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 A Ripperologist Article 
This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 56, November 2004. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.
Jack the Redeemer
Robin Odell

During the ten years of its existence, Ripperologist has evolved from a modest magazine dealing with the Jack the Ripper murders into a respected journal embracing East End and Victorian studies. For a decade, its contributors have illumined many dark corners of the East End, lifted the veil from many shadowy figures and added to the knowledge of events occurring over more than a century of social turmoil and change.

Consequently, we have come to know a great deal about a great many people, some involved pivotally, others, peripherally, with the Whitechapel murders. Research over the last thirty years has added immeasurably to our stock of knowledge about Whitechapel and the people who were Jack the Ripper`s contemporaries. But, at the heart of this web of knowledge lies a vacuum - simply not knowing who Jack the Ripper was. In one way, it no longer matters. It is not as if knowing his identity will deliver justice to his victims. Knowing would serve curiosity and solve a mystery. In any case, the likelihood of an identity being found for the murderer that bears the incontrovertible stamp of certainty, is low. Of course, new theories will continue to evolve and add their contribution to the literary barnacles which cling to the essential mystery.

Study of the subject has acquired a life of its own and much of the output is rightly appreciated for what it contributes to our understanding of the social times and culture of London in the 1880s. Following my initial interest in the murders, more than forty years ago, I was impressed by the surge of social reform which followed in the wake of the murders. It seemed as if Nature had decided to compensate for the horror of that Autumn in 1888 by initiating changes that would lead to improvements in the social conditions of the Ripper’s East End killing fields. In a sense, that is the murderer’s real legacy.

‘Outcast London’

Social reformers were already at work in the East End long before the murders made their searing impact and, by 1887, over a hundred missionary agents were working there. Apart from the distribution of charity to relieve poverty, those concerned about social conditions attempted to give a voice to the poor by writing books and articles describing their plight. These were well-intentioned attempts to stir the consciences of the privileged classes. For the most part, though, these pleas fell on deaf ears. Why should well-heeled, well-fed managers of the successful Victorian economy worry about the welfare of those who provided them with cheap labour?

An anonymous pamphlet published in 1883 with the title The Bitter Cry of Outcast London provided a kind of banner under which reformers could group their forces. The author wrote of tens of thousands ‘crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind what we have heard of the middle passage of the slave ship’. ‘Outcast London’ was a theme taken up by George Sale Reaney, subsequently echoed by others, to which he added a note of menace that might create anxiety. He wrote of people living in conditions in which ‘a squire would not kennel his dogs’ and suggested that

‘Tomorrow they may grasp with their terrible might those strong columns upon which we have based and built prosperity and freedom. Who knows what impulse may seize them, these inarticulate thousands and millions when once they feel their power?’

Greater East London extended from the City boundary at Aldgate to Hackney and included the boroughs of Mile End, Poplar and Bethnal Green, stretching down to the London Docks waterfront. At its heart lay the parishes of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and St George’s-in-the-East. Running through it, linking the City to the eastern counties, were the arterial routes furnished by Whitechapel and Commercial Roads. Whitechapel Road was a broad highway which inspired the historian and novelist, Sir Walter Besant, to call it ‘the noblest thoroughfare in the world’. In the 1880s, the population of this area was over two million, greater than the numbers living at the time in St Petersburg, Berlin or Philadelphia.

Behind this noble thoroughfare lay dark, crumbling streets and alleyways with inter-connecting courts and passages. Row upon row of rotten, shabby houses provided mean shelter for people who lived in poverty, dirt and degradation. This was a human scrap heap in which forty per cent of the population lived in conditions officially described as a state of poverty. The extent of overcrowding was such that it was possible to make a distinction between the ‘poor’, that is ‘people living under a struggle to obtain the necessaries of life’ and the ‘very poor’, who were in ‘a state of chronic want’. A weekly census of paupers in London, reported in October 1888, put the total at over 92,000.

With such a high population, overcrowding existed on an epic scale. In parts of Spitalfields, the density was 286 people per acre. Whole streets of tenement properties were run as common lodging houses, often by the most unscrupulous landlords. Single, two-up and two-down houses in Dorset Street housed fifty or sixty people. Defective water supplies, lack of washing facilities and inadequate sanitation added to the misery and made the area prone to disease and epidemics which periodically swept away the weak and infirm.

Dominant features of the East End were the great markets; vegetables at Spitalfields, fish at Billingsgate and meat at Aldgate. And the Empire’s trade came and went at the London Docks. Aldgate was popularly known as ‘Butchers’ Row’ or ‘Blood Alley’ and at peak times animals were slaughtered in the streets. According to the London Post Office Directory of the time, over five hundred men were employed as slaughterers, butchers or meat vendors in East London, any one of whom might have been Jack the Ripper. Most of the capital city’s unsavoury features seemed to be located in the East End and especially abhorrent was the infamous dust-hole in Wentworth Street where, all day long, uncovered carts carrying the fly-blown rubbish produced in the great metropolis was ground down by heavy machinery. This foul work emitted continuous noise and coated everything in the vicinity with a covering of grime and filth.

The people themselves could be divided into two groups - those who made a living out of honest toil and those who did not. Honest men and woman carried the millstone of the sweating system around their necks. The simple fact being that there were far more people than jobs. As a result, honest people seeking employment were prey to a system which forced them to accept the lowest wages and endure slave-like conditions. The alternatives were starvation, begging or crime.

Men, and very often, women and children too, worked twelve or sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Under the sweating system, the going rate for female labour making match boxes was two pence farthing a gross. Boot makers earned three to five shillings for making six pairs of boots but at least the sweat shop owner provided the leather. As long as work was available, toil continued until the human frame simply broke down under the strain. Men were often burnt out wrecks at the age of forty.

On an average day in the 1880s, some 20,000 men would be out of work in London. The unemployed queued daily outside the gates at London Docks in their hundreds in the hope of being taken on for a day’s labour. A prospective docker could earn three shillings and six pence a day if he was fortunate enough to be among the twenty or so able-bodied men taken on each day. The destitute could look to the State to meet their basic needs for food and shelter. Anyone in sufficient want could apply for Poor Law Relief. The reality was that food and accommodation were provided in a manner calculated to discourage the needy from returning. The real penalty was that the wretched relief on offer was not free. Paupers were expected to work for their supper. Women were called on to dismantle the ropes from old ships and men were expected to break half a ton of stone; tasks normally reserved as punishment for the inmates of Her Majesty’s prisons.

Despite their daily hardships, the people of the East End were renowned for their good humour and they found ways to relieve the sweat, toil and tears. They let off steam in the public houses and gin palaces when they had money to spend or visited the music halls for laughter, music and entertainment. The Peoples’ Palace at Mile End road was a popular venue where Walter Sickert, an habitué of such entertainments and a putative Jack the Ripper, probably rubbed shoulders with the locals.

Spiritual privileges

Some Victorians recognised that the East End was a blot on the capital of the Empire. They contributed modestly to their church collections in the fashionable West End, satisfying their moral qualms about doing something to alleviate the distress on the other side of the city. A few made it their personal mission to work among the poor and they helped to coordinate the efforts being made to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of social degradation. On the other hand, there were the typically pompous out-of-touch pillars of society, such as Canon Wilberforce, who believed that the state of the poor was ‘better than they have deserved at the hands of God’. From the comfort of his drawing room he felt moved to suggest that the existing social order combined ‘the greatest measure of temporal comforts and spiritual privileges’.

As the penalty for being honest was the prospect of an early grave, it was small wonder that many East Enders lived on their wits and took to crime as a way of life. In the 1880s, the East End was a refuge for all the criminal elements of London and for many of those who migrated from the great cities of Europe. There were large numbers of Poles, Russians and Germans, many of whom sought asylum from political discrimination in their own countries. This was especially true for Jews fleeing the pogroms of east Europe. The laws governing the admission of immigrants to England were lax and, once inside the country, the one-time refugees set up clubs, businesses, brothels and criminal rackets as they pleased without license or proper authority. The East End was a place where an individual could lose his identity, take on another persona and remain beyond the reach of the law. The careers of Severin Klosowski, Michael Ostrog, Alexander Pedachenko and Aaron Kosminski, all Ripper suspects at one time or another, illustrate the point.

Compared with modern standards, most crime was petty in nature. Apart from the street gangs and the activities of the anarchists, there was little organised crime. People took to small-scale crime simply to make a living. Thieving was popular and boys as young as ten or twelve were often committed burglars. Robbery, sneak-thieving, forgery, rent-dodging and begging brought out the full range of human wit and ingenuity. The Bishop of Wakefield, who published a report on prevailing social conditions in 1888, was told by one of his missionaries that of a hundred dock labourers, only about twenty were honest. This kind of thinking fostered the notion of ‘The London Savage’ and a professional criminal class on whom good works would be wasted.

In the economy of the impoverished, prostitution was an inevitable occupation. The East End was home to both prostitutes and brothels in uncontrollable numbers. As many as 80,000 prostitutes of all types plied their trade in London and, of these, 1,200 worked in Whitechapel alone. Dorset Street, the manor patrolled by Annie Chapman, Mary Kelly and many of their colleagues, was described as ‘one vast brothel’ and the street had a fearsome reputation. It was known as ‘the do as you please’ and although policemen always patrolled in pairs, they were often physically as well as verbally abused. The inadequacy of the police at the time of the Ripper murders was a subject that was constantly aired in the correspondence pages of the newspapers of the day. The Metropolitan Police area covered 440,891 acres of London (approximately 688 square miles) and the total distance of the beats patrolled amounted to 7,916 miles. In December 1887, the strength of the Metropolitan Police stood at 14,081 men of all ranks, of which 8,773 were available for street patrols.

Such was the state of deprivation in the East End that many women were forced onto the streets in order to earn the four pence needed nightly for a bed in a common lodging house. Indeed, so great was their wretchedness that children were turned into the streets at night so that their mothers could use the accommodation to entertain clients. These young outcasts found shelter where they could and in the early 1880s Dr Thomas Barnardo recorded a visit he made with the Earl of Shaftesbury, another of the great reformers, to the London Docks where they counted over seventy boys around the age of fourteen sleeping under tarpaulins in Lower Thames Street.

Barbarians at the gate

The East End was truly a forgotten corner of the Empire. Many who knew of the evils which persisted there and blighted the lives of the people, smugly glossed over them. A correspondent in one of the weekly journals of the time wrote about the joys of living in the East End. “For four pence a night’, went the narrative,’one could sleep as soundly as in the grandest hotel. The dreams that visit poor weary people... may be as bright and sweet as those of happy youth in a rural home where the morning sunlight when it enters the cottage window is accompanied by the twittering of birds...”, and so on. The hypocrisy and ignorance that prevailed in Victorian society was breathtaking.

The facts were that the East End was a dark, smelly, over-populated district whose inhabitants were forced to endure the meanest living conditions. Plans to introduce these under-privileged citizens to the benefits of education and religion were favourite topics in the fashionable salons of the West End. One campaigner for universal education wrote, it would ‘greatly tend to their happiness and good if enables them better to appreciate the benefits of thrift and contented industry...’ Some of the talk was well-intentioned but there were also anxious stirrings at the thought of Barbarians at the gate, hinted at earlier in George Reaney’s Outcast London. The fear was that hordes of deprived citizens in the East End might rise up from their slums and invade the comfort zones of Victorian gentility.

Social reformers had been at work in the East End since the mid 1870s, preaching goodness and charity. One of these was Reverend Samuel Barnett, whose Bishop when he appointed him to the living at St Jude’s Whitechapel, said ‘This is the worst parish in my diocese, inhabited mainly by a criminal population and, I fear, much corrupted by doles’. Only twenty-eight years old at the time, Barnett set about improving the social conditions of his parishioners with great vigour. He started adult education classes, founded a penny bank and a maternity society and, in due course, established Toynbee Hall, the University Settlement, in the heart of Spitalfields, which continues its work today.

The Earl of Shaftesbury, Dr Thomas Barnardo, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, General William Booth and others began to probe the nation’s conscience and its purse regarding the needs of the East End. But the needs were so immense that the social missions were swamped by the demands made on them and the Government’s response seemed to be limited to Prime Minister Gladstone’s personal efforts to reclaim prostitutes from the streets. Picking up the theme of Outcast London, W T Stead, Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, asked ‘Where is the leader of men who will preach a new crusade against the crying evil of our times?’

Murderous redeemer

As if in answer to this clarion call, a redeemer appeared on the scene. He did not wear the cloak of the reforming idealist but, rather, the mantle of the murderer. Jack the Ripper succeeded in focusing the eyes of the world on the East End of London in a way that no honest man could. The spectacular butchery which he visited on Whitechapel and Spitalfields lifted the curtain of pretence which Victorian society had draped over this forgotten corner of England.

George Bernard Shaw was quick to seize the moment with a letter entitled ‘Blood Money for Whitechapel’ published in the Star on 24 September 1888. He pulled no punches, famously noting that if the habits of duchesses allowed them to be lured into Whitechapel, ‘a single experiment in slaughterhouse anatomy on an aristocratic victim might fetch in a round half million and save the necessity of sacrificing four women of the people’. He railed against a system which first robbed and then pauperised the poor by way of compensation, allowing the rich to ‘combine the luxury of the protected thief with the unctious self-satisfaction of the pious philanthropist’. Reverend Samuel Barnett had earlier picked up a similar theme but in more genteel language. Writing in The Times on 19 September 1888, he suggested the Whitechapel murders would not be in vain if ‘the public conscience awakes to consider the life which these horrors reveal’. And all this happened before the Ripper really got into his stride with his ‘double event’ and grand finale at Millers Court.

Naturally, Jack the Ripper was no more a social worker for the East End than he was a literary agent for those who came to write about his crimes. But both phenomena were evident after his three-month reign of terror in 1888. At the end of the Lord Mayor’s Show on 9 November, while doctors were still examining the brutally dissected remains of Mary Kelly, the citizens of the East End were entertained to a Meat Tea provided by the generosity of the Lord Mayor. Three thousand people crowded into the Great Assembly Hall at Mile End Road and, who knows, Jack the Ripper, his work completed, may have been among them. Each person tucked into half a pound of bread and butter, half a pound of cake, a large pork pie and a quart of tea.

The feast was rounded off with a magic lantern show and a concert performed by the Crusaders Temperance Brass Band. When the feasting was over, the recipients of the Lord Mayor’s generosity returned to their lodging houses and sweat shops to work or sleep. Such corporate generosity was symbolic of the attitude to the problems of London’s poor. No one bothered to count the cost of a few pork pies if it helped to keep the masses down and glossed over the rottenness of life in the slums.

Rights restored

But the tide was beginning to turn. The Whitechapel murders had seen to that. The spotlight that the Ripper threw on the East End pierced the gloom of this shadowland and laid bare the grim realities of human existence there. The scales fell from the eyes of decent people who had been unaware of the scale of degradation that lay so close to their own world of privilege. Those in positions of authority who knew only too well were forced to acknowledge that something had to be done.

Possibly the single greatest measurable result was that Dr Barnardo collected close to three million pounds from conscience-stricken Victorians. The cry of ‘Outcast London’ was being taken up everywhere and The Daily Telegraph reported that ‘Dark Annie (Annie Chapman) will effect in one way what fifty Secretaries of State could never accomplish - focusing attention on East End conditions’.

One of the most urgent needs was that of housing. Samuel Barnett’s aim was to rebuild the whole of what he called the ‘bad quarter’. For the immediate task of demolishing some of the worst slums in Flower and Dean Street and replacing them with model dwellings, he needed nearly a quarter of a million pounds. In his innocent way, Barnett thought the path would be open for wealthy men of goodwill to come forward and buy up the bad properties in order to banish the festering evils they nurtured. Developers did indeed come forward but they were not so philanthropic as to be content with merely clearing away the slums - they wanted a profit as well.

Prospective financiers argued about the dividends they might expect to gain by buying up slum properties. Their thinking was that such investments would be sounder than English railway securities or Russian bonds. The landlords themselves cashed in demanding absurdly high prices for their crumblinmg properties. Many were able to retire to comfortable houses in the country on the proceeds of their deals. The Socialist League, in a direct reference to the Ripper murders, spoke out against the exploitation that was rife and referred to ‘the opening for profit made literally with the murderer’s knife’.

Despite the profiteering, improvements did come about once the extent of neglect in the East End was fully exposed. The indefatigable Barnett set up a building society to help the East Enders acquire accommodation in the new six-storey tenements being built in Flower and Dean, Thrawl and Wentworth Streets to replace houses that had been condemned fifteen years previously.

The authors of The Survey of London had no doubt that many of the social improvements which came about at the end of the Nineteenth Century were largely due to the social backlash created by the Ripper murders. Their assessment was that ‘The Whitechapel murders undoubtedly gave a further impetus towards rebuilding...’ Perhaps encouraged by the turn of the social tide in their favour, many East Enders decided to help their own cause. The Great Dock Strike of 1889 lasted a month and cost the nation an estimated two million pounds and a Women’s Trade Union Association was set up when the Match Girls went on strike demanding proper working conditions.

Samuel Barnett continued in the thick of the fight to win social reform and he called for properly-based social research as the best means of assessing needs. He was a great humanitarian who deservedly won the affection of the East Enders who called him the ‘Saint of Whitechapel’. He wielded considerable influence and during the scarlet fever and diphtheria epidemics in 1896, the Secretary of the Water Board asked him to use his authority to calm the families distressed by the suffering of their children. Barnett succeeded in calming people’s fears and, in return, extracted a promise from the Water Board that piped supplies would be available in the area for six hours a day.

Each battle won added momentum to the campaign for social reform and the Government at last began to play its part too. The House of Lords debated the unfairness of sweated labour and the House of Commons reviewed the system of poor law relief and the question of foreign immigration, all matters of great importance to the redevelopment of the East End. Legislation was enacted to register lodging houses and juvenile courts were set up to deal with young offenders. Toynbee Hall established a Poor Man’s Lawyer Movement and a Tenants’ Protection Committee kept a watchful eye open for unscrupulous landlords.

The right of the people of the East End to live their lives in dignity and to be part of the social structure of their own nation was achieved through their gritty determination and the vision of those who took up their cause. The triumph over the dark oppressive forces of inhumanity owed much to exceptional individuals like the Barnetts, Webbs, Shaftesbury, Shaw and Barnardo and they overcame the smug complacency of Victorian England. No longer would it be possible for a Peer of the Realm to declare that poverty-stricken East Enders should be despatched to the colonies.

This triumph also owed much to an anonymous benefactor, a creature of the shadows, whose name and actions were synonymous with horror and evil. In a strange way, by shocking the nation with his brutal knife work, Jack the Ripper rocked the social fabric to its core and inspired a sense of humanity that restored rights and justice to the oppressed people of London’s East End.

Related pages:
  Robin Odell
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