I was looking forward to The Worst Street in London. An account of an east London street of doss houses frequented by the poorest of the poor might not, I concede, be everyone’s idea of good holiday reading, but I’ve read some spectacularly good micro-histories — Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century springs to mind – and sometimes a local focus brings a real humanity and detailed sense of place to history.
That’s not, however, what I got from this account of Spitalfield’s Dorset Street by Fiona Rule. The initial account of the settlement of the area by Dutch weavers, the arrival of the Hugenot refugee silk weavers, the development of the area as a relatively prosperous one is decent enough, if covering well-known ground, much popularised by 18 Folgate Street . But as the street declines, the quality of the research is seriously lacking.
We wander off to the foundation of the colony of NSW, stroll briefly around the Great Potato Famine and occasionally hear random stories of individual suffering – but few are directly connected with Dorset Street or even its immediate environs.
But that’s not what really annoyed me about this book. Inadequately researched popular histories are hardly unknown. What’s totally unforgivable about this book is its thoughtless, reactionary, actively cruel attitude towards the poor people who fill its pages.
Rule concludes, it appears on no evidence whatsoever except for the popular newspaper accounts of the time, that the prostitutes who walked Dorset Street and its surrounds are gin-sodden saps who had perfectly good working-class lives then threw it all away, leaving their good hardworking menfolk for the fake pleasures of the “high life”.
Many of the local prostitutes were rather pathetic, gin-soaked women whose alcoholism had caused their families to abandon them many years earlier. Many were in their forties and possessed rapidly fading looks. They plied their trade on the streets, taking punters down the nearest alleyway for a quick knee-trembler.
She’s surprised and a little shocked that a jury in 1724 saved Ann Brown from the noose by down-valuing the cost of the stocking she had stolen, “despite having no reasonable excuse for her actions”!
By contrast, she’s soft on the men who ran the hideous, unsanitary, indeed deadly doss houses. The people who created the “worst street in London” were just being good capitalists on this account.
It is astonishing that this book has gone into a second printing – well perhaps not so astonishing given that Jack the Ripper – that guaranteed sure-fire sensationalist seller – features on its pages and heavily on its back cover, since his final victim died in Dorset Street (although unsurprisingly Rule has nothing new to offer on that extraordinarily well-trodden ground).
The only mystery is why Peter Ackroyd allowed his name and words to be used for the foreword.