Backchurch Lane & adjacent streets - which became part of St John's parish
lane running south from Commercial Road to Cable Street became the
boundary between the parishes of St Mark Whitechapel and St John the
Evangelist-in-the-East Golding Street. It was densely populated, with a
mix of industrial and residential properties, with dangers to match. At
the end of this page are some contemporary views of the street.
Fires and Explosions
|TERRIFIC BOILER EXPLOSION
A fearful explosion occurred on the premises known as the Patent Saw Mills, situated in Back Church Lane, Commercial Road East, one of the most densely crowded districts of London.
These premises were divided into several compartments, each fitted up with most costly machinery. A little to the left of these compartments stood the steam-boiler house, in which were deposited two boilers, one about 12-horse and the other between 8 and 9-horse power. The latter of these, which had been in use some time, was at work, and although it was observed to move sluggishly, no danger was apprehended; but between 10 and 11 o'clock in the forenoon a tremendous explosion occurred, which threw the whole neighbourhood into dismay.
For the space of half a minute after the explosion happened, nothing but a dense mass of steam and dust could be seen, which ascended so high as to darken the neighbourhood in the immediate vicinity of the premises. The instant the steam and dust in some measure began to clear away, a shower of timber, bricks, and portions of heavy machinery fell. Large piles of wood were seen flying in every direction, which, as they fell upon the house-tops, either forced in the roofs or demolished the back or side walls. At the same time one of the boilers, weighing many tons, was lifted from its bearings, and thrown a long distance from its original position; the other was rent in pieces, and one part, weighing nearly two tons, was forced high into the air, and, after travelling a distance of 100 feet, fell into the back yard, striking in its descent the large premises used as counting-houses and offices, forcing in the windows, and partially destroying the front walls. The crash was tremendous, and at the same instant the school-house in Charles Street was partially blown down; two or three houses adjoining had their roofs and back fronts stove in, and an iron tank, weighing upwards of a ton, was driven by the force of the explosion some distance above the house-tops, and falling upon the roof of the mill, broke through and settled amongst the machinery.
The devastation was carried far beyond the property. An aged man passing along the road was struck by a piece of iron, which broke both his legs, and he was obliged to be carried to the London Hospital. A boy passing through Church Lane had his arm fractured by the falling of a large piece of brickwork. Mrs. Young was buried in the ruins, and very severely scalded, and otherwise greatly injured. Mrs. Bailey, residing in the same street, who was looking out of the window at the time of the explosion, received so great a shock that she died on the following morning.
|A note on the
development of firefighting in London
The first commercially-successful fire engine was patented by Richard Newsham in 1725, and many were made in different sizes (Buckingham Palace had once of the largest), and Newsham and Rags (his cousin) was established at 18 New Street, Cloth Fair, West Smithfield. They sold around the country and were even exported to the United States. Around 1750 he was bought out by John and Margaret Bristow (John was a churchwarden at St George-in-the-East in 1784), and production continued in Ratcliff Highway until 1831 - their story is told here.
Before 1833 there was no co-ordinated system, and no trained firefighters. The 300 parish engines were under the control of often elderly beadles, and the insurance companies had their own equipment. Saving property rather than people was the priority. The Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, founded in 1828, sought to address this by providing fire ladders in streets, and attending fires to give assistance to individuals at risk.
The London Fire Brigade (originally the 'London Fire-engine Establishment') was created in 1833 by ten insurance companies working together, the Sun Fire Office taking the lead. The first Superintendent was James Braidwood (1800-61) [right], formerly of Edinburgh, where within weeks of his appointment at the age of 23 dealt with the Great Fire of Edinburgh. In his second year in London he faced the major fire at the Houses of Parliament.
He lived 'over the shop' at Watling Street, and throughout his career saw through many detailed improvements to structures, apparatus, training and reporting of fires, detailed in his book Fire Prevention and Fire Extinction (Bell and Daldy 1866 - cover pictured right). This was published posthumously - he died attending the huge fire at Cotton's Wharf, Tooley Street in 1861. In 1866 the Metropolitan Board of Works assumed control of the fire service from the insurance companies, fulfilling one of his hopes; the Metropolitan Fire Brigade became the London Fire Brigade in 1904. Pictured left is its first motorised fire engine in 1902.
Backchurch Lane was also a place where entrepreneurs and men of science
lived and worked. Here are some examples.
|20,629. The humble Petition of the undersigned, John Fell Christy, of
the borough of Lambeth, glass manufacturer; John Harvey, of Ludgate
Street, in the city of London, merchant; George Rahn, of the Crescent,
Minories, in London aforesaid, merchant; and Charles Speare Tosswill,
of Budge Row, in London aforesaid, typographer, as Proprietors of the
Patent Fire-Preventive Cement,
That your Petitioners are the chief owners of a certain mode of manufacturing a cement or plaster which is fire-proof, and which renders all buildings encrusted with it, and exposed to the action of fire, likewise fire-proof.
That great and alarming fires and conflagrations have recently taken place, whereby many lives have been lost, and an immense amount of property has been destroyed, all of which might have been prevented had this fire-proof cement been used as the plaster of the respective buildings.
That the two Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, the Royal Exchange, the city of Hamburgh, and various large mills and manufactories in Lancashire and elsewhere, have fallen a prey to the flames, within a very short period.
That experiments have taken place in London and Manchester by buildings being exposed to a much more powerful fire than any that ordinarily takes place, without in the least penetrating beyond this cement; certificates of which fact have been made by many magistrates, architects, surveyors, manufacturers, and other respectable persons.
That several eminent architects, surveyors, and engineers, have employed this cement, including Mr. Charles Barry, R.A., Major Jebb, R.E., Captain Brandreth, R.E., Mr. Field, Mr. Allison, Mr. Stevens, and Mr. J. B. Shepherd. That such cement has been used under the superintendence of the Lords Commissioners of Woods and Forests in the New Model Prison of Pentonville, in the Victualling Yard Deptford, in the Royal College of Surgeons, in the British and Foreign Schools, at Saint Thomas's Hospital, at Woburn Abbey, at the Phoenix Gas Works, and other places.
That your Petitioners will be most happy to present to the Legislature, your honourable House, or Government, such a quantity of this cement as may be required to make the new House of Parliament fire-proof, without any profit whatever.
Your Petitioners humbly solicit that your honourable House will be pleased to enquire into the truth of these allegations; to accept the offer of sufficient of the cement to make the new Houses of Parliament fire-proof, and to take such steps in the premises as to your honourable House shall seem just, wise, and expedient.
And your Petitioners shall ever pray.
Jno. F. Christy - John Harvey - George Rahn - Chas. S. Tosswill.
In 1839 inventor of the electro-magnet William Sturgeon's Annals of Electricity, Magnetism and Chemistry included this letter from Henley:
I take the liberty to introduce to the numerous readers of the Annals of Electricity, &c. an Electro-Magnetic Machine, differing materially from the common description of that Instrument, viz:—The method of breaking battery contact, &c. Fig. 2 represents the Machine consisting of primary and secondary coil A. and B. a cross of soft Iron, not covered, which rotates between two pieces of Iron C. C. passing through the sides of the bobbin A. so as to be in contact with the iron wires in the axis. D and E are two copper wires carrying the current which press upon the break-piece F. into which there is a piece of Ivory inserted for breaking contact. Upon, making connection with the battery, the cross B. commences rotating rapidly, and, on placing a finger on each of the conductors F. F., a succession of shocks are felt, more violent than from any machine that I have as yet constructed. When the toothed wheel and spring are used, the stud G. cuts off the current from the wires D. andE. oil moving the stud H. the conductors are disconnected from the secondary, and no shock is felt. F. is a platform, with two binding screws for connecting a voltameter, platina, wire, &c &c. .....
Should you think the enclosed worthy of a place in your Annals, the insertion of the same will greatly oblige,
Sir, Your most obedient and very humble servant,
Philosophical Instrument Maker,
25, Back Church Lane, Commercial Road, East.
19th. November, 1839.
A squalid place
Here are three damning accounts of the area around Backchurch Lane from the second half of the 19th century - by which time the district church of St John the Evangelist-in-the-East Grove Street had been established.
first is from The
Magazine, and Friend of the People (Congregational Union 1865,
Campbell), and singles it out as a centre of vice.
|THE EAST OF LONDON|
No dweller at the West-end, says the Rev. G. W. M'Cree, the missionary of St. Giles's, can have any conception of its crowded apartments, narrow alleys, swarming dogs and children; slaughterhouses reeking with blood; pawnbrokers' shops filled to repletion with the pledges of the poor; factories, yards, and workshops, all noisy, ill-ventilated, and very dirty; crooked, unswept, and unsavoury lanes, where every woman seems consumptive, and every man half-starved; beershops, the haunts of thieves, and ginshops echoing with the gabble and blasphemies of heated, angry, wretched people; the famous 'Highway', with its sailors, crimps, hawkers, soldiers, pickpockets, watermen, negro melodists, butchers' men, Lascars, dock labourers, flaunting women more cruel than tigers, policemen walking in pairs, ship-captains with gay girls hanging on their arms, touts from boarding-houses, grimy stokers, Irish emigrants, beggars, and pugilists—in brief, its noise, dirt, crime, want, disease, and misery.
Nor have the public generally any conception of the lamentable condition of hundreds of the children, and the boys and girls at the East-end of London. It is simply fearful. Sunday-schools, Ragged-schools, and Bands of Hope confer great benefits upon many of them, but the majority are shamefully neglected by their parents. Let any one walk through Poplar, Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Commercial-Road, Ratcliff Highway, Aldgate, and Back Church-lane, I as I have done, and he will see scores of children who are not children, but little withered imps of cruelty, falsehood, and vice. He will also see elder boys and girls who are the victims of the most precocious passions—hard, foul, repulsive, and savage, who hate the parents who forsook them, the law that punishes them, and the Christians who would fain reclaim them. He will hear them coin oaths with horrible facility, see them drink gin like water, and, should they quarrel, he will witness such a fight as will make him expect a murder.
The twin monsters of this vast district of the metropolis are Dirt and Drunkenness. King Dirt is everywhere. There is a fetid smell, a sickly atmosphere, which makes you feel faint and weary. Your lips grow clammy; your linen looks yellow; your hands get defiled: your eyes grow dim; you long for green fields, fresh air, flowers, and bright skies. But, alas! they are not near you, and if, perchance, you should pass some building with 'Ragged-school' over the door, and looking in see a number of poor, white, forlorn children, who, when the teacher says "Rise", stand up and sing — There is a happy land, Far far away, you pass on with tears in your eyes, for you feel, also, that the happy land is indeed far far away.
King Drunkenness, however, reigns quite as much as King Dirt. There are thousands of sober men and women in the East of London, no doubt, and the Bands of Hope there will, it is anticipated, do much to produce a sober future; but any one who explores the localities infected with cholera, and also the contiguous parishes, will be shocked at the evident supremacy of drunkenness. Many men and women seem to drink apparently nearly every penny they can spare, and many which they cannot spare. Hence rags, desolate homes, crime, pauperism, and now pestilence in its most fatal form. I do not exaggerate the state of things. An agent of the London City Mission says:—There is perhaps more wickedness in Shadwell than in any other parish in London. As you walk through the streets the scenes of wickedness that meet your eyes, and the profane language that sounds upon your ears, cannot be described. If such wickedness is met with in the public streets, what is to be met with in public houses where men and women meet to practice wickedness, and to strive to excel each other in sin, and where that man is counted a king among men who can swear the loudest, and who is most fruitful in inventing fresh deeds of darkness? [Pictured is the Cherry Tree public house, Backchurch Lane, in the 1880s, and in the 1990s (between the trees) from the corner of Fairclough Street.]
The seafaring part of the population are much addicted to intemperance, and this tends to produce many sanitary and social evils. A competent witness writes:—It is really lamentable to see the number of our English seamen who live more like the beasts that perish than men possessing immortal souls; and what is a disgrace to our country may be seen in our docks at all times when a ship is leaving for some foreign port, in the fact that our seamen seem as if they could not face the winds and the waves, nor take farewell of their native shores, but in a state of intoxication. The brave and noble captain of the ill-fated ship London said to me before leaving the docks on his last voyage, 'It is a great pity we cannot get our sailors to leave our ports in a sober state.'
An intelligent missionary, who labours in the east, states that Millwall, Cubitttown, Blackwall, Poplar, The Orchard, and Poplar New Town, contain 200 public-houses. What wonder is it, then, that King Drunkenness reigns?
The prevalence of cholera in these parts is, doubtless, increased by the prevalence of intemperate habits. Such habits are associated with late hours, unwashed bodies, filthy homes, predisposition to infection, improper food, heats and colds, debilitated constitutions, and a morbid fear of death—all of which tend to spread the pestilence. Thus, a woman whose brother resides in Scotland, wrote to him for help in the present distress, and he sent her some clothing. She took it to the pawnshop, thence she went to the public-house and got drunk. Both she and her daughter have died of cholera. Another hideous occurrence took place on Sunday last. The driver of a hearse on a 'cholera job' fell from his seat, and lay sprawling in the street, shouting, "Cholera, cholera!" He was drunk!
What can be done to check this horrid vice? One thing might be done. Every publican who supplies liquor to drunken persons should be summoned before a magistrate and fined in the most severe manner. No publican who allows men to get drunk on his premises, or serves them when intoxicated, should be permitted by the police to do so. It is a social crime for any class to profit by drunkenness at such a crisis as this. Drunkenness breeds cholera as marshes breed fever. Dr. Sewall, who visited the cholera hospitals of New York, states that of 204 cases in Park Hospital, there were only six temperate persons.
(2) The second extract, from James Greenwood Unsentimental Journeys, or By-ways of the modern Babylon (Ward & Lock 1867) comments on a particular local trade:
universal fish-frying is the key to another mystery common to the
neighbourhood. In every 'general shop', in every rag and bone shop, in
the high street, and in the hundred courts and filthy alleys that worm
in and out of it, may be seen solid slabs of a tallowy-looking
substance, and marked with a figure 6, 7, or 8, denoting that for as
many pence a pound weight of the suspicious-looking slab may be
obtained. It is bought in considerable quantities by the fish-eaters
for frying purposes, and is by them supposed to be simply and purely
the fat dripping of roast and baked meats, supplied to these shops by
cooks, whose perquisite it is. This, however is a delusion. The
villainous compound is manufactured. There is a 'dripping-maker' near
Seabright-street, Bethnal-green, and another in Backchurch-lane,
Whitechapel, both flourishing men, and the owners of many carts and
sleek cattle. Mutton suet and boiled rice are the chief ingredients
used in the manufacture of the slabs, the gravy of bullocks' kidneys
being stirred into the mess when it is half cold, giving to the whole a
mottled and natural appearance...
(3) Finally is an article 'The Haunts of the East End Anarchist' from the Evening Standard of 2 October 1894. It begins with a description of Backchurch Lane and the small streets to the east of it, before turning to a lurid and thoroughly racist account of the activities of the radical Jewish groups that were meeting in the area. See below for pictures of the streets mentioned.
Just beyond the Proof-house of the Gunmakers' Company near the Whitechapel end of the Commercial Road, begins a series of narrow streets running at right angles to the main thoroughfare, and cutting Fairclough Street at the further extremity, where the Tilbury and Southend Railway passes through the district [see below]. More or less alike in appearance, these byways, for they are no more, consist entirely of small two-storeyed tenements with an occasional stable or cow-shed to break the monotony, and a sprinkling of little shops devoted to coal and dried fish, stale fruit and potatoes, pickled cucumbers and salt herrings, shrivelled sausages and sour brown bread.
There is Backchurch Lane, where the Irish resident still holds his own against the incoming Russo-Jewish settler, and Berner [now Henriques] Street, where the window bills, written in Hebrew characters. inform you that there are 'loshing' or a 'bek-rum' (back room) to let, and thus proclaim the nationality of its denizens. There is Batty Street wholly given over to the foreign tailors, clickers and 'machiners'; Christian Street, long since an appanage of East End Jewry, and Grove [now Golding] Street, where the low-pitched tenements are so far below the pavement level that the passer-by can comfortably shake hands with the residents off the top floor through the bedroom windows.
intersecting all these are a number of courts, alleys, and passages, so
dark and narrow, so dirty and malodorous, that the purlieus of Seven
Dials and the backways of Clare Market may be called light and airy in
comparison with them. Some are blind, others lead through to the
adjoining thoroughfare. Some branch off to right and left, others
conduct one to open spaces forming irregular quadrangles lined with
houses below the street level, so small and snug that the occupier
standing in his front parlour can open the door, stir the fire, reach
the dustbin outside, or make the bed inside without stirring from the
spot. Courts and alleys, streets and yards, all are densely packed, in
many cases even to the cellars below lighted by small gratings in the
pavement. And the whole district, stretching from Backchurch Lane on
one side to Morgan Street on the other, is the resort and principal
abiding-place of the East End Anarchists. In the side streets and
alleys hereabouts the majority of them live and loaf; within a stone's
throw are their favourites haunts, the coffee-shops they patronise, and
the private gambling-clubs where many spend their evenings, and close
by is their printing press, their temporary club and meeting house, and
even the tavern where their Friday evening discussions take place.
If I dig in the mines of the frozen north,
I'll dig with a will: the ore I bring forth
May yet make a knife - a knife for the throat of the Tsar.
If I toil in the south, I'll plough and sow
Good honest hemp; who knows, I may grow
A rope - a rope for the neck of the Tsar.
Bernhardt might envy the fire and verve with which this recitation is
given by one of the Jewesses, and there can be no possible mistake
about the sentiments of the speaker and her auditory, whatever there
may be about the merits of the verses. And the same fiery stuff, or
fiery stuff of the same description, is being spouted about the same
time at half a dozen other branches of the Anarchist League in the
district between Backchurch Lane and the New Road, that runs up to
Whitechapel. Everything is turned to account, tool for the purposes of
its mischievous propaganda. Why, before the meeting is closed one
member produces and sings an Anarchist version of 'After the Ball',
with a finely-buttered moral drawn from the contrast between the
wealthy dancers inside and the shivering poor outside, winding up with
an Anglo-Yiddish chorus in which all join.
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