The Worst Street in London was once Dorset Street. Charles Booth’s investigator described it like this in 1898. “The Worst Street I have seen so far” he said. His poverty map of London republished a year later listed streets by social class. They were colour coded and classified. Streets coded black were described as ‘vicious and semi-criminal’. This was the description given to Dorset Street.
To understand what it might have been like to live there is tough. Much of the area around Dorset Street and generally in the East End of London has changed. Entire neighbourhoods have been wiped from the map and Dorset Street is one of them. Despite this its history is remembered. Not least because this street was were Mary Kelly, the final victim of Jack the Ripper, was murdered.
Murder of Mary Kelly
The exact location of the murder of Mary Kelly was 13 Millers Court. This was in reality the back end of number 26 Dorset Street. Millers Court was accessed via a narrow alley which led into a courtyard at the back. Rooms could be bought by the night here. The area of Spitalfields was known for its common lodging houses. These were squalid and nasty places to bunk down. People did though. They didn’t have many other options.
Now 26 Dorset Street and Millers Court has been re-created in Lego. The work of Mark Hodgson the model has been painstakingly put together. Using a variety of contemporary sources such as photographs, descriptions and sketches. Hodgson’s model allows a unique opportunity to explore this property. It’s an exceptional piece of craftsmanship and it allows us to understand better the environment where Mary Kelly died.
Dorset Street Destroyed
Dorset Street is no more. Originally built in 1674 it was first known as Datchet Street and filled with cheaply built houses. It was named after a small village in Berkshire. This was the ancestral home of the wealthy Wheler family. They owned much of the land in the area and had been granting permits for sections of it to be developed. Eventually over time, Datchet corrupted into Dorset.
In 1928 the area laying to the north of Dorset Street towards Brushfield Street was raised to the ground. This was in order to turn the space into the Fruit and Wool Exchange. That was built in 1929. It became an important place to distribute the increasing amount of fresh produce that was coming into the city from the nearby docks. Dorset Street narrowed and eventually became nothing more than a goods access road backing onto the exchange.
The area laying to the south of Dorset Street towards Whites Row was further demolished in the sixties. This was to make way for a multi-storey car park. Now the whole area has been redeveloped once again. Encompassing the whole span of land from Whites Row to Brushfield Street. All that’s left of the admittedly grand Fruit and Wool Exchange is the facade. Any remnants of Dorset Street or Millers Court have been completely removed.
Lego Model by Mark Hodgson
It’s hard to imagine what Dorset Street must have been like. It’s become so synonymous with poverty. Further notoriety due to the murder of Mary Kelly has added to it’s mystery. Mary’s murder was also the only one of the crimes to have happened indoors. The property therefore and the layout has always been of interest.
Mark Hodgson’s lego model uses a variety of contemporary sources to piece together where Mary Kelly once lived. It is 3D and contains an incredible amount of detail. Encompassing numbers 26 and 27 Dorset along with Millers Court. The building is created as much to scale as is possible and the exterior walls open up to reveal the inside. It gives a clear visualisation of where Mary lived. The space she had and where it was in proximity to the rest of the building.
The Buildings of Dorset Street
By the time Mary Kelly was murdered in 1888. Dorset Street was full of common lodging houses. These could sleep vast numbers of people a night. They were often over-crowded and unhygienic. Local law enforcement would often avoid them. They were places for the poor. Spaces would be let nightly. Many would hope to raise enough money in the day only so they could have a bed for the night.
26 Dorset Street
This is the main focus of the model. It was a tall thin terrace. At the base of the property was a shop and storage area. The owner of the property Jack McCarthy also owned or operated a number of others on the street and in the area. The model details the whole of this building including the interior and the back. The room used by Mary Kelly was at the back of 26 Dorset Street. It was accessed through an alley running between numbers 26 & 27. The alley once led to the gardens. However over the years these had been built over with small cottages. This area became known as Millers Court.
27 Dorset Street
Next door, this is where Jack McCarthy lived. There is some good circumstantial evidence to say that McCarthy previously knew Mary Kelly. Kelly had a history of prostitution and it’s possible that she had worked in premises previously associated with McCarthy. Fiona Rule looks at the links in her book ‘The Worst Street in London’. Kelly had previously worked in a brothel at a place called Breezer’s Hill just off the old Ratcliffe Highway. This may have been operated by McCarthy but it’s uncertain. The upshot was that in January 1888 McCarthy rented Mary Kelly and her then boyfriend Joseph Barnett a room in the next door house to his. This was actually quite unusual in Dorset Street. The vast majority of rooms were multi occupancy and part of common lodging houses. The model shows part of number 27 where it adjoins number 26.
13 Millers Court
Millers Court was built at the back of numbers 26 & 27 in what would have once been the gardens. The back room, where Mary Kelly lived, was officially part of number 26 but it had been renamed 13 Millers Court. This was because the room looked out over the courtyard. All access to 26 had been blocked off. Originally developed by John Miller in 1851. He decided to get rid of the gardens at the back to build three small one up, one down cottages with a small courtyard. This was with the intention of renting them out. Between then and 1888 a further 3 small cottages would be built. Millers Court, once a fair sized garden, would now become an overcrowded, dimly lit hovel.
Mary Kellys Room
Mary’s room was small. Yet, in an area full of dosshouses, at least it was her own. It was formerly a part of number 26 and had been closed off to create a rentable space. The windows overlooked the courtyard which had a water pump. They would have looked out onto the blank wall of number 11 & 12. The door to her room at number 13 was at the end of the alley through which she would have needed to walk. Mark Hodgson’s model of Mary Kelly’s room makes clear the space she had to live. It’s stark to see it in contrast with the rest of the building.
Researching Dorset Street and Millers Court
Hodgson’s model has used a number of contemporary sources as inspiration. From these he has discerned the layout, the structure even the choices of colours used. His initial inspiration was born out of a curiosity to understand more of what happened. He explains a lot of his thinking in an interview with the Jack the Ripper tour website.
“I was having great trouble visualising her surroundings” he says. “I couldn’t believe that the murder wasn’t heard by anyone nearby. The more I learnt, the more impossible her murder became. Her room, number 13 Miller’s Court, was at the back of a house, in a dead end, at the end of a narrow thirty-foot passage, surrounded by twenty foot high walls.”
Fire Insurance Map
Photographs of the buildings are frustratingly sparce. One of the key documents which helped with the proximity of each building was a fire insurance map. It showed that Mary Kelly’s room overlooked the back wall of numbers 11 & 12 Millers Court. Her front door was also extremely close to the entrances to numbers 1 & 2 Millers Court. People would have lived on top of each other. According to Hodgson it become even more impossible for him to understand as a murder site. How did no-one see or hear anything? This was especially true considering one of Mary’s windows was broken. There would have been nothing to stop the sound being heard by others.
Kitty Ronan Murder
Two sources which supported in the design of the buildings surrounding Millers Court were floorplans. One produced by school inspector some years before Mary Kelly moved in. Another produced by the police of number 12 Millers Court. This latter one was part of another murder investigation. That of Kitty Ronan. On 2 July 1909 Kitty had been found in bed, murdered. She had her throat cut in a distressingly reminiscent murder to that of Mary Kelly 20 years before. Millers Court had six cottages in total. All one up, one downs. Numbers 1 to 6 ran along the left hand side. Numbers 7 to 12 along the right as you looked up from the alleyway.
Photos from the time were sparse but important. Those taken from the murder scene of Mary Kelly revealed details of the property. Other photographs included later images taken by Leonard Matters in 1928. This was just before the demolition of the properties. These images reveal details of the front of the building. They can be compared with other buildings which still survive in the area. Nearby Whites Row and streets around Brick Lane still have buildings which survived from the period. One image showing the back of the building part way through demolition also survives from 1928. All these photographs provided clues as to the architecture and dimensions of the building.
Sketches used in newspaper reports at the time reveal more clues. These appear to have been helpful in piecing together the layout of Marys room. Hodgson in his design took details from these but with some caution given in terms of their inaccuracy. His model of Mary Kelly’s room makes clear the space she had to live. It’s stark to see it in contrast with the rest of the model.
This article was inspired by the lego model created by Mark Hodgson. You can see his flickr account here and all pictures used in this post have been kindly provided from there. The excellent Jack the Ripper Tour website also interviewed Mark back in 2016. You can read that interview here.
For more Inspiring City Articles featuring the History of the East End have a look at:
- Jack the Ripper locations and where to find them
- A Free History Tour of the East End of London
- Suffragette History of the East End of London
This post was also inspired by two books. Both excellent and essential reading for understanding the history of the East End around 1888. They are: