Sarah Kenning, before Commercial Road

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May 30, 2013 by auntkatefirmin

Let’s assume that Sarah was born on Commercial Road as she states in the 1861 census.  Let’s continue to assume that she was the daughter of William Kinning and lived on Charlotte Street and Morgan Street.  How did the streets change in her lifetime? To set the background, I’ll take a quick look at the other roads in the area first.

White Horse Lane in 1795.

Route of White Horse Lane from Cary’s 1795 map via
1. St Mary, Whitechapel
2. St Botolph, Aldgate
3. St George in the East
4. St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney
* Halfway House

The most prominent route on the map runs across the top, Whitechapel Road.  This was a major road, running to from Aldgate to Colchester in Essex, and readers of Dickens may remember that Mr. Pickwick took this route to Ipswich.

Across the south of the map are two parallel routes running from Little Tower Hill to the Thames at Ratcliffe.  Farthest south, the Ratcliff Highway (with related streets) was the old route across the Wapping Marshes.  It was notorious as the haunt of sailors and associated revelry, but also formed the backbone of a thriving community serving the local maritime trades, including many skilled tradesmen.

Just north of the Ratcliff Highway is a series of streets starting in the east with Rosemary Lane and Cable Street which also connect to the main north-south street of Ratcliffe, White Horse Street.  Both of these corridors were too narrow to handle the traffic related to the increase in shipping associated with the new routes to the East.

Looking at the 1795 map you can see how the built-up areas follow the lines of these established roads.  Sarah’s lifetime is notable for the increased foreign trade and the building of many docks in East London to accommodate the increasingly larger ships.  By 1802 when a toll road was authorized to connect the West India Company docks (off the map to the east) to the City, the route through the less developed area was attractive, not least because it was not necessary to purchase or tear down as many existing businesses.

Half Way House in 1738.

Half Way House in 1738.
© Trustees of the British Museum

So what was it like before Commercial Road?  In a word, semi-rural with scattered business premises.  Did any landmarks survive? Essentially, only locations survived but mostly not entire structures.  Many of the existing streets of Sarah’s day can still be found under different names.  If the 1795 map can be believed, there really weren’t many buildings on the route.

Not marked on this map but one of the sights that Sarah might have seen along White Horse Lane in her childhood, is the Half Way House, less than half a mile to the east of Morgan Street.  This was an inn on the southern side where the lane makes a right angle to the south.  Unfortunately, the building in the drawing from 1738 is not the one Sarah knew.  We have to wait until the pub was rebuilt around 1825 on the north side of Commercial Road and renamed the George Tavern for more views.  The George is still there and there is an interview with the pub’s owner at Spitalfields Life including some historical views. The tavern’s location did shift a bit, and the new road was cut through to the south of the old inn as Commercial Road didn’t follow the various bends and jogs of White Horse Lane.

If Sarah did indeed live in Morgan Street, she was next door to one of the many rope walks in the area. The manufacture of natural fiber rope requires a long straight alley or building where the fibers are laid and twisted to form various types of cables and ropes. Making the longest possible rope is important, as shorter ropes joined (spliced) together will not pass through the fittings of a ship’s rigging.  The amount of rope needed for a single large sailing vessel is tremendous – and ships came through London by the hundreds. The Ropery from the historic dockyard at Chatham is a rope manufacturing plant dating back to before Sarah’s day that would be worth a visit.  It’s interesting that Morgan Street is so close to the rope walk as the danger of fire due to the dust from the hemp fibers is high.  It makes me wonder if some of the individuals on Morgan Street were involved in the hemp trade or the rope business and the buildings were set there (at least originally) for the convenience of the rope manufacturing.

Other noisy, dangerous or smelly businesses might have been located nearby that are not labeled on the map.  One example is the Gunmaker’s Company proof house built in nearby Church Lane in 1757 (and rebuilt in 1818) which would have been another familiar sight to the Kinnings.  I imagine they heard the noise when the gun-makers were testing shot guns.  Further research will no doubt turn up more places and perhaps notable inhabitants.

That’s a first glimpse the western end of White Horse Lane about 1795.

As a side note, while all of this area was once the parish of Stepney, when Whitechapel parish was separated from Stepney in 1673 the boundaries to the east of the church ran very close to the Whitechapel Road.  As a result, Charlotte Street was within the Whitechapel boundaries in Sarah’s day but Morgan Street and White Horse Lane were not.


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