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At Itchy Park with Jack London

August 2, 2011
by the gentle author

The churchyard of Christ Church, Spitalfields, was once known as “Itchy Park,” a nickname that may derive from the long-term presence of the homeless sleeping there and the lice that afflicted them. In 1902, at the age of twenty-six, the American novelist Jack London came to Itchy Park as part of seven weeks he spent wandering around the East End that Summer, talking to people and learning as much as he could of their lives. The result was a masterpiece, “The People of the Abyss,” in which London used his talent as a novelist to draw his readers into sympathy with those he described, creating a humane portrayal of a world that had previously been the preserve of social campaigners.

The shadow of Christ Church falls across Spitalfields Garden, and in the shadow of Christ’s Church, at three o’clock in the afternoon, I saw a sight which I never wish to see again. There are no flowers in this garden, which is smaller than my own rose garden at home. Grass only grows here, and it is surrounded by sharp-spiked iron iron fencing, as are all the parks of London town, so that homeless men and women may not come in at night and sleep upon it.

As we entered the garden, an old woman between fifty and sixty, passed us, striding with sturdy intention if somewhat rickety action, with two bulky bundles, covered with sacking, slung fore and aft upon her. She was a woman tramp, a houseless soul, too independent to drag her falling carcass through the workhouse door. Like the snail, she carries her home with her. In two sacking-covered bundles were her household goods, her wardrobe, linen, and dear feminine possessions.

We went up the narrow gravelled walk. On the benches on either side arrayed a mass of miserable and distorted humanity, the sight of which would have impelled Doré to more diabolical flights of fancy than he ever succeeded in achieving. It was a welter of rags and filth, of all manner of loathsome skin diseases, open sores, bruises, grossness, indecency, leering monstrosities and bestial faces. A chill, raw wind was blowing, and these creatures huddled there in their rags, sleeping for the most part of trying to sleep.

Here were a dozen women, ranging in age from twenty to seventy. Next a babe, possibly of nine months, lying asleep, flat on the hard bench, with neither pillow nor covering, nor with anyone looking after it. Next half-a-dozen men, sleeping bolt upright or leaning against one another in their sleep.In one place a family group, a child asleep in its mother’s arms, and the husband (or male mate) clumsily mending a dilapidated shoe. On another bench, a woman trimming the frayed strips of her rags with a knife, and another woman, with a thread and needle, sewing up rents. Adjoining, a man holding a sleeping woman in his arms. Further on, a man, his clothes caked with gutter mud, asleep, with his head in the lap of a woman, not more than twenty-five years old, and also asleep.

It was this sleep that puzzled me. Why were nine out of ten of them asleep or trying to sleep? But it was not till afterwards that I learned. It is a law of the powers that be that the homeless shall not sleep by night. On the pavement, by the portico of Christ’s Church, where the stone pillars rise towards the sky in a stately row, were whole rows of men asleep or drowsing, and all too deep sunk in a torpor to rouse or be made curious by our intrusion.

On August 25th 1902, Jack London wrote, “I was out all night with the homeless ones, walking the streets in the bitter rain, and, drenched to the skin, wondering when dawn would come. I returned to my rooms on Sunday night after seventy-two hours continuous work and only a short night’s sleep… and my nerves are blunted with what I have seen.” In later years, after the success of his great novels “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” he recalled of “People of the Abyss,” “No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor.”

More than a century later, London would be disappointed to return and discover people still sleeping in “Itchy Park” – nowadays they are almost exclusively male and are a mixture of homeless people, addicts and alcoholics, economic migrants and those sleeping it off after a heavy night in a club.

Yet change is imminent, as there is controversy in Spitalfields over the future of “Itchy Park.” Only the section next to Commercial St is open today, to the East are the former Christ Church youth club building and the playground of Christ Church School in Brick Lane. While the school, which is short of space, wishes to build a nursery upon the site of the youth club, there is another body of opinion that would like to see the park enlarged to include the youth club site as a public green space for all.

Meanwhile the sleepers of “Itchy Park” continue their slumber, office workers come to eat their lunch in the shade and tourists sit under the trees to rest their feet, and somehow everybody co-exists amicably enough.

Sleeping in the churchyard of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 1902

Sleeping in the churchyard of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 2011

Jack London

You may also like to take a look at John Thomson’s Street Life in London

12 Responses leave one →
  1. August 2, 2011

    Your piece brings back memories of Itchycoo Park by the Small Faces in 1968: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Itchycoo_Park

  2. August 2, 2011

    There’s also Barmy Park (now Bethnal Green Gardens in front of the library). So named because of the mental hospital that used to be on the site. We cockneys have a great turn of phrase sometimes…

    I’ve made a mental note to read People of the Abyss, my family lived very close to here between 1720 and today, so all your articles are very interesting to me. The thought that my ancestors walked these very streets is amazing.

    Kepp it coming Gentle Author, I look forward to your daily email.

  3. August 2, 2011

    Really interesting piece of local history.

  4. Ana permalink
    August 2, 2011

    I recently read People of the Abyss over my semester break. Jack London’s experience, perhaps one of the first sociological and observational studies, is raw and evocative. To think that a society so advanced for its era failed to consider the repercussions of the industrial era -population increase/densities in cities, lack of residential properties, lack of hygiene.
    What strikes me is that a similar analogy can be made in the 21st century within developing countries that are making similar mistakes now that they are being commissioned to manufacture products. Even in China the issues are similar, people shifting from the regional areas to cities that are increasing in density, increased pollution.
    Unlike most authors that focus on the arty-farty literary aspects, Jack London focuses on the raw aspects of humanity. Despite being written so long ago, People of the Abyss remains relevant to the precarious economic times.

  5. Joyce permalink
    August 2, 2011

    ‘ . . . and somehow everybody co-exists amicably enough.’ . . . . . .
    I really like this blog but as a local resident I think that sometimes your spectacles are TOO rose tinted . . . the truth is that local residents are deterred from the amenity of the few green spaces available in the area for fear of confrontation with the sad undesirables who colonise them . . . and who all too often are not sleeping but abusive . . .

  6. Catherineap permalink
    August 2, 2011

    I found ‘People of the Abyss’ on my parents’ shelf when I was a teenager in Chicago and it made a huge impression on me, and probably contributed greatly to my fascination with Victorian and Edwardian London. At the time I was not familiar with Christ Church, Spitalfields which has since become my favorite building in London. Interesting link, and interesting post, as always.

  7. Dai Smile permalink
    August 2, 2011

    London’s diatribe is said to have been the seed for classics such as George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and J B Priestley’s exploration of poverty in the North, in turn the source for many modern travelogues into areas society prefers to ignore.

    But it would be wrong to think London was the first to reveal poverty in the East End. Barely-fictional works such as Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto and Arthur Morrison’s Child of the Jago had already appeared.

    Nor were London’s efforts universally applauded. The “respectable poor” who made up the vast majority of East Londoners were outraged at the picture painted of their city – much as most council estate dwellers now despair at being lumped in with a feckless, often criminal, minority.

  8. Michael Willoughby permalink
    August 3, 2011

    It’s a kind of sanctuary.

  9. time watcher permalink
    October 9, 2011

    my grandmother lived in frying pan alley in 1902,i believe my father was born there,thankfully he was taken out of those surroundings in 1908,and went on to a very fullfilling life, sadly many didn’t.

  10. mikey the mouse permalink
    July 14, 2012

    What a beautiful article. i walk past frying pan alley and love a stroll. Each time i read your snippets i feel happy.
    Thank you.

  11. Terry permalink
    July 15, 2013

    My family lived in the area in the 19th Century, and several were married in Christ Church. I studied musical instrument making at the London College of Furniture (Commercial Road) in the 1980s, and lived in a squat in Sly Street (off Commercial Road). We looked at the empty houses in Fournier Street when we were searching for a derelict house to squat, but they were all too far gone for us, apart from Gilbert and George’s house which was a beautifully restored dwelling in a great row of decay.

    I have watched the restorations going on over the years since then, and have written pieces of music for the Spitalfields Festival, and although it is good to see the houses looking cared for, I dislike the fact that they are all now £1M + properties and occupied largely by over-paid city partners. As the Gentle Author says, the London we first know and love is soon lost.

    When we lived and studied there, itchy park was the name given to the piece of land near White Church Lane, opposite the Art Gallery, that is now called Altab Ali Park. It is referred to as such in a novel I once bought in a charity shop solely because it was set in that area; the name of which I have unfortunately forgotten. It wasn’t a very good book.

    I’m enjoying the articles immensely. Thanks.

  12. James Frankcom permalink
    October 3, 2013

    Interesting article. I for one hope that the whole of Itchy Park will one day be designated a “village green” to protect this valuable green space forever.

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