This is a piece that appeared in the ‘Sunday Express’ newspaper on 22nd March 1925. It was written by the journalist Mrs. Cecil Chesterton who took it upon herself to tour the East End of the 1920’s to see for herself the quality of life – or lack of it, that the denizens of that neighbourhood endured. I am grateful to the author Nicholas Connell (‘The Man Who Hunted Jack the Ripper’), for finding this article and allowing us to reprint.
My Fivepenny Bed –
Alien sights in the Heart of East London
by Mrs. Cecil Chesterton
It was on that same Sunday evening following the night I had spent wandering in the streets that I said in my heart: “London should be burned”.
I had walked about all the previous night, and but for a few minutes’ doze in St. Pancras waiting room I had no sleep for thirty-six hours. It ought, I felt, to be easy to get a decent bed for a couple of shillings, and I went to Bow-street Police station to ask if they could give me some addresses.
Bow-street was most sympathetic but rather out of date. There was, the police assured me, a lodging house in Drury-lane run by St. Giles’ Christian Mission. I discovered, however, that the lodging house was a thing of the past. It had been turned into a chapel five-and-twenty years ago! The pew opener could not assist me, but a passer-by told me I should find a private lodging house in Parker-street, off Holborn.
The outside was attractive, the steps white, the windows neatly furnished. But whatever its conditions, to me it would have been a haven. I was light-headed for want of rest, I slept almost as I walked, and my limbs lurched under me.
A decent-looking body in a check apron opened the door. Alas! I recognised her cold, appraising stare too well.
“A bed, please?” I asked, and held some money out towards her. “Oh, no,” she said emphatically, “I can’t take in any one like you,” and the door shut and I staggered off, rage in my heart, weariness overpowering my senses.
Against my will – I ached for clean sheets – I went to Kennedy Court. But here, too, luck was against me. Every bed was full.
It was obvious that the West End held no city of refuge for the homeless, but Whitechapel, I remembered, had a shelter for women, and I determined once again to take a chance.
The capital of East End London was in full flare. The broad pavements were crowded with well-dressed women and sleek young men, talking many and foreign tongues, cafes were open, and brilliantly lighted windows showed model hats and dresses, Paris shoes and bags, all in the latest styles at moderate prices. Life in the West End at this hour is stagnant. In Whitechapel the current is strong. The foreign faces gleam – one feels very much alive.
I got into conversation with an attractive little cockney – one of the few I encountered in Whitechapel. She took me to a queer sort of club in a back street, where they served sausage, salad and strong, sweet coffee. Most of the men are Jews, lately come into this country. Their broken English was picturesque, and though they looked revolutionary, their sentiments were amiable.
The company was mixed. Some of the women were unfortunates, but others worked at millinery and dressmaking. Every one was very poor, and the food was extraordinarily cheap. My cockney friend was very entertaining. She was smoking a Russian cigarette, and declared that with a cup of tea and a slice of lemon she would be quite “Russo ballo”. (sic).
“If I was to meet the Prince of Wales,”* she said, “d’ye think he’d give me a pound for this bunch of violets,” and she waved a few dilapidated blossoms.
Every one was properly enthusiastic as to his Royal Highness’ generosity, and then an enormous woman in a check dress made a surprising statement. “Don’t yer know”, said she, “that royalties never have no power over their money; it’s their secretary wot keeps it for ’em and says what shall be paid. He couldn’t give yer a pound if he wanted to, bless his heart!”
My cockney left the club after midnight, and I went with her. She told me she was going to the shelter in Hanbury-street. I decided to go too. Hanbury-street lies to the back of the Whitechapel-road. It is a narrow thoroughfare, and most of the buildings seem to be works of some description. Tucked away behind a narrow door is a women’s lodging house. It is under the control of the Salvation Army, but run on ordinary commercial lines. I mean by this that no services are held, and no inquiries are made. The price of a bed is fivepence.
I paid my money, and was led along a passage into a very large hall. The floor was entirely covered with narrow beds – just wide enough to lie and barely to turn in. Round the four sides of the hall ran a gallery, also filled with beds. Every bed was full – and they numbered hundreds.
A big gas lamp in the roof burned all night, casting fantastic shadows on the sleeping faces. There they all lay, womanhood in extremis. Old, young, middle-aged, hopeless, helpless, desperate, and courageous. The thing that hurt me most that night was the realisation that these women who had managed to gather their few pence to secure a bed have no permanent place in which they can keep anything. Migratory as any of the tribes of Asia, they must carry their few poor possessions as they go.
The place is clean, like all the Salvation Army houses. The beds are not too hard. Mattress and pillow are both covered with American cloth, for the sake of cleanliness, but there are sheets and plenty of coverings, also cased with the same material.
* The Prince of Wales in this instance was the future Edward VIII, later to abdicate and become the Duke of Windsor.