These two books by Fiona Rule offer an engrossing insight into London life, taking specific entry points and spinning magnificent stories around them. Dorset Street in Spitalfields was originally laid out in 1674 and saw a period of gentility, but by the Victorian age it had slipped so far down the social scale that it was called “the worst street in London”, and was also the site of the final Ripper murder. Thankfully, Jack the Ripper doesn’t dominate this story of Spitalfields, and it’s the lives of the ordinary residents that last in the memory. Rule does a similar thing with the docklands; starting off with the Roman wharves she tells the story of the city through the developments of shipping and trade, but never forgets the voice of the common man and woman. There are lots of books about important citizens of London, and it’s refreshing and fascinating to find two that focus on the everyday.
Fiona is appearing alongside Kate Williams and Patrick Mercer, talking about the Victorian age, at the London History Festival next Thursday. We liked her books so much we thought we’d ask her to give a little taster.
What are your favourite facts that you discovered about Spitalfields and the dock areas?
There are so many! While researching and writing about London’s docklands I realised what a crucial role the docks played in establishing Britain as a major player on the global stage. The docks were also responsible for making London a truly cosmopolitan city. From Roman times, there was international trade at the riverside and people from across the world were attracted to the port, where they set up businesses and thus became Londoners. London has always been a cultural melting pot and the docks were largely responsible for that.
Over in Spitalfields, I was fascinated with the area’s gradual but unstoppable decline in the 19th century. At the beginning of the century the area was the prosperous heart of the silk weaving industry but when silk began to pass out of fashion, it rapidly degenerated into one of the most deprived parts of the capital. By the second half of the 19th century, Spitalfields’ streets were lined with doss houses used by the very poorest Londoners and it is of course from this environment that Jack the Ripper emerged.
What’s left of Dorset Street today / photo by Rachel H
To be honest, I could have written a whole book about the McCarthy family, who feature quite heavily in The Worst Street In London. They were a truly extraordinary bunch! Jack McCarthy, the landlord of the last Ripper victim, was brought up in the slums of The Borough but through a mixture of charm and shrewd business sense he managed to amass a property portfolio worth a small fortune by the time he died in the 1930s. McCarthy was also father to a theatrical dynasty. His son married a music hall star named Marie Kendall and he was the great grandfather of the Hollywood star Kay Kendall.
What drew you to these two areas of London?
Ever since I was a teenager I have loved exploring London. I had always found Spitalfields very atmospheric and over the years I began to research the history of the area, which ultimately led to The Worst Street In London.
I became interested in the docks through an old work friend of mine named Harry Mann. Harry was born and brought up in Canning Town, close to the Royal Docks and during our lunch breaks he would tell me stories of the area. His tales fascinated me so much that I decided to research the area further.
Did you find it hard to uncover the stories of ordinary Londoners?
To be honest, I’m far more interested in the lives of ordinary people than the rich and influential. I enjoy talking to people, particularly the older generation as they always have tales to tell of times past. The newspaper archives and the Old Bailey court records are also good places to discover extraordinary stories of ordinary people.
Do you fancy writing a biography of someone famous?
I’ve never seriously considered it but if I were to, I think I would go for someone who was not born into power and fame but made their name through their own merits as they are the type of people I admire the most.
What part of London would you like to investigate next?
Notting Hill. I think many people’s perception of the place comes from the film of the same name but in truth, it is an area of London that has a chequered history. Within living memory, Notting Hill was the scene of violent race riots, had some of the worst slums in the capital and regularly made headlines for all the wrong reasons – the serial killer, Christie murdered women at 10 Rillington Place, Christine Keeler lived in Sheffield Terrace and notorious landlord, Peter Rachman owned numerous properties in the area. Apparently the locals renamed it ‘Rotting Hell’!
Where do you like to spend time in London?
I’m a big fan of London’s markets. My favourites are Portobello and Spitalfields but I also like Borough Market and Camden Market (although it’s getting a bit corporate over there these days).
I also love just walking round the streets as there are always new things to discover. I particularly like exploring the City of London at the weekend because it’s deserted!
The Worst Street in London and London’s Docklands, published by Ian Allan Publishing. The Victorian Age event, part of the London History Festival, is at Kensington Central Library on 25th November, 7pm, £5.