House of Mystery Radio/Inside Writing

10/15/2020

PICTURES OF THE ABYSS - ANDREW FIRTH

In the early years of the twentieth century, London was a city of opposites. The affluent west of the city was prosperous and wealthy, but in contrast the east was an area of poverty, crime and disease. Life expectancy was low, and the streets were filled with the homeless, the destitute and the sick.When the American author Jack London ventured into the East End in the summer of 1902 to research the hopeless living conditions so typical of the area, he was to witness such sights as the cramped living conditions in shabby Frying Pan Alley, the revolting menial tasks that inmates of the Whitechapel casual ward carried out to pay for a dismal bed and a frugal meal of bread and ‘skilly’. In his book “The People of the Abyss”, a written account of his experiences, he relayed the tale of Dan Cullen, a resident of one of Whitechapel’s municipal dwellings, whose worsening health had forced him to move into the old Temperance Hospital, near Euston station. Jack had witnessed the sorry sight of the homeless sheltering under Tower Bridge and others trying to sleep by the steps of Christ Church in Spitalfields. He had tasted coffee and tea that was close in appearance to dirty dishwater and bore little resemblance to anything his readers might have drunk, and he had seen desperately hungry men and women pawing their way through the filthiest of meat scraps outside a butcher’s shop in Aldgate. In short, he had, if only briefly, lived the life of one of the people of the abyss, and had witnessed the horrendous life that circumstance had forced them to endure.As well as his vivid written descriptions of the East End, Jack London also photographed a considerable number of evocative scenes to complement the text. These well-known images have been frequently reprinted over the years, often to illustrate books about Jack the Ripper and the East End in general.