Jack the Ripper Introduction

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By 1888, London was the largest capital in the world and centre of the ever increasing British empire. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for over 50 years and the public face of Britain reflected Victoria’s lifestyle: proud, dignified and above all proper. It was the centre of empire, a centre of culture, a centre of finance, communication and transportation, with a new emerging mass media called the new journalism, later to be dubbed the tabloids.

However, right on its doorstep in the east end lay the district of Whitechapel, seedy by any standards, it was a crime ridden sordid quarter, were 78000 residents lived in abject poverty. An area of doss houses, sweatshops, abattoirs, overcrowded slums, pubs, a few shops and warehouses, leavened with a row or two of respectably kept cottages. Whitechapel had London’s worst slums, the poverty of its inhabitants was appalling. Malnutrition and disease were so wide spread that to live past the age of 5 years, the typical eastender had a 50 percentage chance of doing so.

Here three classes existed:

  • The poor (builders, labourers, shopkeepers, dock workers & tailors).
  • The very poor (women & children usually being seamstress or weavers or clothes washers).
  • The homeless (living in a permanent state of deprivation).

Whitechapel was the immigrant district, due in part to the large influx of immigration, either Jewish, Irish or Russian. The potato famine had seen a large influx of Irish immigrants in the mid 1800s, along with the Jews who arrived in their thousands whilst fleeing persecution in Russia, Germany and Poland. In only a single decade, the Jewish population had risen to over 50,000.

So many different nationalities, but all had one thing in common, every day was a struggle for survival. The west end of London was undergoing massive renovation and prosperity, concert halls, music halls, restaurants and hotels. As the city expanded, cheap housing was now being demolished to make way for warehouses and business offices, this forced more people into smaller areas.

Abyss of Whitechapel

Overcrowding and a shortage of housing, created the Abyss of Whitechapel. For most of the population in the east end, one lived and died in the same neighbourhood in which they were born. Hope was in short supply. A maze of entries, alleyways and courtyards all lit by single gas lamps, all giving out about 6 feet of light, with anywhere in between a darkness that you would struggle to see your own hand in front of your face. Sanitation was practically non-existent and people would throw their raw sewage out into the street; the stench of the whole district was unbearable.

For the poor and destitute, common lodging houses offered a bed for the night. Here you would be cramped into a small dormitory with up to 80 others and for 4 pence, you could get a bed which was practically a coffin lying on the ground, for tuppence you could get to lean against a rope which was tied from one end of the wall to the other. Every single night 8500 men, women and children would seek shelter within these walls.

“No pay, no stay”

These doss houses lay just off the main roads of commercial street, areas such as Thrawl street, Flower and Dean and Dorset street, a street so bad the police wouldn’t go down unless they were in teams of four. Run by greedy landlords they had one motto, “no pay no stay.” No money meant the night in doorways, lavatories or huddled up in the church park.

For men work could sometimes be obtained down by the docks, offloading ships or as market porters. For women, work was scarce and any work they could find paid very little to be able to survive. So out of sheer desperation many turned to the oldest profession in the world, prostitution.

According to one account, the women of the east end at the time were so destitute that they would sell themselves for as little as “thru’pence, or a stale loaf of bread”. In October 1888, the Metropolitan police estimated there were just over 1200 prostitutes working the streets in Whitechapel alone. This was almost certainly an underestimate, for sheer want drove many more to occasional prostitution.

This was their only means of income and survival. With the little money they earned most would seek comfort in alcohol as the only refuge from reality. Drink was cheap and drunkenness rife, at any time of day or night. Brutality and violence were a direct result. Brawls were common place and, as one Whitechapel inhabitant put it, cries of “Murder!” were “nothing unusual in the street”.

Hollywood Interpretation

The Hollywood interpretation of these women has had them portrayed as the kind of showgirl type you would see on a stage in the rich west end, with charming looks and pretty features. However, the reality is far different. By the age of 20, most would look about 40, hard drinking and the east end lifestyle had taken its toll. Most had missing teeth and wore the same clothes day in and day out. Bloated and suffering diseases, life would be short. Dubbed “unfortunates” these women would ply their trade in brothels and dark alleys.

“It was a world in which Jack the Ripper would have no problems finding his victims”.

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Tours every night at 7pm from Aldgate Station. Tickets £10 per person. Tickets purchased at start of tour
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