top of page
  • Writer's pictureRichard Edmunds

A two-century family odyssey in Spitalfields - Part 1 Jack the Ripper, Poverty, Pie and Mash

Updated: Sep 1, 2018

This month I published The Early Silk Weavers of London and Spitalfields (1520-1720), an account of the establishment of the silk trade in London, and its growth and rise to dominance in the neighbouring community of Spitalfields.

A fascinating area, rich with history and character, in the following two blog entries, I aim to explore my own Spitalfields family links, spanning over two centuries, originating in 1681, with the settlement of foreign refugees during the reign of Charles II, and ending in 1915, whilst Europe was in the grip of World War, and like my own family, facing a difficult and uncertain fate.

My most recent link to the area is my great-grandmother, Julia. She appears on the 1911 Census, aged seventeen, in the household of her father Joe Tomkins, a Spitalfields Market Porter, at No.20 Faith Street, Mile End.

The Spitalfields market porters were not particularly well paid. According to a report from 1914 even the highest paid porters in the market earned just 20 shillings a week, or £52 a year, considerably less than the £67 average annual wage for a UK labourer. Their work was long, physical and tough, and these men formed a close-knit clique, living a rough and ready life, often spending much of their earnings in the pubs surrounding the market, before any got the chance to see home.

Consequently, Joe and his family lived in one of the poorest districts of the East End. A year after the census was taken the Evangelical Christian Charrington Mission, which had pledged to raise morals and living standards amongst the East London poor, took several photos in Mile End, in order to highlight the crowded and unsanitary living conditions there, including one at Faith Street, showing Joe’s youngest two children, Jack and Carrie Tomkins, in the street outside their home.

Jack & Carrie Tomkins, 1912, Faith Street, Mile End

On the outbreak of war, in August 1914, despite already being forty-five years of age, and above the upper age limit for military service, gripped with patriotic fervour, Joe went along with several of his younger market colleagues to the Army Recruitment Offices, lied about his age, and attempted to join up. Not only did he fail the medical, the Army doctor was so alarmed by the results that he urged Joe to see his own doctor immediately. He confirmed a diagnosis of Tuberculosis, which went on to claim his life within six months.

This led to desperate times for the family. Unable to afford the basic necessities, including shoes, Jack Tomkins, now thirteen, and his eldest brother Joe, junior, fifteen, would regularly walk a ten-mile round trip, from the East End, to Mayfair and Oxford Street, barefooted, to salvage discarded food from the kitchens of the large hotels, as much needed sustenance for their family, often returning home with little more than cherry stalks and pips, which their widowed mother nevertheless boiled into a flavoursome broth.

Detected in one such mission, the authorities intervened. To protect his younger brother, Joe shouldered the entirety of the blame, and was given a stark choice between Reformed School, or the Naval Cadets. He chose the latter, and as crew of the H.M.S Suburb in the Mediterranean, became one of the youngest serving members of the Navy in World War One. After the war he married and ran a successful business, manufacturing iron railings in rural Essex, where he lived to a grand age of 101, the poverty of his early years a distant memory.

Spitalfields Market porters, pictured in 1912.

Despite occasional spells as a Dock Labourer, his late father, Joe Tomkins, Senior, worked most of his adult life at Spitalfields Market. At twenty three years of age he already appears on the 1891 census following this profession, and was again described as a Market Porter on my great-grandmother’s birth certificate in May 1893.

Her first years were spent at Dorset Street, Spitalfields. The subject of Fiona Rule’s 2010 book, The Worse Street in London, Dorset Street was notorious, being described by one 1901 commentator as:

[The] head centre of the shifting criminal population of London […] In Dorset Street we find the common thief, the pickpocket, the area meak, the man who robs with violence, and the unconvicted murderer. The police have a theory, it seems, that it is better to let these people congregate together in one mass where they can easily be found than to scatter them abroad. And Dorset Street certainly serves the purpose of a police trap.

My great-grandmother and her family are listed living at No.58 Dorset Street on the 1894 Electoral Roll, and at No.6 on the subsequent Electoral Roll of 1895. In September of the same year, 1895, newspapers report on a stabbing which occurred in the house next door:

STABBING BY A WOMAN. Last night a woman, named Maria Smith, living at 4 Dorset Street, White Street, Spitalfields, was dangerously stabbed in the back of the head by another woman named Janet Stuart, living in the same house. It is alleged that Stuart, who has just completed a sentence of 14 days for an assault on a constable of the H division, had been drinking heavily all day, when her sister-in-law pushed her into a room, shut the door and wedged it from outside, with the idea of keeping her out of trouble. The woman Smith went to the room door and opened it, when Stuart rushed into the passage and stabbed her in the back of the head with a large bladed penknife. The wounded woman was at once taken to the London Hospital by the police, and upon examination by the house surgeon was thought to be in a dangerous condition.

Dorset Street, Spitalfields, pictured in 1895, the same year my great-grandmother, aged two, lived there with her parents Joe Tomkins, a Spitalfields Market Porter, and his wife Julia Miller.

The above description of casual violence and criminality suggests Dorset Street's mean reputation in the capital was by no means exaggerated. Most notorious of all is its double link to the infamous Whitechapel Murders of Autumn 1888.

The Ripper’s last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, met her terrible end in a squalid rented room, at Miller's Court. This was originally the back parlour of No.26 Dorset Street, and was accessed through the passage way running between No.26 and No.27 Dorset Street. The Ripper’s second victim, Annie Chapman, had also been lodging in Dorset Street, at No.35, when she had been murdered two months earlier.

Joe, my great-great grandfather was just nineteen at the time of the killings. Already working at the market and doubtless regularly patronising the Ten Bells Public House opposite, he may well have known the victims. Annie Chapman drank at the pub shortly before she was murdered, and it is believed the Ripper picked up Kelly outside the same location.

Joe then lived with his parents at No.12 Corbett’s Court, Spitalfields, less than three hundred yards from where Chapman’s body was found. The Ripper's first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, was also discovered nearby, by Robert Paul, a carman, who was making his way to Corbett’s Court, where he was employed, when Charles Cross, another carman, alerted him to the body. The Ripper was perhaps on that occasion disturbed by Cross, as when Paul felt Chapman’s face and hands he still detected signs of life, stating "I think she's breathing but it's very little if she is". The pair then ran off and alerted local policeman, PC Jonas Mizen, to their grim find.

The back yard of 29 Hanbury Street, where the Ripper's second Victim, Annie Chapman, met her fate.

Joe and his family had been living ay No.12 Corbett’s Court for at least ten years by the time of the murders. He was perhaps already traumatised by his mother’s recent death. She had passed away, at their home, nine months prior to the first killing, on 11th December 1887, after suffering a six day bout of Broncho-Pneumonia. Joe, his brothers, John, 22, and Fred, 16, and their bereaved father, were thereafter left alone to make their own way in the world.

Eldest brother John earlier appears in newspapers, in somewhat unusual circumstances, when, aged nineteen, he was arrested and jailed for running an illegal street lottery on the streets of Spitalfields, and produced a live monkey, (his business partner!), in court:

The Police Guardian Friday August 8th 1884 - At the Worship-street Police Court recently a youth named John Tomkins, living at 12 Corbit's Row, Spitalfields, was charged with gambling of a somewhat unusual character. It appeared that on Sunday afternoon the prisoner was watched by Police Constables in plain clothes, who saw him drive a brisk trade in selling tickets bearing certain numbers at a penny each. When a dozen were disposed of, round balls, bearing similar numbers were placed in the cylinder, which a monkey, trained for the purpose, turned around, and then inserting his paw, pulled out one, which was declared to be the winning number, and the holder paid ten pence, two pence deducted for commission. Furthermore, the officers noticed only certain young men, who appeared to be the prisoner’s confederates, were successful in the draw. After having seen him dispose of several shillings worth of tickets the officers arrested him, and the monkey, which, amid considerable laughter, was produced in court. Mr Hannay ordered the prisoner to pay a fine of 40 shillings, in default to be imprisoned for a month.

Original report of John Tomkins eventful court appearance.

Eighteen months after the Ripper murders, Joe, his father and brothers, moved out of Corbett’s Court, and onto Mead Street. This formed part of the Old Nichol Street Rookery, in Bethnal Green, described by contemporary commentators as the very worse slum in Victorian Britain, and arguably an area every bit as notorious as Dorset Street, plagued by crime and street gangs. So black was its reputation, it would soon be condemned and demolished to make way for the Boundary Estate, the first example of urban regeneration in the area. The displaced residents of the Old Nichol were at that point dispersed further out into Bethnal Green, and into neighbouring Spitalfields and Mile End.

Joe's widowed father lived in a variety of homes afterwards and continued to struggle to cope with dire poverty, giving up his previous occupation as a boot closer, for occasional bit work as a porter at Spitalfields Market with his son. By 1901 circumstance had forced him in to Bethnal Green Workhouse. In 1902 they removed him to Whitechapel Workhouse. By 1903 he was an inmate of Homerton Workhouse, and there he would spend most of the remaining two decades of his life. His last address was given as 24 New Street, Bishopsgate. A mere 500 yards from Spitalfields Market, this was a common lodging house, with beds for 90 men, ran by Joseph Buller, and provides another coincidental link with the 1888 Ripper murders. Joe Barnett, a fish porter at Billingsgate Market, partner of the last victim, Mary Kelly, told Police he had been lodging overnight at the sameplace, the night of Kelly's murder, and was evicted by Buller the next morning, reportedly for being a 'nuisance'.

Whilst the family were living at Mead Street, on the Old Nichol, the young Joe Tomkins met his future wife, Julia Miller. Julia lived nearby on Weaver Street, Bethnal Green, and was the daughter of Benjamin Bacon Miller (1840-1922), a farrier at the Charrington Brewery, Mile End.

Benjamin was born and raised in Spitalfields, at No.12 Heneage Street, by his mother Sophia, in the household of his grandfather Thomas Miller (1790-1861), a shoemaker. Sophia's brother Thomas Miller, junior, had been employed at Spitalfields Market Porter, since the 1850s, and perhaps helped the young Joe Tomkins find employment there.

A Victorian Shoe Maker, 1860.

Thomas Miller, my 5-x great grandfather, initially ran his Shoemaker's business on George Street, Spitalfields, in the 1820s, but from 1830, until his death in 1861, occupied premises at No.8 and No.12 Heneage Street.

Once more, coincidently, this street was also later linked to the Ripper Murders. One suspect, James Hardiman, a Cat's Meat Vendor, lived at 13 Heneage Street. George Hutchinson, the last man to see the Ripper’s final victim, Mary Kelly, alive, made statements suggesting he had been drinking at The Romford Arms, No.3 Heneage Street, on the night of 9th November 1888, immediately prior to encountering her, at 2am, just before she met up with a mysterious figure, described by Hutchinson as carrying a small parcel in his left hand with a strap round it.

The Romford Arms, 3 Heneage Street, Spitalfields, today 'The Pride of Spitalfields'.

Benjamin Bacon Miller (1840-1922), Farrier of Heneage Street, Spitalfields and Joe Tomkins (1867-1915), Spitalfields Market Porter, my 4x great-grandfather and great-great grandfather, respectively, photographed circa 1904.

Benjamin was born to Sophia through a brief relationship with a Benjamin Peter Bacon, (1803-1880), who lived at Anchor Steeet, Bethnal Green, just a short distance from Heneage Street. Married at Christchurch, Spitalfields, in 1825, he is described variously as a silk manufacturer and dealer, a carman, and a broker in household goods.

His youngest daughter Martha Bacon, my 3xgreat-grandfather’s half-sister, ran Cooke’s Pie and Mash shop in Clerkenwell, with her husband, Robert Cooke. He was the first man to offer customers a minced meat pie and mashed potato, served with parsley sauce, a condiment before then usually only associated with fish. The dish soon became a favourite with his regulars, and thereafter a staple of the East End palate, indelibly linked with both the area and its people.

Pie and Mash, the East End's signature dish, an invention of my great-uncle Robert Cooke.

Cooke's Pie and Mash shop today

Benjamin Peter Bacon's own father was a Peter Bacon (1784-1839), whose will describes him as a Stock Broker, operating at Union Row, Mile End.

This was also the profession of another of my Spitalfields ancestors in the late Georgian era, Edward Clark (1757-1813). The son of a tailor of Gun Street, Old Artillery Ground, Spitalfields, in 1780, aged twenty three, Edward appeared as a witness at an Old Bailey trial, describing himself as a Servant to a Pawn Broker at Rosemary Lane, Whitechapel. He was operating as an Auctioneer and Broker in his own right, by 1786, when at twenty nine years of age, he insured his home at No.83 Wheeler Street, Spitalfields, for a value of £1,400 (Approx. £125,000 in 2018 values).

Edward had achieved such success in business, by 1792, that he was in a position to branch out as a local landlord, purchasing the leasehold of a derelict patch of ground at Gibraltar Walk, Bethnal Green, and twenty three adjacent properties in Satchwell Rents, Bethnal Green. By the time of his death, he leased 49 homes on this plot, as well as several other properties in Spitalfields, including No.18 Brick Lane, and Nos.39 & 40 Booth Street. In addition to his personal home on Wheeler Street, he had purchased another there, as well as two more on St John Street, Spitalfields, and another at Church Street, Bethnal Green. He also owned the freehold of a further four properties, at Great Pearl Street and White Swan Court in Spitalfields, and at Sowerby, Yorkshire and Rodesby, Derbyshire.

Edward Clark's signature from 1796, when he acted as one of six land tax commisioners for Spitalfields, alongside fellow Brick Lane resident Joseph Merceron (1764-1839), the so-called Boss of Bethnal Green, a notoriously corrupt magistrate, who accumulated enormous personal wealth while presiding over the creation of the poorest slums in Georgian London.

Widowed in 1799, Edward was buried at Christchurch, Spitalfields, in December 1813, with his late wife Hannah, having left instructions to be ‘buried in a plain and decent manner in a good deep brick grave vault out in the church yard of Spitalfields.’

His son Ebenezer Clark (1795-1845), who lived independently on his father’s wealth, was later interred with his parents in the family vault there.

The Frying Pan Pub, No.13 Brick Lane, directly facing Edward Clarke's property at No.18 Brick Lane. The Ripper's first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, was seen leaving this pub at 12.30am shortly before her murder, on 31st August 1888.

704 views0 comments


bottom of page