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At Frying Pan Alley with Jack London

August 13, 2011
by the gentle author

The twenty-six year old American novelist Jack London came to report upon the Coronation of Edward VII in the Summer of 1902, but when he arrived he chose instead to spend seven weeks exploring the East End and wrote an account published as “The People of the Abyss.” London grew up in poverty in San Francisco and worked in all kinds of menial jobs whilst becoming a writer, allying himself with the lowest of the low, tramping across America and being imprisoned as vagrant before he was able to make a living from his writing. Yet although he won wealth and success, his own experience gave him a personal understanding of what it meant to struggle and he never lost his passion to tell the stories of the lives of the poor.

One day in August 1902, walking down the Mile End Rd with a sweatshop shoemaker  - “a man of twenty-eight who eked out a precarious existence in a sweating den” - Jack London accepted his invitation to visit the workplace in question and see the conditions for himself.

Passing Leman St, we cut off to the left into Spitalfields, and dived into Frying Pan Alley. A swarm of children cluttered the slimy pavement, for all the world like tadpoles just turned frogs on the bottom of a dry pond. In a narrow doorway, so narrow that  perforce we stepped over her, sat a woman with a young babe, nursing at her breasts grossly naked and libelling all the sacredness of motherhood. In the black and narrow hall behind her, we waded through a mess of young life, and essayed an even narrower and fouler stairway. Up we went, three flights, each landing two feet by three in area, and heaped with filth and refuse.

There were seven rooms in this abomination called a house. In six of the rooms, twenty-odd people, of both sexes and all ages, cooked, ate, slept and worked. In size the rooms averaged eight feet by eight, or possibly nine. The seventh room we entered. It was a den in which five men “sweated.” It was seven feet wide by eight long, and the table at which the work was performed took up the major portion of the space. On this table were five lasts, and there was barely room for the men to stand to their work, for the rest of the space was heaped with cardboard, leather, bundles of shoe uppers, and a miscellaneous assortment of materials used in attaching the uppers of shoes to their soles.

In the adjoining room lived a woman and six children. In another vile hole lived a widow, with an only son of sixteen who was dying of consumption. The woman hawked sweetmeats on the street, I was told, and more often failed than not to supply her son with the three quarts of milk that he daily required. Further, this son, weak and dying, did not taste meat oftener than once a week, and the kind and quality of this meat cannot possibly be imagined by people who have never watched human swine eat.

“The way ‘e coughs is somethin’ terrible,” volunteered my sweated friend, referring to the dying boy. “We ‘ear ‘im ‘ere, while we’re workin’, an’ it’s terrible, I say, terrible!” And, what of the coughing and the sweetmeats, I found another menace added to the hostile environment of the children of the slum.

My sweated friend, when work was to be had, toiled with four other men, in his eight-by-seven room. In the Winter, a lamp burned nearly all the day and added its fumes to the over-loaded air, which was breathed, and breathed, and breathed again.

In good times, when there was a rush of work, this man told me that he could earn as high as “thirty bob a week,” – Thirty shillings! “But it’s only the best of us can do it,” he qualified. “An’ then we can work twelve, thirteen and fourteen hours a day, just as fast as we can. An’ you should see us sweat! Just running from us! If you could see us it’d dazzle your eyes – tacks flyin’ out of mouth like from a machine. Look at my mouth.”

I looked. The teeth were worn down by the constant friction of the metallic brads, while they were coal black and rotten.“I clean my teeth,” he added, “else they’d be worse.”

After he told me that the workers had to furnish their own tools, brads, “grindery,” cardboard, rent,  light, and what not, it was plain that his thirty bob was a diminishing quantity.

“But how long does the rush season last, in which you receive this high wage of thirty bob?” I asked. “Four months,” was the answer, and for the rest of the year, he informed me, they average from “half a quid,” to “a quid” a week. The present week was half gone and he had earned four bob. And yet I was given to understand that this was one of the better grades of sweating.

I looked out of the window, which should have commanded the backyards of the neighbouring buildings. But there were no backyards, or rather they were covered with one-storey hovels, cowsheds in which people lived. The roofs of these hovels were covered with deposits of filth, in some places a couple of feet deep – the contributions from the back windows of the second and third storeys. I could make out meat and fish bones, garbage, pestilential rags, old boots, broken earthenware, and all the general refuse of the human sty.

“This is the last year of this trade, they’re getting machines to do away with us,” said the seated one mournfully, as we stepped over the young woman with the breasts grossly naked and waded anew through the cheap young life.

If Jack London returned he would find Frying Pan Alley unrecognisable now, with upmarket food chains in the snazzy Nido student tower on one side and the new Raven Row art gallery on the other. No doubt he would be pleased to see that the squalor and filth he witnessed here have been consigned to history.

At the time of Jack London’s visit in 1902, the population of the East End was three times what it is today, yet he would not have wander too far on his return visit to discover that overcrowded housing and child poverty persist over a century later.  He would not be very happy about that. And although he would be delighted that sweatshops such as he described have gone from East London – even if only within living memory – yet he I think he would be disappointed to learn that manufacturing under comparable conditions still exists on the other side of the world and their products are on sale throughout the streets of our modern capital.

“I went down into the under-world with an attitude of mind that may be best likened to that of an explorer,” wrote Jack London of his researches in that long ago Summer. In conclusion to “People of the Abyss,” he explored questions raised by his East End sojourn. “If Civilisation has increased the producing power of the average man,” he wrote,“why has it not bettered the lot of the average man?” It is a question that, in various forms, has been debated ever since.

Frying Pan Alley, 1912, by C. A. Mathew

Frying Pan Alley, nineteen seventies.

Frying Pan Alley, 2010

Archive photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You might also like to read about Jack London at Itchy Park

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Gary permalink
    August 13, 2011

    The descriptions in this article are a far better description of hard times than came from Dickens. Thirty bob in 1902 was a very good wage however.
    Gary

  2. Wellwynder permalink
    August 13, 2011

    Things must have improved between 1902 and 1912, as the photos don’t look anything like as abysmal as London describes. The children seem reasonably well clad (one boy is even wearing an Eton collar!), and the streets look fairly clean. Maybe London’s efforts – and those of others – in exposing the dreadful conditions had had some effect.

  3. the gentle author permalink*
    August 13, 2011

    These pictures by C. A. Mathew taken one Saturday in April 1912 – in which the children are all nicely turned out with boots or shoes – raise interesting questions about the representation of the East End at this time. Is it that the children are turned out in their best for the Sabbath, or did writers tend to write about the excesses of poverty, when the actuality was more various, with families of widely different incomes living in close proximity?

    http://spitalfieldslife.com/2010/09/21/c-a-mathew-photographer/

  4. August 17, 2011

    fascinating!

  5. John B permalink
    August 18, 2011

    Victorian and Edwardian society loved something about which to be outraged, and shudder in delicious horror. It’s highly likely that the account is a little sensationalised so as to increase sales. You could say “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, but in those days moralising was worse still; a national pastime for the middle classes. Plus he was, after all, a novelist.

  6. Jesse dziedzic permalink
    October 20, 2011

    An all ’round good article!!

  7. D.Oliver337 permalink
    September 27, 2012

    To say Jack London sensationalised poverty in the east end is wrong, London had a social conscience and clearly did not moralise about the east end but shone a torch into the east end so that society could see social injustice.

  8. Margaret Martin permalink
    February 22, 2013

    My grandfather was born in Frying Pan Alley in 1888. His parents were British born Polish Jews as were many of the inhabitants of the area at that time. They moved onwards and upwards and family members prospered and eventually lived in St Johns Wood and Highgate through there hardwork and ambition. They never forgot what grinding poverty was like.

  9. angela young permalink
    February 10, 2014

    i trained to be a GPO telephonist at rodwell house in Middlesex street in 1967,sitting in the rest room drinking my coffee at tea break i used to look out over frying pan alley,it`s very interesting to read the history of it although looking at the photos would not have recognised the area at all and rodwell house seems to have long gone,however glad to see the old pub DIRTY DICKS is still there in the high street.

  10. sheila butt permalink
    August 16, 2014

    we lived in the buildings opposite trumans brewery my father worked for Barnets in Frying Pan Alley worked all day came home tea time then went back in the evening to light up the smoke holes up he loved his job and was there for yea

    Sheila butt nee bell

  11. December 13, 2015

    I remember seeing the street name and taking a peak , I am not sure of the year, early 60s, there were still very poor people even then, kids were skipping, east end I remember gone, good job

  12. October 15, 2016

    My father always recalled that his father came from frying pan alley, its so nice to actually validate it’s existence.

  13. November 18, 2016

    My maternal grandmother was born and lived as an infant in Frying Pan Alley during this time. Her father, who was Jewish and worked as a pot-man, died leaving her young mother, who was Irish Catholic, with three children and pregnant with her fourth. She and the children ended up living in the local workhouse before my grandmother and her older sister were sent to different Catholic orphanages in Wigan and her brother was shipped to Canada. The poverty of her formative years left my grandmother with serious lifelong health problems though she, like her siblings who worked hard and did very well in later life, had a better standard of living in Liverpool. Her mother married again, and lived in Brick Lane, and went on to have a further three children but by 33 had died with a bad heart. If their lives, and the accounts we have of them, are anything to go by, Jack London gave a truthful account of life at that time. As compared to my other great grandmothers (who lived in Liverpool) my Frying Pan Alley great grandmother was fortunate that all her children survived; my father’s mother had ten children and only he survived to adulthood (one sister died at 21), and my mother’s paternal grandmother also had ten children with just two of her children surviving, These shocking statistics are clear evidence of the poverty of those days.

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