125 years ago, in the early hours of a Friday morning, London's autumn of terror ended. The man we know as Jack The Ripper claimed his fifth and final victim in the rookeries of Spitalfields, not that anybody realised it was his last at the time. The murder was also his most brutal, carried out in the privacy of the victim's own home, which allowed time for additional gruesome mutilation. So today I'm completing my quest to visit the five confirmed murder sites as the anniversaries pass, comparing what happened then to what's there now.
The fifth of the Ripper's murders took place off Dorset Street, a grim thoroughfare to the west of Commercial Street in Spitalfields. Dorset Street started out as a footpath along the edge of open countryside - the 'Spital Field' belonging to the priory hospital of St Mary's. During the 17th century the area became home to artisans and silk weavers, many of them Huguenots fleeing from abroad. When the silk trade finally died out, many of the four-storey townhouses on Dorset Street became lodging houses for London's poorest. Many so-called double rooms were really nothing more than brothels, and the street soon earned the nickname of "the worst streetin London". An alleyway led off between the house at number 26 and the chandler's shop at 27, behind which lay Millers Court. This had once been a back garden, but was infilled with cottages in 1851 and later partitioned off into separate rooms. And it was in one of these, a back parlour 12 foot square, that the Ripper's foul crime was committed.
Mary JaneKelly, at 25, was by far the youngest of the Ripper's victims. Her early years are somewhat under-recorded, but it's believed she was born in Ireland, near Limerick, then moved to Wales at an early age. At 16 she married a coal miner, but he died in an explosion and she turned to prostitution for a living. Later she moved on to West London, then briefly to France with a client, then to East London where she lived with a variety of men. An attractive fair-looking soul, she was described by one acquaintance as "a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink". Her last partner was Joseph Barnett, a fish porter at Billingsgate, but he moved out of their shared room in Millers Court after a row a week before Mary Jane's death.
Late on the evening of Thursday 8th November she brought home a stout ginger-haired man for sex, then went out into the streets in search of more money. A witness later reported seeing Mary Jane in Dorset Street at 2am in the company of a pale man with a moustache, wearing kid gloves and carrying a small parcel. The pair walked arm-in-arm into Millers Court, with Mary Jane's last known words "All right, my dear. Come along. You will be comfortable." At 4am neighbours heard cries of "Oh, murder!" , but thought nothing of it, this being a common cry hereabouts. It wasn't until nearer 11 o'clock that a rent collector knocked on Mary Jane's door and, receiving no answer, peered through the window and discovered her body. It was clear that something quite terrible had taken place, but the full extent of her horrific injuries wasn't known until the police broke down the door early in the afternoon.
Dorset Street took many years to shed its unsavoury reputation, changing its name to Duval Street in 1904 in an attempt to camouflage its past. The road is still there, sort-of, but you'll not find it listed in the A-Z today thanks to two rounds of development by the City of London. First (in 1928) they knocked down all the houses on the north side of the street, including MillersCourt, and in their place rose the London Fruit and Wool Exchange. This Portland stone edifice housed traders selling fruit and veg sourced from countries all around the world, conveyed onwards via fourteen loading bays still visible round the back. The Gentle Author offers insight via a 1937 catalogue here. The slums on the southern side of the street lasted much longer, until fifty years ago, and in 1971 were replaced by the White's Row multi-storey car park.
Dorset Street survives, for now, as a private unnamed road used occasionally for deliveries. A few years ago it was fenced off at both ends, somewhat frustratingly for Ripper Tours who can now only stand each evening and point through the mesh at the distant murder site. But that's not going to be the case for too much longer. The Fruit and Wool Exchange is awaiting demolition, after Boris over-ruled Tower Hamlets council and gave the go ahead for a major commercial redevelopment. The building looks a bit sad now with its office tenants evicted and all its doors and windows boarded up, awaiting the arrival of an army of deconstructors and diggers. At least the façade facing Spitalfields Market will be retained, but only as a heritage veneer covering up an uninspiring mixed use block behind. One consequence of this is that Dorset Street will be built over and disappear from view, perhaps with part surviving as an interior shopping court, or something equally inappropriate.
The White's Row car park is also under threat from the same development plan. Its loss will be less keenly felt, except by car drivers and by motorcyclists seeking somewhere free to park. Strange building. From the outside it looks like a metal skeleton with brick stairwells, but step inside and the full concreteness of the multi-storey hits you. And you can step inside, very easily, via a set of always-open stairs facing onto Commercial Street. The stairwell leads all the way up to the 5th floor, which is the open roof, from which there's an alternative view of the City skyline. Most days there's absolutely nobody parked up here, nor even on the two floors below, which allows the casual visitor easy opportunity to stare down at what used to be Dorset Street below. Those green painted delivery bays with the yellow hatched lines, that's where the Ripper last struck. Prior to that a City flowerbed, prior to that a school playground, prior to that a Sunday clothes market, prior to that a Crossrail building site. Five points of terror, each erased and redefined by London's ever changing landscape. 125 years on these murder sites have changed forever, but the collective memory of Jack's brutal deeds remains.