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An Autumn Evening in Whitechapel
(Source: 3 November 1888, Littell's Living Age)

From the Daily News

Whitechapel and Spitalfields are always interesting neighborhoods, and recent events have made them decidedly more interesting. They have afforded startling illustrations of the dreadful possibilities of life down in the unfathomable depths of these vast human warrens. At all times one who strolls through this quarter of town, especially by night, must feel that below his ken are the awful deeps of an ocean teeming with life, but enshrouded in impenetrable mystery. As he catches here and thre a glimpse of a face under the flickering, uncertain light of a lamp - the face perhaps of some woman, bloated by drink and distorted by passion - he may get a momentary shuddering sense of what humanity may sink to when life is lived apart from the sweet, health-giving influences of fields and flowers, of art and music and books and travel, of the stimulus of interesting enterprise, the gentle amenities of happy hours and intercourse with the educated and the cultured. A momentary sense of what human nature may become may here and there flash in upon one as he gazes out upon the dark waters, but it is only when the human monster actually rises for a moment to the surface and disappears again, leaving a victim dead and disembowelled, that one quite realizes that that momentary scene is a dread reality. Just for a few days the mass of the people of Spitalfields and Whitechapel themselves seemed to be realizing the awful possibilities of the nature that belonged to them. Thousands of them were really shocked and sobered, by the last tragedy especially. One could see in the people's faces, and could detect in their tones and answers, an indefinable something which told plainly that they had been horrified by a revelation. Mr. George Holland, whose remarkable work has been going on for so very many years in premises occupying an obscure position in George Yard, Whitechapel - where it will be remembered one of these unfortunate women was found with thirty or forty stabs - says that the sensation has affected his institution very greatly. He has some hundreds of young women connected with his place, and many of them have been afraid to stir out after dark. He is under some anxiety, too, lest ladies who have been wont to come down there on winter evenings to teach and entertain his young people, should be deterred by this latest addition to the evil reputation of Whitechapel, and he is earnestly pushing on alterations in his premises which will give him a frontage out in the main road. On the other hand, Mr. Charrington, whose great place stands out boldly on the Mile End highway a blaze of light and cheerfulness, thinks that people have more than ever thronged out of the dark and silent byways and back lanes into the broad pavement and into the glare of light thrown upon it by shops and public-houses and entertainments, and the innumerable hawkers and salesmen of one sort and another who line the “waste” along the Mile End Road. since these outrages the dark places of Whitechapel and Spitalfields have undoubtedly been a little darker and stiller, and more depressing. Some streets have presented, even to those familiar with them, quite a desolate and deserted appearance after nightfall. But the nine-days’ wonder has passed, the effect of the shock has visibly subsided, and people are beginning to move freely again. Turn down this side street out of the main Whitechapel Road. It may be well to tuck out of view any bit of jewellery that may be glittering about; the sight of means to do ill-deeds makes ill-deeds done. The street is oppressively dark, though at present the gloom is relieved somewhat by feebly lighted shopfronts. Men are lounging at the doors of the shops, smoking evil-smelling pipes. Women with bare heads and with arms under their aprons are sauntering about in twos and threes, or are seated gossiping on steps leading into passages dark as Erebus. Now round the corner into another still gloomier passage, for there are no shops here to speak of. This is the notorious Wentworth Street. The police used to make a point of going through this only in couples, and possibly may do so still when they go there at all. Just now there are none met with. It is getting on into the night, but gutters, and doorways, and passages, and staircases appear to be teeming with children. See there in that doorway of a house without a glimmer of light about it. It looks to be a baby in long clothes laid on the floor of the passage, and seemingly exhausted with crying. Listen for a moment at this next house. There is a scuffle going on upon the staircase - all in the densest darkness - and before you have passed a dozen yards there is a rush down-stairs and an outsurging into the street with fighting and screaming, and an outpouring of such horrible blackguardism that it makes you shudder as you look at those curly-headed preternaturally sharp-witted children who leave their play to gather around the mêlée. God help the little mortals! How can they become anything but savages, “pests of society,” the “dangerous classes,” and so on? How black and unutterably gloomy all the houses look! How infinitely all the moral and physical wretchedness of such localities as these is intensified by the darkness of the streets and the houses. It is wise and astute of Mr. Barnett to give emphatic expression to the cry that has so often been raised for “more light” for lower London. If in this one matter of light alone, the streets and houses of the West End were reduced to the condition of the East, what would life become there? Oh, for a great installation of the electric light, with which, as the sun goes down, to deluge the streets and lanes, the dark alleys and passages, the staircases and rooms of this nether world. Homes would become cleaner, and more cheerful and attractive; life would become healthier, whole masses of crime would die out like toadstools under sunlight, and what remained would be more easily dealt with. The Cimmerian darkness of lower London indoors and out constitutes no small part of its wretchedness, and the brilliant lighting of the public-house gives it much of its attraction. Even the repute of many of these shady localities is due in great measure to their impenetrable gloom after nightfall. There are many of these doorways and staircases into which a stranger might venture with perfect impunity, and many of the people are harmless, well-meaning sort of folk, but they are all enshrouded in that murky obscurity which in the apprehension of adventurers from more favored regions converts them all into possible assassins and thieves. It is a relief to get out of this vile little slum and to work one’s way back into the life and light of the great highway, with its flaunting shops, its piles of glowing fruit, its glittering jewellery, its steaming cook-shops, its flaring gin-palaces and noisy shows, and clubs and assembly rooms, and churches and mission halls, its cheap jacks and shooting galleries, its streaming naphtha lights and roar and rattle, and hurrying throngs and noisy groups, and little assemblies gathered together under the stars and the street-lamps to listen to some expounder of the mysteries of the universe or of the peculiar merits of a new patent pill. Here are the newspaper contents-bill spread out at large with some of the newsvendor’s own additions and amplifications, telling of new murders or further details of the old ones. The young man with a bundle of papers under his arm is evidently on the friendliest of terms with the neighboring shoeblack. One or the other of them has picked up half a cigar, and the two are getting alternate pulls at it with evident enjoyment. Up in a retired corner there is a little mob gathered round an almost inanimate-looking figure beating out with a couple of quills what he takes apparently to be music from a sort of home-made dulcimer. A few yards farther on, a boy without any legs is the object of attention; and next comes a group thronging curiously round a four-wheel cab. Nothing can be seen, but as the vehicle drives off towards the hospital and the mob disperses it is generally understood that “she has been knocked about.” The only question about which there seems to be any uncertainty is as to whether she is nearly dead or only very drunk. Nobody appears to be greatly concerned, and the people turn from this mild sensation to listen for a moment to a eulogy on the everlasting qualities of new trousers at nine and sixpence a pair. A hundred people at least are clustered round the salesman, who descants hoarsely on the unrivalled qualities of his goods, and winds up by flinging a pair out into the crowd for closer inspection. A few yards further on there is a waxwork show with some horrible pictorial representations of the recent murders, and all the dreadful details are being blated out into the night, and women with children in their arms are pushing their way to the front with their pennies to see the ghastly objects within. Next door is a show, in which ghosts and devils and skeletons appear to be the chief attractions; and near at hand is a flaring picture of a modern Hercules performing within. Then comes a gathering of some fifty or sixty people around a preacher, who is evidently desperately in earnest, but who somehow manages at every step to ruffle up the feelings of his congregation. He is what cabby would call a harbitrary gent, and he comes it over his listeners just a little too strongly. “Never heard nobody go on like ‘im in all my days,” said a little dame on the fringe of the crowd. “There ain’t nobody right but ‘im and he’s al’ays the same, a-pitchin’ into everbody. I declare their ain’t no chance for none of us.” Certainly the people round were sparring and fencing with him on all hands, and the controversy at one point ran so high that it looked as though the preacher would have to take off his coat and turn up his sleeves. Not fifty yards off was Mr. Charrington’s great assemblyroom, where Mr. Henry Varley, who looked to be mounted on a bank of flowers reaching half-way up the fine organ, was quietly haranguing some hundreds of people, the whole place looking bright and attractive, and the audience very attentive. Out again into the great thoroughfare, back a little way past the roaring salesman and the hideous waxwork, and round the corner. This opening here, where the public-house, the bar of which looks to be full of mothers with children in their arms, blazes at the corner, leads down to Buck’s Row. Nobody about here seems at all conscious of the recent tragedy, the only suggestion of which is a bill in the public-house window, offering, on behalf of an enterprising newspaper, a reward of a hundred pounds for the conviction of the criminal. A little way down out of the public-house glare, and Buck’s Row looks to be a singularly desolate, out-of-the-way region. But there is a piano-organ grinding out the “Men of Harlech” over the spot where the murdered woman was found; women and girls are freely coming and going through the darkness, and the rattle of sewing-machines, and the rushing of railway trains, and the noisy horseplay of a gang of boys, all seem to be combining with the organ-grinder to drown recollection and to banish all unpleasant reflection. “There seems to be little apprehension of further mischief by this assassin at large,” was an observation addressed to a respectable-looking elderly man within a few yards of the house in Hanbury Street, where the latest victim was found. “No; very little. People, most of ‘em, think he’s gone to Gateshead,” was the reply.


Related pages:
  Whitechapel
       Dissertations: Statistical Shortfalls: Loanes 1887 Report in Review 
       Dissertations: The Streets of Whitechapel 
       Press Reports: Daily Telegraph - 29 November 1888 
       Press Reports: Iowa City Press Citizen - 2 September 1922 
       Press Reports: Syracuse Standard - 2 October 1888 
       Press Reports: Syracuse Standard - 4 August 1889 
       Press Reports: Weekly Herald - 21 September 1888 
       Press Reports: Williamsport Sunday Grit - 4 August 1889 
       Ripper Media: The Highways and Byways of Jack the Ripper 
       Victorian London: A Night in Whitechapel 
       Victorian London: A Visit to Whitechapel 
       Victorian London: The Modern East End 
       Victorian London: Through Whitechapel With Dickens 
       Victorian London: Whitechapel 
       Victorian London: Whitechapel 
       Victorian London: Whitechapel 
       Victorian London: Whitechapel Road on a Saturday Night 
       Victorian London: Whitechapel: Then and Now