Mad houses, poor houses, work houses, whore houses, slums, hospitals, feculent rivers, churches and cemeteries have all succumbed to the steady onslaught of the coming of the railways to East London from the late 1830s to the present day. As the Eastern Counties Railways and its successor the Great Eastern Railway marched inexorably onwards towards the City, they cut a huge gash through the densely populated streets where pickpockets, housebreakers and prostitutes live in great numbers alongside destitute street sellers and home-based artisans in Sweater’s Hell, each struggling to survive through every waking minute of every day on meagre pay and little food of the poorest quality. Rookeries abound; compacted courtyards and wretched streets of ancient, rotting housing stock are linked by a network of dilapidated low-roofed subterranean corridors and passageways vastly overcrowded by second and third generation Londoners and more recent migrants. Newer housing invariably contravenes building regulations and are almost always without foundations, often with windowless cellars or wooden flooring laid directly onto bare earth where entire extended families live in a single low-roofed room sharing one damp bed. Exteriors of cheap timber and ash-adulterated clay brick are held together with billysweet (a by-product of soap making from local factories) instead of mortar which never dries out, resulting in sagging, unstable walls sometimes faced with blooming plaster upon which badly pitched leaking roofs sit, supported by mouldering rafters. Damp and mildew seeps through the very fabric of the buildings, disease and sickness abounds. Mortality is high and never more so than during times of contagion, the death toll is often twice that of other poor areas outside of the Rookeries.
Fifty years ago viaducts constructed from millions of handmade bricks rose up and bisected foetid communities; the resultant archways were quickly leased out as housing, workshops, warehouses and even public houses. Goods depots, factories and granaries, each several stories high, have erupted from cleared slums and link with the railways at viaduct level. An array of hydraulic hoists delivers wagons of merchandise into the deep Stygian gloom beneath via a viper’s nest of street-level inset tracks, each one dragged, shoved or otherwise coerced by horse, rope, capstan and pinch-bars over of ranks of wagon turntables into small dark unloading bays. Every two hours dozens of fresh wagons of steam and domestic coals are lined up on rows of tracks with hatches astride and between, their contents hurled into the depths below to be weighed and bagged. Six hundred and twenty five thousand souls live within a few furlongs of the railway, between them burning some 937,000 tons annually; every day ten 300-ton trains of coal from Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire are brought into the capital via the GN&GE Joint Line satiating their household needs.
As time passes, new depots arise and older sidings are ripped up, altered or allotted a new use. Here in the Angel Rookery, the old ECR Burial Street goods depot of 1840, built on the site of a disused cemetery, was largely swept away by the Great Eastern during widening of the viaduct and quadrupling of the line in 1891. The remaining few sidings at street level on the north side have been converted into a small locomotive servicing yard for engines shunting the nearby warehouses. The yard is accessed by way of a severe gradient from the main line, local crews bestowing upon it the grand epithet The Pipe to Hell. Some ancient squalid housing remains in Burial Street, a dirty, amputated stump of a road, no more than a shadow of its former self, their small rooms seething with damp, disease, death and worse…
Less than a decade ago the streets of the Angel Rookery were within the stalking grounds of Jack the Ripper. Some residents worry that one day he will return, and in quiet, unguarded moments, one can see uncertainty mixed with the suspicion of strangers in their eyes, sometimes a flicker of fear traces across their careworn features. Fables abound, mostly generational folklore handed down from the Irish, Jewish, Romany and Huguenot migrants to frighten the children at bedtime, but adults confide to me that at least the relatives of Jack’s victims had remains to bury, whereas the victims of other psychotic murderers or phantasms have no such remains to mourn over. From various sources I have collected the names of dozens of local souls who have vanished in recent years, and at first I greeted such tales with no small degree of scepticism – stories of children and adults, sometimes one walking alone, sometimes one in a group, simply disappearing into thin air, never to be seen again. One of the strangest and most recent of these events concerned an old man, a lunatic in his seventh decade who turned up on the doorstep of a house in Burial Street and claimed he was the child of the occupant and his wife in their thirties whose eldest son, a boy of seven, had disappeared last year. The old man’s disclosure obviously upset the couple, they angrily refuted his claims which grew louder and more passionate until chased away by a clearly unnerved crowd of locals who had gathered around. Later that evening the old man stole onto railway property and threw himself into the path of an oncoming train. One might easily consider such stories to be fuelled by alcohol, or inventions woven to cover infanticide, fratricide, or even an accidental death as five sixths of all infant deaths in these Rookeries are by suffocation from overlaying due to overcrowding in family-shared beds. However, so consistent are the stories, and so earnestly are they told, that even a man grounded in scientific principles might begin to wonder if something dark and sinister is indeed abroad.
Standing sentinel over the junction of Burial Street and Angel Yard is a lone remnant of the old cemetery rudely crushed beneath industrial progress. Myths surrounding it are legion; older children put the fear of God into their younger siblings who tremble at the stories, giving wide berth to the statue they are told moves and drags you silently into the ground to consume you alive. I am quietly amused yet nevertheless interested by these pagan fables, but sometimes a little less of the statue’s mournful face appears to be covered by raised hands. It is, of course, a trick of light and shadow created by the flickering of a spluttering gas lamp or from patterns swirling in the dense, greasy yellow-green fog of another pea-souper settling over the dismal East End. In the blink of an eye one can see that of course no such movement has taken place, but if the mind of a methodical scientist can be tricked, how much more so these poor, ignorant, uneducated souls?
Tonight I heard the tanks of a locomotive being filled with water and the clanging of mineral upon metal plate as the bunker was filled from wicker baskets of coal stored on the timber staging. I stood by the wall adjoining the public house near the sub-surface lines and watched a small black engine in a siding. One of the crew exited the grounded carriage, trudging towards it through the accumulated slush and climbed into the cab. Words were exchanged, conversation drowned out by a short blast on the steam whistle and was followed by a staccato bark from the chimney. The exhaust gave way to near silence, just the quiet clanking of rods and the thud of wheels passing over rail joints echoing down Burial Street, before disappearing under the iron bridge leading to the rest of the world. In the distance and high above, the muted, heavy labouring of a mineral train punctuated the air, brakes squealing in protest as it slowed towards the coal depot located a quarter of a mile away. In the brick-lined cutting below, an aspirating train filled with passengers burst from the gloom of a long tunnel, a cloud of sulphurous exhaust roaring into the moonlit sky caught me unaware, causing my heart to suddenly race. I looked at my pocket watch; the hour was late, and before returning to the warmth of civilisation and society there was a long walk across London ahead of me. Laughter and song spilled out from the Weeping Angel public house, light from the front window bathing the flagstones in a soft yellow glow. I stood and watched through the etched glass before crossing the muddy street towards the sorrowful angel, and for the first time in all my visits here, as I glanced up, the gas lamps in the street flickered and for a moment I thought saw the horror of living eyes staring back.
Extract from the Journal of Doctor J. Smith, army surgeon (retired), entry dated 12th December 1901. Less than two months later the doctor himself disappeared, the last entry in his journal indicating that he believed he had solved the mystery of the vanishing residents of the Rookery.