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Tower Hamlet

Henry Bruce was a relatively good man. Oh, he had his faults, but who in the East end of London didn’t? He lived a modest life with his wife Emma and their two children Winifred and Roland. Emma was a pretty woman with a lovely smile attributable to her near perfect teeth. Good teeth were unusual in London where most people had unusually crooked teeth inherited from generations of generally bad teeth. She was a strict woman, not only with her children, but also with her husband as well. As a result, Henry had few of the bad habits that most of his friends had. He drank very little, never allowing himself to get intoxicated. Emma would tell him if she couldn’t afford the time to be intoxicated; then neither could he.

Henry was an average looking man. Like most men who worked on the docks, he was slightly underweight from the hard work and long hours. He was muscular and very strong, though. He had been very popular with the ladies. As a young man, he had a way about him that made women want to get to know him — maybe it was his big blue eyes or his inviting smile. The only vice that Henry had was he loved the Greyhound dog races.

Emma’s parents lived in a row home in the borough of Stepney. She came from a family of four, having only one brother. Not that far from where Henry and Emma lived. Emma was a talented woman who had an uncanny knack of being able to draw what she saw before her, including portraits or landscapes. She was able to make a few extra quid drawing portraits near the Tower of London.

The two Bruce children were average kids of the day, both semi-educated, like their parents. They spent their day trying to make a few pence any way they could. Winifred was twelve years old, a very sweet young lady, well mannered just like her mother. Luckily for her, she had the same dental traits as mom so her teeth were nice and straight. She had taught herself to read and write with some help from her friends; although, she still couldn’t write anything on her own without assistance.

Winifred was popular with the other kids on Repton Street and enjoyed playing games on the street in front of the house. Her mother Emma would tell her to enjoy it now because in a year or two, she would have to be loaned out to a local family as a maid to make extra money. Winifred had the same artistic talent as her mother and could draw portraits, although not as well as her mother could. No doubt she would improve, as she got older.

Both Winifred and Roland were healthy children and for the most part were very well behaved. Roland was ten years old and very smart for his age. He was slightly under size, but wiry. Most of the other mothers would tell Emma she shouldn’t worry about it. Like Winifred, Roland at age ten, was well on his way to being able to read. Most of his time was spent playing with friends or getting into mischief, as young boys do. He tended to be a little bit heavy handed with the other boys in the area. He had proved himself numerous times to be someone not to be tangled with. Roland’s greatest pastime was watching the bare-knuckle boxing matches put on by the numerous clubs in the area. Every borough in Tower Hamlets had a club. They would meet for prearranged fights every Sunday in various places, mostly open fields or empty lots.

One club would host another for several fights between club members. The clubs had no clubhouses or gyms. The events were held for two reasons: first, to name the year’s best fighter; second, as a betting forum where money could be made betting on the right fighter. Although Roland was too young to participate he rarely missed a fight that the Stepney Club was participating in. Roland watched and learned the techniques and proper methods of fist fighting. The local boys learned the hard way that he could apply these traits better than any other boy in the neighbourhood.

The area of Tower Hamlets was a very congested place. It bordered the City of London proper on the west. It consisted of twenty-six boroughs including: Stepney, Canary Warf, Limehouse, Poplar, Isle of Dogs and Whitechapel to name a few.

Immigrants moving into the area looking for work had increased the population to over a half a million people by 1880. Along with the congestion came crimes of every kind. There were thieves and prostitutes on every corner.

The year was 1888 and Henry and Emma had been married for about twelve years. Most of that time, Henry had been working at the St. Katherine’s Dockyards. It had been built in 1828 on the North side of the Thames River. The dockyard was about a mile and a half from the Tower of London, and Tower Bridge.

The Bruce family had moved in with Henry’s father George, at 47 Repton Street, in the Tower Hamlets borough of Stepney, a city within a city you might say. The house was a modest two-story row house with only five rooms. It was one of a hundred similar houses in the area.

To say the least, it was in disrepair and would stay that way due to a lack of funds to make any improvements. This meant that the Bruces could only have two rooms to themselves. An agreement had been made with Henry’s father when they moved in that this was a temporary arrangement and that Henry would seek appropriate lodgings at his earliest convenience. That had been ten years ago. Henry would pay a rental amount on the first of every month. Failure to do so would mean instant eviction.

George had lost his wife, Elizabeth, Henry’s mom, several years earlier to the plague. Not a day passed that George didn’t think of her. Maybe this was why he always seemed to be in a bit of a mood. She had been a very good-looking woman when George met her. They had courted for several years before getting married at St. Dunstan Church. George was an average looking man about five foot five inches and 150 pounds. Now, he was sixty-seven years old and had retired two years ago.

George had been a bit of an oddity in the neighbourhood. He was one of the few men who didn’t work at the shipyards. He had been employed at the Tower of London of all places as an internal maintenance worker as well as a grounds keeper. He had worked there for forty years. Because of his good job he was able to buy the row house on Repton Street, where he and Elizabeth had raised their family. Together, they had six children of which only three survived to see adulthood. Three of them met their end due to the plague or some other disease. It was truly heartbreaking, but not uncommon in the east end of London. The other three children — Henry, Jack and Madeline all grew up on Repton Street. Henry was the youngest of the three, but all three were now married and leading their own lives. When Jack and Madeline married they moved away from London. Jack moved his family north to pursue work as a farmer. Madeline and her husband had moved to the state of Maine in the United States of America so George thought.

George was now retired. He had saved just enough money to live on for the remainder of his life. When Henry and Emma finally moved, George would have to take on several boarders. This would give him extra income. Until then the money Henry paid in rent helped George to get by.

At the dockyard Henry was employed as a tanner and blacksmith. He was proficient at his trade so, unlike most men that worked there, he was almost assured a steady income. The dockyards were a dangerous place to work at the best of times. Deaths were common and occurred at least once a week, mostly from falling cargo. Non-fatal accidents occurred with more frequency, often leaving men permanently disabled. Seeking any kind of medical attention in 1888 was next to impossible. This left those with more severe injuries to languish in the streets of Tower Hamlets as beggars.

The house on Repton Street was approximately two miles from the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. George Bruce had told stories as to the goings on at the Tower of London over the years. Mostly, about the executions that had been performed there. When he was a child, his parents would take him to witness the Beefeater Guards who were stationed at the Tower as it still housed prisoners. There had been no executions at the Tower since the mid 1700’s. However, prisoners could still be found incarcerated there protected by a shroud of secrecy. Even though, George knew a lot about the Tower having worked there for forty years; he rarely talked about what went on inside. Henry’s mother, used to tell her children that their father had to swear not to talk about it. George did say he felt lucky that he had no hand in the executions, like in the good old days, of the Tower.

Buckingham Palace was also a mere five miles from Repton Street. The contrast between the two locations was like day and night. Henry would take his family to view the Palace on Sundays after attending services at St. Dunstan’s All Saints Church. They always hoped to see Queen Victoria ride by in one of her ornate carriages and on one occasion they actually did.

She was like a god to the British people, especially, to those who lived in London. To get to the Palace, one had to take a route that skirted the area of Whitechapel. This area was one of the roughest in London. It was riddled with prostitutes and other unsavoury types. The children were always instructed never to go there.

Henry was a relatively good man as stated, but he did have his weaknesses. He loved to bet on the Greyhound Races. No, he was obsessed with betting on them. Every Saturday evening after work, you would find him at the races. At first, he was a modest gambler, only betting what he could afford to lose. As time went on, though, and his losses multiplied, his addiction grew worse. Of course, Emma could not be told, she worried enough about the money.

The dog races were relatively new. They consisted of Greyhounds chasing a mechanical hare down a straight track. This was called coursing. At first, only two dogs chased the hare, which had been given a substantial head start. After the sport adapted betting, up to six dogs raced at the same time. This provided a wider field for betting. Henry’s answer to the problem of losing was to bet heavier so that when he did win he could cover his losses. To do this, he had to borrow an amount of money. This enabled him to amalgamate all his smaller debts into one large debt to one person or group. Henry chose to borrow fifty pounds from a group of men that he knew.

However, these men, well known in the Whitechapel area, were unscrupulous as well as unforgiving. Known as the Tower Gang, they were a well-organized group of thugs. It was common knowledge that they specialized in loan sharking as well as in prostitution and extortion. They were a dangerous group of men. It was rumoured that they had committed numerous murders. Henry had heard that many people had borrowed money from the gang. So long as they paid the money back on time, they had no trouble with these outlaws. If Henry’s luck did not turn around in short order, his life, and possibly the health and well being of his family would certainly be in jeopardy. The gang had given Henry no more than one year to pay the debt back with interest.

The next Saturday saw Henry back at the track, ready to apply his strategy. It took him until the last four races to get the feel of the track and how the dogs were running. When the time was right, he would lay his first bet — a fairly modest one, but sizeable none the less. If he came out ahead, he would continue in the next race increasing the bet, continuing this strategy. Sometimes it worked and a nice profit could be made. Over the next six months miraculously Henry won back all that he had borrowed plus most of what he had lost prior to borrowing the money. Life was finally going to get better for the Bruce family. With the winnings, he could foresee putting a down payment on a small house and getting some of the things that his family deserved.

The first step in this reformation was, of course, to pay off the debt to the gang who had loaned him the money. He took a trip to Whitechapel and had a meeting with the Tower Gang. Rumours of a serial killer had been circulating in the neighbourhood. The murders had been occurring in the district of Whitechapel. The victims had been mostly prostitutes working the area. Police from the Tower Hamlets area as well as the London City Police were investigating. The murders had been so gruesome that the papers had nicknamed him as “Jack the Ripper”.

Many theories were being expressed as to who “Jack the Ripper”, could be. There were no suspects as yet. When questioned by the police, prostitutes related that members of a local gang had been extorting money from them. They had been threatened with disfigurement or even death, if they told the police the names of the men involved. Even the name of the gang was kept secret. The only suspect the prostitutes would talk about was a man nicknamed, “Leather Gloves”.

The police were starting to go door to door questioning all occupants of the Whitechapel area. It took about a month before they came knocking on the door at 47 Repton Street. George Bruce was asked to provide the names of those living at the address, along with where they worked. While in the house, the police couldn’t help notice the condition of the house compared to the adjacent houses. George’s house seemed to be in a better state of repair compared to the others, thanks to Henry’s greyhound money. The furniture was newer, and Emma, Winifred and Roland were dressed in newer clothing. The police asked questions about this, but Emma attributed the apparent affluence to Henry’s job at the dockyard.

The next Sunday, the Sunday before Christmas, Henry had to meet with the men to repay the loan. He was on time at the agreed upon location, but the gang members came late. When they showed up, they seemed to be in a belligerent mood. Henry had the money in an unmarked envelope. With a smile on his face, he handed the envelope over to the main man, Jake Skinner, or “Skinny”, as he had been nicknamed. Henry was proud of himself that he was able to repay the debt four months earlier than agreed upon. This, he thought, would save him money based on the exorbitant interest rate that he was being charged. Jake took the envelope and counted the money. “What’s this then, a down payment?” Jake asked sarcastically.

“Payment in full” replied Henry.

“You’ve got to be bloody kidding. Are you trying to give me a blinker?”

“You’re short, it’s only half here.” said Jake, as he stuffed the envelope of money into his shirt.

Henry’s hair stood up on the back of his neck, he had heard what these men could be like.

“I’ve given you the agreed upon amount, plus your interest, and now you want more. You’re trying to shake me down you bugger.” said Henry.

“Let me make this clear to you mate. Double what’s in the envelope and have it back here a week next Sunday or we pay a little visit to that pretty little wife of yours. Before you go, I want to introduce you to one of my boys, they call him, ’Leather Gloves’,” said Jake.

With that, a strange burly man stepped out of the shadows. He was a big man, over six feet tall, and broad at the shoulder. His arms were muscular with hands like meat hooks. His face was riddled with numerous scars, and his hair was long and unkempt. He was wearing leather gloves and was punching one hand with the other.

“This is Tony. He will be the one to deal with you, if I don’t get my money… I’ll deal with your pretty wife.” said Jake.

The other gang members snickered. Tony walked up to Henry, and with one hand grabbed him by the throat, with the other he made a fist and punched Henry in the solar plexus. Henry couldn’t breath, and was at the point of blacking out.

“Let this be a warning to you, mate. Do as you’re told and you might get through this with your head intact.” threatened Jake.

Henry was in shock. How could he have been so naive? What was he going to do now? All the way home, he thought about his situation. He had to stop once to throw up, as a result of the blow to his stomach that he had received. He knew there was no hiding from the gang. He had heard of other men who had borrowed money from them, but had never made any attempt at paying them back. These men were dealt with very severely, being badly beaten, and in one case murdered.

Henry didn’t have the money they were demanding. He thought the money in the envelope had been more than enough to satisfy the gang, but it wasn’t. He started to panic. He knew there was no way to get the money in such short time. There was only one answer, to leave town and get as far away from the gang as he possibly could. He had to take Emma and the kids and run.

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