Rob Clack is one of the most respected authors on the topographical locations associated with the Jack the Ripper case and has built up an impressive collection of photographs, maps and other memorabilia related to the Whitechapel Murders and the East End of London in general.
He is one of the “go to guys” when I uncover a photograph of a specific location and find that I am unsure of its exact location, and it is not often that he can’t come to the rescue and identify a street or building that has got me stumped.
He is the co-author of the book The London of Jack the Ripper Then And Now, which he wrote in conjunction with tour guide Philip Hutchinson and which is a must have book for anyone who is serious about visiting the scenes and locations connected with the Whitechapel Murders. He has also contributed extensively to some of the most respected publications on the case such as Ripperologist and Ripper Notes, and is both respected and admired by his peers in the field of ripper studies.
As an admirer of his work and a beneficiary of his expertise I was absolutely delighted when Rob agreed to an interview about his interest in and contributions to the case. So, please give a warm welcome to respected ripperologist and all round nice guy, Mr Robert Clack.
Hi Rob. Can you give us a sense of how long you have been interested in the Jack the Ripper murders?
Hi Richard, it was in 1984 that I first became interested in the Jack the Ripper murders. It was a name I had been familiar with for several years, but other than the name I knew nothing about him.
What was it about them that first aroused your interest?
It was the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ that first aroused my interest. It was such a great name, I did not know who or what he was, what he did or anything about him. One day in 1984 I was in my local ‘Woolworths’ store in Brixton, where I was living at the time.
I was just browsing through the store when I saw a copy of Stephen Knights ‘Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution’ it was the cover that attracted me to the book, an old painting of London by Atkinson Grimshaw and in bright bold lettering was the word ‘Jack the Ripper’ it was such a great cover I was drawn to it.
As I mentioned in my previous answer I was familiar with the name but knew nothing about him, so I bought the book there and then to find out more about him.
And you’re still fascinated by them after all these years?
I am, but not as much as I used to be. I still get excited when new discoveries are made and enjoy discussing the case with like minded friends.
There is very little in new discoveries turning up these days but there are still a lot of fine work being done in other areas. Neil Bell’s recent book and Adam Woods ‘Ripperologist’ magazine which is the main source for the latest news keep me interested in the case. And these days it’s the lesser known aspects of the case, the supporting players that keeps my interest.
As someone who has been visiting the East End of London for many years would you say it has changed a great deal since you first visited it? And do you think those changes are for the better or for the worse?
Times change and progress has to be made and not always for the better. There has been improvements made to the area, the streets are cleaner and the soot and grime have been scrubbed from the buildings. New buildings are continually going up and while this is good news to the local populace it is not so good news to the Ripperologist.
You have, over the years delved into many a dusty archive and have uncovered numerous photographs (as well as taken a fair few). Which photographic discovery are you proudest of or most amazed by?
This is a very tough question as there are numerous photographs I am quite proud of. The photograph of ‘The Princess Alice’ which I and Philip published in our book. It was quite amazing to see how the pub originally looked with its extra floors.
Then there is the only known photograph of Bullers Lodging House in New Street. This building was demolished in 1908 to make way for an extension to Bishopsgate Police Station and as far as I am aware has never been published anywhere.
Then there are some of the people involved, Sergeant Stephen White, Police Constable George Hutt and lastly William Grant aka Grainger which appeared in a newspaper called ‘The Police Whistle’ and as far as I am aware I have the only known copy.
Even the British Newspaper Library doesn’t have a copy.
Do you have a favourite location today, one that you never tire of visiting or exploring?
I don’t unfortunately. The area has changed so much over the years since I started visiting the East End that it is like two different worlds. I rarely take photographs of the area now, it has changed so much. I suppose if I had some time on my hands the area at the back of Commercial Street Police Station is nice to walk around as there are several streets which have hardly changed since the rippers time, Elder Street, Blossom Street, Fleur de Lis Street as well as Folgate Street which has a gas lamp on number 18 (this is the wonderful Denis Severs House which is open to the public and well worth a visit.)
If you could go back to one location and see it as it was at the time of the Whitechapel Murders, which one would you choose?
That would be Bucks Row. It was the first murder scene I visited and feel most closely to.
As someone who explores the locations at all hours of the day or night do you feel safe in the area?
Thankfully I have never had any trouble in the area. And I do feel fairly safe walking around the place. There are usually a lot of people about at all hours, but it always best to be alert at all times and keep your valuables hidden.
Why do you think people are still interested in the case today?
This is probably the most boring answer and I think it is the answer people usually give. It is probably the greatest unsolved mystery, you have the name ‘Jack the Ripper.’ swirling fog and hansom cabs, it is the greatest whodunit mystery and people love a whodunit.
Do you think we will ever know Jack the Ripper’s true identity?
At this late stage no. I don’t think we have enough information to make a definitive case against anyone. People have been named who could be likely candidates (Druitt and Kosminki) but it will never be solved to everybody’s satisfaction. And as we have seen with the shawl, DNA is not the answer and is not perfect. I am of the opinion that if they did not know at the time, then we never will.
How can people get to know more about you and your work?
I have as you have mentioned had my work published in Ripperologist as well as The London of Jack the Ripper: Then and Now with Philip Hutchinson. I am on Facebook and a member of some of the groups on there, such as ‘Jack the Ripper Photography’ and ‘H Division Crime Club’
Rob, thanks for a great interview.
Thank you Richard.