Notes on Hallie Rubenhold's "The Five" (2019) - Part 1. Polly Nichols


Chapter 1. The Blacksmith's Daughter

Pages 20, 22-23: She arrived on 26 August 1845, a day which the surrounding newspapers described as 'fine and dry'. The home into which she was born, a dilapidated 200-year-old house known as Dawes Court, on Gunpowder Alley, Shoe Lane, bore an address worthy of any of Charles Dickens's heroines.
An 1844 inquiry undertaken into the state of housing in populous London districts found that buildings situated in enclosed courts and narrow alleys, like the one in which the Walkers lived, were some of the 'worst conditioned ... badly ventilated and filthy ... in the entire neighbourhood'. Most families shared one room, the average size of which 'measured from 8 to 10 feet, by 8 feet, and from 6 to 8 feet from floor to ceiling'.5 Into these compact rooms were pushed entire families. Dawes Court, which had once been a large timber-framed and plaster house, had been subdivided into three separate dwellings, before being apportioned once more into individually rented rooms, inhabited by no fewer than forty-five people.

Pages 353-354, note 5: First Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts, vol. 1 (London, 1844), pp. 111-13.

Mary Ann Nichols was born at number 1 Dawes Court [see birth certificate posted by Jose Oranto at Jack the Ripper Forums]. This was one of three separate houses in Dawes Court, off Gunpowder Alley. The house was not 200 years old. A map of 1667 shows that this was within the area burned in the Great Fire of London, and there were no buildings there at that time. By 1676 three houses had been built there, but comparison with the Ordnance Survey large scale town plan, surveyed in 1874, shows that by then (and presumably already by the 1840s) the old houses had been demolished and others built in their place. The houses built after the Great Fire would not have been timber-framed, because the use of timber was prohibited by the Rebuilding Act of 1667. The colour-coding of the Goad Fire Insurance Plan of 1886 indicates that the houses were of brick or stone.

The description of the average size of a room in 1844 quoted by the author related specifically to the neighbourhood of Field Lane on the other side of Holborn, in an area untouched by the Great Fire [page 113, available at Google Books]. As already mentioned, number 1 Dawes Court was not part of a subdivided older house, so that combining the numbers of inhabitants from the three houses in the court is misleading (the author's total is taken from the 1861 census). When numbers 1 and 2 were advertised for sale in 1889, they were described as houses of four floors [West London Observer, 29 June 1889], which is confirmed by the Goad Plan. In the 1841 census there were 14 people living at number 1 (in three households), in 1851, 4 people (in one household) and in 1861, 17 people (in three households). In 1891, where the number of rooms is given, there was one household of 5 people in two rooms, and another of 4 people in another room.

[See information about Dawes Court posted by Gary Barnett at Jack the Ripper Forums.]

Page 20: Indeed, the author of Oliver Twist had come to know these dingy courts and foetid alleys intimately in his youth while he worked as a shoe black, and later scribbled away in nearby rooms.

Charles Dickens did not work as a "shoe black" (someone who polishes people's shoes). In about 1824, while his father was in the Marshalsea Prison for debt, he worked in a factory where boot blacking was made. The factory was at Hungerford Stairs near Charing Cross, and later at Chandos Street near Covent Garden, not in the same area as Dawes Court [see discussion by Gary Barnett at Jack the Ripper Forums, and also an online article by Michael Allen on the National Archives website].

Page 27: [William] Nichols was the son of a herald painter, one who traditionally applied coats of arms to carriages and signs, but who increasingly in the nineteenth century had moved into printing stationery and bookplates. At some time prior to the spring of 1861, William had set out from his birthplace in Oxford to begin a career as a printer.

At his marriage in 1864, William said his father was named William Nichols, and was a herald painter [Neal Shelden, The Victims of Jack the Ripper (2007), p. 5]. In fact when he was born his mother Elizabeth Nichols was unmarried [see images of birth and marriage certificates and baptism entry (15 May 1840 at St Mary Magdalen, Oxford) posted by Jose Oranto at Jack the Ripper Forums]. His father has not been identified.

At the date of the 1851 census, William was living with his mother Elizabeth Nichols, described as a widow, at 3 Hanover Court, St Martin in the Fields, in London [see image of census entry at Jack the Ripper Forums].

Pages 29-30: By the summer of 1866, the Walker-Nichols household returned to Walworth, the part of the capital where Edward Walker had spent his youth. The family, who were now six in number, took a house at 131 Trafalgar Street, on what was described as 'a terrace of two-storey brick cottages'. ... Their eldest child failed to live more than a year and nine months, but the family was soon joined by others. Edward John was the first child to be born at their home on Trafalgar Street on 4 July 1866. He was followed two years later by George Percy on 18 July and by Alice Esther in December 1870.

Several details here are incorrect. From the information summarised below, the family initially moved to Camberwell or Peckham before settling in Walworth. The first known record of them at 131 Trafalgar Street is from late November 1866.