Dorset Street, London
Dorset Street was situated at the heart of the Spitalfields rookery in the East End of London, England. It should not be confused with the road of the same name in Marylebone, in London's West End. By repute it was "the worst street in London" and was the scene of the brutal murder of Mary Jane Kelly by Jack the Ripper on 9 November 1888. The murder was committed at Kelly's lodgings which were situated at No. 13, Miller's Court entered from a passageway between 26 and 27, Dorset Street.
Laid out in 1674 and originally known as 'Datchet Street' (probably from William Wheler of Datchet, who owned land in the area), it was given the name Dorset Street soon after. Locally, it was sometimes known as "Dosset Street" or "Dossen Street" either because of the large number of doss-houses it contained or because immigrants to the area found it hard to pronounce the original name. It was a short and narrow street, 400 feet long and 24 feet wide, running parallel with Brushfield Street, to the north, and White’s Row, to the south, and connecting Crispin Street, to the west, with Commercial Street to the east. An alley called Little Paternoster Row connected Dorset Street with Brushfield Street. In the mid nineteenth century a man called John Miller built some cottages in the back gardens of his properties at 26 and 27, on the north side of Dorset Street. This small area, entered by a passageway between 26 and 27, became known as Miller's Court. No 13 Miller's Court, where Mary Jane Kelly resided and was murdered, was originally the back part of 26 Dorset Street, renumbered and let as a separate residence by her landlord Jack McCarthy and now looking out onto the cottage buildings in the Court rather than the original garden.
By the 1880s, Dorset Street was almost entirely taken up with common lodging-houses and other sub-standard rented accommodation, mostly let and controlled by two men, Jack McCarthy and William Crossingham. McCarthy and Crossingham were major slum landlords in this area and suspected to be involved in various illegal rackets, such as controlling prostitutes, fencing stolen goods, and arranging prize fights. Only two legitimate businesses were listed in the Post Office Street Directory for 1888: that of Barnett Price, who had a grocery store at No 7, and the Blue Coat Boy public house, which was run by William James Turner at No 32. It was estimated that on any one night there were no fewer than 1200 men sleeping in Dorset Street's crowded lodging houses.
On the corner of Dorset and Commercial Street stood The Britannia public house. Known as the ‘Ringers’, after the landlord’s surname: a frequent customer was Mary Jane Kelly. Situated opposite Miller’s Court, at No. 15, was Crossingham’s common lodging-house, with another, also owned by Crossingham, at the corner of Little Paternoster Row, at 35, Dorset Street. It was from this common lodging house that Ripper victim Annie Chapman was last seen walking up Little Paternoster Row, before turning right into Brushfield Street and heading towards Christ Church, Spitalfields.
"[It]… has recently sprung into undesired notoriety. Here we have a place which boasts of an attempt at murder on an average once a month, of a murder in every house, and one house at least, a murder in every room. Policemen go down it as rule in pairs. Hunger walks prowling in its alleyways, and the criminals of to-morrow are being bred there to-day… The lodging-houses of Dorset Street and of the district around are the head centres of the shifting criminal population of London. Of course, the aristocrats of crime — the forger, the counterfeiter, and the like do not come here. In Dorset Street we find more largely 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 be easily be found than to scatter them abroad. And Dorset Street certainly serves the purpose of a police trap. "
Dorset Street remained a notorious slum following the murder of Mary Jane Kelly and further murders occurred. In 1901, Mary Ann Austin was murdered with ten wounds to her abdomen at Annie Chapman's former home, Crossingham's Lodging House, at 35, Dorset Street. Later, in 1909 there was a Jack the Ripper-like killing in No. 20, Miller's Court, the room directly above no. 13 (which had been occupied by Elizabeth Prater in 1888), when a young woman named Kitty Ronan was found with her throat cut. It was believed that Ronan was a prostitute, and, as in the killing of Mary Jane Kelly, her murderer was never found. As in 1888, the landlord of Miller's Court in 1909 was still John McCarthy. The last murder in Dorset Street was the gangland killing of a Soho club manager and a former middleweight boxer called Selwyn Cooney in February 1960. Cooney was shot in the head at a drinking club on the street, staggered down the stairs into the road and there died.
A vivid description of crime and vice in Dorset street is given in Ralph L. Finn's 1963 memoir of a Jewish boyhood in the East End:
"It was a street of whores. There is, I always feel a subtle difference between an whore and a prostitute. At least we used to think so. Prozzies were younger, and more attractive. Whores were debauched old bags. It teemed with nasty characters - desperate, wicked, lecherous, razor-slashing hoodlums. No Jews lived there. Only a few bold Choots had the temerity even to walk through it. There were pubs every few yards. Bawdy houses every few feet. It was peopled by roaring drunken fighting-mad killers"
As Finn indicates, by the early years of the twentieth century Dorset Street constituted a small non-Jewish ghetto in what was now largely a Jewish area. Dorset Street was renamed 'Duval Street' on 28 June 1904. In 1920, the Corporation of London purchased Spitalfields Market, and began major rebuilding, which included the demolition of the whole of the north side of Duval Street, including Miller's Court. The new fruit market opened in 1928. Another new market development in the 1960s resulted in Duval Street becoming a lorry park for the market. The buildings on the south side of Dorset Street were redeveloped as a multi-storey car park in the 1960s. The north side is bounded by the London Fruit and Wool Exchange building, which is now used primarily as office space for small businesses and a storage warehouse for an import-export company. Proposed development of the Exchange and car park would see Dorset Street built over.
The history of Dorset Street is chronicled in Fiona Rule's The Worst Street in London.
- Fiona Rule (2008) The Worst Street in London. Ian Allan Ltd: 164
- Paul Begg, Martin Fido and Keith Skinner, 'The Jack the Ripper A–Z' Published by Headline, (1996) pg 108
- Fiona Rule (2008) The Worst Street in London. Ian Allan Ltd: 24
- It is called Dorset Street in Ogilby and Morgan's 1677 Map of London.
- Paul Begg, Martin Fido and Keith Skinner, 'The Jack the Ripper A-Z' Published by Headline, (1996) pg 109
- Ralph Finn (1963) No Tears in Aldgate. London, Robert Hale: 124
- Fiona Rule (2008) The Worst Street in London. Ian Allan Ltd: 24
- Fiona Rule (2008) The Worst Street in London. Ian Allan Ltd: 55
- Fiona Rule (2008) The Worst Street in London. Ian Allan Ltd: 112
- Fiona Rule (2008) The Worst Street in London. Ian Allan Ltd: 78-103
- Bluecoat boys were known by their traditional uniform dress. Christ's Hospital (popularly known as The Bluecoat School) was founded in the sixteenth century, connected with Christ Church Greyfriars.
- Murder sites:Dorset Street (The Whitechapel Society) accessed 5 August 2008
- "A LIFE OF CRIME". Wanganui Herald. 12 October 1901. p. 1. Retrieved 13 November 2010. "Volume XXXV, Issue 10468 ... street described by Mr. McKenzie in an article which appeared in the Daily Mail a few weeks back as the 'worst street in London"
- "The Worst Street in London" July 16, 1901 Daily Mail (reprinted at Jack the Ripper shop) accessed 5 August 2008
- Murder in Spitalfields (The National Archives) accessed 5 August 2008
- Kit, Kitty, Kitten: The Story of Kitty Ronan (Casebook: Jack the Ripper) accessed 5 August 2008
- Tom Cullen, When London Walked in Terror.(Houghton Mifflin) 1968
- Fiona Rule (2008) The Worst Street in London. Ian Allan Ltd: 9, 215-6
- Ralph L. Finn No Tears in Aldgate. pp. 124 (London, Robert Hale, 1963)
- Fiona Rule (2008) The Worst Street in London. Ian Allan Ltd: 165
- London Fruit & Wool Exchange consultation website. http://www.thelondonfruitandwoolexchange.com/ (accessed 26/06/2012)
- The Worst Street in London Fiona Rule (Ian Allan Ltd, 2008) ISBN 978-0-7110-3345-0
- Dorset Street on the Whitechapel Society website
- Dorset Street on the Casebook:Jack the Ripper website
- Murder of Mary Ann Austin, The National Archives