The report of the Metropolitan Police Chief Commissioner recorded exactly 1000 registered common lodging houses in London in 1889, providing accommodation for 31,651 people. These were mostly in the East End.
The main streets of the East End, such as Commercial Street and Whitechapel High Street, were extremely busy and profitable, with many middle-class businesses and shops – not the picture we associate with the Jack the Ripper case. However, as you turned off the main roads, down one side street and then another, you entered the criss-crossing warrens of back alleys and streets that made up much of the East End.
These were the streets that played host to the notorious cheap lodging houses, doss houses and rookeries, areas that were either dark blue or black (indicating the residents of these streets fell into the chronic want or vicious and semi-criminal category) on Charles Boot’s famous poverty map. These areas were known for violence, crime and immorality, with some places too dangerous for even the police to enter alone.
For those living in the underclass of the East End, including the victims of Jack the Ripper, life involved scraping together enough money for a new nights off the streets in one of these lodging houses. Private lodging houses charged around 4d per night.
Both Mary Ann Nichols and Annie Chapman were forced to leave their lodging houses on the nights they were murdered because they could not afford the 4d for a bed.
Author and social activist, Jack London, described small, privately run doss houses as ‘unmitigated horrors.’
By 1888, the doss house business was booming. Government schemes to clear the slums were causing a speculative market in lodging and doss houses with unscrupulous landlords, buying up property in anticipation of making a profit when it was compulsorily purchased by the Metropolitan Board of Workers.
The more tenants the landlords could cram into the lodging houses, the greater their compensation would be and, of course, the more rent they could earn in the meantime. So, that’s exactly what they did, with many landlords tearing down walls to create larger rooms and more space for beds.
Plus, there was no point in maintaining or repairing the buildings when they were only going to be torn down anyway. This mean the conditions of many were poor and, combined with the vast overcrowding, disease and frequent violence and theft, these lodgings were unpleasant to say the very least.
The East End was widely associated with prostitution, with many of the common lodgings or doss houses providing a space where these activities could take place. Violence and criminal activity were also rife. Ripper victim, Annie Chapman, was caught up in a brawl at Crossingham’s Lodging House, 35 Dorset Street, and was given a black eye and bruises by fellow resident Eliza Cooper, just a few days before her death.
All of the Jack the Ripper victims can be linked to the rookeries and doss houses of Flower and Dean Street and Dorset Street
Life for the underclass in London was unstable and involved moving around from place to place. Although people would often refer to one particular doss house as ‘home’, this did not mean they lived there permanently. Elizabeth Stride, for example, was reported to have lived on and off at 32 Flower and Dean Street for six years, even though for the majority of the two years leading up to her death, she lived in Dorset Street with her partner, Michael Kidney.
The Whitechapel Murders led to an increased commitment to clearing the slums, and the doss houses were slowly torn down and replaced with Model Dwellings, complete with a ‘better standard’ of tenant and the destitute and desperate were moved on.
The notorious Dorset Street, site of the final Ripper murder, bucked this trend with the number of lodging houses rising rather than falling after 1888. This helped Dorset Street to earn its famous reputation as ‘The Worst Street in London’.
Some of the old East End doss buildings can still be seen, including the Providence Row Night Refuge and Convent (where Ripper victim, Mary Kelly, is believed to have worked), which is one of the stops on our Ripper Vision tour.