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The Whitechapel Dossier: Dorset Street and Miller's Court
as reported by The Viper
Joe Barnett and Mary Kelly's room at 13 Miller's Court, 26 Dorset Street was a single room, (10 ft. x12 ft.). It was actually a partitioned section of the ground floor back room of the main house. The only door was just inside the arched entry to the court. Their rent was 4s. 6d. (22 1/2p) per week, and was 29s. (L1.45) in arrears when Kelly was murdered.
Dorset St. ran East-West from Commercial Street to Crispin Street. At the Commercial St. end it faced the churchyard of Christ Church, Spitalfields - an area sometimes known as "Itchy Park." Opposite the other end stood the Providence Row Night Refuge and Convent at 50 Crispin St, facing Dorset St. from the West side. It was quite a narrow thoroughfare and was about 130 yards long. It was flanked by old, brick-built properties whose doors opened directly to the Street, these dating from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. The surviving photographs of nos. 26 and 27, taken by Leonard Matters, author of The Mystery of Jack the Ripper, appear to show houses built to post 1709 regulations.
Dorset Street's properties were numbered consecutively along the south side from west to east (1-20) and back along the north side from east to west (21-39). Guarding either end on the north side were two public houses. The three story Britannia (aka Ringer's after its landlady, Matilda Ringer) stood at the Commercial St. end, whilst the similarly imposing Horn Of Plenty, (officially no. 5 Crispin St, landlord Christopher Brown) was at the other.
A pub called the Blue Coat Boy (William James Turner) stood at no. 32.
The narrow entrance to Miller's Court was about a quarter of the way along the St from the eastern end, nestling between numbers 26 and 27, both of which were owned by a grocer and slum property landlord, John McCarthy. Whilst McCarthy resided at no. 27 and carried on his chandler's business from its ground floor shop, no. 26 was being used as a storeroom at the time of the Kelly murder.
Two other chandlers provided competition to McCarthy, Barnett Price at number no. 7 and Alfred Coates at no. 36. A feature of the locality was the 'slum landlord' who owned or rented a number of cheap properties. Coates, for instance, also had a common lodging house in Flower & Dean Street. In addition to his shops, John McCarthy was also the landlord of the properties in Miller's Court - indeed it was also known locally as McCarthy's Court and McCarthy's Rents. In 1890, John McCarthy's brother Daniel took over the shop at no. 36. Eventually McCarthy acquired the common lodging house at no. 30, one of many such houses in Dorset St.
Two large lodging houses were known as Crossingham's after their owner, William Crossingham, namely no. 35 where Annie Chapman had lodged and no. 17 opposite the entrance to Miller's Court. Other known lodging houses at the time were numbers 9, 10, 11-12 and 28-29. In all around 750 beds were provided in Dorset St officially, though the rules were flouted widely and in practice the number of lodgers would have been much higher, especially at times of high demand such as during winter cold spells. Most of the properties that were not registered lodging houses were rented out to families on a room-by-room basis.
There is little evidence of other businesses being conducted from Dorset St in the 1880s, but in the years following we see two milk contractors listed at nos. 13A and 14A by Messrs. William Wright and Amos Payne and a coal dealer, Miss Jane Brooks from no. 39. Since the Brooks family was resident at 39 by 1881 there is a good chance that the business was operational much earlier than its listing in Kelly's Directory.
THE 'DO AS YOU PLEASE' STREET
Dorset Street possessed a bad reputation. It was renowned for its poverty and crime. Being part of what the Rev. Barnett called the "wicked quarter mile", it fell within 'H Division' of the Metropolitan Police and was one of the streets that was double patrolled. Charles Booth, an early sociologist who surveyed London, produced a 'poverty map' in 1887 colour coding the different streets of the metropolis. Dorset Street achieved the bottom rating, shaded black and described as vicious and semi-criminal.
Miller's Court was approached from Dorset St. via a flagged passage that ran under an arch. Little more than a yard wide, it was about twenty feet long. The door to Room 13 was the last on the right before the passage opened out into a yard about fifteen feet square. This yard contained a water tap, a privy and a brick-built dustbin. it possibily contained a toilet and drainage facilities.
There was no other access to no. 13, which had been partitioned off from the back of 26 Dorset St. The two windows of no. 13 looked out into the yard. Along the left-hand side of Miller' s Court the passage extended beyond the yard for a further forty feet, here being about ten feet wide. It was flanked by lines of two-story, 'one up, one down' slum houses, built of brick.
In 1888, Miller's Court had four units on the left, (the last not being used as accommodation) and three on the right. Numbering started with no. 1, downstairs on the left, with no. 2 above it, running down the left side and back up on the right such that no. 12 was upstairs, nearest to Mary Jane's window. The houses were all whitewashed at ground floor level. Light was provided by a gas lamp mounted on the wall outside no. 1.
Miller's Court seems to have been built at a time when there was increasing pressure on the district's housing from the start. The name Miller's Court is first mentioned in the census of 1861, so it might be a reasonable assumption to assume that they were built in the 1850s; however it is interesting to note that there was a Miller's Rents in Spitalfields, listed in the 1851 Census index under reference HO107 / 1543, Folio 451-452. This alley, which contained three dwellings at that time, appears immediately after Dorset Street and New Court and immediately before Paternoster Row in the census return, so is virtually certain to be the same place. (No court named "Miller's anything" had existed in 1841.)
As a rough indicator, we can note that in the 1860 edition of Kelly's Directory, fourteen businesses in Dorset St. felt themselves worthy of applying for a mention. The 1888 edition lists only three.
In 1861, when the court first appeared as "Miller's Court," 26 Dorset Street was occupied by a glass-blower named Abraham Barnett, a provoking name in light of the court's future history.
AFTER MARY KELLY
Dorset Street remained a slum following the murder of Mary Jane Kelly. In addition to the 1960 shootings of a Soho club manager and a former middleweight boxer (described in Tom Cullen's When London Walked in Terror), there had been other murders in the vicinity. In fact in 1909 there were echoes of a Ripper killing. In no. 20 Miller's Court - the room directly above no. 13 and occupied by Elizabeth Prater in 1888 - a young woman named Kitty Ronan was found with her throat cut. It was alleged that Ronan was a prostitute, and - like Mary Jane Kelly - her murderer was never found. It was as if time had stopped at that benighted locale, for eerily, John McCarthy was even the landlord still. And eight years previous to that, a Mary Ann Austin was murdered with ten wounds to her abdomen at Annie Chapman's old residence, Crossingham's Lodging House, 35 Dorset Street.
Dorset Street was renamed Duval Street in 1904.
In 1920 the Corporation of London purchased Spitalfields Market. A major expansion was planned and included in the work was the demolition of the whole of the north side of Duval Street. Obviously that included Miller's Court. The new fruit exchange opened in 1928, so demolition must have preceded it by some time.
Yet another new market development in the 1960s saw Duval Street disappear as an official thoroughfare. It became just an anonymous road which acted as a parking place for market lorries. The buildings on the south side of Dorset Street were covered with a multi-story car park; those on the north side by a large building which has variously been used as a market building, a sports hall and a storage warehouse for an import-export company.
One of the last people to see Miller's Court standing was Leonard Matters, writer of one of the founding texts on the Ripper murders. Here is an account taken from his The Mystery of Jack the Ripper
"What Dorset Street was like seventy years ago can only be imagined from an inspection of the district today and a walk through narrow lanes and byways leading off Commercial Street and Brick Lane. Duval Street itself is undergoing change, and the buildings on the left-hand side going east have nearly all been torn down to make room for extensions to Spitalfields Market.
"At the time of my first visit to the neighbourhood most of the houses on the left-hand side of the street were unoccupied, and some were being demolished. The house in which Kelly was murdered was closed, save for one front room still occupied by a dreadful looking slattern who came out of Miller's Court into the sunlight and blinked at me.
"When she saw me focus my camera to get a picture of the front of the house, the old hag swore at me, and shuffled away down the passage.
"I took what is probably the last photograph of the house to be secured by anybody, for three days later Miller's Court and the dilapidated buildings on either side of it were nothing but a heap of bricks and mortar. The housebreakers had completely demolished the crumbling wreck of the slum dwelling in which "Jack the Ripper" committed his last crime!
"Miller's Court, when I saw it, was nothing but a stone flagged passage between two houses, the upper stories of which united and so formed an arch over the entrance. Over this arch there was an iron plate bearing the legend, "Miller's Court." The passage was three feet wide and about twenty feet long, and at the end of it there was a small paved yard, about fifteen feet square. Abutting on this yard, or "court", was the small back room in which the woman Kelly was killed - a dirty, damp and dismal hovel, with boarded-up windows and a padlocked door as though the place had not been occupied since the crime was committed.
"But the strange thing was that nobody in the neighbourhood seemed to know the history of Miller's Court..."