There’s one thing about living in the East End of London that you can’t really fail to hear about and that’s Jack the Ripper.
The evil mass murderer of women has somehow turned into a sort of pantomime villain over the years since his murderous rampage in the late 1800’s and a whole tourist industry has grown up around him. Only recently on the TV, shows such as Whitechapel and (more obviously) Ripper Street have become huge successes and are based around the area of Whitechapel and Spitalfields where the infamous Whitechapel murders of between 1888 and 1891 took place.
It’s easy to forget just how awful his crimes were. Five women, known as the canonical five, are widely accepted to have died at the hands of Jack the Ripper with up to six more women seen as possible victims. As he was never caught there is much debate about just what number is correct and the truth is that nobody knows. The main judgement to whether a victim was ‘official’ or not being the horrendous way the Ripper would dissect the bodies and slit the throat.
It’s certinaly not the sort of thing I normally write about but one thing is for sure, the interest in Jack the Ripper does give us a wider appreciation for what this area of East London was like back in the days when these killings were happening. This was a time when the East End was riddled with crime and horrendously poor. On Charles Booths poverty map completed in 1903, a number of the streets were coded black meaning that the people there were classed as ‘lower class, vicious, semi-criminal’. People lived in slums and did what they could just to get a bed for the night, even when they could get a roof over their head it was often in filthy and overcrowded accomodation. It is such a fair cry from the much more gentrified area we see today and although some places still retain the aura of times past, much of Whitechapel and Spitalfields has changed beyond all recognition.
For the poor women whose names themselves have gone down in folklore as Ripper victims, this was a tough time to live. All the victims were prostitutes and many could well be described as alcoholics desperate to do what it took to get a bed for the night. One of the victims, Mary ‘Polly’ Nichols had been thrown out of her ‘doss’ house on the night she was murdered because she had no money. In order to get it, she walked the streets yet had bragged to a friend earlier in the day that she had already made three times the money needed that day but drank it away. The price for services rendered was a couple of pence, pretty much the same as a loaf of mouldy bread.
And this is why I think the story of Jack the Ripper is interesting. Because it takes us back to a time which is almost impossible to imagine. The Whitechapel Murders which took place during those years must have terrified people, they were played out in the full glare of publicity at the time, all over the newspapers and read by a population who were becoming ever more literate and the distribution of the papers was becoming ever more sophisticated. It was one of the first sensationalist events to garner the public imagination, a gruesomely freakish story which was consumed far and wide and which gave the East End a much darker reputation than it had already.
It is perhaps because of the publicity both nationally and internationally that the Whitechapel Murders gave, that the powers that be really started to take a bit more interest in the East End. The wider public had become aware of the awful slums of the area and pressure grew on the politicians of the time to do something about it. It really started the process which would lead to the transformation of the area. The first step being the clearing away of much of the slum housing.
With this post I have visited many the key sites which are at the heart of Jack the Rippers London. There were 11 murders committed between the years 1888 and 1891 and I have chosen to focus on 7 although the widely accepted attribution of killings to Jack the Ripper himself is only 5. This is because there is much uncertainty and having looked at the rest of the killings which took place in the area around this time I’ve chosen to include a further two because there are similarities which, although they can not be confirmed, neither can they be fully denied.
Walking the streets in between the various murder sites makes you realise just how close these areas were to one another. These streets despite there gloominess must have been familiar to all who lived there, to the women who walked the streets and to the man who stalked them. Now it’s changed but the areas are the same you’ve just got to be able to stand back a little and picture what it would have been like to live in this area where for many, hope had long been lost and just getting through the night was an achievement in itself.
Gunthorpe Street/Georges Yard Buildings – Whitechapel
If ever there was an alleyway which evoked memories of the dark old days of London’s East End, it’s Gunthorpe Street with an atmospheric archway and cobbled street it is next to the White Hart pub on Whitechapel High Street. The pub and the alley would have been very well known being, as it was, at the heart of darkest Whitechapel although back in the day it was called George’s Yard Buildings. Prostitutes would have drunk there and the alley would have been a favoured location for a quick ‘knee trembler’. Alongside George’s Yard was another alley, Angel Alley, another dingy place and another favoured haunt when there wasn’t a place with a roof to go back to.
A corridor inside George’s Yard Buildings was where the body of Martha Tabram was found on the morning of the 7th August 1888, the murder often isn’t officially attributed to Jack the Ripper as Martha was stabbed as opposed to having her throat cut and so many think that the modus operandi was too dis-similar to that of other victims despite the fact that that she was stabbed 39 times. Her killing was just over three weeks before the first ‘official’ victim recognised as the first of the ‘canonical five’ victims although of course there is every chance that Martha was in fact the first. In my mind, the viciousness of the attack is enough to firmly link it to the Ripper. On the day in question, she and her friend May Ann ‘Pearly Poll’ Connelly had picked up a couple of guys in a nearby pub, Martha went into one alley and Pearly went into the other, Martha never came out.
Durward Street/Bucks Row – Whitechapel
The first ‘official’ victim according to many was Mary ‘Polly’ Nicholls who was killed in the early hours of 31st August 1888. She was drunk and wandering the streets trying to find ‘doss money’ for the night. Durward Street wasn’t always called this, at the time of the murder it was called Bucks Row, itself a variation of it’s former name ‘Ducks Row’ which in turn was a mere shortening of it’s more, rather exotic name ‘Ducking Pond Row’. Yes, back in the day this was the location of a real honest to goodness ducking pond. I can’t find much evidence of those poor unfortunates who were actually ducked but the pond was surely there and is represented on many old maps of the area. Martha was found by the school in a gateway in front of one of the houses that formerly lined the street.
Now Durward Street has changed hugely, the only landmark remaining from 1888 is the old school block, now converted into flats, which is dominant and would have been more so back then. The rest of the area though has been extensively redeveloped with no real evidence of the street that it was other than a large pot hole in the road which has revealed some of the old cobbled stones. Further activity taking place here is the building of the Whitechapel Crossrail station, a huge construction undertaking and sure to change this area even more. Quite simply, there is very little here to link the the area to what it must have been like back in 1888. Another massive railway project, the building of the underground from Whitechapel had already destroyed a lot of the buildings and roads around.
Hanbury Street – Spitalfields
Hanbury Street now sits at the heart of the trendy east end and not far from the Ten Bells pub where Annie Chapman was drinking on 8th September 1888. Annie had lodgings in Dorset Street just over the road from the pub but didn’t have any doss money. It is thought that she went out to earn some and met a man at the pub.
The Ten Bells was a notorious pub, next door to Itchy Park it would have been a well known haunt and at the heart of darkest Spitalfields where many of the slums were at there worst. It sits on the corner of Fournier Street, now well renovated and home to some of the finest houses in London, it would be been well patrolled by the likes of Annie Chapman back in the day. Her body was discovered on the morning of 8th September 1888 at the back of 29 Hanbury Street, a house just round the corner from the Ten Bells a mere few minutes away. Hanbury Street itself has of course been substantially changed and the entire side of the street on which number 29 would have stood is now no longer there, replaced with a courtyard for the brewery.
Berners Street/Henrique Street – Whitechapel
The first of two murders committed on the night of 30th September 1888 and often referred to as the ‘double event’ occured in a place called Dutfield’s Yard just off from Berner Street. The victim was Elizabeth Stride and it is thought that the killer had been disturbed as the throat had been cut but the body had not been mutilated. Although classed as one of the canonical five, there is some doubt as to whether Elizabeth was a Ripper victim because of this lack of mutilation. However many others think that because another killing was committed later the same evening in another part of town, the killer must have been disturbed and needed to finish what he had started.
Nowadays Berners Street has been renamed to Henriques Street after a local benefactor and the housing on both sides has been cleared to make way for a school and Bernhard Baron House. Dutfield’s Yard would have stood somewhere in the playground of the school.
Mitre Square – Aldgate
The second murder on the evening of the 30th September 1888 happened in Mitre Square, just inside the jurisdiction of the City of London. The victim, Catherine Eddowes had already been arrested that evening for being drunk and was only released from custody at 1am. Instead of going back home to her lodging in Flower and Dean Street she instead headed towards Aldgate and to the area in which she would be killed.
Catherine’s murder is one of the more interesting in the Ripper murders because of several unique identifiers. First, it is part of the ‘double event’ murders and secondly it was the only murder committed outside the area of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, although admittedly not far away. The third reason why this murder was different to the others is that a piece of her blood stained and torn apron was found a couple of streets away in a doorway on Goulston Street with the words “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing”. The writing was washed off soon having been discovered by a policemen who thought it would inflame anti-Jewish feeling in an area where tensions were already running high.
The fourth reason why this murder was significant is that afterwards the police received a letter from a man purporting to be the killer which contained half a human kidney. The letter stated that the author had eaten the other half, it was postmarked 15th October 1888 and where the address should have been, simply read ‘From Hell’. Needless to say that this letter has gone down in Ripper folklore and even a movie starring Johnny Depp has taken it’s inspiration from it. One of Catherine Eddowes kidney’s had been removed by the killer.
Dorset Street/Millers Court – Spitalfields
Possibly the most gruesome murder was that of Mary Jane Kelly on 9th November 1888 in what is now the heart of affluent Spitalfields. It wasn’t the case back then though, Millers Court was a grotty place almost opposite the infamous Itchy Park where vagabonds slept and prostitutes wandered. This was a hard place and Mary Kelly had a room here. She was found on the 9th November 1888 in her room and horribly mutilated. Where the ripper had in the past worked quickly, it would seem that the safety of the enclosed space had given him more time to work.
The area has of course now been redeveloped and Millers Court no longer exists, replaced by a car park flanked by Whites Row which has some contemporary warehouse buildings looming over. Millers Court was accessed via an alley on Dorset Street to the other side, all semblance of which has gone other than the thoroughfare itself, access for which is blocked off. It ran from Commercial Street to Crispin Street with the park at one end and the Providence Row Night Refuge at the other. When Charles Booth produced his poverty map of London in 1889, Millers Court and Dorset Street received the lowest rating, black for ‘lowest class, vicious and semi-criminal’.
Castle Alley/Old Castle Street – Aldgate
Alice McKenzie was murdered on the 17th July 1889 which is long after the last of Jack the Ripper’s ‘official’ victims but there is much speculation that because of the similarity of the crimes it was actually she who was the last victim. After going out looking for business with her friend ‘Mog Cheeks’ her body was found by a barrow at the entrance to Old Castle Street formerly known as Castle Alley. Of all the streets associated with Jack the Ripper this has surely got to be the most unrecognisable. At the end is now the London Metropolitan University and the entrance, near the Aldgate tube station doesn’t give much hint of the place it once was.
Alice’s murder is disupted as being the work of the Ripper as although the throat was cut it wasn’t as deep and clean as many others. Also there were mutilations on the body but again there were inconsistencies and the manner of the mutilations caused many to doubt that it was the work of the same man. Still though, if not the Ripper then it could have been the work of a copycat, which no doubt, also must have crossed peoples minds at the time.
In researching this article I’ve sought inspiration from a number of sources and these are:
Casebook: Jack the Ripper – A superb site with an absolute treasure trove of information about the case.
Wikipedia – Whitechapel Murders – As a featured article on the site, this article has had to undergo a significant amount of peer review and the research is evident
Whitechapel Jack – The Legend of Jack the Ripper
And if your interested in more about the history of the area then try this free walking tour of the East End of London.