London Research Trip, May 2012

28 May 2012

Christ Church, Spitalfields.

So anyway, I went on the most amazing research trip to London last Friday. The plan was pretty simple – stay in the heart of my beloved Spitalfields and take photographs and notes to help me while writing The Ripper Novel which is a time slip book incorporating both 1888 and 2012 Whitechapel. This wasn’t a hardship at all as my family come from Whitechapel and I’ve been kicking about the place off and on for longer than I can remember, although when my grandparents moved us back from Scotland they opted to live in Essex rather than go back to the East End, alas. I still regard it as my cultural, spiritual and ancestral home though so it’s always nice to go back.

I arrived at lunchtime on the Friday, ditched my stuff at my hotel on Osborn Street, which is at the end of Brick Lane and a bustling thoroughfare lined with Turkish and Indian cafes and shops and then headed out for a wander around in the simmering heat. I took photographs of interesting graffiti and visited Ripper Site Number Two – busy and faintly insalubrious Hanbury Street, where Annie Chapman’s body was found in the backyard of number 29.

Hanbury Street.

After this I had a trip to All Saints where I tried on a profusion of dresses, all of which were too big and too long for me and then went to have lunch in Spitalfields Market before strolling down Brushfield Street and then along to Middlesex Street and Goulston Street, where the infamous ‘The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing‘ graffiti and a piece of Catherine Eddowes’ apron were discovered in a doorway.

I then walked on to Mitre Square, which was Ripper Site Number Four via Ripper Site Number Five, which is that pokey service road at the side of White’s Row car park which marks the former site of the notorious and long vanished Dorset Street. Miller’s Court, where Mary Jane Kelly’s body was discovered was on the left of the street but it’s all been pulled down now.

Mitre Passage.

I couldn’t quite remember where Mitre Square was at first as I usually go at dusk and all the sunlight was a bit discombobulating but then turned a corner and there was Mitre Passage in front of me looking as dark and eerie as always. I felt a distinct chill in the air as I walked down Mitre Passage and it even seemed a bit like all sound was muted as well. Due to the movements of the police that fateful night in 1888, we can be fairly sure that the Ripper made his escape down Mitre Passage after murdering Catherine Eddowes…

I lurked in Mitre Square for a while waiting for this tour group to go away. They’re clustered in the spot where Catherine Eddowes’ body was found. As a Ripperologist, I am in no position to complain about the interest other people may have in Jack the Ripper but I’m a bit bemused by daylight Ripper tours. It’s much better to go at night! Another group came in after this one and I was a bit perturbed to hear the guide coming out with all sorts of antiquated nonsense about the case. He was also in the habit of emitting hideous shrill eldritch screams. In broad day light! What must the people in the surrounding offices think?! One day, however, I will do a tour and IT WILL BE AWESOME.

Poor old Catherine Eddowes was found on approximately this spot.

The entrance to Mitre Passage from Mitre Square. The Ripper probably made his escape this way. Or did he?

I went back to Spitalfields after this, pausing at the Hummingbird Bakery for a restorative slice of vanilla cake before wandering through the market and then back along Brick Lane. I carried on along Old Montague Street until I reached Durward Street, which is Ripper Site Number One. Back in 1888, Durward Street was known as Bucks Row and it was here on the 31st of August 1888 that Polly Nichols’ body was discovered on the pavement by the old board school, which is the tall building in the photograph.

Entrance to Durward Street aka Bucks Row.

The old board school building, which was there in 1888 and loomed over the site where poor Polly’s body was found.

After this, I went back to my hotel to get ready for the evening and felt really at home and happy as I listened to the call to prayer floating over Spitalfields while putting on my makeup. I’d arranged to meet some friends in the Princess Alice on Commercial Street and had an ace evening drinking gin and being remarkably silly. There was a LOT of gossip involving misuse of disliked names, tiaras, inappropriate wearing of bridesmaids dresses and MORE about dreadful people and I even had a proposal of marriage! However, we have a rule that What Happens At Gin And Whores Stays At Gin And Whores so my lips are sealed. After the pub I went up Brick Lane for a curry with my friends Del and Miranda, which was great fun. People always tut a bit at me when I say that I never feel at all unsafe in Whitechapel but it’s true – I walked back to my hotel alone at 2am without any qualms at all.

The next morning I packed up my stuff and then went for a walk across Whitechapel High Street to Henriques Street, which is Ripper Site Number Three. Back in 1888, Henriques Street was known as Berner Street and it was here that Elizabeth Stride’s body was discovered on the night of the 30th September – the first of what is known as The Double Event Murders. To be honest I’m not even sure that she was one of the Ripper’s victims but that’s no reason to forget all about her as I believe all these women should be remembered. I just wish they’d got as much concern and attention in life as they did after death.

Approximate spot of the entrance to the yard where Elizabeth Stride’s body was found.

Henriques Street is a miserable little road but when you recall how bustling and busy Whitechapel High Street was back in the late Victorian era, you start to get a real appreciation for how flagrant the Ripper was. This is also true of Hanbury Street and Dorset Street – both were busy and well populated. Bucks Row and Mitre Square, however, were altogether lonelier.

After leaving Henriques Street I walked towards the City, unintentionally going past Mitre Square as I went. It’s not actually that great a distance but certainly not ‘a few streets away’. However, my feet automatically took me that way as I headed to the City so if Elizabeth Stride was also murdered by the Ripper, I couldn’t dispute that his route may also have taken him past Mitre Square.

It was a real eye opener to visit all of the Ripper sites again as it gives a real feel for the areas and also the distance between them. In popular imagining, the murders all took place within a very small area but actually they were fairly widely apart. It’s possible to walk between all five with ease but they aren’t a few streets away from each other either.

After all this, I walked through the deserted City (hardly anyone lives there so virtually everything closes down at the weekend) past the Gherkin and those lovely old City churches that stand serenely in the midst of glinting blue glass office buildings and relentless modernity and on to Austin Friars.

Not the greatest outfit for a sweltering summer’s day in the City: All Saints dress and Doc Marten boots!

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a HUGE FAN of Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel and so I couldn’t resist a trip to see the site of Austin Friars, which was the main residence of Thomas Cromwell. Nothing now remains of the huge mansion complete with gardens and tennis courts that he built there for himself and his sprawling household but I think you can still get some sense of it. Austin Friars is a small quiet gated street tucked away in the streets in between London Wall and Old Broad Street. You have to concentrate very hard to imagine even the faintest essence of Thomas Cromwell in the air but what it does underline is the fact that he was very much a City Man with a residence that even in the sixteenth century was at the very heart of the old City and at the centre of the London financial world with its guilds, aldermen and banking houses.

I was extremely moved to stand on the site of Thomas Cromwell’s home, which is now the Drapers’ Hall at the end of Throgmorton Street and even wept a little tear for him. Or at least for the Cromwell that Mantel conjured up, whom I am madly in love with. In the pub the night before, I joked about falling through my own time slip and ending up in Tudor England where I would show Thomas Cromwell my iPhone and recommend that he tries Cut The Rope. Sadly, however, the sun shone and a slight breeze rose making the trees in the small gated garden rustle their green skirts enticingly but there were no sightings of long dead men.

I carried on through the city, past the Crutched Friars (Thomas Wyatt was given the Crutched Friars church after the Dissolution and apparently pulled it down to build a tennis court) and on to the London Wall where I ate a peaceful lunch in a pretty garden on one of the high walks leading to the Museum of London. My first London job after leaving university was in Moorgate and I always smile to myself a bit when I walk past what was my office, remembering the callow goth that I once was. Oh dear.

The London Wall is dotted with ruins from a long gone age.

I paid a quick visit to the Museum of London, conscious that I had a bus and train to catch back home to Bristol and wanted to have a last drink in the sunshine at Spitalfields Market before I went. I bought presents, including fab tea towels with eighteenth century ladies on them and books about the Great Fire for the Seven Year Old. In the museum itself I was particularly taken with this dress, which was worn by a little girl in honour of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. How lovely! I’m surprised no one has produced replicas.

SUCH a pretty dress!

Anyway, that was the end of my research visit. I’ll be back again once the Olympics have gone away as I glimpsed quite a few old pubs and winding alleyways that are just crying out for exploration. There was a wedding at Christ Church, Spitalfields on Saturday morning and the sound of bells really gladdened my heart as I made my way home.