A Brief History of London in 1888

Jack the Ripper Tours are fascinating and can provide a real insight into London life in the 19th century. Ours are the only Jack the Ripper tours that provide you with a history of the area and the murders that you can peruse before you join one of our walks.

East End History image

In London there is an East End and a West End. In the West End are those fortunate ones who are sent into the world with a kiss. In the East End are the others. Here live the poor, the shamed, those whom Fate, seeing how shrunken and bent they are as they creep through the gates of life, spat in their face for good measure. In this East End a corner has been set aside where, not content with the spittle, Fate sends the poor on their way with a blow, a kick, and their hats shoved over their eyes. In this spot, with the holy name Whitechapel we would have to sink or swim, survive or go under, find bread, or if we could not, find death.closequoteJacob Adler (1855 – 1926)

On 21st June 1887 Queen Victoria celebrated fifty “glorious” years as monarch, and her subjects marked the occasion with feasting and public ceremonies. The middle classes had particular cause to celebrate since the past half century had seen them rise to become masters of industry, finance and international trade. Fortunes were there for the making and the taking, and the middle classes embraced the philosophy of unencumbered self enrichment with a vengeance. The British Empire was ever expanding, and core British values such as justice, truth and harmony were being exported throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The City of London, the financial boiler-room that powered the empire and its expansion reflected the supreme confidence of the age, and the majority of its workers enjoyed reasonable affluence whilst increasing numbers of them led life styles of wealth and privilege. Yet beneath this facade there lay a feeling of extreme and general unease. For, by the 1880’s, the ordered society which the middle and upper classes had come to see as their very birthright was under threat like never before. Many of them were casting nervous glances towards the East End where a huge underclass of dispossessed and displaced citizenry was beginning to bare its teeth and demand a fair share of the profits, benefits and spoils of the Empire.

The term “East End,” used to describe the area that lay beyond the City of London’s eastern fringe, had in fact been a recent invention of the early 1880’s. But it soon caught on and was enthusiastically embraced by the popular press who used it to create a universal image of the area as a hot bed of villainy and degradation. As one commentator has put it:

A shabby man from Paddington, St. Marylebone or Battersea might pass muster as one of the respectable poor. But the same man coming from Bethnal Green, Shadwell or Wapping was an “East Ender”; the box of Keating’s bug powder must be reached for, and the spoons locked up… it became a concentrated reminder to the public conscience that nothing to be found in the East End should be tolerated in a Christian country.closequote

In 1883 the Reverend Andrew Mearns had shocked the delicate sensibilities of the English middle classes with The Bitter Cry Of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor. This comparatively small publication, confronted the bourgeoisie with the grim reality of everyday life in London’s slum lands, and warned them that they ignored this festering underclass at their peril.

Whilst we have been building our churches and solacing ourselves with our religion and dreaming that the millennium was coming, the poor have been growing poorer, the wretched more miserable, and the immoral more corrupt; the gulf has been daily widening which separates the lowest classes of our community from our churches and chapels, and from all decency and civilisation…how can those places [in which they live] be called homes…To get into them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from the accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions and often flowing beneath your feet…walls and ceilings are black with the accretions of filth which have gathered upon them through years of neglect. It is exuding through cracks in the boards overhead; it is running down the walls. It is everywhere…

Every room in these rotten and reeking tenements houses a family, often two. In one cellar a sanitary inspector reports finding a father, mother, three children and four pigs! In another room a missionary found a man ill with small-pox, his wife just recovering from her eighth confinement, and the children running about half naked and covered with dirt. Here are seven people living in one underground kitchen and a little dead child lying in the same room. Elsewhere is a poor widow, her three children, and a child who had been dead thirteen days…Where there are beds they are simply heaps of dirty rags, shavings or straw, but for the most part these miserable beings find rest only upon the filthy boards…closequote

Although the Victorian metropolis had many slum areas, it was on those in the East End that public attention began to focus. Whitechapel had the capital’s worst slums, worst overcrowding and highest death rates. One of its least salubrious neighbourhoods lay to the west and the east of Commercial Street. Here the dregs of Victorian society were crammed into the Common Lodging Houses, many of which were little more than breeding grounds for crime and vice. Inspector Walter Dew, a local detective who began his career at Commercial Street police station in 1887, would later write in his memoirs that “even before the advent of Jack the Ripper [the district] had a reputation for vice and villainy unequalled anywhere else in the British Isles.” In addition the area was the place of last resort to huge numbers of homeless drifters, who if they couldn’t find shelter behind the decaying walls of a common lodging house, would either tramp the streets all night long, or else attempt to sleep in dark corners of dark passageways, on the landings and stairwells of tenement buildings, or in some cases, on the stairs or in the hallways of those houses where the anti social hours worked by the lodgers necessitated the front doors being left open throughout the night. The East End had long been equated with lawlessness and immorality in the minds of the more “respectable” middle and upper class west end citizens. According to Professor Julian Huxley, who was no doubt expressing widely held bourgeois sentiments and prejudices:

I have seen the Polynesian…in his primitive condition, before the missionary…got at him. With all his savaging, he was not half so savage, so unclean, so irreclaimable, as the tenant of a tenement in an East London slum.closequote

Some social commentators were well aware of the consequences that could easily ensue should this trampled underclass be pushed beyond endurance and decide to fight back. In her book In Darkest London Margaret Harkness, writing under the pseudonym John Law, warned:

The whole of the East End is starving. The West End is bad, or mad, not to see that if things go on like this we must have a revolution. One fine day the people about here will go desperate, and they will walk westwards, cutting throats and hurling brickbats, until they are shot down by the military…closequote

Yet the conditions in the East End had largely been brought about by powers that were turning a blind eye to the misery, poverty and dreadful overcrowding that was endemic there. Even when the authorities tried to appease their critics by appearing to do something their measures proved woefully inadequate and often demonstrated an incompetence that bordered on the comical.

In 1875 The Artisans and Labourers Dwelling Act was passed by Parliament to “allow and to encourage…the purchase and demolition…of large areas of “unfit” property.” The proximity of Whitechapel and Spitalfields to the wealthier parts of London, coupled with the alarming fact that 80% of the poor were living in so-called “unfit” properties, ensured that the district was one of the first to be earmarked for demolition and regeneration. Thus the slum clearances began and almost immediately ran into the problem of philanthropy versus blatant profiteering.

Parliament may have been keen to eradicate the problem of overcrowding, but it was also emphatic that redevelopment was not to be financed from the public purse. It therefore fell to the private sector to provide the funding, with the necessary incentive for investors being a return on investment that, quite evidently, was not going to be generated by building houses for the poor. Thus the rents for the new model dwellings that began to appear about the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel were well beyond the means of the very people that the government had intended them to accommodate. These indigenous poor were forced into an ever decreasing number of slum houses where the laws of supply and demand, coupled with the compensation for lost rents that those who owned the properties could look forward to when these too were eventually demolished, ensured that as many people as possible – men, women and children – were crammed together under horrendous conditions as their landlords eagerly sought to wring as much profit as possible from these decaying dens of iniquity. As Joseph Loane, Medical Officer of Health for the Whitechapel District reported:

…The matter of house accommodation? Let me state the case. A large area is cleared of wretched hovels to make way for the large piles of cleanly-looking buildings. What has become of the people who were dislodged? Are they re-housed in the new Model Dwellings? Certainly not. In the first place the rents demanded are above their means and in the second place the caretakers overlook them in their careful plan of selection. It follows that they must drift into other rooms in houses, perhaps already sufficiently occupied. It is thus clear that the very class of persons requiring most urgently some better accommodation is the class for which the large building trusts have not provided…It is useless to expect that the rents which this class could afford would pay for lands and buildings and then enable a four per cent dividend to be declared…closequote

The plight of the area’s poor had been further highlighted in May 1887 when Charles Booth, a wealthy shipping magnate turned philanthropist and social reporter, presented a paper to the Royal Statistical Society outlining the grim reality for many who lived in the East End. Out of a population of some 456,877 people he estimated that 22% of them were living on the poverty line; whilst 13% of them were struggling against conditions in which “decent life was not imaginable.” Put simply 60,000 East End men, women and children lived their daily lives on the brink of starvation and found themselves crammed into overcrowded accommodation where disease, hunger or neglect would claim the lives of one in four children before they reached the age of five.

The harshness of their living conditions served to dehumanise those whose lot it was to wallow in the filth and degradation of everyday life in the East End. Most of the children, or at least those who survived their early years, had lost all innocence by the time they reached their teens. As The Bitter Cry of Outcast London grimly lectured its readers:

That people condemned to exist under such conditions take to drink and fall into sin is surely a matter for little surprise…Who can wonder that young girls wander off into a life of immorality, which promises release from such conditions? The vilest practices are looked upon with the most matter-of-fact indifference…Entire courts are filled with thieves, prostitutes and liberated convicts. In one street are 35 houses, 32 of which are known to be brothels. In another district are 43 of these houses, and 428 fallen women and girls, many of them not more than 12 years old…closequote