Matthew Macfadyen’s character in “Ripper Street,” Inspector Reid, was an actual police officer within the H Division. Find out more about the police force that was responsible for bringing Jack the Ripper to justice below.
When the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act was passed through the Parliament of the United Kingdom, it introduced a new Policing organization to London which was soon to be adopted throughout the world. The Met, as the force came to be known, stretched across London. The only area within the Metropolis which the Met did not cover was the square mile of the city, which had its own City of London Police Force.
Operating out of its headquarters, based at the famous Scotland Yard, The Met force was broken down into 4 districts – Northern, Eastern, Western and Southern. Within these districts were jurisdictions known as divisions and each division was given its own letter of the alphabet. Initially there were only 6 divisions; however, by 1888 these had expanded to 22 — and if you were to become a Police Constable in 1888, one of the most notorious and feared divisions to be posted to was that of H Division, Whitechapel.
The division was headed by Superintendent Thomas Arnold and, as with every division in the Met, it was split into two; uniformed and The Criminal Investigation Department, or CID for short. The uniformed men concentrated on the day to day policing of the area whereas CID undertook detective work. The uniformed side was led by acting Chief Inspector John West who reported directly to Superintendent Arnold.
Map of the London Metropolitan Area in 1888 (click to zoom)
To join the Met you had to be over 21 years of age and under 35, be physically fit, able to read and write, have no more than two children at the time of joining and neither you or your wife were permitted to own a shop. Married men with children were permitted to live with their families at police owned properties. Unmarried men were expected to live either within the station they were based at or a special property called a section house, which was a male-only environment.
Whitechapel was a notoriously hard area to live in. Situated just north of the London Docks, it was one of the first areas a newly landed immigrant would find themselves, wide-eyed and not knowing what was about to hit them. Work was rare and in Whitechapel, men would literally fight each other with pickaxe handles for jobs. Alcohol was plentiful and cheap so public houses and beer shops dominated almost every street.
With little else to do, men and women would sooner spend what little money they had on booze. The sanitary conditions and poor quality of the water supply meant that beer and gin were often the safest drinks around. Children were weaned on to it and it is with little wonder that alcoholism was rife.
These elements combined to make living in the area a dog-eat-dog world. When you add to the Whitechapel mix the Bearer Uppers, the Bug Hunters, the Demanders, the Rollers, the Lurkers and any of the wonderfully named villains, criminals, robbers, pimps and thugs, of which there were thousands, then you have an idea of the dark and desperate world the men of H Division worked in.
The Original H Division (click to zoom)
And it was into this world that your regular Police Constable walked his beat (patrol). Dressed neatly in his dark blue Melton uniform, with his Brunswick star glinting upon his helmet and his collar number (ID) shining, the Bobby (as he was known) walked the main gas lit streets, the back streets, dark alleyways and filthy courts armed with regulation-issued truncheon for defense and his oil-fueled Bulls Eye lamp for light. Inside his collar he wore a leather stock which helped him survive the most common of attacks upon the Police, garrotting.
During the Jack the Ripper Murders of 1888, their numbers were bolstered by the temporary recruitment of uniformed Constables to their ranks, as well as the return of one of their most popular of Detectives, Frederick Abberline. Abberline had been in H Division CID ever since his promotion to local Detective Inspector in 1873 and he soon gained a reputation for being an excellent one. Earning his stripes in the most difficult District in London enhanced his reputation, and by 1887 his superiors summoned him to work within Scotland Yard itself as part of the famous Central Office Detective Force.
However during the Ripper murders it was felt that the H Division needed someone with area experience to aid the new Local Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (who was a greatly reputed Detective himself) and to liaise with the freshly appointed head of the Ripper case, Chief Inspector Donald Swanson of Scotland Yard.
Swanson’s role was to be the Met Commissioner Sir Charles Warrens ‘eyes and ears’ on the case. Every piece of information pertaining to the murders went through him. Between Swanson, Abberline and Reid’s H Division, Scotland Yard and the Met had what they thought was a formidable Detective Department hunting the killer known as Jack the Ripper.
H Division Headquarters in Whitechapel (click to zoom)
Local Detective Inspector Edmund Reid had already been a pastry cook and ships steward before joining the Met. Originally posted to nearby J Division in Bethnal Green, Reid took on Abberline’s role when the former moved to Scotland Yard just prior to the beginning of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. He was noted as ‘one of the most remarkable men of the century’ by the Newspaper The Weekly Dispatch when they wrote about him upon his retirement in 1896. Though an excellent Detective, Reid was also a most noted amateur actor and singer.
Though these men never managed to bring the notorious Jack the Ripper to justice, it was not through any lack of trying. It must be noted that forensics in 1888 was virtually non-existent. Fingerprinting was not used by the Met until 3 years later in 1891, and the best you could get from a blood test was to determine if it was mammalian or not.
The best chance of a conviction was to either locate damning evidence on a person, a confession or capturing the murder in the act. To do this, the Met sent men out in various disguises into pubs to obtain gossip and to mill the streets with the homeless and unemployed just in hopes of picking up some information. They also wandered the dangerous streets at night, arresting anyone who acted suspicious.
However, it was all in vain. By 1896, the Whitechapel Murderer, aka Jack the Ripper, had not been brought to task and the investigation wound down. As with any unsolved crime, the file remains open and maybe somewhere in the archived records of the Met police or the personally owned files of an Ex Met Policeman, lays the unnoticed Jack the Ripper. If it does, the Met may have had their man all along.
Neil Bell is a noted researcher on Jack the Ripper and Victorian Policing. He has been featured in various podcasts and Radio programs discussing the crimes and has advised the City of London Police Museum upon the case. Neil was the Police Advisor for the documentary about the crimes, Jack the Ripper: The Definitive Story, where he was filmed talking about the Policing aspect, and is currently advising on a number of upcoming Jack the Ripper projects.