London’s most fascinating district – Whitechapel

Whitechapel mural

Following the previous post on Spitalfields, we explore the neighbouring area of Whitechapel – starting with one of its most notorious characters.

The Whitechapel Murders

These murders, assumed to be the horrific deeds of ‘Jack the Ripper’ shocked London and the world.   The murders happened over three months in the autumn of 1888.   And today, the murders still hold a ghastly fascination for many.   No one knows who the culprit was and there is not a shred of real evidence – but countless theories!   What we do know is the murderer made havoc of the investigation by exploiting the rivalries of the ‘City of London Police’ and the ‘Metropolitan Police’ – who were highly competitive and uncooperative with each other. (As an aside, the forces are still separate – it all goes back to a charter granted by William 1st in 1087, granting the City of London self-governing autonomy from the monarch – provided it pays it’s taxes).

Dorset Street, Whitechapel
One of the last remaining buildings on the former location of Dorset Street, Whitechapel

Just south of Spitalfields market is White’s Row.   This is the location of the former Dorset Street, one of London’s most destitute streets at the time.   It was here that the Rippers fifth victim, Mary Kelly, met her end in a most abominable way.   Moving south to 108 Goulston Street we can visit a doorway where a piece of bloodied apron belonging to the Rippers first victim, Catherine Eddowe’s was found, along with graffiti stating ‘the Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing’. This graffiti fuelled suspicions that the Ripper was either a Jew or a Mason.

108 Goulston Street – the ‘infamous doorway’ today
The Ten Bells Pub - haunt of Jack the Ripper
The Ten Bells Pub – haunt of Jack the Ripper.  Corner of Commercial Street and Fournier Street

At the junction of Commercial Street and Fournier Street is the famous Ten Bells pub – favoured drinking den of some of the Ripper’s victims and no doubt the perpetrator himself.   The pub was built in 1851 and is Grade 2 listed. Aside its ghoulish claim to fame there are very attractive tied murals commemorating Spitalfields silk weaving heritage.

Whitechapel Art Gallery

The Whitechapel Art Gallery at 80-82 Whitechapel Road is one of Britain’s first publicly funded galleries.   Established in 1901 by a local Vicar Canon Samuel Barnett it exhibits temporary exhibitions of contemporary artists, as well as shows that are of interest to the local community.   It has premiered international artists such as Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and has been responsible for launching David Hockney and the Pop Art movement, including local residents Gilbert & George.   The gallery was doubled in size in 2009, adding study rooms and a coffee shop.

Church Bell Foundry, Whitechapel
Church Bell Foundry, Whitechapel

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Further east, along the Whitechapel Road, is a very significant site in American History. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is where the original Liberty Bell was cast in 1752.   It is also where its largest product, Big Ben, was cast in 1858.   And it is where the Bicentennial Bell was made – a gift from the UK to USA in 1976.

The site goes back to 1420 when a bell foundry was established by Robert Chamberlain. The business moved to its current location in 1520.   However, sadly, the business was sold in March 2017 and site will be converted to other purposes.   Historical artefacts will be moved to the Museum of London’s new site at Smithfield, opening in 2022.   It’s the last bell that will be made. But for now (August 2018) the site and buildings are intact whilst planning permission is sought.

The Liberty Bell was hung in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia – later renamed Independence Hall.

Church Bell Foundry, Whitechapel. The Loading Dock.
Church Bell Foundry, Whitechapel. The Loading Dock.

The Whitechapel Mural

Continue along Whitechapel Road until it turns into Mile End Road. On the north side, at number 33 is Mychael Barratt’s Whitechapel Mural (see main picture).   The work was completed in 2011 and shows characters and buildings from Whitechapel and the East End.   Here are some that are represented:

  • George Bernard Shaw, an early member of the Fabian Society who regularly met on the Whitechapel Road
  • William Booth started The Christian Mission and The Salvation Army on the Mile End Road
  • Captain James Cook lived at 88 Mile End Road
  • Vladimir Lenin planned the Russian Revolution in Whitechapel
  • Joseph Merrick, also known as The Elephant Man, was first publicly exhibited in London in a shop on the Whitechapel Road opposite the London Hospital
  • Mahatma Gandhi stayed at Kingsley Hall in 1931, when he came to London to discuss Indian independence
  • Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 2009
  • Samuel Pepys frequented the Mile End Road, as his diary attests and his mother was the daughter of a Whitechapel butcher
  • Reggie and Ronnie Kray frequented The Blind Beggar pub
  • David Hockney had his first exhibition at The Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1970
  • Gilbert & George live nearby in Spitalfields
  • Christ Church, Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor
  • The Whitechapel Church Bell Foundry
  • The first V1 flying bomb or Doodlebug fell in Whitechapel in 1944.

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