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London 1926

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I really to find it fascinating, even a little eerie, to watch the old black and white films of London that are on the BFI you tube channel.

Today I cam across this wonderful little film of London After Dark, which shows the Elephant and castle in 1926. An interesting thing about this is that, although 1926 sounds like an awfully long time ago – and, I suppose, to all intents and purposes, it is – in the greater scheme of things it isn’t that long ago.

It was, for example, the year that Queen Elizabeth 11 was born.

But historically, this is London between the wars and the wonderful thing about these old black and white films is that you get to see England’s Capital prior to the widespread destruction that was wreaked on it by the bombs of The Blitz of the Second World War.

I love the little captions, which are almost poetic in their sentiments. For example, there is that wonderful opening caption informing us that “…the sun has settled down to slumber and the Big City is wrapped in the mantle of moonlight…” pure poetry!

The there’s a wonderful long view of St Paul’s Cathedral, seen from the south side of the River Thames, before we’re told that we’re off to the “Elephant” which, according to the caption, is that “bustling centre of humanity.”  I’d call the Elephant and castle of today many things but, I have to admit, a “bustling centre of humanity” wouldn’t be one of them!

But, to me at least, the accolade of the most poetic of the captions goes to that wonderful description of the “Elephant Theatre” as an ‘academy of art… wherein those big-hearted working classes can enjoy the good old drama.” I’d have loved to have been looking over the caption writer’s shoulder as he wrote out his lines. I wonder if he afforded himself the occasional chuckle as he came up with the lines!

As with so much of the BFI film archive this really is something worth watching, as it really does capture the flavour of a long vanished London age. 

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A Trip Down Memory Lane

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One of the locations we pass on our Jack the Ripper Tour is Middlesex Street, which is better known the World over as Petticoat Lane. A constant observation that we get from participants on our walk is how wonderful it would be to be able to go back in time and see the streets as they actually were in 1888.

Well, thanks to the BFI, who have now started putting their wonderful film archive on Youtube, you can do just that and pay a visit to Petticoat Lane, on film at least.

This film shows the Sunday morning Petticoat Lane Market as it was in 1903, so we’re talking just 15 years after the Jack the Ripper murders.  It is somewhat chilling to consider that many of the people whose faces you see in this short film actually lived thorough the horrors of the Whitechapel Murders and would have had their own first hand accounts of what it was like.

So enjoy this nostalgic trip down memory lane and take a look at an East End Street as it was at the time of the most infamous crime spree in history.

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Murder in Whitechapel

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The 7th August sees the 126th anniversary of what may well have been the first of the Jack the Ripper Murders.

A photograph of the White Hart as it appears today.

The Entrance into George Yard Today

The murder itself took place on a first floor landing of George Yard Buildings, located in George Yard, a dark turning off Whitechapel High Street.

A local newspaper described George Yard, rather unflatteringly, as  ”…one of the most dangerous streets in the locality…” and even today, although parts have been redeveloped and the name has been changed to Gunthorpe Street, it still has a menacing air about it.

It had just gone 5am when John Saunders Reeves came out of his apartment in George Yard Buildings and began descending the stairs. As he arrived on the first floor landing he discovered the body of a woman lying on her back in a pool of blood.

He raced off to fetch a policeman and soon returned with Constable Barrett who, having ascertained that the woman was beyond help, sent Reeves to fetch the local medic Dr. Killeen. When the doctor arrived he carried out a cursory examination, noted that she had been “brutally murdered” and, having pronounced life extinct, ordered that she be removed to the mortuary.

What he noted was that the woman upper body had been subjected to a frenzied knife attack that had resulted in 39 stab wounds that ran from her throat to her lower abdomen.

There was considerable unease in the area at the fact that such a brutal murder could have taken place, again to quote a local newspaper, “next to the citizens peacefully sleeping in their beds” without anyone hearing a sound and without a “a trace or clue being left of the villain who did the deed.”

The woman was soon identified as local streetwalker Martha Tabram (also known as Turner) and, at the subsequent inquest into her death the assistant Coroner, George Collier, opined that her’s had been  ”…one of the most dreadful murders any one could imagine.”

As for the person who had carried out the crime, he was of the opinion that, whoever he was, he must have been  ”…a perfect savage to inflict such a number of wounds on a defenceless woman in such a way.”

Of course, at the time the sequence of murders that we now know as the Jack the Ripper crimes were yet to capture the imagination of the public. So, brutal as it was, this was still a crime that was an isolate incident. 

What the murder of Martha Tabram did do, however, was add to a general feeling of unease that was already taking hold in the area that something was happening in Whitechapel.

People genuinely became afraid of walking through those dark, unlit thoroughfares, for which the district as a whole was notorious.

The result was that, when within less than a month the body of another woman (Mary Nichols) was discovered in a dark gateway in nearby Buck’s Row, the unease gave way to outright panic.

So, for the people of Whietchapel, although they had no way of knowing it when they woke up on the 7th August 1888 to the news of the horrible murder in George Yard, their autumn of terror had begun.

As mentioned earlier, George Yard, the site of Martha Tabram’s murder,  is now called Gunthorpe Street, and it has lost nothing of  its menacing ambience, despite the passage of 126 years.

It is the first destination on our nightly Jack the Ripper walking tour and those who join us on the walk often comment how, the moment they pass through the dark archway, through which Martha Tabram would have passed with her murderer on 7th August 1888, they really do feel like they’ve stepped back in time.

As to whether or not Martha was a victim of the ripper, the jury is still out. Some say she wasn’t because her injuries were not consistent with the injuries suffered by the canonical five victims, others say that she was was and that, in killing her, Jack, by targeting her throat and lower abdomen, was evolving the modus operandi that, three weeks later, he would use to such devastating effect on his first definite victim, Mary (Polly) Nichols.

It has to be said that, at the time of the murders, most of the officers working on the case were in no doubt that Martha was slain by the slain hand that slew Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly.

So there is every chance that on this day in history, August 7th 1888, Martha Tabram became the first victim of Jack the Ripper.


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Conspiracy Theories

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If there is one mystery that has been rife with conspiracy theories its the Jack the Ripper case.

Almost from the moment some unknown miscreant began his series of murders on the streets of the East End of London people have been coming up with wilder and wilder theories as to who he (or in many cases they) was/were and the reason why the crimes themselves were committed.

At the height of the ripper scare, George Bernard Shaw was suggesting that the reason for the murders was some “independent genius” had discovered the perfect way of exposing the horrific conditions in the districts of Spitalfields and Whitechapel and was carrying out a series of murders as a sort of social reformer. Admittedly Shaw’s tongue was firmly in his cheek when he made his social reformer suggestion, but others were coming up with equally bizarre and unlikely theories.

It was the police themselves, it was the Russian Secret Police trying to discredit their counterparts in the Metropolitan Police. It was the anarchists trying to destabilise British society and bring the government down. All these were put forward as potential suspects at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders and many of them continue to be put forward today.

But the most oft quoted conspiracy theory, and the one that is still trotted out time and time again is that the murders were carried out by a member of the Royal family and the government and the police closed ranks to keep it from becoming public knowledge.

The Royal’s name who is put forward as being either the perpetrator of the crimes or the instigator of the crimes is Prince Albert Edward Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson and the heir presumptive to the throne of England.

The fact that he wasn’t even in London on the nights of the murders seldom features in the various conspiracy theories that link him to the crimes.

But the fact that many people, despite so much evidence that exonerates him, wish to put him in the frame for the Jack the Ripper murders shows that we need our villains to be big, bold and important.

The real Jack the Ripper, on the other hand, was probably an undistinguished nobody who lived in the heart of the area where the murders occurred for whom, every so often, the voices in his head proved too much and he went out and committed another murder.

How’s that for a conspiracy theory? Now, where’s my publisher!

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What is A Jack the Ripper Tour?

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Strangely, a question we get asked from time to time is “What exactly is a Jack the Ripper Tour?” Some people think that we are a bit like one of those theme park jump out and scare you attractions. 

In fact, our Jack the Ripper tour is a walk that explores the twists and turns of the Jack the Ripper mystery and which takes clients to the major sites associated with one of the World’s greatest murder/mysteries.

As a result, the people who join us tend to be people who have a genuine and real interest in the various historical and forensic aspects of the case and who are looking for an intelligent and thought-proving look at the various aspects of the Jack the Ripper case.

That is why we offer guides who know the case inside out and who have been researching and studying the Whitechapel Murders for many years. Most of our guides are even published authors who have written extensively on the both the case and on East End history in particular.

Why do we think this is important?

Well, put simply, the Jack the Ripper murders are one of the most intensely studied and most widely reported crime sprees in  the annals  of criminal history.

Our clients tend to be people who have read up on the case and who have much more than just a passing interest in it. They want to be able to discuss various aspects of the mystery, or they want to see and learn about specific locations or suspects. If the guide were someone who has just read a quick synopsis of the mystery – and there are quite a few guides conducting Jack the Ripper Tours  who don’t really know that much about the case – then when it comes to being able to interact with our clients, or discuss one of the many twists, turns  or contradictions with which the case is littered, then they are not going to be able to do so.

The result?

Our clients would  be left disappointed.

But with our guides, you will be shown around by acknowledged authorities on the case who are not only able to answer and discuss questions, and involve you in the process, but who are also happy to do so.

As our clients comment time and time again, it is evident form the moment the tour starts that they are with a guide that is not only knowledgeable about the subject but who is also extremely passionate about it. 

That is why, when you join us for a tour of the sites associated with the Jack the Ripper mystery, you will really feel that you are getting a full experience and, on some nights, you will even get snippets of newly unearthed information about Jack the Ripper that your guide may well have only uncovered that very day.

If you think about it, isn’t that a much richer and desirable experience than just listening to a guide who is previously recited from a well honed script?

So, in answer to the question with which I started this article, what is a Jack the Ripper tour? It is a two hour walk through the very streets where the murders occurred, which tells you the story in an intelligent and thought-provoking way and which is guided by some of the World’s greatest authorities on the case who are friendly and approachable and who won’t just invite you to ask questions and discuss the Jack the Ripper mystery, but who will positively encourage you to do so.

In short, it is very much a thinking persons tour experience that does not rely on gimmicks and cheap thrills to engage you and keep you entertained.

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Dear Boss

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“Dear Boss – I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they won’t fix me just yet…”

These are the opening lines of what has probably become one of the most infamous letters ever written. Commonly known as the ‘Dear Boss’ letter, it was written on 25 September 1888 and received by the Central News Agency in New Bridge Street, London , two days later. Up until the publication of this  letter on 1 October 1888, the Whitechapel murderer had gone by his earlier soubriquet of ‘Leather Apron’, after a local man known to terrorise prostitutes on the streets of the East End.

After mocking the police about their ineffectiveness at catching the real killer and threats to commit further outrages, the author signed himself off with a chilling “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper” and thus a legend was born.

It is impossible to say if the real murderer wrote this letter and indeed, many police officials later stated confidently that the letter was a journalistic hoax. Nonetheless, on publication the name stuck and unfortunately inspired a welter of copycats.

The ‘Dear Boss’ letter now sits in the collection of the National Archives in Kew, along with around 260 other surviving Ripper letters (all in different handwriting!) that had been acquired by the Metropolitan Police in 1888 and a few years after. But how this most notorious letter ended up at the National Archives is an interesting story in its own right.

It had apparently gone missing from the Scotland Yard files prior to 1928 and was later believed to be in the possession of Gerald Donner, the grandson of former CID Assistant Chief Constable  Sir Melville Macnaghten. After Donner’s death in 1968, the letter went missing again but would resurface two decades later under most extraordinary circumstances.

In November 1987, an envelope, sent anonymously from Croydon, arrived at Scotland Yard; in it were Dr Thomas Bond’s post-mortem report on Ripper victim Mary Kelly, some material relating to a few other criminal cases and the ‘Dear Boss’ Letter! No one has ever determined who sent this package with its fascinating contents, despite forensic testing being carried out. These Ripper-related documents were soon reunited with the material on the case which by that time had been moved from Scotland Yard to the National Archives.

Owing to its ‘iconic’ status, the letter and the other Ripper material is not generally available to members of the general public to view, although serious authors and researchers and TV companies have been granted access over the years.

It was displayed at the ‘Jack the Ripper and the East End’ exhibition, held at the Museum in Docklands between May and November 2008 and has occasionally been displayed at other events including Ripper conferences in Britain.

On the Jack the Ripper tour, you can handle a colour facsimile of the letter and read the whole chilling content for yourself!


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The Ever changing East End

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One of the most intriguing things about our Jack the Ripper tour is the fact that we start our tour at the epicentre of the area where the Whitechapel Murders occurred.

This has two benefits.

First off, it gives those who join our expert guides the opportunity to get a true feel for the layout of the area in which the crimes took place.

Secondly, it makes it possible for us to follow a chronological route that starts with the first of the Whitechapel Murders, that of Emma Smith in April 1888, and then enables us to take our clients on a breathtaking journey that leads them step by step through the so-called autumn of terror so that they can, effectively, see the horror as it unfolded.

However, London is a modern city that is ever developing and changing. 

This is particularly so of the East End where what were once slum dwellings are now sought after properties that can change hands, and ownership, for northwards of a million pounds.

As a result, the streets of the East End, and in particular the streets through which our Jack the Ripper guided walking tour wends its wicked way, have, over the last few years, seen an awful lot of demolition and rebuilding. 

Modern office blocks are springing up on sites which, until just a few years ago, were derelict bomb craters that were left over from the Second World War.

Meanwhile, other locations that, three or four years ago, were still very atmospheric and reminiscent of the age of the ripper, are gradually being bought up and closed down to us.

A view looking along the former Dorset Street as it appears in 2012.

Dorset Street 2012

A good example of this is the tiny little service road that squeezes down the side of the White’s Row Car Park. The car park itself faces the site where, on 9th November 1888, Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s final victim, was murdered.

Now, the whole service road is closed of to all the tours, and thus it is impossible to get clients up close to the site where history’s most infamous killing spree drew to its gruesome conclusion.

Thankfully, we can still get close enough to give those who participate in our walks  a good idea of what the street was like.

And, because we have a unique collection of photographs that show the Dorset Street (the name by which it was known in 1888) at the time of the Mary Kelly Murder, our clients get the opportunity to peer back in time.

In 2012, when it was announced that the street itself was going to close, I climbed the stairs to the top floor of the White’ Row Car Park and snapped a photo of the view along  the former Dorset Street before it actually disappeared.

This is just one of our records of the streets of the East End of London, and of a Jack the Ripper murder site in particular, that has been added to our archive of images of ripperland.

In the coming weeks, and months, we’re going to start featuring many more of these, as well as numerous videos, on our website to show you the ever changing face of the East End of London. 

In 1997, for example,  we made our very first documentary on Jack the Ripper and shot a lot of footage, over 10 hours worth to be precise(!) of the sites as they were then.

Little did we realise then that quite a few of these sites would, 16 or so years later, begin to disappear with the result we would find ourselves in position of a unique archive of film footage that no one else has.

But we want to share this footage, so keep returning to our website over the coming months and we’ll show you the many images of Jack the Ripper’s London that we have acquired as the longest running tour to follow in the exact footsteps of the World’s most infamous serial killer.

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The Metropolitan Police Crime Museum

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Our guide, Lindsay Siviter, also freelances as a volunteer at the Metropolitan Police Crime Museum at  New Scotland Yard.  

Here she tells us a little bit about the future of the museum and details some of the amazing finds she has made whilst working there.

Over to you Lindsay.

The building which houses this great institution is due to be vacated by everyone next year sometime and as yet the staff here at the Crime Museum do not know where the museums new home and location will be.

Therefore, because the museum will be moving, there is no point making any major changes in the immediate future regarding redisplaying and reorganising the museum as we will have to do everything from scratch at the new location.

My aim is to help to make small but significant improvements where I can with my museum background and curatorial skills, help catalogue the museums contents, refresh displays and do research and other tasks as requested by the Curator.

In January I Discovered hitherto unknown box of amazing and hitherto unpublished Scene of Crime photographs relating to the infamous murderer John Reginald Halliday Christie and the murders at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill!

I was almost shaking with the excitement. Despite many of these photos being quite gruesome and sad, for me it was a dream come true finding them as this is a case I have been fascinated with for many years.

I have now started to catalogue them all individually so we know exactly what we have. That same month I looked through our make-shift Historical Events diary to choose three famous cases that occurred in the month of February in order that I might prepare three posters for the corridor outside the museum saying “Mystery Objects” and “Curators Object of the Month.”

This was an idea which I introduced into the museum when I started to make the corridor more interesting and variable for those waiting to enter the museum and for those who work nearby.

This is often done in other museums where I have worked and will help the Curator to refresh his memory about relevant crimes that happened each month which he may wish to focus on during his tours of the museum.

Me and famous Ripper author Keith Skinner discovered some correspondence connecting the murderer Dr Crippen and the famous theatrical costumiers “Morris Angels & Sons”.

By a total weird coincidence I was returning a period costume dress which in had hired for an event the next day to their head office so arranged a meeting with their Director to discuss the exciting documents! Watch this space for future information on this!

I also went through various boxes of artefacts and documents relating to The Great Train Robbery to choose items to lend another museum for their forthcoming exhibition on the topic. I saw all sorts of amazing items mainly retained due to the fingerprint evidence on them including objects from Leatherslade Farm.

In addition I found a clear plastic stand in which I helped re-display some of the original monopoly money handled by the gang while they played at their hideout! This new stand enabled both sides to be displayed for the first time!

On another day I had a most exciting morning when I re-displayed and re-organised the whole showcase displaying artefacts and documents related to The Great Train Robbery – what a privilege!

With my white gloves on to help prevent damage to the objects I helped curate the whole cabinet, adding new objects for the first time including a cup and saucer, cutlery and bottles with fingerprints on them, Ronnie Biggs fingerprint record and other documents including a contemporary 1963 newspaper which I found in a box!

I then created new labels and a new commentary sheet for the showcase. Started to re-organise new commentaries which we will use on the audio tour guide wands which visitors use when they visit the museum.

Each famous case within the museum and certain objects all have individual numbers which relate to a certain case commentary on the wand.

Visitors can then pick and choose which stories and objects they wish to hear about.

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The Blind Beggar

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Quite often, participants on our Jack the Ripper tours ask about those other legendary East End criminals, the Kray Twins, usually wanting to know where the Blind Beggar pub is, or even if it still exists. One of the most notorious locations in the area, it was where Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell on the night of 9 March 1966.

That night, the twins were drinking with members of their ‘Firm’ in The Lion in Tapp Street, Bethnal Green, when a phone tip-off alerted them to the fact that Cornell was drinking in the Blind Beggar. Cornell, who worked for the rival Richardson Brothers south of the river, had a long history with the Krays and there were a number of factors which contributed to the deterioration in their relationship which ultimately led to Cornell’s death.

Former jewel thief Lenny Hamilton claimed it was because some time before, Cornell had knocked Ronnie unconscious outside the Brown Bear in Leman Street, a terrible loss of face for Ronnie. Subsequently, Cornell became very scornful of the twins and would often belittle them in public; the most famous incident was when he allegedly described Ronnie as a ‘fat poof.’

There were other reasons, including a shootout in a south London nightclub involving the Richardsons and where a Kray associate, Dickie Hart, was shot dead. Apparently Ronnie was beside himself over this and when he found out that Cornell was drinking on their patch, he decided there and then to settle the score.

Armed with two guns, Ronnie and Ian Barrie entered the Blind Beggar and found Cornell drinking with two friends at the end of the bar. According to the barmaid, two or three shots were fired, one of them hitting Cornell in the forehead and passing out the back of his head.

George Cornell was still alive when he was taken to the London Hospital over the road and then on to Maida Vale Hospital for surgery, but he died at 10.29 pm, before anything could be done.

There were certainly witnesses to the shooting, but the ‘wall of silence’ generated by fear of the twins assured that nothing concrete made it to the police until 1968 when the Kray trial began and loyal members of the firm (and the barmaid) gave evidence against their bosses.

The Blind Beggar today is a pleasant enough pub and there are a few pictures of the twins on the wall in the back bar area, not far from where the murder took place.

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Dick Turpin

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Although our tour focusses very much on the Jack the Ripper crimes, we do cross the paths of several other East End villains as we make our way around the walk’s route.

Today our guide John Bennett takes a look at one of those notorious villains, the highwayman Dick Turpin.

No look at local history (in any locality) would be complete without England’s most notorious highwayman putting in an appearance.

In fact, if he stopped at every inn north of London that claims to have had associations with him, particularly when it comes to his escape from the capital, he wouldn’t have had the time to rob anybody and getting to York would have been one giant pub-crawl.

Whitechapel High Street formed part of the road to Essex and East Anglia, which extended through Whitechapel Road, Mile End and beyond.

It would have proved profitable stalking grounds for highway robbers and it is believed that Turpin worked this patch as well as those further afield like the Hackney Marshes and Epping Forest. In fact the reason Whitechapel Road is so wide is deliberate, so that travellers would be some distance from the trees, and houses behind which such robbers could lurk. Turpin did at one time work in Whitechapel as a butcher’s apprentice, but was dismissed owing to the ‘brutality of his manners’ and after turning to crime, found rich pickings in the open land we now know as London Fields. However the Old Red Lion, which until recently once stood on the south side of the High Street, was the scene of this noted felon’s last great stand-off.

On 30th April 1737, Turpin and his accomplice Matthew King were drinking in the Red Lion (as it was then known) when they were ambushed by law officers. In the resulting scuffle, Turpin fatally shot King, but made good his escape.

Thence begins the legend of the great flight to on Black Bess, stories of buried treasure and the dubious claims of numerous country pubs in between. However, once in , Turpin took on the alias of John Palmer and for a year at least seemed to be free from the clutches of the law. Until he got into a fight, of course, got himself arrested, was recognised by the investigating magistrates and was eventually hanged on 7th April 1739, his luck finally having run out.

The Victorian version of the Old Red Lion stood for many years by the side of the Leman Street exit of Aldgate East Station, but was closed in the 1970’s and was finally demolished in 2004 to make way for new improvements to the station entrance where a colossal steel and glass residential block is currently being completed.

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