First published in “The Southwark and Bermondsey Recorder” August 24th 1917 – January 25th 1918
[Extracts from a typescript in the Southwark Local Studies Library]
THE SPOT WHERE SIKES DIED
Some doubt has hitherto existed as to the precise position of the house where Sikes died, but all doubts have been set at rest by Mr. G.W. Mitchell, a clerk, at Bermondsey Town Hall, who, when engaged on revising drainage plans at the offices of the London County Council, discovered one dated April 5th, 1855, on which was marked the house – one of the many “cribs” where Fagan [sic], the Jew, Bill Sikes, the robber, and their evil associates often met. This house in Bermondsey on Jacob’s Island was used by the thieves when things over the other side of the water got too warm for them, and the sought refuge here from the police. The house was at the back of what is now No. 18, Eckett-street, then known as Edward-street, in a court named Metcalf Court, which has been swept away, and is now occupied by the stables and yard of Messrs. R. Chambers and Co., carmen contractors. Copies of this historical plan have been presented by Dr. R. King-Brown, Medical Officer of Health, Bermondsey, to the Public Libraries Committee, and by Mr. G. W. Mitchell to the Dickens’ Fellowship, 14, Cliffords Inn, E.C….
SOME GREAT IMPROVEMENTS
The centuries have passed away since the days when the monks fished in the stream for the Friday’s dinner at Bermondsey Abbey. They have given place to the growth of the district with the development of trade and commerce and the increase of shipping at St. Saviour’s Dock, which early brought those old houses so vividly described by Dickens, Kingsley and other writers in the first half of the last century, when the limpid stream had become a foul ditch bringing in its trail fever and death. This, too, happily has disappeared, and with that disappearance went the right of Jacob’s Island to be known henceforth as an island, for the alterations brought with the the enclosement of the ditch and the removal of the old wooden bridges. A vast deal was done towards removing the worst evils of Jacob’s Island, thanks to the publicity given to them by these early Victorian writers.
A missionary connected with the London City Mission furnished a report of the district as it was in 1876 and when he first entered it twenty-one years before. He admitted that many of the horrors had passed away.
“The foul ditch no longer pollutes the air,” he writes. “It has long been filled up; and along Mill-street, where ‘the crazy wooden galleries’ once hung over it, stands Messrs. Peek, Frean and Co.’s splendid biscuit factory. The ditch which intersected the district along London-street served as a fine bathing place for the resident juveniles in summer time. I have seen many of the boys rolling joyously in the thick liquid, undeterred by the close proximity of the decomposing carcases of cats and dogs. Where this repulsive sight was often witnessed there is now a good road.”
WHERE ARE THE OWNERS?
“Many of the houses, too, in London-street have been pulled down,” he continues, “and the vacant space added to the houses in Hickman’s Folly, thus affording them a little yard or garden. In Dickens’ sketch of the district he states that ‘the houses have no owners, and they are b[r]oken open and entered upon by those who have the courage.’ This is in many cases, I know, to be literally true. Much of the property of the district has no rightful owners, and many of the houses have no claimants. In not a few cases persons have got possession of them and have never been asked for rent. I recollect a young unmarried man occupying one of these unclaimed houses. He remained in it as long as he pleased, and the sold it to a bricklayer for £5”
“The structure of many of the old houses,” writes the missionary, “shows that they have been adapted for the concealment of crime. Subterranean connection between the houses, and windows opening on to the roofs of other dwellings bear witnes to its being a place where desperate characters found a hiding place, and where pursuit and detection was rendered next to impossible. Most of these dens have been pulled down since I have been on the district.”
FEVER AND SMALLPOX AT JACOB’S ISLAND
He continues:- “Part of London-street, the whole of London-street, part of Mill-street, besides houses in Jacob-street and Hickman’s Folly have been demolished. In most of these places warehouses have taken the place of dwelling-houses. The revolting fact that many of the inhabitants of the district having no other water to drink than that which they procured from the filthy ditches is also a thing of the past. Most of the houses are now supplied with good water, and the streets are very well paved. Indeed, so great is the change for the better in the external appearance of the district that a person who had not seen it since the improvements would now scarcely recognise it.
“Such a place as Jacob’s Island, especially before improvements were made, cannot excite surprise that during the prevalence of any epidemic should come in for a very severe scourge and heavy death-rate. During the cholera visitation of 1849 and 1854 the victims were alarmingly numerous. In one fever visitation the number of cases in Jacob’s Island were frightfully numerous, reaching to upwards of two hundred, many of which were fatal. I remember that in one house in London-street there were nineteen cases. During the present visitation of small-pox the district had also suffered somewhat severely.”
THE PEOPLE AND THEIR OCCUPATIONS
Our City missionary of 1876 then goes on to to describe the residents and their avocations. “The occupations of the people are various,” he writes, “including more largely watermen and waterside labourers, costermongers and wood-choppers. The wood-choppers form a rather numerous class in the district. In the centre of the district is a large wood-yard, containing immense stacks of wood imported from Norway. Round the yard are sheds, in which about 200 persons, including men, women, boys and girls, work. These persons generally of the lowest class, and being congregated together, young and old, they corrupt one another. It has been for a long time a thriving nurse for immorality. But I am glad to say that lately an improvement has taken place.
“The great majority never saw the interior of a church,” he concludes, “except on the occasion of a christening, or when they wanted the clergyman to sign a paper. They look upon public worship as something “outside their line altogether.” I found persons who had not entered a place of worship for forty or fifty years. Drunkenness was a predominant vice in the district, not only with men, but equally with women.”