St George-in-the-East Mortuary, Shadwell

A few weeks ago, while studying the Cable Street Mural (read about it here) I stumbled across some intriguing ruins by St George-in-the-East churchyard in Shadwell.

Curious about its previous use – and given the plaque nearby was covered in bird poop! – I set about researching its history. As ever with London, there’s a story waiting to be uncovered…

The St George-in-the-East Mortuary

St George-in-the-East is one of London’s impressive stone churches designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Although gutted in Blitz and renovated, it still stands proud over St George’s Gardens.

St George-in-the-East Mortuary Shadwell

A short walk from the church you’ll find this dilapidated brick building, the only clue being the faint ‘Metropolitan Borough of Stepney Nature Study Museum’.

St George-in-the-East Mortuary Shadwell

We’ll come back to that part of the story later, but the first use of this building was a bit more sinister. It was a mortuary.

In 1866 the Sanitary Act was passed, allowing local authorities to build mortuaries to improve the conditions and treatment of the dead across London. They weren’t popular though. By 1875 the British Medical Journal reported that out of 21 districts, only 9 had taken action.

This one was built around 1876 and mortuaries were distrusted in Victorian England. There was a fear of the body being stolen and working families often kept their dead relatives in the home until enough money was raised for a burial.

The St George-in-the-East Mortuary is mentioned simply because – by chance – it played a role in the most notorious murders in London’s history.

The Jack the Ripper Connection

At 3pm on Monday 31 September 1888 Dr. George Phillips and Dr. Blackwell conducted the post-mortem of Elizabeth Stride.

She had been found murdered on Berner Street in Whitechapel and the examination notes a six inch cut in her neck. The timing of her murder means she is linked with the series of brutal killings in Whitechapel in 1888, the killer was never caught but the murderer is known as Jack the Ripper.

Elizabeth Stride was originally from Sweden, born Elisabeth Gustafsdotter, but travelled to London in her 20s to work and later married John Stride in St Giles-in-the-Fields which still stands in Tottenham Court Road. When he died she had been living in the East End near Brick Lane.

From the scant records that exist, we can form a hazy picture of Elizabeth. If you’re interested, I’d recommend reading The Five by Hallie Rubenhold which looks into the lives of the women killed in 1888.

The only known photograph of Elizabeth is the mortuary photograph of her taken on this site. She was buried in the East London Cemetery on Saturday 6 October 1888.

The Nature Study Museum

With no refrigeration facilities the mortuary fell out of use and by 1904 it had become something quite different.

In the early 1900s the School Nature Study Union was established to educate inner-city children about the natural world.

The mortuary was transformed into a study centre. It was curated by Miss Kate Marion Hall and Claude Hinscliffe.

Containing stuffed animals and archeological specimens the museum was a huge success, attracting up to 1000 visitors per day in the Summer months according to the church’s website.

It closed during the Second World War and never reopened. Although it features on English Heritage’s “Buildings at risk” List, there’s no current plans for redevelopment or restoration. In a Tower Hamlets planning document from 2009 it mentions plans for the Spitalfields Trust to acquire and repair it.

Ever walked past this ruin in Shadwell? Now you’ll know a bit more when you do!

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4 Comments

  • Hi Katie, thank you once again, for you fascinating stories of London. I can’t wait to join you on a walking tour ,when all this madness is over! Look forward to it and meeting you! I would like to do all your tours, so that’s my plan. Best wishes, Sandy Mitchell.

    August 25, 2020 at 9:12 am
  • Another great story from you, THANKS! Fascinating is that the home that Stride (Gustafsdotter) was born in (1843) still stands on Hisingen, outside Gothenburg in Sweden. Looking forward to your next Looking up London!

    August 12, 2021 at 10:15 am
  • Ali

    Reply

    It was around 1986ish on bonfire night in east London in St George’s near Shadwell/Wapping. A friend and I had been letting off fireworks and were walking back to his around 10pm. We took a route through an old cemetery just as we’d done many times before. There was a derilict hut in the cemetrary and all of a sudden it was lit up with fire – from nothing to blazing inferno in the blink of an eye. Through the window we saw standing in the fire the silhouette of a headless man, who despire being headless was staring right at us. I thought I was seeing things and looked at my friend. I saw him looking at me with the same bewilderment and at that moment we both knew that we were thinking the same thing and ran, hearts pounding. It was horrible and in hindsight it’s a bit weird that neither of us spoke of the incident to each other again. We also avoided that route. Decades later, as an adult I revisited the place (in daylight!). The “hut” was still there and turns out has it’s own history and known as The little mortuary at St George in the East. The whole thing sounds like a story by a child I know; cemetary, headless figure, flames, bonfire night etc. so that’s why I don’t bother telling anyone in person – it is absurd and people will (understandably) joke. But we know what we saw.

    August 14, 2022 at 11:59 am
  • Christopher Shackleton

    Reply

    This is fascinating to me I work over at the very expensive and plush Hotel and Wedding Venue Eaves Hall which is Clitheroe North England its one of the most tasteful buildings I’ve ever been on with addition to this I have been on similar walks round Burnley and didn’t know that Oliver Cromwell had been around and didn’t know that the Heritage round here dated back to 1600’s and actually 1500’s if you look at the Roebuck Rishton I’m actually Fascinated by the Roundheads and English Heritage and come to think of it anything Monarch we are so proud and are all Royalists up hear and big fans of Parliament

    September 8, 2022 at 8:26 pm

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