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 a whole tourist industry has grown up around him. Shows such as Whitechapel and Ripper Street have become huge successes. Based as they are around the area of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It is here where the infamous Whitechapel murders of between 1888 and 1891 took place.
The Canonical Five
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. However up to six more women seen as possible victims. As he was never caught there is much debate about just what number is correct. The truth is that nobody knows. The main judgement as to whether a victim was ‘official’ or not being the horrendous way the Ripper would dissect the bodies and slit the throat.
It is certainly not the sort of thing we normally write about. Yet 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. It was a time when the East End was riddled with crime and horrendously poor.
Lower Class, Vicious, Semi-Criminal
On Charles Booths poverty map completed in 1903, a number of the streets were coded black. The key meant that the people had been classed as ‘lower class, vicious, semi-criminal’. People lived in slums. Often living hand to mouth and doing what they could just to get a bed for the night. When they could get a roof over their head it was often in filthy and overcrowded accommodation. It is such a fair cry from the much more gentrified area we see today. Although some places still retain the aura of times past. Much of Whitechapel and Spitalfields has changed beyond all recognition.
Life in the East End of London
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 had, at the time been struggling in a society with little care for them. Many could also well be described today as alcoholics. 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. Yet had told a friend earlier in the day that she had already made three times the money needed that day but had drank it away. The price for services rendered was a couple of pence. It was 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 it was being consumed by a population who were becoming ever more literate. The distribution of the papers too was becoming ever more sophisticated. It was one of the first sensationalist events to garner the public imagination, a gruesomely freakish story which was devoured far and wide. It served to give the East End of London a much darker reputation than it already had.
The Murder Sites of Jack the Ripper
With this post I have visited many of the key sites which are at the heart of Jack the Rippers London. There were 11 murders committed between the years 1888 and 1891. 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. 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. This because there are similarities which, although they can not be confirmed, nor 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. Try to visualise what it would have been like to live in this area. A place where for many, hope had long been lost. Where just getting through the night was an achievement in itself.
Gunthorpe Street/Georges Yard Buildings – Whitechapel
The Murder of Martha Tabram
If ever there was an alleyway which evoked memories of the dark old days of London’s East End, it’s Gunthorpe Street’. Then it was known as Georges Yard. Accessed via an atmospheric archway and complete with cobbled street. It can still be found next to the White Hart pub on Whitechapel High Street. The pub and the alley would have been very well known. At the heart of darkest Whitechapel, it would have been a well known haunt. The alley itself was a favoured location for a quick ‘knee trembler’. Alongside George’s Yard was another alley, Angel Alley, another dingy place. It was also 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. This was on the morning of the 7th August 1888. The murder however isn’t officially attributed to Jack the Ripper. Martha was stabbed as opposed to having her throat cut. Many think that the modus operandi was too dis-similar to that of other victims. This despite the fact that that she was stabbed 39 times. Her killing occured just over three weeks before the Ripper’s first ‘official’ victim. In my mind it makes Martha the first. The timing and the viciousness of the attack is enough to firmly link it to the Ripper. On the day in question, Martha and her friend May Ann ‘Pearly Poll’ Connelly had picked up a couple of men 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 Murder of Mary ‘Polly’ Nicholls
The first ‘official’ victim according to many was Mary ‘Polly’ Nicholls. She was killed in the early hours of 31st August 1888 and found on Bucks Row. She was drunk and wandering the streets trying to find ‘doss money’ for the night. Now known as Durward Street, Bucks Row was in fact a variation of it’s former name ‘Ducks Row’. This in turn was a mere shortening of it’s more, rather interesting 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. However the pond was surely there and is represented on many old maps of the area. Mary was found by the school in a gateway in front of one of the houses that formerly lined the street.
Today’s Durward Street has changed hugely. The only landmark remaining from 1888 is the old school block. Now converted into flats, it is dominant. It would have been more so back then. The rest of the area has now been extensively redeveloped with no real evidence of the street that it was. The only evidence are some large pot holes in the road through some of the old cobbled stones can be seen. There is now little to link the the area to what it must have been like back in 1888. The building of the underground from Whitechapel effectively destroyed a lot of the buildings and roads in the area.
Hanbury Street – Spitalfields
The Murder of Annie Chapman
Hanbury Street now sits at the heart of the trendy east end. It was also 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 may met a man at the pub when she was there.
The Ten Bells was a notorious boozer. Next door to Itchy Park it would have been a well known haunt. It was at the heart of darkest Spitalfields where many of the slums were at their worst. Today it sits on the corner of Fournier Street and Commercial Street. Now well renovated and home to some of the finest houses in London. It would be been well known 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 around the corner from the Ten Bells and a just a few minutes away. Hanbury Street has of course now substantially changed. The entire side of the street on which number 29 would have stood is now no longer there. Knocked down it was replace with brewery buildings.
Berners Street/Henrique Street – Whitechapel
The Murder of Elizabeth Stride
The first of two murders committed on the night of 30th September 1888. Often referred to as the ‘double event’, it occured in a place called Dutfield’s Yard just off from Berners Street. The victim was Elizabeth Stride and it is thought that the killer had been disturbed. Her 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 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. This was after a local benefactor. The housing on both sides has also 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 Murder of Catherine Eddowes
The second murder on the evening of the 30th September 1888 occured 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. She 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. This was 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. Secondly it was the only murder committed outside the area of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, although admittedly not far away. The third reason is that a piece a blood stained and torn apron was found a couple of streets away in a doorway on Goulston Street. It was accompanied with the words “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing” written on the wall above. The writing was washed off soon after being discovered by a policemen. He thought at the time it would inflame anti-Jewish feeling. This 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. The letter contained half a human kidney. It stated that the author had eaten the other half. It was postmarked 15th October 1888 and where the address should have been it simply read ‘From Hell’. Needless to say that this letter has gone down in Ripper folklore. There is even a movie starring Johnny Depp which has taken it’s inspiration from it. One of Catherine Eddowes kidney’s had indeed been removed by the killer.
Dorset Street/Millers Court – Spitalfields
The Murder of Mary Jane Kelly
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.
The are now has been completely re-developed and Millers Court no longer exists. First replaced by a car park flanked by Whites Row and then by London Fruit and Wool Exchange development. That latter project obliterated any hints too of Dorset Street through which Millers Court was accessed. It had led from Commercial Street to Crispin Street with the park at one end and the Providence Row Night Refuge at the other. The street had such a bad reputation that it was known as ‘The Worst Street in London‘.
Castle Alley/Old Castle Street – Aldgate
The Murder of Alice McKenzie
Alice McKenzie was murdered on the 17th July 1889 long after the last of Jack the Ripper’s ‘official’ victims. There is however some 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. 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.