JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Thursday, April 27, 2017

BLOODY JACK Chapter Eight

I can name the year the British Empire was truly achieved. It was 1825, while England was still paying off the debts incurred from the America War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars. In the face of such a dramatic loss of income, the British government invested in their own future, creating the public/private corporations that built and operated the London Docks – in the shadow of the Tower of London, in Wapping, St. Katherine's Docks, and further east, across Nightingale Lane, the London Docks, and on the Isle of Dogs, the Albert and the East India Docks. The initial cost of the smaller St. Katherine's Docks alone was over £1,000,000. But the return was an economic engine that supercharged the industrial revolution, and insured a British empire, and private British fortunes for the next one hundred years.
In 1827- 28, 1,250 houses and tenements covering 24 acres in Wapping were bought and torn down. In their place was built an artificial harbor with 4 miles of quays which could load or unload 26 ships at once, directly into or from 6 story warehouses. The unloading time was cut from 3 days to just 12 hours. And by the late 1880's the Blackwell railroad sped the dispersal of cargoes to and from every town in England, Wales and Scotland. The St. Katherine's docks specialized in the import and export of 19th Century luxury items - wine, wool, ivory, rubber, china, sugar, marble, spices, perfume, hops, indigo, coal and tea. And the Albert and East India docks were even bigger, covering 800 acres.
But as is usual in capitalism, profits proved addictive. By 1887, even while the warehouse space leased by private companies bulged with cargoes and their profits soared, the St. Katherine Dock corporation itself was almost bankrupt, maintenance and staff levels were cut, and salaries for the 1,700 day laborers remained stagnant. What happened next was predictable. Shortly before 9:00 p.m. on the chilly rainy Thursday, 30 August, 1888, a fire broke out in the huge South Quay warehouse of the East India docks - 6 floors high, 150 yards long by 75 yards wide - with cotton stored on the upper floors, kegs of gin and brandy below.
The rainstorm did nothing to slow the flames because they were inside the building. Alarms called in 12 steam powered water pumps and over 70 firemen, but they could only contain the flames to that single structure. A verbose reporter described the conflagration as, “lurid flames of gigantic volume, rising high against a canopy of fantastic clouds and throwing the tapering masts into clear relief until they and their rigging looked like fairy cobwebs, illuminated by a strange, unearthly light. The effect was grand...” Not until midnight did the flames begin to die down.
And just as the South Quay fire finally seemed to be dying, another fire broke out at the Ratcliff Dry dock, where the 843 ton, 191 foot long Steam Ship Cornavia was under construction. The ship was saved, but the flames quickly spread to the 2 story Gowland warehouse filled with 800 tons of coal. By 2:00 a.m. this conflagration was being fought by 14 pumps, two firefighting boats and over 100 firemen. In classic British understatement, the “Chemical Trade Journal” predicted, “The loss will be enormous.”
It seems strange that on such a rainy night, two such serious fires should break out in the London docks, one right after the other but so separated in space. Perhaps they were ignited by lightning strikes. Or sparked by fires lit to keep workers warm. Or perhaps they were an act of sabotage, by competitors, or by owners seeking insurance settlements to save their fortunes. Or perhaps they were desperate angry acts by workers, paid little better than starvation wages. But whatever the cause, a large crowd had gathered at the gates to the docks to enjoy the free show. And those masses attracted street hawkers selling food and gin and beer, and prostitutes selling their wares, and pickpockets making their fortunes.
Among the crowd enjoying the light show was Emily “Nelly” Holland, described as “an elderly woman with a naturally pale face.” She was, in fact, only about 50 years old. After 2:00  that morning of Friday, 31 August, 1888,  40 year old Emily – aka Jane Oram - was returning to the room she shared with four other women in a private doss, the Wilmont Lodging House, at 18 Thrall Street (above) . It was a street so crowded with rundown slum rooming houses it was sometimes called “doss street”. There, said a contemporary writer, “...robberies and scenes of violence are of common occurrence... Thieves, loose women, and bad characters abound... (a place even) a constable will avoid...unless accompanied by a brother officer.” But it was refuge of reasonable safety to Emily Holland - a roof, a shared kitchen and a shared bed.
As Emily came up Whitechapel Road, passing the "White Chapel" of St. Mary's, and crossing Osborn Street (above), she saw a woman she had first met in the Lambeth Workhouse. 
Of the perhaps 6,000 prostitutes – young and old, full and part time – in all of London, there were only 150 infirmary beds set aside for women in poverty suffering from venereal diseases. Lambeth was the borough located just across the Thames from the City of London, and the pious Christian Victorian citizens of The City did not want to encourage sin by treating the disease ravaged bodies of these “fallen women”. The majority of women in Lambert were not there to be treated for VD. But it was one of the few sources of treatment for the common infection. And it was in the Lambeth Workhouse where Emily Holland first met the woman she knew as Polly Nichols, and Polly Nichols had been transferred to Lambert three separate times.
The two alcoholics were friendly, and for three weeks Polly even shared a bed with Emily at the Wilmont Lodging House. Emily liked Polly, and considered her "a very clean woman who always seemed to keep to herself",  the perfect friend for another alcoholic.  But a week ago Polly had abruptly left, moving to the White House doss at 56 Flower and Dean Street (above), where men and women were permitted to share beds for the night - meaning a woman without the full 4 pence for a bed could exchange the use of her body for a few moments, for a place to sleep for the entire night. Emily never explained Polly's sudden decent another step down the social ladder. But seeing the diminutive Polly this damp chilly morning, “very much the worse for drink, falling against a wall” Emily clearly felt sympathy.
Polly was leaning against the wall of a grocery store just down from the corner,  on Osborne street,
and she greeted Emily cheerfully. She explained she had just been tossed out of the White House doss because she did have the half price - 2 pence - required to share a man's bed. Emily urged Polly to come spend the night with her at Thrall Street, but Polly refused, insisting she had already earned her doss three times that evening. But she had either spent it on gin, or the gangs which infested Whitechapel had stolen the money from her.  She would earn it again, she insisted, easily. And Emily could have had no doubt that she could. Then their conversation came to an abrupt halt while the bell of St. Mary's Matfellon Church on the south side of Whitechapel Road tolled the 2 o'clock half hour.
There was something about Polly Nichols (above) which inspired many people to want to to protect her. She was small - just 5 foot tall - and pretty in life, even after delivering 5 children, and a decades long addiction to alcohol which had reduced her to sleeping on the pavement of Trafalgar Square for months at a time. A childhood fall had left her with a scar across her forehead, but through it all she retained a cheerful and positive personality, sneering at the obstacles she thew up for herself. But like all alcoholics, Polly seemed to be harboring a secret, that she could share with no one, that she daily sacrificed to keep and protect. In truth there was no secret. Alcoholism is an addiction, not a romantic moral failing, not something tragedy inspired. It is a physical condition like diabetes, or asthma. And offering to protect Polly, merely drove her to run away faster.
Once St. Mary's bell stopped, Polly was anxious to be on her way, despite their having talked with Emily for only six or seven minutes. In a line she used to smooth her exits, she assured Emily that her new bonnet would attract a customer. And as she staggered off up Whitechapel Road, she told Emily, "It won't be long before I'm back."
Polly Nichols was wrong. She would be dead on her back in Buck's Row within an hour, her throat cut twice and then disemboweled and left abandoned like a bit of trash, to be discovered first by two self absorbed lorry drivers, and then by a 33 year old Metropolitan Police Constable from County Cork, assigned to the Bethel Green “J” Division – PC 97J, John Neil, who would luckily be spared the worst of the horrors of his discovery.
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