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Dickens in Spitalfields 3, in the streets

February 9, 2010
by the gentle author

In the first installments of Charles Dickens’ article “Spitalfields,” published in his weekly journal “Household Words” on 5th April 1851, we accompanied Dickens and his sub-editor W.H. Wills to a silk warehouse where they met Mr Broadelle, the manager. In this third installment, they set out with Mr Broadelle as their guide to explore the narrow streets of Spitalfields, illustrated by this engraving of Pelham St (now Woodseer St) off Brick Lane, lined with weavers’ cottages, distinguished by the long windows of the weaver’s lofts upon the top floor. Let us hurry to keep up with, Dickens, Wills and Broadelle as they make their way…

From fourteen to seventeen thousand looms are contained in from eleven to twelve thousand houses – although at the time at which we write, not more than nine to ten thousand are  at work. The average number of houses per acre in the parish is seventeen; and the average per acre for all London being no more than five and a fifth, Spitalfields contains the densest population, perhaps, existing. Within its small boundaries, not less than eighty-five thousand human beings are huddled.

“They are,” says Mr Broadelle, “so interlaced, and bound together, by debt, marriage, and prejudice, that, despite many inducements to remove to the country establishments of the masters they already serve, they prefer dragging on a miserable existence in their present abodes. Spitalfields was the Necropolis of Roman London; the Registrar- General’s returns show that it is now the grave of modern Manufacturing London. The average mortality is higher in this Metropolitan district than in any other.”

“And what strange streets they are, Mr Broadelle! These high gaunt houses, all window on the upper story, and that window all small diamond panes, are like the houses in some foreign town, and have no trace of London in them – except its soot, which is indeed a large exception. It is as if the Huguenots had brought their streets along with them, and dropped them down here.

And what a number of strange shops, that seem to be open for no earthly reason, having nothing to sell! A few halfpenny bundles  of firewood, a few halfpenny kites, halfpenny battledores, and farthing shuttle-cocks, form quite an extensive stock in trade here.

Eatables are so important in themselves, that there is no need to set them off. Be the loaves never so coarse in texture, and never so unattractively jumbled together in the baker’s dirty window, they are loaves and that is the main thing. Liver, lights, and sheep’s-heads, freckled sausages, and strong black puddings, are sufficiently enticing without decoration. The mouths of Spitalfields will water for them, howsoever raw and ugly they be.

Is its intellectual appetite sharp-set, I wonder, for that wolfish literature of highly-coloured show-bill and rampant wood-cut, filling the little shop-window over the way, and covering half the house?

Do the poor weavers, by the dim light of their lamps, unravel those villanous fabrics, and nourish their care-worn hearts on the last strainings of the foulest filth of France?”

“I can’t say,” replies Mr Broadelle; “we have but little intercourse with them in their domestic lives. They are jealous and suspicious. We have tried Mechanic’s Institutions, but they have not come to much.”

“Is there any school here?”

“Yes. Here it is.”

An old house, hastily adapted to the purpose, with too much darkness in it and too little air, but no want of scholars. An infant school on the ground floor, where the infants, as usual, drowsily rubbing their noses, or poking their fore-fingers into the features of other infants on exploratory surveys. Intermediate school above. At the top of it all, in a large long light room (occupying the width of two dwelling-houses, as the room made for the weaving, in the old style of building, does) the ‘Ragged School.’

“Heaven send that all these boys may not grow up to be weavers here, Mr Broadelle, nor all the girls grow up to marry them!”

“We don’t increase much, now” he says, “We go for soldiers, or we go to sea, or we take to something else, or we emigrate perhaps.”

Now, for a sample of the parents of these children…

It seems incredible to imagine eighty-five thousand people living in Spitalfields a hundred and fifty years ago, and surprising to recognise that our neighbourhood was a much more densely populated place in the past than it is today. “Ragged School” was the name given to primitive schools set up by private individuals and organisations to teach slum children. Dickens was passionate about the movement and wrote about it many times.

When I read of the coarse bread, liver, lights, sheep’s heads, freckled sausages and strong black puddings on sale, I thought Fergus Henderson might be quite fascinated to explore Spitalfields with Charles Dickens and would certainly contradict Dickens’ dismissal of these “raw and ugly “foods.

In the next installment, we shall follow Dickens and Wills further as they climb the steps to a weaver’s loft and learn at first hand of life of a family who support themselves through the weaving industry.

This engraving, kindly supplied by Tower Hamlets Local History Collection, shows the Ragged School in Georges Yard, St Jude’s, Whitechapel, as pictured by The Illustrated London News in 1859.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter Holford permalink
    November 24, 2012

    Nearly three years after this was posted I have come across it. What a find! Thank you. My ancestors were silk weavers on the street (Pelham Street) shown at the top. Although they moved out to Shoreditch well before Dickens visited it is a fascinating insight into the life of the weavers. I would love to read ‘the next installment’ mentioned at the end.

  2. Ginette Bennewith permalink
    June 25, 2013

    So happy to have found this! What a description of the life and times of my Huguenot ancestors living in Pelham Street.

  3. Stephanie permalink
    July 2, 2013

    I may visit here today in Pelham St ( nowWoodseer St.) still exists.

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