The murder of Mary Ann Nichols in the early hours of 31st August 1888 put Buck’s Row on the crime map of London for good, as the Whitechapel Murders did for many other streets during the ‘Autumn of Terror’. This non-descript, narrow and ill-lit thoroughfare was by all accounts the home of respectable, working class types at the time, but less than a century earlier it had been partly rural, going by the name of Ducking Pond Row on account of the said ducking pond being situated at its junction with what is now Brady Street. The industrial age and the development of the London Underground system was largely responsible for the type of building that took place on Buck’s Row during the Victorian era and this was pretty much how it remained for many years after that fateful morning in 1888.
Students of the Whitechapel Murders will probably be familiar with the topography of the street at this time. The north side was dominated by tall warehouses belonging to Brown and Eagle, bookended by the handsome Essex Wharf before the street widened into Great Eastern Square and White’s Row. The south side, with the Roebuck pub at the corner with Brady Street was a continuous line of plain terraced cottages, built some time between 1862 and 1872. The last on the row was New Cottage, so named as it was built after the others as a consequence of the demolition of some of the original terrace during the construction of the railway underneath in 1875. Next door were the gates to Brown’s stable yard outside which Nichols’ body was found and then finally, the large, imposing board school, built in 1876-7. Just south of, and running parallel to Buck’s Row was Winthrop Street, almost its twin and its fate often runs parallel with that of its more infamous neighbour.
The notoriety brought upon Buck’s Row by the murder brought about protest by local inhabitants. One story, possibly apocryphal, has it that one particular postman used to address the residents with phrases like “Killer’s Row, I believe?” Their petition for a name change was eventually successful and Buck’s Row (along with the rest of the street leading up to Vallance Road was renamed Durward Street on 25th October 1892.
Leonard Matters, when visiting Whitechapel in 1928 was fortunate to see almost all the murder sites as they would have been in 1888. He gave a description of Durward Street, often quoted since, which appears in his book ‘The Mystery of Jack the Ripper’ published the following year:
“…Buck’s Row can not have changed much in character since its name was altered. It is a narrow, cobbled, mean street, having on one side the same houses-possibly tenanted by the same people — which stood there in 1888. They are shabby, dirty little houses of two stories, and only a three foot pavement separates them from the road, which is no more than twenty feet from wall to wall.
On the opposite sides are the high walls of warehouses which at night would shadow the dirty street in a far deeper gloom than its own character would in broad day light suggests. All Durward Street is not so drab and mean, for by some accident in the planning of the locality — if ever it was planned — quite two thirds of the thoroughfare is very wide and open.
Going still further east, an abandoned London County Council School building breaks the wide and open Durward Street into narrow lanes or alleys. The left hand land retains the name of Durward Street ‘late Buck’s Row’, and the other is Winthrop Street. Both are equally dirty and seemingly disreputable…”
Matters’ photograph has been widely published, showing as it does Durward Street looking east towards the huge Kearley and Tonge warehouses near Vallance Road, with two women obviously in the throes of chat standing outside the terrace of cottages. It is interesting to note that the Board School had been abandoned by this time and that the street sign, ‘late Buck’s Row’, unwittingly cancels out the residents’ wishes for anonymity. But they were never going to achieve that, as we are all now so aware.
The first real change to take place in the 20th century was the addition, in the 1930’s, of the Brady Boy’s club to the north side, next to Essex Wharf. This building was a strikingly modern addition to the street and an architectural archetype of its era. It was to remain for many years, although its function inevitably changed in time.
Just after this time, I believe that New Cottage became a casualty of war. According to Paul Daniel, it appears in the 1938 ordnance survey map, but was gone by the 1948 version. But visual research also helps here. A photograph exists of Whitechapel Station following obvious bomb damage in the 1940’s and in this picture, the shadowy form of the board school can be clearly seen in the background. Also, numerous photographs of the terrace of cottages in neighbouring Winthrop Street (the earliest I have seen is one taken by Dan Farson in 1959) show that the walls below roof level have different brickwork, seemingly evidence of rebuilding – similar repair work can be seen in the surviving block of Hughes Mansions on Vallance Road, famously and tragically decimated in the last months of the Second World War. I would therefore wager that these houses took the brunt of a bomb blast, saving Durward Street’s own tenements and that New Cottage was not so lucky.
As for the murder site itself, that little space occupied by Brown’s stable yard remained. Following the disappearance of New Cottage, it became home to a garage type construction, followed by a much sturdier looking building which, though absent in 1965 when pictures were taken for books by Robin Odell and Tom Cullen, was present when Stewart Evans visited in 1967. The most widely used photograph of Durward Street was also taken at this time, facing the board school with a seemingly ownerless dog walking the pavement opposite. It is very atmospheric and the school creates a sense of foreboding that was to be instrumental to the character of the street in the coming years.
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was an era of change in London, as it probably was in many places, when old slums were being torn down and the words LEB OFF (meaning that the London Electricity Board had disconnected the premises ready for demolition) seemed to be everywhere. Durward Street was about to disappear. First to go, in 1970, were the tall warehouses on the north side; Brady Street Dwellings (which sat behind them) suffered a similar fate a year later when Tower Hamlets Council refused to answer the residents’ pleas to have the 70 year-old blocks renovated, which in turn gave the council justification to demolish them on the grounds of being unfit for human habitation. By 1971, only a few of the houses in Durward Street and only one in Winthrop Street were occupied. The following year they were all demolished and Winston G. Ramsay was there to see it happening – his photograph, published in East End: Then and Now, shows the initial stages of obliteration on a bleak, grey day.
The early 1970’s were a big time for rubbing out the old Ripper sites; during this period, not only Buck’s Row but also George Yard Buildings and No29 Hanbury Street were victims of the wrecking ball. The tenements of Flower and Dean and Thrawl Street were also in the early phases of demolition at this time. But Durward Street was not redeveloped as quickly as the others. From 1972 until 1991, the remaining buildings on the street were the board school, Essex Wharf, Brady Boys Club (now called Brady House) and the Roebuck pub on the corner. Essex Wharf was still being used as premises for S. Rosenberger Coates and Co, ‘Makers of Men’s Ties’, Brady House was now offices of the DHSS and the school stood gloomily over the whole gutted line of the street like some kind of tombstone.
Durward Street had a bleak, chilling atmosphere during the 1980’s. Eventually all the surviving buildings became empty. Vandalism, the unfortunately obvious result of urban neglect, soon began to make its mark. The school was burnt out after a fire and soon its empty shell became the haunt of vagrants who would often break in through the corrugated iron hoardings and sleep rough in its crumbling rooms. At night they could be heard shouting at each other, conjuring images of old ghosts. Fly tipping became abundant and some of these vagrants would take the opportunity to sleep on the old mattresses which invariably turned up at the edge of the road. Brady House became the target of an arson attack in the latter part of the decade and Essex Wharf was by that time literally falling to pieces. How this thoroughfare stayed so neglected for 20 years is anybody’s guess, but it still remained one of the more atmospheric and intimidating of the original Ripper murder sites even without most of its buildings. At night, its street lighting was barely sufficient to lift the feeling of menace and on some occasions, outright threat that pervaded the neighbourhood.
The demolition of Essex Wharf and Brady House in 1991 heralded the rebuild and rebirth of Durward Street. In 1993, Swanlea School, the first new secondary school to be built in London for a decade, was completed along with the Whitechapel Leisure Centre further along the street. Two years later, the Roebuck, the last building standing from the days of old Buck’s Row, served its last pint and was flattened to make way for the new flats, Kempton Court which now front the south side of the street in place of the old terraced cottages. The layout of this new development, with its generous parking facilities, effectively removed Winthrop Street from the map for good. The board school, despite continuous assumptions that it would eventually be demolished, did manage to survive – extensive and tasteful renovation in 1996 changed this old Victorian shell into apartments, now languishing under the name of Trinity Hall.
And this is how we find Durward Street today. A bus stand has been introduced outside the Leisure Centre from which people are constantly coming and going. The pupils of Swanlea make their way to and from school down the street, as do shoppers on their way to the nearby Sainsbury’s superstore on Brady Street. The transformation is complete, from crumbling, lonely neglect to a more busy, respectable slice of the community. The spot where Mary Ann Nichols met her end remains, no longer the entrance to a stable yard, but now the entrance to a small parking bay. Different century, different transport. Few of the numerous Jack the Ripper guided tours make it this far, preferring to focus on the more atmospheric, historically dense Spitalfields further west and one can almost believe that old Buck’s Row has finally lost the reputation its 19th century inhabitants tried so hard to shake off back in 1888.
© John Bennett