At Itchy Park with Jack London
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
You may also like to take a look at John Thomson’s Street Life in London