East London

In Spitalfields: Dorset Street was “the Worst Street in London”

For the Daily Mail in 1901 Dorset Street was “the Worst Street” in London.” The notorious stretch in Spitalfields was somewhere that “boasts a murder on average once a month, of a murder in every house, and one house at least, a murder in every room,” it wrote.

The authorities left the inhabitants by and large to their own devices. “Policemen go down it as a rule in pairs,” the Mail added. “Hunger walks prowling in its alleyways, and the criminals of to-morrow are being bred there to-day.”

Laid out in 1674 as Spitalfields expanded as London’s premier silk weaving district, Dorset Street was already starting to look ramshackle by the 18th century. And in the 19th century – when the trade was starting to fade away – is was dominated by sprawling, grimy common lodging houses that even covered former gardens so that landlords could squeeze even more people into their accommodation.

If you visit Spitalfields today, you won’t find anywhere called Dorset Street. The crumbling buildings that were used as lodging houses started to be pulled down from the 1920s during the re-development of Spitalfields Market. Where Dorset Street once festered, a shiny new office block is emerging as part of an overhaul of the old London Fruit and Wool Exchange building.

London Fruit and Wool Exchange development (on the old Dorset Street site)

Dorset Street may be gone, but it is by no means forgotten. Jack the Ripper walking tours – which attract large groups of visitors who want to see the spots where serial killer murdered his victims in 1888 – pass through this area. Three of the five women killed lived or worked in Dorset Street and one, Mary Kelly,  was found dead in a room on this stretch.

Perfect storm

On the wall of the Ten Bells pub, just across the road from Spitalfields Market, there is a fine Victorian tiled mural depicting the area in the mid-18th century. Back then the neighbourhood was at the height of its prosperity as London’s premier silk weaving district. One of the scenes depicts a prosperous looking gent and lady “visiting a weaver’s shop”; they are shown inspecting cloth.

Mural depicting mid-18th century Spitalfields

Dutch weavers fleeing persecution by Catholic rulers had first moved to Spitalields in the the 1580s, setting up homes in an area that had once been dominated by a medieval hospital called St Mary Spital. But it was the arrival of Huguenot refugees a century later that had the biggest impact on the physical development of the area. In the rush to build homes as quickly as possible for the arriving craftsmen many properties were not that well built, including those in Dorset Street. Surviving splendid terraced houses like those in Fournier Street and Elder Street are from slightly later on.

But by the latter decades of the 18th century cracks were beginning to emerge in the Spitalfields silk weaving industry. The Spitalfields Acts of 1773 – which guaranteed wages for weavers and restricted the number of workers that could enter the industry – convinced some master weavers that it was better for then to operate from other parts of the country where such restrictive legislature measures weren’t in place. There must have been however still some life left in the area then, as Fiona Rule – author of an excellent book on Dorset Street’s history – tells us that in the early 1820s Thomas Wedgwood opened an upmarket china showroom here (which survived to the mid-1840s).

As I wrote in my last blog on Spitalfields, the area was starting to struggle on the back series of measures in the first half of the 19th century which permitted cheap French imports. Around the same time there was an overall decline in popularity of woven silks and the trade fell into a downward spiral.

Silk weaving was by no means the only industry in Spitalfields – Truman’s brewery had had operated since 1669 and Spitalfields Market was expanding in the 18th century – however its fall from grace was a bitter blow for the neighbourhood. Some people who were out of work turned to crime and prostitution to keep a roof over their heads. Others starved to death.

And into this perfect storm more people – including many Irish settlers fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s – arrived in the area in search of work. This put enormous pressure on East End housing and as early as the 1830s there were reports of serious overcrowding.

In response to demand, common lodging houses – including numerous ones in Dorset Street – sprung up to cater for those needing places to live. They offered accommodation on a nightly basis and were typically frequented by those on the margins of society, including common criminals and people who chose not to work, as well as those who were too ill or old to work.

Living conditions deteoriated. “Soon the cheaper accommodation in the alleys and courts became overrun with people,” wrote Fiona Rule. “Disease spread quickly in such a claustrophobic atmosphere and the more desperate residents to petty crime in order to meet ends meet.”

“The elegant master weavers’ homes that had been so lovingly designed and furnished in the 1700s were now suffering from severe neglect,” Fiona Rule wrote of 19th century Dorset Street. “Roofs leaked, plaster fell off the walls, the kitchen ranged were clogged with grease and floorboards began to fall away.” But buried underneath all the grime was “elaborately carved doorways, intricate cornices and granite hearths,” she said. The Builder even reported of the terrible case of a child dying in Dorset Street in 1857 when the house they were in collapsed.

But as if things couldn’t get any worse, the authorities started demolishing slums which put pressure on the housing that remained and merely served the interests of unregulated landlords who could push up rents. Commercial Street, which was approved in 1845, went pretty much nowhere for the first 20 years of its life but its creation led to people being made homeless. Equally, the rapid construction of railways in the first half of the 19th century saw homes demolished to enable lines and stations to be laid.

Between the 1790s to 1820s vast new docks were enclosed in East London, which brought construction jobs and created opportunities for casual workers to help with loading and unloading once they were complete. But perhaps the biggest impact of the their opening was the homes that needed to be demolished. For the landlords of common lodging houses in places like Dorset Street, things had never been better.

Profiting from poor

The people who really benefitted from the overcrowding in the East End were the unscrupulous proprietors who fleeced residents on accommodation. One police officer in Spitalfields in late 19th century said of the common lodging houses that “the landlords of these places… are to my mind, greater criminals than the unfortunate wretches who have to live in them.” Running lodging houses helped men who had been born into lowly families attain middle class lifestyles, with some even being able to afford to send their children to private boarding schools.

Jack McCarthy – who ran the Dorset Street premises where Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim was murdered – represented one of a mere handful of families who came to own or let the common lodging houses in the area by 1888. The proprietor of a butcher’s shop, he started buying up properties on Dorset Street at knock-down prices, then joined them together and even built over the gardens so he could take in more people.

“Although the common lodging houses were dreadful places for their inhabitants, the owners of these establishments were able to carve out very lucrative careers for themselves,” wrote Fiona Rule. “Many of the lodging house keepers at the time were long-term residents of Spitalfields who were fortunate enough to have the resources to buy up suitable property and convert it quickly and cheaply.”

But the proprietors of the common lodging houses wanted to take far more from their customers than merely fees for a night’s accommodation. They also ran stores which kept long hours and had a monopoly on selling essential items such as bread, candles and soap. Proprietors ensured they maintained big margins by often buying goods like meat and fish for re-sale from casual workers who had pilfered them from London’s markets.

And allowing common lodging houses to operate as brothels provided an additional revenue stream for proprietors. Women who struggled to get other types of work found a steady stream of male customers willing to pay for their services, for which the landlords would take a cut of their fees and also charge them rent. Proprietors would even station doormen, known as ‘bullies’, outside their residences to keep trouble makers out and ensure that people also couldn’t get away without paying. As the East London Observer reported in 1888 it seems the authorities paid little attention as to what was going on: “No surveillance is exercised, and a women is at perfect liberty to bring any companion she likes likes to share her accommodation.”

Inadequate reform

There were attempts at reform, but the measures taken were not seen as effective in the slightest. Perhaps a case in point was the Common Lodging Houses Act, which was passed in 1851. “In their wisdom, the politicians responsible for drawing up the act came to the conclusion that the common lodging houses caused problems not because of the wanton lack of facilities and the type of person that frequented them but because they lacked supervision and clear rules and regulations,” wrote Fiona Rule.

Clear signs needed to be installed outside common lodging houses explaining what the business was, windows were ordered to be kept open during the day to allow for ventilation and minimum amounts of space between beds was prescribed. But there was nothing stipulated about how many people could sleep in each bed and rooms became cold. And only houses let to people on a nightly place needed to be registered, so some proprietors simply switched let their residences out to customers on a weekly basis to escape the legislation. In any case, upholding the regulation required inspections to take place by the police, who weren’t said to be that diligent in their duties.

Canon Barnett wrote to the Times in 1898 declaring the road to be the “centre of evil” and commented: “The lowest of all prostitutes are found in Spitalfields, on the benches round the church, or sleeping in the common lodging houses of Dorset Street. Women have often found their way there by degrees from the streets of the West End. He (the policeman accompanying him) spoke of Dorset Street as in his opinion the worst street in respect of poverty, misery, vice – of the whole of London.”

The social explorer Charles Booth, who produced his now famous poverty maps, labelled it “the worse street in London”. The stretch – which was frequented by prostitutes, gamblers and gangs – became known as Dossett Street because of the number of doss houses. And then came a highly damning newspaper article from the Daily Mail.

Defying critics

The Daily Mail’s 1901 “Worst Street in London” article rattled landlords of common lodging houses in Spitalfields, not least Jack McCarthy. Although the proprietor was not personally named by the journalist Frederick McKenzie in his piece, he felt like he had to defend his trade.

McCarthy took to the floor at a public meeting convened at Duke of Wellington pub in Shepherd Street (now Toynbee Street) in which told the audience he intended to “take this article, piece by piece, and prove to you there is not a particle of truth in it from beginning to end.” With a copy of the newspaper in his hand and the author of the article bravely watching the proceedings, that is exactly what he did; suggesting the murder claims were “wicked lies” and said Dorset Street compared “favourably with any street in the world.”

Speaking for almost two hours, McCarthy also attacked the Rector of Spitalfields, who was known for his philanthropic work and which the Mail had claimed had opened a “home for respectable girls” (“Where is it?” he asked). McCarthy added: “I don’t see why I should spare these people… whenever the slightest little thing occurs in Dorset Street, the Rector of Spitalfields and Toynbee Hall people pounce on it like a hungry man on a dinner.”

McCarthy went as far as suggesting it was people like him who were the real heroes and they had done “more for the prevention of crime than any other class of people in the world.” He said landlords employed “the poor out-of-work” as well as providing hand outs so that men could go to “the markets or docks and get a day’s work.”

“Even knowing that he was largely preaching to the converted, Jack McCarthy’s speech leaves the impartial observer with the impression that Dorset Street was inhabited almost solely by cheeky cockney types who would not look out of place in a production of Oliver! presided over by altruistic landlords only too willing to sacrifice their rental income in order to provide shelter for the needy,” wrote Fiona Rule.

The council felt that after all the negative publicity, Dorset Street needed a re-brand and so in 1905 its name was changed to Duval Street. But the common lodging houses on this stretch survived when other slums in the area were demolished (although they did face stricter registration requirements from 1903).

It wasn’t town planners and do-gooders that brought the end for the notorious residences on Duval Street, but a decision taken by the landlords themselves.

With the East End increasingly becoming made up of Eastern European Jewish immigrants demanding family accommodation, rather than single person lodgings, proprietors saw a dip in demand. And then came the First World War, which saw many young men leave Spitalfields to serve their country abroad. Better transport from the early 20th century also meant that people could move out to the suburbs and yet still be able to find work in central London.

Seeing the writing on the wall, landlords like Jack McCarthy voted in favour of redevelopment plans for Spitalfields Market, which would see Duval Street widened and properties on its north side demolished. The Miller’s Court proprietor left for Clapham, south London, where he lived until his death in 1934.

In the place of the common lodging houses on the north side of Duval Street, the City of London Corporation built the new London Fruit and Wool Exchange in 1929. Duval Street was, to much protest, completely wiped out in 2015 and the new building, being built behind the 1920s facade, is nearing completion. The office element will be occupied by Ashurst, but there will also be shops, restaurants and bars. It seems a very different place to the days of Dorset Street.

London Fruit and Wool Exchange development (on the old Dorset Street site)

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