the way out as well!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

While we're here...

Atmospheric, eh? This is Wood's Buildings, at one time one of the most authentically melodramatic alleyways in Ripperland. It does not feature in the case other than being where two workers from a nearby slaughterhouse popped for a smoke on the night of Mary Ann Nichols' murder. Personally, I would have picked somewhere a little less grotty, but there you go.
Wood's Buildings (as the name suggests) was once an alleyway of tenements that led to Winthrop Street, but these structures were demolished in the 1870's to make way for the train lines which now run underneath the area. Since that time, the alley was really little more than a footbridge over the railway, but this interesting little segment still survives.
It was often used by tour guides to evoke the atmosphere of victorian slums and to be frank was certainly a slum in itself. It was always used as a place for people to relieve themselves in an emergency and smelt accordingly. It remained accessible until 2003 when it was decided to close it off as a public security risk as it was becoming the haunt of muggers and drug dealers. As you can see by the recent photo (right), it has been blocked by a heavy steel gate and similarly at the other end. There are CCTV cameras in operation too, but this seems a little pointless as I don't reckon anybody could get in if they tried. Weeds are now taking over and these cameras, if they work, are literally watching the grass grow.

Wood's Buidings is just one example of disappearing Ripperland. So much has changed, even in the last 20 years, that people will tell you that the area is unrecognisable, or that it has lost all its period atmosphere. Personally, I don't think that's entirely so. If you just look around the Ripper murder sites alone, then you are going to be a little disappointed, granted, but there is still so much to see and discover. That's why this blog tries to get around a bit.

"Won't You Buy, Sir?"

Whitechapel Street Market is a very busy, frenetic, some would say even chaotic place at times. It was once one of London’s busiest street markets, particularly during the Victorian period, when Jewish and Irish vendors would compete for custom, selling everything from books, shoes, cutlery, birdcages, second hand furniture and even rat traps (no doubt useful things to have in those days). It was once said that you could furnish a house, feed a family and plant a garden from Whitechapel Market and most of that is true today, although the appeal of modern technology has created a significant shift in products on sale. You can still buy fresh meat and fish. You can still buy clothes for western and eastern cultures. You can even buy a mattress. But you can also buy DVD’s, mobile phones and the simcards that will get you through to Asian networks as well as Bollywood ringtones to complete the ensemble. In fact there are quite a lot of these phone stalls, sandwiched noisily between the discount clothing and bric-a-brac sellers.

It is a tremendously energetic place, in part due to its proximity to Whitechapel underground station, next door to which stands the old Whitechapel Working Lad’s Institute. Now in use as a discount general store (‘Pricebusters’), it was here, upstairs in the lecture hall, that the inquests into the murders of Ripper victims Mary Ann Nichols and Annie Chapman took place. The foyer of Whitechapel Station itself is a strange mixture of passengers in transit, wary London Underground staff and semi-nomadic types nursing cans of extra-strength beer and talking with anybody who will give them a minute, which is usually other semi-nomadic types. It makes you want to leave quite abruptly, avoiding eye-contact. Everything is on the move round here and on leaving the station the casual observer is almost swept into a maelstrom of activity. One is constantly weaving in and out of both static and moving bodies, or avoiding the attentions of pirate DVD sellers.

These enterprising individuals, invariably from the far east, seem to have a structure to their illicit sales, taking on a triangular formation, which I will explain thus. You encounter two sellers on your left, holding out the DVDs. If you attempt to distance yourself from them, you walk straight into a single person standing on the opposite side of the pavement. Continuing onwards for a few yards you are met with another two people, this time on your right, with a single seller standing opposite on your left. They take a lot of cunning to avoid. This can go on for approximately fifty to a hundred yards and can include as many as twelve individuals, but all working as a unit. I call this method ‘the old one-two’. Fortunately, they are not too pushy, but you have to admire their technique. It’s something a football coach would be proud of.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A visit to the London Hospital Museum

The Royal London Hospital is probably the most famous building in Ripperland. It is the largest general hospital in the country and it's earliest buildings date from the mid 18th-century. When it first admitted patients in 1757, all the wards faced out towards the then picturesque limehouse; to the west of the hospital was a large, ever-growing mound of refuse, known locally as 'The Mount' and although eventually cleared away, gave its name to Mount Terrace that exists on the site. Can you imagine living in a street named after a huge pile of crap? Odd, isn't it?

The London opened its medical college in 1784, the first of its kind, which was a revolutionary idea at the time and was run on the basis of a university faculty. A young Dubliner started his medical degree here in 1866 and whilst studying, became drawn into charitable work, inspired by the appalling social conditions in the area at that time. Dr Thomas Barnardo (for it was he) opened his first children's home in 1870 and devoted the rest of his life to helping the poor of East London. He eventually died from overwork in 1905.

Behind the Hospital is the museum and a lovely little treasure trove it is too.
Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) was discovered by Dr Frederick Treves in a freakshow at the back of 259 Whitechapel Road, now the Ukay International Saree Centre - and it's the same building, folks. He was admitted to the hospital in 1884 and there are plenty of fascinating exhibits in the museum related to him.

This, the most striking of all, is Joseph Merrick's hat and mask, an image which many of us will remember from the film starring John Hurt. Needless to say, the hat is very big!
Another interesting exhibit is the model church he made whilst at the hospital. The intricacy is unbelievable as you can see from the photograph below.

Photography was permitted at the museum and it has a very calm, relaxed feel to it. Incidentally, after my visit, I did make enquiries as to the possibility of viewing Merrick's skeleton, but it is curretly in safe storage whilst parts of the hospital are undergoing renovation. Usually, it is only shown to medical students and researchers anyway, but hey, I shall persevere.


There are many exhibits in this relatively small place, but the range is fascinating, from the stuff above, to old uniforms, medical instruments and documents. Even old Jack gets a look in; after the double murder of 30th September 1888, Frederick Foster was asked to make drawings of Mitre Square and the body of Catherine Eddowes in situ. Those drawings are preserved at the museum, along with a surgeon's knife of the time, considered to be the type of blade the Ripper used for his crimes. There is even forensic material (by Bernard Spilsby) relating to the Crippen and Christie murder cases.

One final picture then and quite a touching little exhibit, is the entry register for 1884 which has Merrick's name in it (fourth from the top). Underneath is his death certificate, citing cause of death as being asphyxiation. He had apparently tried to sleep with his head unsupported, causing pressure on his windpipe and thus suffocation.Entry to the museum is free.

Coming soon.... more rambles around the East End and a visit to the National Archive