Victorian London’s East End: what can a foul murder tell us about life in the city?

Was Victorian London’s East End really the crime-filled, poverty-stricken slum we often imagine? Author Sinclair McKay investigates a baffling 19th-century murder case and discovers a surprising reality about life in the city…

An 1870s illustration of a typical London artisan terraced houses with washhouses, privies and yards leading on to an alley, all dominated by railway viaducts. (Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Victorian East End has become a mythic realm: it occupies a similarly fantastical place in the national – and international – imagination as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It is associated indelibly with dark alleys, moist foggy wharfs, packs of street urchins, damp dwellings, kind-hearted prostitutes and men in top hats and cloaks who stalk the gas-lit courts and closes.

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The serial killer dubbed ‘Jack The Ripper’, who conducted his nightmarish campaign slashing and mutilating five prostitutes in and around Whitechapel in the late summer and autumn of 1888, bears much of the responsibility for this haunted landscape. But it was also conjured by Charles Dickens – his novel Our Mutual Friend (1864–5) describes Gaffer and Lizzie Hexam on the moonlit Thames hooking in suicide victims and fishing through their pockets. It is also thought that Fagin, Dickens’ repulsive master pickpocket in Oliver Twist (1837–39), might have been inspired by the real-life criminal Isaac ‘Ikey’ Solomon, who operated in East London in the early 1800s. London’s East End also features in the works of 20th-century novelist Sax Rohmer, whose leading character is Dr Fu Manchu – a criminal mastermind based amid the opium dens of Limehouse.

An illustration shows the police discovering the body of one of Jack the Ripper's victims in 1888. The serial killer bears much responsibility for the reputation of London's East End, says Sinclair Mackay. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An illustration shows the police discovering the body of one of Jack the Ripper’s victims in 1888. The serial killer bears much responsibility for the reputation of London’s East End, says Sinclair McKay. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As it happens, I myself live in Limehouse. I have long been fascinated by the reality – as opposed to the heightened fictionality – of the area, and it was while I was researching the history of the London district of Stepney, and of the docks, that I happened across contemporary reports of a strange and baffling murder case that occurred in East London’s Mile End in 1860.

It was a case that was not only a compelling ‘whodunnit’ puzzle in its own right; it also opened a window to a beguiling Victorian East End – quite different from the sinister slums we often imagine…

A baffling murder case

Wealthy widow Mary Emsley, 70, lived on the Grove Road, near Victoria Park, in a three-storey house with a garden big enough for pear trees. She was what we would today describe as a buy-to-let property investor. She owned a great number of houses, from Aldgate all the way out to the town of Barking.

Many of these were unhappy dwellings; they were grotesquely overcrowded and overseen by a hardnosed landlady who was entirely unsympathetic towards those facing hardship. Any tenant who was late delivering rent even by a few days – no matter how grievously ill or suddenly thrown out of work – could expect no grace. They would be promptly evicted. Emsley thus acquired a fearsome reputation. Even though she employed rent collectors, she went about the poorest streets collecting some of the unpaid debts herself.

It was largely assumed that the landlady’s broader wealth had come from her late husband Samuel, who had owned a corset factory, but in fact the twice-married Emsley had money of her own.

Mary lived alone – her only child had died in infancy and her remaining family consisted of step-children, nieces and nephews. Unlike her neighbours, Mary declined to employ either a maid or a cook. The neighbours would see her as the sun went down sitting at her window, gazing at the sunset. The old lady was known to never let anyone in after dark.

In August 1860, one of Emsley’s employees noticed she hadn’t been seen for several days. That employee, together with Emsley’s solicitor and the police, forced their way into the house and found the old lady upstairs in her lumber room [a room used to store unused furniture], on the floor. Her head had been smashed in and her blood was all over the walls. In her hand was a roll of wallpaper.

The more I looked into the case – the suspects, the police investigation, the inquest, the trial – the more I found rich and unexpected details of life in Mile End in 1860.

A new picture of Victorian London

For all the reeking slums and desperate poverty, here was a part of London that in fact oozed colour, vivacity and invention. For all the individual tragedies of unemployment and alcoholism and drug abuse – and there were obviously many – there was also thriving escapism and a rising middle-class living in handsome new terraces and squares.

The streets in and around Mile End were by 1860 properly paved, and under construction was Joseph Bazalgette’s revolutionary sewerage system. There were new, impressive gasworks at Stepney and Poplar and Bethnal Green, and better-off residents were having new domestic gas lighting installed. Meanwhile, frequent and carefully timetabled horse-drawn omnibuses, with liveries of green and gold, ran through Mile End and thence into the city of London.

The sewerage system of Joseph Bazalgette, a 19th-century civil engineer, revolutionised London living conditions in the second half of the century. He is pictured top right, at Outfall Sewer, the largest sewer in London, at Barking Creek. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The sewerage system of Joseph Bazalgette, a 19th-century civil engineer, revolutionised London living conditions in the second half of the century. He is pictured top right, at Outfall Sewer, the largest sewer in London, at Barking Creek. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As news of the horrible murder of Mary Emsley in a house on the Grove Road spread, the case reportedly became a talking point – not only amid the mahogany and mirrors of the grander pubs, but in venues like The Coffee Pot in Mile End and The Edinburgh Waverley Tea-Rooms in Limehouse.

A number of theories emerged – including speculation reported in newspapers that the killer might have been one of Mrs Emsley’s unfortunate tenants. But others argued that the old lady’s assassin might have been a “Frenchman” – rumours abounded of a French gang carrying out burglaries with knives.

So what can this strange case tell us about London’s East End in the 1860s? Publicity from the case led to public comment about slum housing, and a greater awareness (thanks to campaigners such as Octavia Hill) of the hideous conditions that many in the East End were still living in. Housing was at this time becoming an issue of grave concern to the authorities. In the 1860s, philanthropic organisations – including the Improved Industrial Dwelling Company, and Peabody – began constructing decent, healthy homes in Spitalfields and Shadwell.

The streets around Mile End and Bethnal Green were punctuated with workhouses, and a few of Emsley’s more desperate tenants would on occasion have found themselves at the mercy of these institutions. Workhouses were widely feared – but, interestingly, documentation in the Tower Hamlets Archives shows that not all of these places were scenes of Dickensian horror. The hand-written minutes of the Mile End workhouse, for instance, show that the vestrymen of the parish were firm about procuring nutritious food (mutton and fresh vegetables, for instance, not just gruel). Advertisements for jobs at the workhouse stressed that the successful applicants should have a “proven record of kindness towards children”.

Elsewhere, for those fortunate enough to have regular wages, the East End had some dazzling pastimes. In the summer months pleasure gardens opened at North Woolwich featuring fireworks and trapeze artists. This was the dawning of the age of music hall: among the comedy acts and female singers there were also dogs performing tricks. There were theatres, too: not just the small back street ‘penny gaffs’ which staged lurid thrillers and supernatural dramas, but legitimate establishments in Shoreditch that featured Shakespeare on their bills. One theatre even put on an adaptation of Henry Mayhew’s pioneering work of journalism, London Labour and London Poor. Meanwhile, those in search of a more restful evening could find operatic arias being performed at a hall on the Mile End Road.

London's East End sported some dazzling pastimes, including diversions offered by the music halls. An illustration of Oxford Music Hall, Westminster, in 1862. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
London’s East End sported some dazzling pastimes, including diversions offered by the music halls. An illustration of Oxford Music Hall, Westminster, in 1862. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

There was also an impressive variety of street food and drink to be found in Whitechapel in 1860 – fried fish and chips (which were broadly the innovation of Sephardic Jews who had recently arrived in the East End); strawberryade; and the novel sweet-and-sour tongue-fizz of ‘Persian Sherbet’ (honey, water and white vinegar). Pea soup, hot potatoes and hot wine were also on offer. By 1860 there was a strong community of Jews in Whitechapel, mingling with Scots and Irish and, a few streets south, many young Germans working in hellishly hot sugar bakeries or refineries.

The murder

Baffling though the Mary Emsley case was – a locked house and the sole clue a bloody boot-print on a floorboard – developments were swift. In a series of twists and turns, one of the landlady’s employees attempted to frame another with some articles pilfered from the house. But the police saw through the ruse.

The trial that followed uncovered a rather uglier public prejudice: that against the Irish. Though the defendant James Mullins – a 58-year-old former policeman who had been reduced to working as Mary Emsley’s general handyman – was eminently intelligent, articulate and courteous, much was made in the court of his awkward teenage sons and the apparent “racketiness” of the family. Newspapers and journals of this period regularly depicted the Irish either as fairy tale-believing rural innocents or as red-faced violent drunks; their voices were simply not represented.

In the end, Mullins was hanged in a public execution that drew an estimated crowd of 30,000 people to Newgate. Spectators jumped up and down trying to get a better look at the gallows: this in turn led to fist-fights, even as the noose was being tied around Mullins’s neck.

Some 40 years later, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, troubled by the case, wrote an essay for The Strand about whether the court had been right to convict and execute. In the National Archives today lives a fascinating handwritten police documentation from 1860, plus other archival material containing tantalising clues about the murder.

As a resident of Limehouse, I today walk past houses that were once owned by Mary Emsley. Curiously, the streets that in 1860 were markedly poor and the streets that were more middle-class retain the same character today: it’s a world that Mary Emsley would recognise.

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Sinclair McKay is author of The Mile End Murder: The Case Conan Doyle Couldn’t Solve (Aurum Press). To find out more, click here.