Entering the Workhouse

In Chapter 9, we see that Jack London finally succeeded in entering the Whitechapel workhouse casual ward. He opened the chapter with an apology to his body for what he forced it to endure.

Again, engaging in conversation with the men sharing his predicament, he learned that many knew no better way to get on in the lives they had. The men told stories of their experiences in the various spikes (workhouses), some with happy endings, some with sad ones. They gave a warning of what awaited the infirm within the workhouse infirmary, the “blackjack” or “white potion,” they believed was given to hasten the departure of those who lingered in disease and had become a burden to the relief system. They shared knowledge of those who hated them, those who felt that the human beings who entered the relief system were barely human and deserving of no compassion. Those people frequently saw paupers as society’s pirates, conmen, selfish individuals not willing to do their share in life and who knowingly drag everyone else down. Some of the haters were those who worked within the relief system itself.

A conversation between Elizabeth and John Stride in Say Anything But Your Prayers helps to express some of the feelings. In this scene, Elizabeth is home in the evening after performing her daily labor of oakum picking at the Poplar workhouse for the out relief she and her ill husband are receiving:

In her second week of out relief labor, Elizabeth could not contain her complaints any longer. “I understand the workhouse guardians want the work to be a hardship so only the truly needy seek relief,” she said to John, “but why must they work us until we’re miserable?”

“For fear wages will suffer,” he said, “Parliament doesn’t want relief to compete with labor.”

“Jobs are so hard to come by, wages drop anyway,” Elizabeth said. “There are so many hungry people who’ll die without relief.”

“Some workhouse Guardians have good intentions. At least once a week, though, I read in the newspaper that some crow or another in Parliament is squawking about how those who bear the harsh treatment deserve it because they lack the moral strength to do better. You know that’s the common belief.”

Indeed, he was’t telling Elizabeth anything she didn’t already understand. When she’d worked in the coffee shop, she’d heard plenty of well-dressed people push such ideas about the poor. Most were careful not to sound too heartless. Working with Lettie at laundries and kitchens, she’d noticed the same sort of message was well received and repeated by many laborers who treated the poor as scapegoats, despite the fact that the workers themselves suffered low wages, long hours, and no redress with employers who had little regard for the needs of those they employed.


“Holding Back Tears” copyright©2014 Alan M. Clark. Interior Illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: SAY ANYTHING BUT YOUR PRAYERS by Alan M. Clark

John shook his head. “As long as people see the poor as mumpers, prigs, and sharpers, employers will do as they please.”

“I’m no thief or con artist!” Elizabeth said. “I don’t go to the workhouse because I’m not willing to do better.”

“I know,” John said, gently reaching to take her dry, cracked hands. “You’re a hard working woman.”

When she’d arrived for the first time in London so long ago, Elizabeth was alarmed by the large crowds and the abundance of activity. She’d thought of the city as a great, hungry beast trying to digest her. At present, she saw the workhouse as the London beast’s gastric mill, a gizzard full of hard knocks meant to grind the toughness out of those the city might have trouble digesting otherwise. She was determined not to let it beat her, but feared she would soon meet her limit.

The scene above takes place in the year 1877. The ranks of the homeless had grown exponentially and the conditions within the relief system had worsened immensely in the following twenty-five years. Jack London ate the bitter food of the workhouse, and stayed the night, barely able to sleep in a filthy hammock within inches of his neighbors and surrounded by men reeking of bodily neglect, noisy in their gastric and respiratory distress, and crying out in their sleep from nightmares. The next day, the labor he was given for the relief benefits he’d received was to help keep clean the workhouse infirmary. While doing so, he was exposed to the virulent and potentially deadly refuse of the sick and dying. The conditions being harsher than he’d imagined and figuring he’d got the sampling he needed to talk about the experience with verisimilitude, he decided at the end of the work day to flee through the gate that had been opened to admit the dead wagon, which had come to the workhouse to collect the bodies of five inmates. He was required by the system to stay another night or forfeit the right to apply for relief in the future. The author did not hesitate in making his decision.

Workhouse Infirmary

I spoke to a conservative friend about what Jack London was doing in writing The People of the Abyss. Her response was, “If he’d really been willing to know what it was like, he wouldn’t have set up the extra room as a retreat, and he wouldn’t have picked summer as the time to do the investigation.”

I thought that an extraordinary dismissal of the author’s effort.

Another, ultra-conservative responded similarly, but with more vehemence. “Jack London was a communist. The fact that he did it during warm weather and had a room to go hide in when things got tough shows he was just a bleeding heart. The poor were probably encouraged by communists. London has always had a lot of immigrants. The book is tripe.”

Hmmmm? Sounded to me like someone trying to apply 21st century right wing talking points to 1902 London. I know a lot of people, many of them brave and generous, willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, but I do not personally know anyone who has the guts to do anything like what Jack London did just to see how the unfortunates of the world suffered. I am certainly not the sort of person brave enough to do that.

Immigrants were the problem then too, huh?

Scapegoats are a-dime-a-dozen when people are scared that they will not have enough or that their world might have to change a little to allow for someone else. There are always those seeking followers, individuals willing to stoke those types of fears to gain and solidify power. We have so-called leaders in America today who use those tactics. It’s easy to follow such strong men, because they point out the best scapegoats, heap ridicule on them in a particularly clever way, and thereby provide a convenient target for unfocused anger.

The trick with scapegoats is not getting to know them too well. They must remain out of focus in order for their role to continue. Stick with stereotyping the scapegoat or suffer uncomfortable compassion and discover that a real human being exists under the heavy cloak of suspicion and turpitude they’ve been forced into. The soft people of the society to which I belong, and I include myself in this—with our myriad conveniences and comforts, with our television and internet-groomed perspectives and personalities, and our sated bellies and psyches—we should be very careful about what and how we learn about how the other half live. Sorry—my fraction of one half may be a little off.

Yes, sarcasm. I get petty and small at times.

Many of those Jack London met in the workhouse were those who fell on hard times through no fault of their own, had no family to help them, and could find no way out of their predicament. Some were merely too old to be considered employable in a job market with too few jobs in a society filled with eager young people seeking work. Some suffered damage from performing the work they were qualified to do and could no longer function in the field of their expertise. So many people died suddenly of communicable diseases, especially those living in the close quarters of the East End, that sometimes all but one member of a family had passed on. In that case, the entire family safety net for the individual remaining was gone.

When I hear conservatives and libertarians, especially those who will brook no compromises, talk about giving the markets freedom and deregulating, I think of the laissez-faire capitalism of Victorian England, which had in the time of Jack London’s investigation just spilled over into the Georgian Era. I think of the abuses against workers the system allowed. I think of the poisoning of the environment and consequently the poisoning of the citizens. I think of the ineffective safety net for the old and infirm. I think of the power of greed and wonder that so many willingly or cynically disregard that in their political calculations.

Some regulations are meant to help society. Some are meant to line the pockets of those who lobbied for them, but the problem isn’t one-sided. Where I live in Eugene Oregon, I have to have a smoke alarm in each room in my house. Clearly, someone wanted to sell more smoke alarms. There are also regulations to prevent my neighbors from allowing waste, raw sewage, and chemicals in the runoff from their property into the storm sewers. That helps preserve the life that depends on the flow of clean groundwater and helps keep the rivers that constitute our municipal water sources from becoming poisonous. So many people fish those streams and depend on them for commerce of many types. A fellow down the street from me was running a mechanic shop out of his home garage, working mostly on outboard engines and snowmobiles. He was shut down for allowing waste, including gasoline and old oil from his business to run into the street drains. He saw that as a great injustice.

My response to my conservative friend concerning Jack London making his investigation in summer and establishing a retreat in the form of a warm, dry room: “The author put himself and his health at risk in order to gain understanding and to share what he found.”

I’ll add to that response here for my ultra-conservative acquaintance: Jack London could have just written an adventure story. He was good at it, and the ability had earned him money and fame.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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People trying to get into the workhouse.

Having arrived too late to secure a place for the night in the Whitechapel workhouse casual ward in the previous chapter, in chapter 8, Jack London and 2 other men try to make it to the Poplar Workhouse—3 miles distant from the Whitechapel Workhouse—in time to find a place to rest for the night.

We learn about these men as the author does during conversations while they walk.  They are average, working class fellows, one a carter, one a carpenter. Jack London considers them old at ages 58 and 65 respectively, but I believe he arrives at his opinion based on context—the men are trying to survive in the city of London. Both men are unemployed and have no prospects because they are poor and considered too old for the job market.

The safety net in Great Britain at the time was the relief system of the workhouse.  For a bed and the most crude form of nutrition, inmates of the system were required to perform labor for many hours at such tasks as picking 4 pounds of oakum per day, or breaking at leasts 1000 pounds of rock with a sledge hammer in the same time period.  The breaking of stone into gravel is straight-forward enough, but picking oakum requires some explanation for modern audiences.


Women in the workhouse picking oakum.

Oakum, a product of recycled rope, was used to fill the gaps in the timbers and decking of wooden ships. The fibers were tarred and pounded into the gaps to make ships water-tight. The task was one, much like rock breaking, that was used in penal systems in America as well as in Great Britain, and other countries. I included a scene of oakum picking in my Jack the Ripper Victims series novel about the life of Elizabeth Stride, Say Anything But Your Prayers. In the following scene, the character is receiving “out-relief” in return for daily labor. In her case, the relief constitutes a few shillings and a loaf of bread per week for her and her husband, John Stride.  He has been too ill to work for such a long time that the couple is destitute, despite the fact that Elizabeth has been competing for every job she can get, and has for the longest time only been able to find short term sewing and scouring work. The funds and the bread provided by the relief system are barely enough to keep the couple alive. She walks to the workhouse each morning to perform the required labor:

The Matron led Elizabeth to a work station in a high-ceilinged hall, reminded her of the prohibition against talking, and left. Elizabeth sat on a hard wooden bench with other inmates. Short partitions on the bench separated her from the women seated on either side. Nearby inmates glanced at her with little curiosity. A staff member, perhaps another inmate, dumped at Elizabeth’s feet a bundle of rope segments chopped into ten to twenty inch lengths. The densely spun brown sections, streaked with tar, were to be carefully unraveled and untangled, each fiber liberated from the others and piled together.

She made short work of undoing her first length of rope.

The work isn’t as bad as you feared, she thought.

As Elizabeth performed the task repetitively over the course of many hours, reality set in. Sitting for so long on the hard seat that had no backrest drove her hips and spine to agony. In short order, the labor became an abrasive insult to the flesh of her hands.

This next bit of description comes from my Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols (Polly is living in the workhouse at the time):

Chaplain Emes gave the after-breakfast devotion. While putting her hands together in prayer, Polly gently rubbed the aching joints of her digits, careful not to crack open the painful whitlows at her fingernails that came from endless hours of picking oakum.

The men with Jack London are in a hurry to get to the workhouse, knowing full well what awaits them: The labor, a crude bed, a breakfast consisting of 6 oz of hard bread, and 12 ounces of bitter-tasting oatmeal or Indian corn gruel called skilly, 8 more ounces of the hard bread and 1 1/2 ounces of cheese that constitutes a midday meal, and the same for supper, but with the addition of another 12 ounces of skilly. That is more than these men have on the street, and they fear the coming of night; trying to find a hidden spot to “sleep rough” through the long hours of darkness; trying to stay warm and relaxed enough to doze off and get some rest while the police try to disrupt them at every opportunity. No doubt they would also worry about being molested in some way while vulnerable with their eyes closed, but they know they must smell like hell, and that others can clearly see they have nothing of value to steal. Still, in the London night there were feral dogs, plenty of hungry rats, and of course the vagaries of human behavior.

Though they hurry to the Poplar workhouse, along the way, they also scavenge without breaking their strides, finding and eating the discarded parts people have dropped on the footway of fruit; orange skin, grape stems, rotting apple cores. They pick up anything that might hold any nutritional value, pop it into their mouths, and swallow.

They act like starving dogs, yet are intelligent, well-informed human beings. They have discussions about politics and human nature. They advise Jack London, who has given his circumstance as that of an American seaman who ran on hard times in London and became trapped in the city, to flee the country ASAP.

The three men did not make it to the Poplar workhouse in time, but I will not spoil Jack London’s tale by telling what else took place in chapter 8.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Stalls for sleeping in the casual ward of the workhouse.

Jack London tried to shelter in the casual ward of the Whitechapel workhouse in chapter 7. While waiting in line, he learned about how a homeless veteran of the British Navy, one who earned the Victoria Cross, had fared over the years. The man, 87 years of age, said that he wished he’d drowned and died while in the navy years earlier because his life wasn’t worth living. “Don’t you ever let yourself grow old, lad,” he said to the author. The fellow had made the terrible mistake of striking a superior officer, and had served time in prison for that. Before that, he’d seen action in military engagements in several wars, and been an exemplary member of the navy, having won not only the metal, but three good conduct stripes.

He seems a long-ago reflection of what we see among homeless veterans today. We know so much more now about the damage to the psyche that seeing combat brings, and yet that knowledge seems to do little good for our veterans.

With the fellow’s age at 87, we can see that if one lived to become an adult, one had a chance to grow old, just as we do today. Again, it is the infant mortality rate that drove the expected lifespan down for those of London. Even so, 87 seems an unusually advanced age for one of his time and circumstances. Of course, the old veteran spent much of his life on the sea in the open air, not in poisonous London. Perhaps that helps account for the difference.

The casual ward of the Whitechapel workhouse as described by Jack London, sounds like an indoor facility, which is different from at least some of those of the time of Jack the Ripper. Catherine Eddowes, JTR’s 4th victim, spent the two nights prior to her death in the Mile End Casual Ward. The casual ward was a segment of the facility for those who needed a place to sleep but either didn’t want to enter the workhouse proper or were unwelcome, such as those who arrived clearly ill or criminals known to the workhouse staff. The inmates were given a stall with straw as bedding. Jack London describes sleeping in a hammock.

On the night of her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, Catherine Eddowes’s body was found at the crime scene to have, including clothing, over fifty personal items, many of them in pockets hidden among her skirts. She was wearing several layers of clothing. She probably had so many items with her because she was homeless, and while staying in the casual ward, she would have slept with all her possessions to prevent theft. She may have been carrying everything she owned on her.

Here’s the list of items found with Catherine Eddowes’s body (the list begins with her clothing):
-Black straw bonnet trimmed in green and black velvet with black beads. Black strings, worn tied to the head.
-Black cloth jacket trimmed around the collar and cuffs with imitation fur and around the pockets in black silk braid and fur. Large metal buttons.
-Dark green chintz skirt, 3 flounces, brown button on waistband. The skirt is patterned with Michaelmas daisies and golden lilies.
-Man’s white vest, matching buttons down front.
-Brown linsey bodice, black velvet collar with brown buttons down front
-Grey stuff petticoat with white waistband
-Very old green alpaca skirt (worn as undergarment)
-Very old ragged blue skirt with red flounces, light twill lining (worn as undergarment)
-White calico chemise
-No drawers or stays
-Pair of men’s lace up boots, mohair laces. Right boot repaired with red thread
-1 piece of red gauze silk worn as a neckerchief
-1 large white pocket handkerchief
-1 large white cotton handkerchief with red and white bird’s eye border
-2 unbleached calico pockets, tape strings
-1 blue stripe bed ticking pocket
-Brown ribbed knee stockings, darned at the feet with white cotton
-2 small blue bags made of bed ticking
-2 short black clay pipes
-1 tin box containing tea
-1 tin box containing sugar
-1 tin matchbox, empty
-12 pieces white rag, some slightly bloodstained
-1 piece coarse linen, white
-1 piece of blue and white shirting, 3 cornered
-1 piece red flannel with pins and needles
-6 pieces soap
-1 small tooth comb
-1 white handle table knife
-1 metal teaspoon
-1 red leather cigarette case with white metal fittings
-1 ball hemp
-1 piece of old white apron with repair
-Several buttons and a thimble
-Mustard tin containing two pawn tickets, One in the name of Emily Birrell, 52 White’s Row, dated August 31, 9d for a man’s flannel shirt. The other is in the name of Jane Kelly of 6 Dorset Street and dated September 28, 2S for a pair of men’s boots. Both addresses are false.
-Printed handbill and according to a press report- a printed card for ‘Frank Carter,305,Bethnal Green Road
-Portion of a pair of spectacles
-1 red mitten

Finding and reading this list is what humanized Catherine Eddowes for me, and inspired the first novel within my Jack the Ripper Victims series, Of Thimble and Threat.


Study for the cover of Am Seidennen Faden: Ein Opfer von Jack the Ripper, which is the German language edition of Jack the Ripper Victims Series: Of Thimble and Threat. “Study for “Of Thimble and Threat” copyright©2012 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil on brown paper.

Her possessions are rather rudimentary by modern standards. She was missing the shopping cart and the plastic garbage bags, but otherwise, she seems familiar. Instead of the plastic bags, she had the pockets under her skirts. Considering the bag lady and the homeless veteran, then and now, clearly the more things change the more they stay the same.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Sweat shop cartoon

In chapter 6, we find the origin of the expression “sweat shop” and get a glimpse of the miserable jobs, repetitive and requiring no imagination or intellect, that the people of the abyss were grateful to have. Tiny factories existed within single rooms of tenements that were largely still used as residences. These sweating dens, as the were called, were run by what were known as sweaters. The sweated were people, including children, who worked in such little factories for up to 14 hours a day, finishing products started elsewhere, such as clothing, shoes, saddles, and many other manufactures. To hold a job of that sort, the worker had to seem eager, as well as being fast and efficient at the work. You didn’t want to get old or worn down in any way that might compromise your ability to do the job. Countless unemployed were waiting in the wings to replace any who fell behind. And, of course, machinery, like the sewing machine, was quickly replacing huge chunks of the manual labor. Again, this was an employer’s job market, and those employers could be as particular and ruthless as they chose to be.


Sleeping Rough by Day

The people were grateful to have these jobs? Just when we decide that the work isn’t worth it, Jack London is shown the alternative. He’s taken to a park that is overflowing with homeless. They are a miserable, diseased lot of men and women of all ages taking up most of the horizontal surfaces within a fenced garden area. They lean against one another, they use each other as pillows as nearly every one of them sleeps. The park closes at night and no sleeping is allowed there after dark. The police were charged with the task of preventing the homeless from sleeping out of doors.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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5586386640_dfc831c32c_oIn chapter 5, we get the merest glimpse of the sort of strife that occurred among people living in such close quarters. Jack London describes a fight among primarily women that occurred in the yard behind his room as he went about his writing for the day. He’d been in the midst of expressing his views on the downward spiral individuals, and indeed, generations had experienced in “the abyss,” how poor nutrition and lack of hope had sapped the strength of a people he saw as essentially strong, capable human beings. The anger involved in the fight outside seemed to have little vitality, although blows were traded and rocks used as weapons. The author didn’t appear to be alarmed, perhaps because he knew that those at odds hadn’t had sufficient nutrition to do each other real harm.

Many of the poor, who were lucky to have a bit of meat maybe once a week and fresh vegetables somewhat more frequently, ate mostly carbohydrates in the form of potatoes, bread, and alcohol. One inexpensive and rather tasteless delivery system for carbohydrates was flour stirred into water to form a quick and easy liquid meal. That may not sound like much today, but it was not uncommon among the poor in the past.

The poor often ate food that those of a higher station would not. Trotters were sheep’s feet, with the fur blanched off. Mmmm—sounds delicious, all that pale, naked sheep skin! Broxy was the meat of diseased sheep, sold for less than that of the healthy animals. Those in service in a higher class household could apply for something called pig wash. Anything that had been served at the family table, had not been totally consumed, and was no longer wanted would be considered pig wash; a joint of meat that was going bad, moldy vegetables and bread—that sort of thing. Basically leftovers in a time in which little or nothing was refrigerated—certainly nothing belonging to the poor.

Again, many saw alcoholic drink as a reasonable alternative to eating meats and vegetables. Although knowledge of microbial life and the dangers it posed were still not well understood by the general public in 1902, the health risk from rotting food was. With alcoholic drink as food, at least people knew they wouldn’t get sick. The lesson of alcohol as something to purify had been well-learned during periods of mass death in the city from water-born illness like cholera. Before the modern sewer system was built, many of the people of London had taken the habit of putting gin in their water, even for children.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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FamilyIn chapter 4, Jack London found an affable fellow to room with. The author engaged him in conversation, and learned that the man was a hapless seaman, 22 years old, who had no aspirations for better work, starting a family, or truly anything other than earning the necessary funds to feed his drinking habit. If he didn’t want family, was it because he saw something like the image above in his mind’s eye when he imagined it? Despite seeming beaten down by crushing poverty and having no drive for anything better, the man was likable and intelligent and had a sense of humor. His father was a heavy drinker, and that seemed to be an acceptable course for the young man.

The only ones lower in station than this man in British society of the time were the “unfortunates,” those chronically unemployed or unemployable people who begged on the streets. Even his manner of speaking, his accent and the vernacular of his speech, which the author recorded with some attention to detail, no doubt marked him as one of the lowest class. That alone would have stood in his way had he tried to climb the ladder of success. Although perhaps not satisfied with his lot in life, the man seemed pleasantly resigned to it.


What will we do with the drunken sailor…

I am an alcoholic, 26 years sober. I emerged from a particularly sad state because of the love of family and friends, but most of all because there are survivors of alcoholism who know something about what it takes to live with such a disease and remain sober, and who were willing to help me. That’s primarily a result of Alcoholics Anonymous, AA for short. Before AA, virtually all alcoholics perished with or from the disease. If they did not die from an accident that mortally wounded, or ended up in an asylum for the mentally-ill, then they died a slow death from the over-exposure to alcohol that destroys internal organs, especially the liver. AA came into existence in 1935. It’s success rate is difficult to calculate, and has been placed as low as 3% and as high as 40%. I’ve heard slightly better statistics concerning substance abuse treatment, many forms of which incorporate the 12 step program of AA. In my life, despite the low numbers, I could see human beings surviving alcoholism. That helped me to have hope.

Perhaps the poor sot Jack London found did not see any alcoholics surviving their illness. In a time when physical comfort and an easy way to unload stress was badly needed by the down and out, and much of the available sustenance took the form of alcoholic beverages, the culture was saturated with substance abusers, the condition perhaps seeming to be quite natural and acceptable. Many saw alcoholic drink as a reasonable alternative to other foods.

Still, being a drunkard in that environment? I’d want to have my wits about me to more effectively compete for resources, jobs, and shelter, unless I merely had no hope. In that case, I suppose I might fear being fully conscious and feeling the low grade pain of hunger, the anxiety of thinking about finding shelter and my next meal. Perhaps a permanent buzz providing a certain level of anesthesia would seem a good idea.

If he had no hope, what, then, accounted for the man’s sense of humor and affable nature? I’ve found in my research into the Victorian era poor that they seem to have had a reservoir of vitality despite their predicament. I suspect that it is as simple as the fact that they only knew what they had, and what others of their kind had, and had had for generations. They had their place within a culture of dramatic inequality, but that was the way it had always been. Envy and coveting served little useful purpose in a situation in which one needed to focus what energy and faculty was available on the day to day grind of survival.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t much crime and occasional unrest. I’m merely surprised there was no more than there was. Perhaps lack of contrast plays a role as well, since these people did not wake up one morning after living most of their lives with 21st century standards to find themselves in such aching poverty. No—as Jack London points out eloquently, they got there through generations of moving in that direction.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing the tales of the Jack the Ripper Victims is that it gives me the opportunity to contrast what people had then with what we have now. Few more powerful means exist in communication than this sort of contrast to help break through the complacency many of us don so easily in modern times.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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poverty-childrenIn chapter 3, with the help of his detective acquaintance, Jack London found a refuge from the East End within the East End, a small lodging of better quality than most in the area that he could periodically visit to wash himself, keep warm, and assemble his text. That gives us an opportunity to learn something of the housing prospects for those living in the East End.

Most of the housing was of the single room variety. Whole families, sometimes more than one family lived in one room. I learned in research for my Jack the Ripper Victims Series that houses in many neighborhoods built early in the 19th century or earlier, those meant for a single family and having several rooms, were broken up into single room dwellings by the latter part of the century. The vast majority of those dwellings had no indoor plumbing. Indeed most had no room for bathing facilities. Privies were outdoor facilities, usually shared by several households. People availed themselves of public bathhouses when they had need to wash. These conditions persisted into the early 20th century, and generally had not improved by the time Jack London made his stay in the East End.

Over the course of the first half of the 1800s, London, already the largest city in the world, had tripled its population, and a similar level of growth continued for the rest of the century. The loss of labor positions during the industrial revolution had forced the unemployed out of the countryside and small towns into the big city. People came to London also from other parts of the world where there were similar problems finding work. By mid-century, more than 50% of the population of the city were born elsewhere. Landlords found it more profitable to split larger homes into tenements of one-room dwellings. Neighborhoods in which landlords took this approach soon became slums.  As more and more Landlords took up the practice, the slums spread like a blight through the old neighborhoods.  Large sections of London suffered severe squalid conditions, the worst being the East End. In 1888, the time of Jack the Ripper, there were approximately 800 people living per acre in Whitechapel. Those who could afford to do so fled to take up residence on the outskirts of the city. When eventually those neighborhoods suffered the blight, people fled further and the city kept growing, swallowing up many smaller towns.


Peabody Buildings

Some of the first housing projects (an American term) were installed in the city of London by American philanthropist, George Peabody. He was a banker and financier. He helped finance the Transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866, and created educational opportunities in various parts of the U.S. for blacks as well as whites, even before the American Civil War. Peabody loved London and the British people and decided to try to help alleviate their poverty. He bought up land in the worst rookeries of the city, razed the buildings to the ground, and put up tenements, usually 4 story structures arranged in boxes or “U” shapes with garden courts between. Access was through a locked gate. All adult tenants had a key to the gate. The only requirement for application for rental was that the one applying have employment.

Polly Nichols and her family lived in Peabody D Block, Duke Street in South London for several years. She no doubt counted herself extremely lucky.  Her flat had 3 rooms. There was a water closet shared by neighbors on the landing outside their front door, and bathing and laundry facilities on the roof. Some of those buildings still exist today. They were so loved that when, during WWII, some of the buildings were bombed, they were rebuilt and improved.  Those still in existence got electricity, some as late as the 1950s.

While writing about all this for the novel A BRUTAL CHILL IN AUGUST, about the life of Polly Nichols, and researching the Peabody Buildings, something nagged at me, something that seemed familiar about the Philanthropist, but for the longest time I couldn’t figure out what it was.


Peabody Demonstration School in 1925

Then it came to me. I’d hated my junior high school in Nashville, Tennessee, gave up on my education, and failed the eighth grade.  My parents enrolled me in a private school so I wouldn’t have to go back to the place I hated so much. The new one was a demonstration school, attached to an educational college, a college for teachers. The demonstration school existed so that student teachers could get experience teaching in a classroom. I was continuing my education at the Peabody Demonstration School attached to George Peabody college, a school started by the philanthropist. I was bowled over with the discovery. I suddenly felt embedded in the history I was trying to portray in the novel, and that gave me an odd feeling, somewhat thrilling. I did finally pass the eighth grade and was forgiven the lost year later by my high school in San Francisco.


Engraving by Gustave Doré

Jack London wasn’t so lucky as to land in one of the Peabody Buildings. He described the dwelling he found as opulent in comparison to the very few other accommodations available. For one thing, he wasn’t required to share the single room or his bed. He was used to open skies, dwellings more spacious, surrounded by at least a small plot of land, and he wondered at the willingness of Londoners to tolerate such condition. All the housing he’d encountered, he described as shoulder to shoulder, with but a tiny yard in back surrounded by a wall. Many of those “yards” were paved with stone, with no greenery, and virtually no trees to be seen throughout entire neighborhoods.

For the richest country in the world, huge chunks of their capital seemed a shameful slum.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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