A Glimpse At The Slums

The Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper led to a huge amount of press coverage all over the world, and readers, thousands of miles away from the epicentre of the crimes became fascinated by the district in which the atrocities had occurred.

On Sunday, September 30th 1900, The San Francisco Call, published the following article, written by Genevieve Green, for which she had paid a visit to the streets of the district when they were at their busiest, on a Sunday morning:-


“I have seen a small part of the slums of London and now all other poverty, all other misery that my eyes have ever beheld become joyous and radiant in comparison.

I think of the poor in Ireland, huddled indiscriminately into black, dreary shanties with the cow and the pig and the chickens, and something akin to comfort possesses me. After all, there are companionship and love and sympathy in this miscellaneous jumble; there is a suggestion of comfort in the grunt of the pig; there is warmth in the breath of the cow.

And besides, there is possible pride, a sense of ownership conveyed with the possession of the cow and the pig that is not by any means to be despised. But better than all, peer into the blackest of Irish shanties and you will find a crucifix, a few holy pictures, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and hope and love abide in the dreariest of Irish hovels, and who shall that the man has missed his share of human joy to whom these things have been given?

I think of the poor in Italy, limping, whining pursuing every stranger, snatching at pocketbooks and revealing every sort of self-inflicted deformity, yet today their life seems to me not without its ray of sunshine.


But the poor of London – God pity them – have none of that effervescence of temperament to modify their dull, cold brutality.

The Anglo-Saxon lack of emotion may be a sterling character in certain respectable classes, but, in the slums, it renders life a stupor, devoid of sensation, except the purely animal cravings.

In America, we do not quite understand the Salvation Army, perhaps we do not quite need it. We have enough of Latin and of Irish blood in our veins to render an awakening possible without a drum or a  tambourine.


It is only in London that the salvation Army may really be appreciated.

Here, it loses its eccentric aspect and climbs at once in one’s estimation to a work of astounding genius.

For the men and women that one sees in the slums of London are not the picturesque poor for whom it is so easy to be awakened to pity. They do not tell you tales of numerous children and sick husbands, nor do they take the pains to reveal the stumps of arms and legs and expatiate upon their misfortunes.

They are simply blouzy, blear-eyed, swollen, drunken in many cases, almost inanimate brutes.

The numerous children and the sick husbands and wives do not worry them. To lie on the sidewalk or the ground, anywhere, drunken, filthy, covered with flies and vermin, is the paradise of the Whitechapel inhabitant, man or woman.

Sketches showing some of the people of Whitechapel.
Some Whitechapel Types.


How to reach this class of humanity, as low in the order of intelligence as the jellyfish or the crab, yet supposed to have a soul, had long been the despair of reformers, when the Salvation Army appeared with its drums and tambourine’s, its gimcracks and fireworks. It thumped a refrain into the ear of a sot and made him look up.

This in itself was a great triumph, it was really the key to the situation.

The sot’s attention had been obtained for one brief moment, the brass drum had accomplished what science and eloquence attempted in vain, and the Salvation Army flourished.

That it has a need yet awhile to sigh for new worlds to conquer is very palpable in this part of London. The work that it does is inch by inch; it is almost discouragingly slow.

Two Salavation Army Officers passing a drunken man.
The Ear Of The Sot.


The slums are really much better than they used to be before the days of the Salvation Army, everyone will tell you, but here my imagination stops. It refuses to depict what they used to be.

A worse condition than exists at present does not teem within the range of possibilities.


We planned our trip to Whitechapel for Sunday morning, for, consistent in its lawlessness, Whitechapel refuses to observe the Sabbath, and Sunday is the busy day. It is the market day and the most interesting to the sightseer.

A respectable London shop could not keep open on Sunday were it so disposed. It would soon be closed by the police, for London is rigid in its Sunday law.

But at Whitechapel the police are powerless.

Long ago, it was discovered that this side of London must simply be winked at by the law. It would hardly be practicable to put a million people in jail, and even were there no question of the feasibility of this plan it would be doubtful as a discipline, for jail to many of these Whitechapel people is a luxury. It means something to eat and a place to sleep. In winter it means protection from the cold.

In visiting Whitechapel you must take your own chance: everyone will tell you that the police can offer you little or no protection.

A view along Petticoat Lane in 1889.
Middlesex Street, Better Known As Petticoat Lane.


My escort in this expedition was a university professor who happens to be six feet two and rather illustrative in appearance of the athletic side of university life. He agreed to take me to Whitechapel on two conditions – that I render myself as threadbare as possible for the occasion and that I leave the Kodak at home.

The first condition was accepted without demurrer: for the second I begged the privilege of submitting a brief or two and of arguing the case in full. Nay, more: I even demanded a Jury, for I did not want to leave the Kodak at home.

The jury, consisting of several acquaintances versed in London ways, agreed with the professor. It would never do to take a Kodak to Whitechapel, the thieves and crooks that abound in this region might suspect us of being detectives and make things very disagreeable.

Thus overcome there was nothing to do but to submit, although I still had hopes of having things my way.

With shabby gloves and my very oldest outfit, I presented myself before the professor on that Sunday morning.

“How do I look?”. I asked him as he scrutinized me critically.

“Much too respectable,” he answered discouragingly. “You’re not a bit Whitechapely.”

“Well, neither are you,” I retorted, for the professor was absolutely picturesque in the garb that he had affected. With a slouch hat, a low collar and a floating necktie he looked like the hero of a Saturday afternoon melodrama.

“Pull your hat over your eyes,” I suggested, “and you may at least pass for the ‘polished villain.’ Perhaps they will forgive the ‘polish’ in Whitechapel for the sake of the villainy.”

As we started out, I made one last appeal for the Kodak. “Please let me take it. I am sure that your six feet of manhood will be able to protect me.”

“Probably,” said the professor dryly, “but you seem to forget that I shall have future use for this six feet of manhood.”

Then he began one of his characteristic tirades against womankind in general. For the professor is an avowed woman-hater and to accuse us of our sex is the most available way known to him of venting his spite. He never had seen a woman who could keep an agreement – they always broke their word at the last minute: they were absolutely unreliable and so on through the list of woman-hating invectives.

For my own part, I find “woman-haters” the most delightful people on earth. They relieve us of all personal responsibility. We may dump the blame for all of our caprices on to our poor old sex and do what we please.

Having been assured that he had never expected me to keep my part of the contract, I went in search of the Kodak.


We took the tram at Bloomsbury marked Whitechapel and were thus plunged at once into the slums.

The tramway itself was a bit of the slums on wheels. As all the places on top were taken, we were forced to go inside, an experience that should have gratified forevermore the most ambitious “slummer.”

I had my choice of two places, one next to an old woman peacefully sleeping away a “jag” with a basket of fish on her lap: the other by the side of a blear-eyed individual who was devouring a most unsavoury mess of strong cheese. To make a selfish selection between these two possibilities would have been difficult. I didn’t try it, but sank at random next to the fish woman, leaving the cheesy corner to the professor.

In a few moments, the aged woman began to nod my way and to adjust her basket at an angle favourable to dumping its contents in my lap. I tried to look unconscious and not to reveal the sea-sickness that soon began to possess me, for the lesson had been well taught me that the slightest display of disgust might lead to very disastrous consequences. I realised the danger full well, yet now I felt that I should shriek should one of those clammy dead fish tumble out upon me. The fish were smelling to heaven most persistently, for many days had flown since they sported free of care neath crystal waves.

My neighbour on the other side looked like a pickpocket. In fact, the more that I looked at him the more convinced I became that such was his profession: but, no matter, I huddled as close to him as possible, for anything was preferable to the fish basket.

Woman sitting on tram.
Bound For Whitechapel.


In the midst of this dilemma, what should I discover sauntering slowly up the seam of the pickpocket’s trousers but a most healthy-looking bug. The proverbial situation of being between the devil and the deep sea was nowhere compared to my position.

I simply couldn’t stand it. I nodded to the professor – who was looking rather pale himself around the mouth, and suggested that we get out. He understood and out we went, although miles away from our destination.

“You are a great one to go slumming,” he laughed when we were once again in the street. I think I should have stood it for half an hour after starting out so bravely. I suppose you want to go back'”

“No, I don’t want to go back, but t must confess that I prefer the slums at a respectful distance. I don’t want them in my lap nor crawling all over me. Let’s take a cab till we arrive within walking distance of the markets.”

“A cab,” said the professor in his most cynical fashion. “Well, you are a woman if ever one existed. You start out prepared for any kind of horror and in twenty minutes you are looking for a cab. Now, there aren’t any cabs in Whitechapel, and, even if there were, it wouldn’t be at all safe to ride in one. It would probably be smashed to pieces in very short order. It is one of two things – take a tramway such as we have just left or walk.”

Excuse me from any more trams on this side,” I protested. “Let’s walk.”

We were really not so far from the great slum centre as we had imagined.


In twenty minutes we arrived at Middlesex Street, formerly known as Petticoat Lane, a corner that is unique and famous throughout the world. It is the region of old clothes in the most inconceivable abundance. Old boots and shoes were piled in pyramids or banked against improvised walls all the length of the street. Old coats, old hats and bonnets, men’s and women’s: faded old rotten frocks, probably the cast-off of servants, were displayed in proud array.

The sellers of these wares were mostly Jews.

The cheapness of the wares can hardly be imagined, it being possible to buy a complete outfit, shoes included, for less than a shilling.

And the buyers, poor things, I think I shall see them forever. Women with pallid faces, half defiant and half deathlike in their expression, lingered enviously over paste diamonds and make-believe turquoise. Loud-mouthed old termagants shook their fists in the faces of the Jews and haggled over the difference of a ha’penny in the price of cotton frocks.

Old men with moist eyes and red noses and hands with crinkled skin and black nails blinked their way along from one shop to the other, probably with a penny to spend and looking arduously for the best bargain.

Crowds at the Middlesex Street Sunday morning market.
Sunday Morning On Middlesex Street.


Children, pale-faced and starved, poor little pickpockets, 10 or 12 years of age, stood about in numbers awaiting their chances to steal. To grab something at one end of the street and run to the other and sell it is the popular trick. Everyone knows that the thing is stolen, but the sympathy of Whitechapel is always with the thief. He has a better chance to sell his wares than the merchant.

Whether this sympathy be in the atmosphere of Whitechapel I know not, but at any rate I felt myself catching it. This white-faced. big-eyed urchin. with wrinkles around his eyes and lines about his mouth like a man of 50, was the thief; this Jew was the merchant. Pernicious though it may have been, my heart welled over for the little thief and I wished him godspeed in his manoeuvres.

Most of these youngsters boast the proud distinction of being “known to the police,” the only distinction, by the way, that is at all available to the ambitious resident of Whitechapel. Almost as soon as they can walk or talk they are put on the list as the “companions of thieves,” as if they could choose their companions, poor little wretches.


In all, of this jumble cursing and swearing and the foulest kind of language made the day hideous.

Although in the morning hours drunkards were everywhere apparent, asleep on the sidewalks or staggering through the streets.

Puny, scabby babies, loathsome little victims of filth and disease, clung to the breasts of insensible, drunken mothers.

In this same street is a public house that has been famous for centuries as the rendezvous of beggars.

Here at night, the lame man throws away his crutch and the blind man sees and high carnival is held after a day’s successful imposition.

Here, also, he who is sufficiently ambitious may enjoy the real privilege of meeting a real live burglar, not in the dark with a mask and a lantern, but socially. He may smoke a pipe with him and listen to tales of his daring deeds.

For the burglar to the people of Whitechapel is a “jolly good fellow,” although a little condescending in his way toward the petty thieves and pick-pockets with which he is surrounded.

Thieves in the slums.
Thieves And Beggars.


We wended our way through several streets of this sort, past the markets where old meat and vegetables cast off by the city establishments are sold to this starving population to whom anything is acceptable that holds their wretched bodies and souls together.

I meant to take a number of pictures in spite of the professor, but I had not the heart, to say nothing of the courage, to turn the Kodak on their misery. The few snaps that I was able to obtain were in the more decent corners.


We returned by a different route, past the Bank of England and Saint Paul’s cathedral.

The service at Saint Paul’s was just over and the people were pouring out – that wonderfully well-dressed, top-hatted, long-coated English crowd, the most respectable and genteel in appearance, perhaps, that you will find on earth.

We looked in silence, each of us impressed with the greatness and the suddenness of the contrast.

“On our side of the water, we have a theory that we take quite seriously,” I said at last to the professor, “that all men are born equal.”