Well I’ve now passed a milestone in terms of my guiding career and Jack the Ripper. In June I reached my 30 years of leading people on tours around the East End of London.
In those days it still was something of a rough old area and, to be honest, you always felt that something sinister might well be lurking in the shadows of the area. Sometimes there was! The area still had its drifting populace who either lodged at the Salvation Army Hostel, which then stood on Whitechapel Road, or else they slept in the many derelict properties that then dotted the neighbourhood.
Chief amongst these was the former Board School on Durward Street. It was in the shadow of this building that the body of the ripper’s first victim, Mary Nichols, was found at 3.40am on August 31st 1888.
When I led my first Jack the Ripper Tour the Board School was derelict and boarded up, if you’ll pardon the pun.
It was quite common to see rats scurrying around it when we arrived at the murder site, often either in the dark or as it was just starting to get dark.
Since it was a favoured sleepover place for the areas drifting populace I’d often start talking to my group only to be stopped in my tracks by expletive laden abuse from the sleeping down-and-outs within who would roar that I was disturbing their sleep and telling me in no uncertain terms what I could do with my tour!
Sometimes, in the chilly winter months they’d light fires inside to keep warm and these might blaze out f control and set fire to the building. Many was the time I’d arrive at the building to find a fire engine or two dousing the smouldering remnants of one of these fires.
Unpleasant as all this was, I always felt it gave a reasonable flavour of what they are must have been like at the time of Jack the Ripper. Newspaper reports of 1888, for example, speak of an unseen population who were hidden away from prying eyes in dark cellars and sundry other un-salubrious locations around the area. The only time the general populace of the area became aware of this underclass was when they would hear them swearing and cursing from the darkness, or when they caught fleeting glimpses of them as they went on their nocturnal hunts in search of morsels of food in an attempt to keep hunger at bay.
I always felt that these 20th century voices from the darkness were possibly the descendants of those long ago cellar dwellers and that, in a bizarre way they were echoes from the past.
How times change. The Board School building, which as a result of the fires teetered on the brink of being demolished, has now been handsomely restored and has been converted into elegant flats or apartments.
The residents are now young and thrusting City workers.
And, in some ways, I miss those days in the 1980’s when the area was a lot grittier and seeder than it is today.