The first episode of the BBC series 24 Hours in the Past reminded me of the conditions described in the novel, Whitechapel and on various walking tours in London. For example, there was the job of Pure Collector – someone who went round the streets with a bucket and picked out all the dog poo from the gaps in the cobbles. Horse poo, of which their were tons, were no good. It had to be dog poo. Once you had a bucketful, you took it to one of the tanneries in Whitechapel or Bow if you were an Eastender, or in Bermondsey if you were from “souff” of the river, and they’d give you a copper or two for it.
And if you know where to look amongst the 20th & 21st century urban blight that is the East End and modern South London today, you can still see evidence of the real life 19th century version of 24 Hours in the Past. An Old Borough, Bermondsey & Rotherhithe Walk will take you through the Dickensian streets of Little Dorrit & the Pickwick Papers; past the Victorian cottages of great reformer Octavia Hill; the charming old gated warehouses of Shad Thames are where the infamous Jacob’s Island once stood, where Bill Sikes got his come uppence at the end of Oliver Twist; the first pie & mash shop is still there due south of Tower Bridge; and there’s the characterful old village renowned as from where the Pilgrim Father set forth, but which also has amongst other things the world’s first tunnel under a river and one of the few remaining graveyard watchhouses, built for men to keep an eye on the recently departed’s 6 feet of earth when bodysnatching was at its height.
An Old East End Walk will show you the charming old Wapping of salty seadogs where pirates were hanged at Execution Dock and where Capt Bligh lived and drank in the some of the pubs still there today; where Turner owned a pub (no not the one that to this day wrongly claim’s to be Turner’s old pub). And then you walk on to Limehouse, where the oldest railway aqueduct is in situ, complete with its huge foundations – they built things to last 150+ years ago; where Dr Barnardo and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson worked a stone’s throw from one another in the fight against poverty. Then onto Stepney Green, parts of which still look exactly as they did in the 19th century (no wonder they film the Suspicions of Mr Whicher down there), complete with cobbles, tenements and two-doored shopfronts – one accessing the shop, the other the rooms upstairs and the outside toilet in the yard.
That’s takes us to a Whitechapel Without Jack the Ripper Walk. You start outside the London Hospital, built when the area was full of fields, including the Spitalfields. Opposite the hospital was where the Elephant Man was on display like an animal in a penny gaff converted from a shop. The shop is still there but now sells beautiful Bangladeshi saris. Just along the road is where William Booth started preaching and the fine old building in which he started the Salvation Army is still there today. On the same patch of land, a narrow strip of grass which is common land and is the East End’s equivalent of Hyde Park Corner (for speech making, and come to think of it for horrendous traffic too!) was where Eleanor Marx also gave rousing speeches. Head west and you’re in an area full of narrow Victorian streets. Or you think they’re narrow until you’re shown photographs of the alleys, courts and streets they replaced. And across from these is a 1900 hostel that was for the slightly more discerning homeless man. No horrendous common lodging houses for them – no paying 4d for a bed, 3d to share a bed with a stranger or 1d to “sleep on the string” (lean on a thick rope drawn tight across the room). The ‘respectable’ poor paid a shilling and got half decent accommodation. This hostel once housed a gentleman by the name of Joseph Stalin, over here for a socialist conference. It’s when he met a certain Mr Trotsky for the first time. They first met at what is today a drive-in McDonalds – the irony is thick indeed!And we’re also in the area where the Siege of Sidney Street took place, and during the same period a young lad by the name of Jack Cohen (Mr Tesco) started to form the idea of selling stuff off a stall.
And of course we’re also in the land of the Jack the Ripper Walk. The disgusting serial killer who ironically did more (indirectly of course) to highlight the horrendous poverty and squalor of 24 Hours in the Past, than any philanthropist. But even in the much altered Spitalfields area, there is still much from the era of Jack the Ripper. Toynbee Hall, the first of the university inspired missions set up to help, feed and educate the poor; old Wash Rooms; a Jewish Soup Kitchen; a huge Shelter for the “Deserving Poor”, almshouses, and the very pubs where the poor victims tried to drink their way out of their poverty driven misery.