Spitalfields: The Novel Locations
This post and the next two are a guide to the setting of the Lucas Gedge novels, pointing out some of the key locations around Spitalfields in east London.
Coming from central London by Underground train, or Tube, you would take the District Line heading east, and disembark at Aldgate East station. You emerge onto Whitechapel High Street (1), a busy but unremarkable thoroughfare. If you are keen on modern art, it might be worth a short diversion to The Whitechapel Gallery, a little further along the High Street. Otherwise, head north up Commercial Street.
Whitechapel will forever be associated with the Jack the Ripper killings, which took place just before the events of the Lucas Gedge books (although, as we’ll see, two of those murders tool place in Spitalfields). The Leman Street police station, where Inspector Jack Cross works, is right on the southeast corner of the map above (this station, the HQ of the Metropolitan Police’s H Division, was also the place of work of Reid, Drake and Jackson, of the TV series Ripper Street).
As you reach the junction of Commercial Street with White’s Row to your left and Fashion Street to your right, you are entering Spitalfields proper. Photographer and “cockney sparrer” Leo Cotter has his studio on Fashion Street (2) in Death Dogs.
If you cross Commercial Street and walk along White’s Row, you will find a small street called Tenter Ground (3). In the 17th century the area was used for drying newly manufactured cloth after fulling. The material was stretched between hooks to dry in even squares (and leading to the expression “on tenterhooks”). Flemish weavers, who were Huguenot (protestant) refugees from (catholic) religious persecution on the continent, set up the tenter grounds. By the 19th century the weavers had dispersed and the tenter grounds built upon. By Gedge’s time the area had become populated by Jews, again fleeing persecution in Europe.
The buildings in the image above, 19th century warehouses, are now the headquarters of former art enfant terrible Tracey Emin’s company.
Dorset Street (4), where Gedge has been dossing down prior to the start of Rogue Agent, no longer exists. It used to run east-west midway between White’s Row and Brushfield Street. Described as “the worst street in London” in Victorian times (there were probably several contenders for that title), it has been removed from the map by several waves of redevelopment. On 9th November 1888, Mary Kelly was murdered in Millers Court, behind Dorset Street. She is usually considered the fifth victim of Jack the Ripper.
On the opposite side of the road, opposite Brushfield Street, is the most prominent building in Spitalfields, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church (5), built between 1714 and 1729.
The Portland Stone tower and spire dominate the streets all around, and it is truly an impressive building. In Blood Tribute, Gedge has several important encounters here, both inside the church and in the garden at the back. And another significant conversation takes place in that garden in Rogue Agent. If you do visit the area, there is an unusual café in the restored crypt below the church.
I’ll continue our tour through Spitalfields in the next post, but if you’d like to get more background on the area, you could do worse than check out the wonderful blog Spitalfields Life, which has been going for more than ten years.
See you next time.