Murder Most Horrid – Part 1 – The London Abyss

‘By 1870 the sheer quantity of life in the city was overwhelming. Every eight minutes, of every day of every year, someone died in London; every five minutes, someone was born. There were forty thousand costermongers and 100,000 ‘winter tramps’; there were more Irish living in London than in Dublin, and more Catholics than in Rome. There were 20,000 public houses visited by 500,000 customers. Eight years later there were more than half a million dwellings, ‘more than sufficient for it to form one continuous row of buildings round the island of Great Britain’. (Ackroyd.2001. P.576)

Nearly 20 years later London was no better and more packed than ever. Britain was facing a trade slump after being one of the world’s best economies. London had gone from being one of the world’s largest capitals cities oozing with jobs, now many of its lower class inhabitants were struggling even to makes ends meet, turning to crime and alcohol to solve the depression of living their daily lives. There was a clear division in the Social classes and between the sexes. Immigration was on the increase, for centuries Immigrants like the Huguenots, the Irish and the Jewish immigrants escaping from the pogroms in Russia, all headed to London, which in effect caused xenophobia, and more importantly anti-Semitism towards the mass of Jewish immigrants. London was unable to cope; Slums began to pop up in its poverty stricken areas, the masses locating to where there would be work. From the early 1800s many buildings and homes were cleared to make way for the creation of many new docks, the West India, Wapping, East India, Surrey and St Katherine Docks, houses were also being demolished to make way for new railways routes. Many people were flocking to these areas to find work at the docks, and those people who had lost their homes did not move on, and most of the immigrants coming in from abroad would usually settle in the immediate area from where they left their ship. London’s streets became over crowded, with not enough jobs to go around.

Whitechapel was home to the worst of these squalid conditions and of London’s worst slums in the area. It consisted of rat runs of alley ways and passages, high in both population and crime. Life was harsh for its 76,000 plus inhabitants, half of which were living in poverty conditions, working 10-18 hours a day for a merge wage. The slightest thing could cost them their job or wage, the factories were hard and its workers would sometimes come into contact with dangerous fumes, which could affect them for life, or they could have industrial accidents. Pollution was high, covering the building in filth and some buildings were even built on top of cesspits.

For those people living in Whitechapel who were unfortunate enough not to have much of an income their lives were made all the more worse by having to live in Common Lodgings houses, these house were dirty vermin infested rooms where people were crammed into so that the owners were able to make as much profit as possible. The police would usually turn a blind eye to the going on in these places making crime a common thing. These were places which no one in their right mind would want to reside but were more often than not the only choice so the landlords got away with extortionate prices. Most of the adult lodgers would turn to drink to make their lives more bearable in these places, and males would usually find solace in female company, giving the landlords more profit by setting up some of their lodging houses as brothels.

Charities and reformers would try and push parliament to change the conditions and sometimes there would be a slight improvements, however more often than not it actually made conditions worse for London’s third class inhabitants. With the passing of the Common Lodging House Act of 1851[1] and then the Artisans and Labourers Dwelling Act of 1875[2]. The lower class living conditions were meant to be improved by clear rules being enforced in the houses and those that were unfit to be rebuilt were to provide better living conditions, but in actual fact these acts led to more people being on the street and the lodging houses being more crowded, the only benefits going to the owners of these houses.

In his study of the area Jack London (1903) stayed in a room in Whitechapel’s worst area, known as the Quarter Mile. He stated that ‘Six of the Rooms…measured no more than 8ft by 8. In these were housed 20 people who cooked, ate, slept and worked in the same space.’(Werner. 2008. P.76-7). The quarter mile was known to be crammed with London’s worst slums, comprising of at least 20 people in one house. It consisted of Thrawl Street, Flower and Dean Street and Wentworth Street. Along with Dorset Street,  these streets had a reputation so bad that it was named in an article published in the daily Mail on 16th July 1901 titled the Worst Street in London[3].The reputation of Dorset street meant that many people left it alone and steered clear, including the police, who only entered in pairs when absolutely necessary. As a result ‘the residents could carry out their business relatively undisturbed, and that made the depilated properties that lined the streets ideal venues for illegal gambling dens, brothels and the storage of stolen property.’ (Rule. 2008. P.158). It was full of lodging and doss houses with only two legitimate businesses listed in 1888, a grocery store at no. 7 and the Blue Coat Boy public house at no. 32[4]. Most of the people in this area were classed as either below or on the poverty line, the lowest class of people in England’s four class systems.

There were four class systems in Victorian London; these were the Nobility/Gentry, the Middle Class, Upper working and Lower working class (sometimes referred to as Third Class). The upper class consisted of England’s nobility and peerage. Most had no real professions of jobs but tended to be ‘captains’ of industries. The middle was rich respectable families who lacked the titles which the upper classes had. They were skilled professionals, and in Victorian London were beginning to grow as a class. The lower two working classes usually worked in low skilled or even unskilled jobs, most lacking decent education and tended to be very hostile to the other classes. Each class system knew where they all stood and all had clear and defined roles within their societies which had to be abided by. If not one was a t risk from being shunned from their class. What class you fitted in was not solely dependent on the amount of money one brought in but also the source of where their money came from, their birth and who their family was Most classes were in their positions a result of circumstances, and for most of the Working class were stuck there and unable to climb society.

Women and daughters in all classes were expected to know their place in Victorian England. They were to be obedient to their husbands and fathers in any class. Emotion was frowned upon and women were to be covered up in shapeless dresses, sex was not a thing to be enjoyed but to be for reproduction of the family only. If a woman was to enjoy it, she was seen to be immoral. The ideal of a Victorian woman is depicted in The Angel in the House, a popular poem by Coventry Patmore in 1854. It depicts the Victorian wife as being a patient and sacrificing woman to her husband.

However for men the rules were slightly different and so mistresses and prostitutes were to a degree tolerated to allow the men to indulge in their passions, a necessary evil. It was the husbands and fathers who had the control in any household, with any property or money automatically being under their possession, even if it originally belonged to the female. In marriage it would by law belong to the husband; he had legal control over the income of his wife. It was this reason which made it difficult for a woman to leave her husband if she wanted to, she would still have to rely on his generosity for any money towards her keep, the husband had the right to dictate when the wife could see her children, if she had any, and if a woman was seen to have left her husband and divorced him then usually she would be rejected by society in the upper classes. A wife and daughter were expected to live and follow the social ideals of her class, if she did not she would allow herself to be open to criticism from her peers.

Women of the lower classes had an even more difficult life. For some they had to work to either top up their husband’s wage, or in some cases if the husband is unable to work through injury or has died then they would have to make a living. Women were paid a lower wage then men which made it all the more harder for them to get by, most turning to drink. Some of the work open to women of the lower classes was domestic work in a house or even some factory work. However for others they would have to find work as a washerwomen, street venders/ ‘hawkers’. Some would turn to breeding animals in their slums where they lived and slept, or spinning wool these jobs would involve them working from their homes, thus keeping up the ideal of the woman staying at home and running the domestic chores as well as making a meagre wage. All these jobs would involve long hours and leave the workers tired. Another job these women could get was match box making or sorting rags in rag factories, usually flea ridden rags at that. These would be the lowest paying jobs for a woman.

Domestic abuse was very common in Victorian London and more so in the lower classes. In 1853 a law was passed which did not make abuse illegal but set out some limits to the abuse. This law, the Act for better protection of aggravated assault upon women and children[5], however did not help much. Most women would not take legal action against their husbands, as previously mentioned they were reliant upon these men to get by financially, otherwise it was the workhouse or the streets for them.

For those who could not find any work, or for those women who wanted to make more money there was the street and prostitution, and open themselves to be regarded and the ‘fallen’ and the ‘unfortunates’. For most of them prostitution was not a career choice it was a necessity to get by in their daily life![6]By the 1880s there was an estimated 80,000 plus women selling their bodies on the streets of London. Most of these women being penniless and homeless, some victims of domestic abuse. These women lived their lives selling themselves on the streets were not entirely alone. A lot of them looked out for each other and would help out in times of need and took in a fellow street walker into her room for a few nights. There was also competition and some women were territorial. Whatever their individual circumstances, life was hard for these women.

Malnutrition, Alcoholism and physical abuse reduced a woman to a shambles quickly and The Unfortunate slid lower in the pecking order…alcohol was the easiest way not to be present…they were diseased and old beyond their years, cast out by husbands and children… [The] unfortunates haunted the night like nocturnal animals, in wait for any man, no matter how rough or disgusting, who might be enticed into parting with pennies for, pleasure. Preferable sex was performed standing up, with the prostitutes gathering her many layers of clothing and lifting them out of the way, her back to the client. If she was lucky he was too drunk to know that his penis was being inserted between her thighs and not into any orifice. (Cornwell. 2003. P.25)

The Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, 66 and 69 made it compulsory for police to be able to stop prostitutes in the street and make them be checked for venereal disease. If they were found to have the disease then it was legal to keep them in a hospital to they were cured. This was done whether the woman was willing or not. It was brought in due to the government being concerned about the amount of prostitutes passing the diseases onto men. It was to protect men and not women, and many women who were stopped were not even prostitutes but were still forced to undergo the humiliating exam, and be degraded in their local area. There was a lot of uproar by women regarding this act and it was finally repealed in 1886. However this is just an example of the divide between men and women, and prostitutes.

Not only living a harsh life on the streets and in the Slums, being victims of abuse and of the law, prostitutes also were attacked by some of London’s reformers who has a mission to rid London of them, believing that these women were wrong, not that they were in the most part victims of society and Victorian life. One of these reformers was Frederick Charrington. In the winter of 1887 through to 1888 Frederick went on a one man crusade to rid the East End of its prostitutes. He went about doing this by using English law system, more precisely the Criminal law Amendment Act of 1885[7]. This act allowed the police to close down suspected brothels. It left many prostitutes to living and working out in the streets and the elements it brought.

Immigrants from all over Europe, over centuries had been moving into London and setting up home there, and this continued into the 1880s, it caused Xenophobia amongst the English men and women living in Whitechapel and across London. The immigrants and more specifically the Jewish community were blamed for the lack of work in and around Whitechapel and that they were stealing jobs. However ‘in spite of the hardship of Immigrant life and the fact that, for the most part, rather than ‘taking the jobs of Englishmen’ as the myth would have it, the incomers developed their own particular branches of industry in responses to contemporary economic and social trends…’ (Werner.2008.p.91.) They were feared due to their Alien religion and Culture. Even thought it was extremely rare for a member of the Jewish community to commit a crime, especially a violent one[8] they were still blamed for certain crimes, as they had been blamed for centuries. They were made to be a scapegoat.

To watch over these inhabitants of Whitechapel was the Metropolitan Police force. It was their job to monitor situations and crime that was going on, as hard and as difficult as it was. Unlike today the police at the time were not trusted. They were still new, and these horrid crimes only brought more attention to the force and its issues with keeping on top of Whitechapel’s crime and criminals. Formed in 1829 the Metropolitan Police were never really trusted by London’s inhabitants and were never really liked. The CID (Criminal Investigation Department) was established many years later in 1878. The Police force was headed by a Commissioner who was then answerable to the Home Secretary. They covered over a radius of 15 miles from Charring Cross extending to the City of London, and had an estimate of 12,025 constables, 1130 sergeants, 837 inspectors and 30 senior Inspectors. These were all broken down into divisions and the ‘Divisions were broken down into smaller and smaller units: Stations, Sections (a sergeant and 8 PC), and beats (patrol routes of no more than 1 ½ miles) to be covered day and night by a solitary police man.’(Werner. 2008. P.102) The H Division of Whitechapel encompassed an area of just 2 square miles; the Station was located in Leman Street. For any young policeman the H division was an ideal proving ground if he had ambition, but it also came with risk, for Policemen chasing villains who were foolish to enter certain areas alone were at risk of beatings and in some cases death, Dorset Street was one of the worse in their area.

However, with as much risk as the police had in Whitechapel from its criminal inhabitants some of ‘…the success of the Victorian detective largely rested upon a thorough knowledge of the local villains, upon the evidence of informers, and upon much legwork tracing and interviewing witnesses.’(Sugden. 1995. P.69). It was a tough job. However some Police constables managed to survive Whitechapel and even rise in the ranks, one of these were a Detective Frederick George Abberline. By 1888 he had been in the Metropolitan Police for 25 years, he was a man of around 5 foot nine in height with a fresh complexion, bushy side whiskers and thick moustache. Fourteen of his years in the police were spent in the slums of Whitechapel which have just been discussed above. Through this he was able to find his way round Whitechapel and its alleys, gain a fair knowledge of its activities and how its criminals operated.

It was in Whitechapel and in these horrid conditions that the murders of at least five women were committed. It was in Whitechapel that the Police force already struggling to police the area had to try and find the person/people responsible for these murders with much difficulty. Inspector Abberline and his colleagues were about to be drawn into what was eventually known as the Autumn of Terror, and the phantom who became known as Jack the Ripper.


[1]Common lodging House Act 1851 –a result of the overcrowding and poor conditions of the Common lodging house. Government believed the houses caused problems due to the lack of supervision and clear rules. The act stated that every common lodging house was to have clear signing outside stating what it was. All rooms were to be measured to see how many beds were to be placed in the rooms and a placard was then to be put outside each room stating the fact. Fresh linen was to be produced once a week. All widows open at ten every morning and all tenets were to be sent from the property at ten am and not allowed back into the properties until late afternoon. (footnote for page 66 rule)

[2]Artisans and labourers’ Dwelling Act (Cross Act) 1875) –Allowed the government run metropolitan borough works to purchase and demolish unfit property to be replaced with more habitual dwellings. However the land were too expensive for charities to buy up to produce these and commercial developers did not want the land either so it resulted in being desolate empty land with more homeless people and the remaining Lodging houses becoming more overcrowded.

[3] See Appendix 1 for article.

[4] Daniel, P ‘The streets of whitechapel’.  Casebook: Jack the Ripper. Accessed 22/01/2012, http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/rip-streetsof.html

[5] See appendix 2 for full Act.

[6]Clack and Hutchinson. 2007. P.11.

[7] See Appendix 4 for full Act.

[8]Werner. 2008. P. 93

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