Monday, November 16, 2009

Chris and Donna in the East End of London

A comment on trying to navigate the East End without a compass? Chris during his talk at the Jack the Ripper Conference, Widegate Street, 24 October, 2009. Photograph by Jeff Leahy.

First of all let me begin by saying that I have for some time felt a fake and a fraud in that although I have been an editor and a contributor to Ripper magazines for over a decade, I had not taken previously a tour of the murder sites. Not for want of trying, I might add: I was supposed to go on such a tour back in 2001 with the late great Adrian M. Phypers (aka Viper)... but for one reason or another it did not occur. I had been in the East End in 1969 and took some Super 8 movie film of Petticoat Lane Market but was not at that time interested in the Whitechapel murders.

So it was with particular interest I signed up for the London conference to be held at Kings Stores, Widegate Street, on 23-25 October, organized by Adam Wood. My wife Donna and I signed up to stay at the Ibis Hotel, Commercial Street and rented a sporty black Vauxhaull Invicta from Auto Europe (aka National) at Heathrow Airport for our whole 2-week trip, arriving on Friday, 16 October, the week before the conference. What we didn't have though was satellite navigation which would have helped greatly since the directions from Ibis were next to useless -- take the A13 from the M25 in toward the City and look for Aldgate. We spent around an hour driving round the East End trying to find the hotel in the dark on Friday night. This included an unwanted impromptu tour of the murder sites since I looked up at one point and noticed the street sign for Durward Street (formerly Buck's Row), site of the murder of Mary Ann ("Polly") Nichols on 31 August 1888.

We were even stopped by the police at one point ... they noticed we were driving haphazardly. The female constable gave us directions that supposedly would take us to the Ibis but she had directed us to Commercial Road not Commercial Street! Eventually I bought a spiral bound AA Street by Street Guide to Greater London from a Muslim newsagent on Whitechapel Road with a white knit cap. We eventually found the Ibis and I realized we had driven past it at least once because I recognized the lit-up sign of Toynbee Hall across the road. The hotel as it turned out was partly obscured from passing vehicles by a construction hoarding for whatever the building is that's going up at the corner of Commercial Street and Whitechapel High Street.

The Ibis is French run and I was directed by the French mademoiselle behind the desk to the nearest public parking facility, which turned out to the White's Row Parking Garage. We had purposely arrived late at night to avoid the "congestion charge" that is levied by the City of London, eight pounds a day, if you are on the streets between 7 am and 6 pm. Of course with the snafu of being lost I was way too late and too exhausted to take part in any of the conference activities on Friday evening. I was though curious to find the King's Stores so determined to seek out the convention site the following morning first thing.

One would have thought that the precious spiral bound AA Street by Street Guide to Greater London would be an aid here, wouldn't one. Well it wasn't, not unaided by outside internet help. Widegate Street although in the Index for the series of maps was not as such marked where it should have been. I eventually, through the aid of the conference website, determined that the Kings Stores is at the corner of Widegate Street and Sandy's Row, and I saw that the AA in their maps had Widegate Street, being a narrow and short road, marked as "W.S."!!! It wasn't the only such small road marked in the AA Street by Street Guide to Greater London with initials either. So much for authority!

So I discovered I could walk the following morning down the side of the White's Row Parking Garage to make my way toward the conference venue. As I neared the western end of the parking garage, I was astonished to see the stately pile of the Providence Row Night Refuge on Crispin Street right in front of me. I therefore realised that the murder site of Mary Jane Kelly at what was 13 Miller's Court, off what was on the morning of 9 November 1888 Dorset Street (now demolished) was only a few hundred yards away from me, on the opposite side of the parking garage. And this gave me what has remained an enduring impression of my visit to Spitalfields: how close together all the sites are. I had a real spooky feeling, and it impressed me how the killer was able to get away with it time and time again.

The below map by Jane Coram shows some of the sites. The Crossingham's lodging house at 35 Dorset Street is now gone, swept away to make way for the same circa 1920's warehouse built in Duval Street that replaced the site of Miller's Court, as was another Crossingham's at 16-19 Dorset Street, now under the site of the parking garage.

The Providence Row Night Refuge, since 2006 known as Lilian Knowles House and used as accommodation for students of the London School of Economics, is built in the sort of sickly looking yellow brick which is characteristic of a number of London buildings. I don't know whether it is something to do with the chalk in the London area that the brick is often yellow and not red. I am used to the red brick and red sandstone of Liverpool, blood red, like Gladstone's birthplace on Rodney Street in my home town!

I made my way up Artillery Passage, along the southern side of the former night refuge, a narrow medieval-like passage, which gives you the idea of age, and is a remainder of the old East End. There was a New Age bistro and a frou-frou store or two in the passage but otherwise, it could have been a century or more earlier. Thankfully such remainders still remind of how the area once looked even if, disappointingly, most of the murder sites are changed absolutely from what they once were. I found the Kings Stores and started on the way back to the hotel. I was serenaded on the walk back to the Ibis by two men in suits, one with a guitar, who claimed to be out-of-work bankers. I kid you not. They were singing something about Blackheath and accompanied me almost all the way to the Ibis before I eventually outdistanced them and one "banker" sang to the other that they had lost me and I was not going to fork out some money to them as they hoped. This trip was costing too damned much as it was! I did feel somewhat threatened by the experience but as a regular commuter from Baltimore to Washington D.C. on the Marc Train I am used to panhandlers at Union Station and don't usually "fold" when solicited.

To say I felt threatened while walking in Whitechapel/Spitalfields in early morning or at night and other times as well is probably an understatement. The area had a run-down look, not helped perhaps by the fact that the shops on Commercial Street all had metal shutters or grills pulled down and locked.

When walking from the Ibis Hotel, it was better to walk in a group than walking alone. Donna said she did not enjoy staying at the hotel because of the depressed feel of the area.

The Ten Bells looked from the outside paint-peeled and unattractive. I saw a prostitute or two hanging around in the area as I walked the streets.

In short, Spitalfields in October 2009 appeared to me not that different in atmosphere to what I would imagine the atmosphere was in same area in 1888.

I believe part of my unease of being in the East End was racial. That is, I knew of course that the East End now had a large Asian population, mostly immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, many of them Muslims from Pakistan. Was the feeling of being on the streets with people that were "other" than me part of the problem. During the walking tour with Philip Hutchinson on the morning of Sunday, 25 October, we went through Petticoat Lane Market on Wentworth Street. As per tradition, the market consisted of close together stalls on both sides of the street with clothing and other goods for sale, old CDs, records, bric-a-brac, people milling in the middle of the the street and on the sidewalks shoulder-to- shoulder, trying to get through or examining goods on tables or racks of clothing. Unlike the way I remembered the market from the Sixties when I was last there, the merchants in the market and the customers too almost all had an Asian background.

I thought that Philip's intent was to make for the site of the Goulston Street graffito, but that wasn't his idea. As a result, in the melee, part of the tour party got separated from the rest. To go through the area on market day with a tour party was probably not the brightest idea. Sorry, Philip!!!

Philip was actually heading down a side street, Castle Alley, to show us the Alice MacKenzie murder site (appropriate for the 1889 theme of the convention and my particular talk on police activity between the murder of Mary Jane Kelly and MacKenzie in July 1889). The two parts of the tour party managed to get patched back up together.

So in Petticoat Lane Market today most of the traders today are Indian or Pakistani. One of the party on the tour characterized what is sold today in the market to me as "tat" or cheap and shoddy merchandise. Perhaps so. We could have been in Cairo or Islamabad not the East End of London. Is it the language barrier or the spectre of Islamic terror that heightens the unease, or both?

During the Jack the Ripper tour: Chris George with Philip Hutchinson and his newly found photograph of Dutfield's Yard circa 1900. Photograph by Jeff Leahy.

1 comment:

nia said...

This seems that was a great Jack the Ripper tour, I haven't any idea about ripperology... (Yes, I was knowing this Jack the ripper events) but that was all. Thank you Chris, it was a nice reading and interesting too.