The plaque in Postman’s Park for Ellen Donovan stating that she rushed into a burning house to save the neighbour’s children hides a story of overcrowded and dilapidated houses where London’s poor tried to make the best of their sorry lives. Ellen Donovan lived at 10, Lincoln Court, a narrow street – if you can call it that – between Drury Lane and Great Wild Street in the St. Giles District which was formed of the parishes of St Giles in the Fields and St George Bloomsbury (1855-1890). On that fatal Monday, 28 July 1873, at 7.30 pm, a fire broke out at number 7 because someone had carelessly left combustible material too close to the fireplace. The fire spread rapidly to number 8 and subsequently via the roof also to number 9. Initially everyone got out alive, although some were wounded, but when Ellen Donovan appeared on the scene and inquired whether the children had been got out, she was erroneously told they were not and she rushed inside to save them. She went from room to room, but by the time she reached the top floor she could no longer come down, because the staircase had caught fire. The fire brigade tried to save her, but unfortunately, they could not reach her in time.
The next day, George H. Stanton, the incumbent of Trinity, St. Giles, wrote a letter to the editor of The Times which was published on the 30th, mentioning the overcrowded state of the court and the plight of the 24 families left homeless because of the fire. All contributions gladly accepted. That his appeal did not fall on deaf ears, was shown a few days later, when Stanton thanked everyone by name who had given a donation. The sums given ranged from 2s to 20l with a total of over 56l and even some ‘soup tickets’
had been received.(1) The inquest was held on Thursday the 31st at the King’s Head Tavern in Broad Street where Mr. Dickson, the sanitary inspector for the district, stated that the court had 21 houses (each with eight rooms) with 366 inhabitants in total and that the houses were almost entirely of wood. But despite that, he alleged that the houses were “perfectly habitable”.(2) You can judge from the illustration below how ‘perfectly habitable’ they were.
Homes of the London Poor from The Builder (1850s) (Source: British Museum)
The three houses that had burnt down were demolished with unexpected health problems as a result. Dr. George Ross, the Medical Officer of Health, wrote in his 1873 report that
At the commencement of September, I was informed of the occurrence of six cases of Typhus Fever – four of these in Lincoln Court, and two in Great Wild Street. This outbreak was so unexpected that further inquiries were immediately instituted, with the view to ascertain the cause. The localisation of the fever led me to believe that the disturbance of filth in the basements of three houses that had been destroyed by fire in Lincoln Court – a disturbance caused by the removal of the old foundations preparatory to rebuilding – had set free poisonous gases which generated the fever.(3)
We now know that typhoid fever is caused by the Salmonella typhi bacteria and is spread via contaminated food or water. Although Dr. Ross thought the cause was gases emanating from the ruins, he had the right idea that filthy surroundings were the cause, although not in the way he believed. Not long after, in 1875, another Medical Officer of Health, Dr. S.R. Lovett, made an official appeal to the Board of Works to improve the area in which he stated that many of the houses had no ventilation at all and the narrow alleyways made the houses very dark and he called the whole area “a disease-breeding spot”. The result was the Improvement Scheme of 1877 in which the area between Drury Lane, Great Wild Street, Princes Street and Brewer’s Court was to be razed to the ground and rebuilt.
map of the area from the 1877 report
Almost 2,000 people were to be rehoused. Princes Street (now Kemble Street) and the eastern end of Great Wild Street were to be widened to 40 feet. The site was fully cleared in May 1880 and sold to the Peabody Trust for £15,840. The new six-storey buildings were completed in 1881 and according to the report, “all these dwellings must be maintained in perpetuity as working-class dwellings”. The report mentions the gap between the 1,620 new occupants and the almost 2,000 that were moved out of the old buildings, but what happened to these unfortunates who missed out on a new home is not made clear.(4)
Ordnance Survey map of the area (1893) showing the new Peabody Estate
The Peabody building is still there, testament to a chain of events leading from a fire and the death of Ellen Donovan to better housing for the working classes.
(1) The Times, 1 August 1873.
(2) Lloyd’s Weekly, 3 August 1873.
(3) Report of the Medical Officer of Health as part of the Annual Report of the Board of Works for the St. Giles District, 1873 (online here)
(4) London County Council, The Housing Question in London. Being an Account of the Housing Work Done by the Metropolitan Board of Works and the London County Council, Between the Years 1855 and 1900, With a Summary of the Acts of Parliament under which they have worked. The relevant pages can be found here.