Whitechapel: Charity and Industry at Odds

Although one of the more densely populated areas in London, Whitechapel began the nineteenth century with few social institutions. At this time, its most notable landmarks were the Royal Mint and the notorious Tower of London, which was, by now, more of a landmark than a functioning prison. London Hospital, charged with healing the poor, the Magdalen Hospital For Penitent Prostitutes, and two organizations that served food (Spitalfields Soup-Ladling Society and the Eastern Dispensary) were dispersed throughout the district. The institutions and their images reveal a stark division. This southernmost area of the district home to industry and government building resembles a different world the the London Hospital, located in the northernmost area of the district. Where the Tower of London is depicted as an almost fairytale romanticized image, the London Hospital lacks ornament or festivity. One representative of the power of the state and its city, the other an expression of its weakness and vulnerability. 

.Tower of LondonLondon Hospital

Between 1801 and 1830, development seemed to be more acutely focused on industry. The only two such institutions that would emerge during the period were both for sailors (the Asylum For Destitute Sailors and the Sailors Home. Furthermore, a grove of lower income housing or as the Victorian London Map describes “slums” occupy the area just East of the Government building. Only 26 years later would construction begin on the three enclosed docks bordering the Thames. Thousands would be displaced, forced out without refuge or compensation. The image of the smaller of the three docks remain, St. Katharine Dock. Only a lone manless boat stands in the place of a once bustling community. 

St. Katherine Dock

In 1859, the Whitechapel workhouse would be built on the ruins of the Spitefield Parish Workhouse. The establishment of a workhouse would suggest a large influx of a lower income population as well as a greater immigrant presence. This conjecture aligns with population data during the time. Between 1840 and 1860 the population increased by over 15,000 persons. However, just when the workhouse was established the Magdalen Hospital For Penitent Prostitutes was shut down. The reason for this anomaly may be due to the Contagious Disease Act of 1864, which called for the investigation and imprisonment of any women confirmed or even suspected of prostitution. This suggests charitable work for this particular group may have become less desirable or harder to fund leading up to the passing of the act. The King Ragged School And Girls Refuge would sprout up in its place. 

In fact, the next two decades, between 1861 and 1880, would see an increase in the number of refuges for both young men and women as well as almshouses. While the population actually decreased during this period by 3,186 persons, the founding of these institutions may have been in reaction to or because of an increased awareness of the growth during the decades prior. In the following two decades, the number of these accommodations would continue to grow. A new kind of institution emerged during this period that was interested in offering free education and enrichment, not for the purpose of schooling young children in a particular skill, but cultural institutions. Whitechapel Art Gallery and Whitechapel Library both served this purpose. While Whitechapel’s identity as a place of industry and government was solidified, so did its awareness of its new and less prosperous population grow.

Three Perspectives on Shoreditch Street

Shoreditch Street : Tallis Street Views

And a brightly waxed orange clasped in the fist of a young man catches your eye and disrupts the early morning gray that hangs low in the

The Cries of London, as they are daily practiced : in forty-eight engravings of those most prominent in its squares, streets, and lanes -1804

air, only cleared by the rush of arms and legs and faces. Spotting your intrigue, he vies for your attention, shouting “Oranges! Fine Oranges!” in futile hope for a profit. But you aren’t there of your own accord. You have a list, well at least one in your mind’s eye -they stopped writing down the errands when they realized you couldn’t read much more than your own name. A hint of jasmine and bergamot and rose still cling to your employer’s basket, but it’s far too soon replaced by the ash of the soot-covered chimney sweep, and the scent of the butcher’s blood-soaked apron. A chicken, a duck, a rabbit, hang by a thin piece of twine in the window. You can barely recognize their shapes, excoriated, wearing only coats of pink flesh, but you know too well those feet, those ears, that beak.  


Or perhaps you nearly stumble out of your carriage and onto the uneven street, paved in centuries old cobblestones. You’re in need of a frock for two weekends next. But before you can swing the door open to the seamstress’s shop, and be welcomed by a small symphony of bells, an unfamiliar to

Leigh’s new picture of London

ngue diverts you elsewhere. Two young boys wear tattered jackets and shapeless hats, nursing a bottle filled with an amber liquid. They laugh and stumble along in the chill of the early evening, before slipping around the corner and out of your sight. Polish, you wager -it must have been. Would you spring for silk? Or would you be content with a brightly dyed cotton?



But maybe you’ve just walked out of the East India House with its towering ionic columns and relief fit for the Parthenon. Ink stains the cuff of your sleeve, and afternoon tea your teeth. It’s quieter outside a place like this, where more often carriages trod than feet. A horse sighs and another laps at a small trough of water. A breeze roars in from the Thames, carrying with it the gentle stench of sewage, sour in your mouth. But you don’t linger long. You let the crowd carry you up Bishopsgate and onto Shoreditch Street, and flick a farthing at the boy sweeping your path clean. 

East India House

A Long Established City Center Experiences Inconsistent Growth

An area near to the city center, home to the Tower of London and important industrial sites such as the entrance to the London docks pictured below, the population of Whitechapel District grew at a consistent rate of approximately 5-7,000 persons per decade for the first half of the nineteenth century. Remaining one of the most densely populated areas throughout the entirety of the century, unlike nearby districts such as Shoreditch St. Leonard’s Vestry, Bethnal Green Vestry, and Mile End Ole Town Vestry, which saw dramatic increases in population in the first half of the century, Whitechapel saw only steady increases. One slightly larger uptick in population between 1840 and 1860, which saw an additional 15,616 individuals settle in the area, may have been due to increased intercontinental travel caused by events such as the Irish Potato Famine. Whitechapel District was already a long established city center and densely populated, unaccommodating to drastic increases in population. Much of its northern territory, which bordered the Thames, held important industrial, legal, and financial institutions, which would not be ideal areas for additional housing and new growth. 

Entrance to the London Docks

 In the second half of the nineteenth century, the population stagnated with only slight decreases. From 1850-1890, the population fell by only 8,396. In the same period, the neighboring City of London saw a 61,890 person decrease over the same 50-year period. In comparison to the City of London, which underwent the transformation of being one of the most to least densely populated areas over the course of the century, Whitechapel definitely had room for growth. The variety of institutions, some of which could only survive in lower-income densely populated areas like the Whitechapel Workhouse, accommodated a larger population. Additionally, by the mid-point of the century, growth may have occurred primarily in the north of the district, as several refuge’s and other charitable organizations were established in the area. However, as population declined, so did these institutions, most notably the workhouse, which indicates that work may have been sought elsewhere.


The Queen’s London: a pictorial and descriptive record of the streets, buildings, parks, and scenery of the great metropolis in the fifty-ninth year of the reign of her majesty Queen Victoria

The seemingly endless stream of bodies pictured on a Sunday morning on Wentworth street, which straddles the border of the City of London and Whitechapel District, illustrates just how densely populated the area could become. The image includes a caption, attributing some of the thoroughfare to weekend shoppers buying errands, even depicting a presumptively Jewish immigrant fruit vendor, in the lower right corner of the image. The noise is described as “deafening,” in which a slew of different foreign languages can be heard. The moment captured offers insight not only to the sheer quantity of people in the area, but also the variety of their backgrounds and employment. 

New York City

I’ve never lived anywhere but Manhattan, or, at the very least, I’ve never been from anywhere else.

When I return, I find solace in the reflecting pool at Lincoln Center and solitary runs around The Reservoir when the

cherry blossoms are in full bloom. And I’ll find a bodega coated corner for Sunday flowers and wander side streets and groves of brownstones.