One little curio of the East End’s murky past can be seen on the north side of Whitechapel Road, slotted between Nos 261 and 263. It is a small archway, now usually blocked by an iron gate, bearing a sign, ‘Wood’s Buildings’. This little court once boasted cottages on either side and was one of several such residential alleys in this area, all of which were drastically changed in the 1880s when the underground was constructed. From then until the early 2000s, Wood’s Buildings would take pedestrians from the main road across the underground line via a bridge to Winthrop Street, emerging by the former Buck’s Row Board School near to where Mary Ann Nichols lost her life.
Beloved of Ripperologists in years past, Wood’s Buildings retained all the menace and squalor of late Victorian Whitechapel and has often been suggested as a possible entrance route to Buck’s Row used by Nichols and her killer, or a potential escape route after Jack committed the deed. It was here that witnesses Charles Brittain and Henry Tomkins, employees of the nearby Harrison Barber and Co slaughterhouse, went for a stroll on the fateful night, claiming to have heard or seen nothing out of the ordinary. Wood’s Buildings would certainly have been used as a place for prostitutes to service their clients owing to its quiet, isolated, and poorly lit character, a fact suggested by Martin Fido in a sequence filmed for the documentary ‘Shadow of the Ripper’ in 1988, when Fido takes a small tour party through Wood’s Buildings to emphasise the bleakness of the East End of 1888.
Many photos of the alleyway as it was can be seen on various web pages, several emphasising the dark gloominess of it at night. Even by day, it was not much better! It was still used by prostitutes throughout the 20th century and later became a venue for covert drug deals and a space for muggers to set upon unwitting pedestrians. Many called it ‘Piss Alley’ as it always stank of urine, and some photos reveal that in the 1990s, residents whose back doors opened out onto the alley had much to say about this: on the door was a scrawled warning, “This is not a toilet, we live here.” Such pleas fell on deaf ears and around 2005, the passageway was closed off at both ends as a safety hazard and to prevent criminal activity. Years later, in preparation for the Crossrail project running through Whitechapel, the bridge to Winthrop Street was removed, making Wood’s Buildings a private space, used by the shops on either side as a storage area for pallets and other bits and pieces.
Presumably, Wood’s Buildings is private property now, but it is not unusual for the iron gate which guards it to be open as shopkeepers go about their work. It has been known that if you ask nicely, they will let you in to take a few photos of your own.