By 1888, London was the largest capital in the world and the center of the ever-increasing British empire. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for over 50 years and the public face of Britain reflected Victoria’s lifestyle; proud, dignified and above all, proper.
It was the center of empire, culture, finance, communication and transportation, with a new emerging mass media called the new journalism, later to be dubbed the tabloids.
Whitechapel Circa 1888 (click to zoom)
However, right on its doorstep in the East End lay the district of Whitechapel. Seedy by any standards, it was a crime-ridden sordid quarter, where 78,000 residents lived in abject poverty. It was an area of doss houses, sweatshops, abattoirs, overcrowded slums, pubs, a few shops and warehouses, leavened with a row or two of respectably kept cottages.
Whitechapel housed London’s worst slums and the poverty of its inhabitants was appalling. In fact, malnutrition and disease was so widespread that its inhabitants had about a 50/50 chance of living past the age of five years old.
Here, three classes existed:
- The poor (Builders, laborers, shopkeepers, dock workers & tailors)
- The very poor (Women & children usually being seamstresses, weavers or clothes washers)
- The Homeless (living in a permanent state of deprivation)
Whitechapel was the immigrant district due in part to the large influx of Jewish, Irish and Russian transports. The potato famine had seen a large influx of Irish immigrants in the mid 1800′s along with the Jewish population who arrived in thousands whilst fleeing persecution in Russia, Germany and Poland. In only a single decade, the Jewish population had risen to over 50,000.
With so many different nationalities, they all had one thing in common: Every day was a struggle for survival.
The West End of London was undergoing massive renovation and prosperity, opening up new concert halls, music halls, restaurants and hotels. As the city expanded , cheap housing was now being demolished to make way for warehouses and business offices, which forced more people into smaller areas.
Overcrowding and a shortage of housing created the abyss of Whitechapel. For most of the population in the East End, one lived and died in the same neighborhood in which they were born. Hope was in short supply.
A maze of entries, alleyways and courtyards were all lit by single gas lamps, giving out about 6 feet of light that at times were so thick, that you would struggle to see your own hand in front of your face. Sanitation was practically non-existent and people would throw their raw sewage into the street, making the stench of the whole district unbearable.
A Common Doss (click to zoom)
For the poor and destitute, common lodging houses offered a bed for the night. Here you would be cramped into a small dormitory with up to 80 others and for 4 pence you could get a bed which was practically a coffin lying on the ground . For tuppence you could lean against a rope, which was tied from one end of the wall to the other. Every night 8,500 men, women and children would seek shelter within these walls.
These doss houses lay just off the main roads of commercial street. Areas such as Thrawl Street, Flower and Dean and Dorset Street (a street so bad the police wouldn’t go down unless they were in teams of four) were run by greedy landlords that had one motto: ‘No pay no stay.’ No money meant the night in doorways, lavatories or huddled up in the church park.
For men, work could sometimes be obtained down by the docks, offloading ships or as market porters. For women, work was scarce and any work they could find paid very little to be able to survive, so out of sheer desperation many turned to the oldest profession in the world, prostitution.
According to one account, the women of the East End at the time were so destitute that they would sell themselves for as little as three pence, or a stale loaf of bread. In Oct 1888, the Metropolitan police estimated there were just over 1,200 prostitutes working the streets in Whitechapel alone. This was almost certainly an underestimate, for sheer want drove many more to occasional prostitution.
Woman of Whitechapel (click to zoom)
This was their only means of income and survival. With the little money they earned, most would seek comfort in alcohol as the only refuge from reality. Drink was cheap and drunkenness rife, at any time of day or night, leading to brutality and violence as a direct result. Brawls were commonplace and, as one Whitechapel inhabitant put it, cries of “Murder!” were “nothing unusual in the street.”
The Hollywood interpretation of these fallen women has them portrayed as the showgirl type you would see on a stage in the rich West End, with charming looks and pretty features. The reality is far different. By the age of 20 , most would look about 40, due to hard drinking and the East End lifestyle taking its toll. Most had missing teeth and wore the same clothes day in and day out. Bloated and diseased, life would have been short for these women. Dubbed ‘Unfortunates,’ these women would ply their trade within brothels and dark alleys.
It was a world in which Jack the Ripper would have no problem finding a victim.
The following information was provided by Ricky Cobb, courtesy of Jack the Ripper Tour.