Sunday, 3 January 2010

New Years Eve in Whitechapel

I had arranged to spend new years eve with a friend of mine, who lives down in the south of England. This naturally, involved me travelling via London in order to get to where he lives. So, true to form, I decided to take a little detour via the east end, to get my photographic fix of Jack the Ripper's stalking ground and the Victorian buildings that remain from that era.

I started out in the more gentrified district around Spitalfields Market, and was surprised to see that, for once, Itchy Park was free of the usual groups of homeless people. I therefore grabbed my chance to take a few shots from this vantage point, that normally I'd be too scared to take my chances in!

I then headed southwards to the railway arches due east from Fenchurch Street station. This area still boasts a quite sinister atmosphere of days gone by, with far less gentrification than is the case around the market. My goal in this area was Swallow Gardens. Now a shuttered arch used as storage facilities for a local business, but 120 years ago, a public thoroughfare, and one that gained notoriety on 13th February 1891, when Frances Coles, a local prostitute, was found murdered there.

Recently, delegates of the 2009 Jack the Ripper conference had been taken to Swallow Gardens by guide Philip Hutchinson. At that time (October) the archway was unoccupied, and so it was possible to gain access from the adjacent archway which forms part of a car park. When I arrived by this route, I was greeted by this:

The side entrance into Swallow Gardens had been closed off with a new set of locked doors.

Disappointed, I set off for my next destination, but something made me stop and think that it might just be worth trying to gain access from the shuttered entrance on Chamber Street. Upon arrival there, I was rewarded with my first view of the inside of Swallow Gardens.

A man walked towards me, as I entered.
"Can I 'elp you?" he enquired.
"I was wondering if I could take a few pictures of this arch?" I replied.
Looking slightly quizzical at this, he asked "what's it for?".

I went on to tell him about the history of the arch, and why I was so interested in taking photos of the inside of his newly rented business premises. He confirmed it was fine for me to "snap away", but was no doubt surprised to hear that he worked on a murder site!

Happy at my gaining access to the arch, I then decided to seek out some more locations that I'd not been to recently, and I'm very glad I did, for reasons I shall explain.

Part of the joy of photographing the east end, is that every photo preserves a site, as it is there and then. You might return to the same spot a week later, only to find that a wonderful old building has been demolished in the name of "progress", or that something has been built in a previously open space. It's a good idea to take photos when you can. Once something has changed, you can't go back and capture it later.

Over the years, I had visited both Durward Street and Mitre Square many times. Upon arriving at Durward Street, (formerly Buck's Row - the murder site of Mary Ann Nichols), I noticed that the wall running across the East London line, which appears in most of the photos of the site, had been altered. A new bright red fire hydrant cupboard had been built into the wall, just along from where Mary had breathed her last. All of a sudden those photos I'd previously taken suddenly had a greater importance. This wall that had stood since around 1876, had been altered, and would never look the same again.

The possibility of change in Mitre Square has been known about for several years now. The modern office blocks in the square, built only around 1980, are looking tired and delapidated, and are slated for demolition and redevelopment. But unfortunately, the square itself has found it's way into the developers plans. It has been suggested that this stone square should be obliterated, with a fountain and granite slabs taking it's place. A worrying development that would erase what little of the Victorian plan of the square is left in situ. Work hasn't started yet; the recession and the lack of money for building has seen to that.

But someone, it seems, has been starting the work on behalf of the builders, already.

Souvenir hunters perhaps?

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