Life in Victorian Whitechapel was, for many of the residents, a daily battle for survival. Conditions were harsh, hunger was just a pay-packet away, and disease and death were all around.
If there was one thing that the Jack the Ripper murder’s did, or at least the newspaper reporting on the case did, it was to bring the plight of the poor to the public at large, not just in the East End of London, but all over the land.
Journalists had, it must be said, been reporting on the conditions in the area for many years before the onset of the Whitechapel murders.
BLOOD MONEY TO WHITECHAPEL
But the crimes had the effect of highlighting the plight of the poor in a way that philanthropists and socially minded journalists had not been able to do. This was the point that George Bernard Shaw made in his “Blood Money To Whitechapel” letter, that was published in The Star newspaper, on 24th September, 1888.
THE NEMESIS OF NEGLECT
It was Shaw’s letter that inspired the famous Punch cartoon “The Nemesis Of Neglect” and its depiction of a dagger-wielding, hollow-eyed and shrouded phantom driting through the miasmic slums of the East End of London.
GLIMPSES INTO THE VICTORIAN EAST END
The fact that so many journalists and social commentators were venturing into the East End of London, intent on bringing the stories of the crimes and of the residents who were living through the horror to the wider British public, means that we today have an abundance of accounts that enable us to look back on the era through the eyes of those who witnessed the events, and the horrors, as they unfolded, and to come face to face, in prose at least, with the everyday lives of the Victorian East Enders.
Many of these accounts, inevitable, make one glad to be living in the 21st century, and many of them leave you feeling true sympathy, even pity, for those long-ago residents.
One such account appeared in The Dundee Evening Telegraph on Tuesday, 16th August, 1892.
It was an account written by a reporter who had paid a visit to Whitechapel, and who had found himself attending the early stages of a child’s funeral, as the cortege left family’s residence off Commercial Road, for its journey to the cemetery:-
A CHILD’S FUNERAL IN WHITECHAPEL
I push my way through the waiting crowd to where the dismal mourning coach is waiting.
Lion Court has no pleasant habitations within its dreary border, nor is there a temple for its people within half a mile.
Three hours ago I was in the Orange Walk at Hampden Court, but here the bright summer sunlight only serves to show the squalor of the place more clearly, and brings the slouch caps of the men further down over the evil-looking faces.
UNKEMPT CHILDREN AND PALLID-FACED WOMEN
Children there are in great numbers, unkempt and noisy, many of them almost unclothed; and women, pallid-faced, young and old. Their talk is terribly matter of fact, with only now and then an allusion to the event which has brought them together.
There is no ominous box amongst the wheels of the parochial carriage – the little coffin will easily find room on the dingy cushion of the seat inside; and, as for the mourners, they are two in number, and are just coming down the dim entry to the court, pipe in mouth, making sundry comments to the loungers in waiting.
DRINKING WITH THE DRIVER
They have been having a drink with the driver of the coach, who still remains in the taproom of the Royal Charles opposite. “Do ee go upstairs with them, sir; them’s Tottie’s father and uncle, and right good chaps they are. Why, bless ye, sir, many a drink we’ve had together. Ye see I liked the little un’ and used to carry her a bit on fine days.”
For a shilling, the lounger who addresses me, and whose face has little love written on it, touches his ragged cap and would fain tell me more, but I take his advice and proceed cautiously up the narrow, creaking stairs.
THE CHAMBER OF DEATH
Arrived on a dark landing, three flights up, I see through an open door the chamber of death.
“Come in, sir,” shouts one of the mourners within, who sees me through the clouds of tobacco smoke that 6 fill the room.
Within are gathered several women neighbours who surround the mother, a young, pale-faced woman with tell-tale streaks of grey; the two men sit on a chest in the corner, puffing at their pipes.
There is a snowy whiteness in the sheet that covers the bed on which the little coffin lies.
One of the women tells me gravely that the mother had washed it the night before, and a passing glint of pleasure comes to the mother’s face as I praise its whiteness. She had bought it in their “better daye,” she tells me.
THE FADED LILLIES
There are three arum lilies lying on the coffin, which, they tell, a lady had brought to Tottie before she died. They are somewhat faded now, but what a gleam of brightness they bring to this dull garret.
But ten years was hers, and of them two pining sickness.
TIME TO LEAVE
The mother tells me the story of “her little Tottie” while the driver is coming noisily up the stairs.
The father puts his pipe in his pocket and lifts the coffin in his arms.
The mother follows to the door, crying bitterly, unheeding the women’s comfort.
THE COACH RATTLES AWAY
Down the creaking stairs Tottie is carried for the last time, and, as I follow, I hear the mother’s bitter weeping.
The crowd stands looking after the coach as it rattles rapidly away.
The sun is strong and the air is fresher out here in Commercial Road, and the noisy stream of life rolls on.
An hour later, under the dome of St Paul’s, while the boys are singing, I think Tottie is better away from her borne in Lion Court.”