The Whitechapel murders – under which the Jack the Ripper crimes are featured – took place in the East End of London in the autumn of 1888. But what was the area like at the time?
In this article, I thought I’d take you on a quick verbal journey – so to speak – through the streets of the district of London that the ripper chose as the backcloth for his inglorious reign of terror.
THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS
900,000 People lived in the East End, a quarter of million of which were based in Whitechapel, and 15,000 of those residents were classed as homeless.
Disease, hunger, neglect and even violence would claim the lives of one in four children before they reached the age of five.
A CROSS SECTION OF CITIZENS
The populace consisted of a cross section of Victorian Society. Throughout the 19th century economic migrants had been arriving in increasing numbers from East Anglia and Essex, both of which had seen their traditional agricultural and cloth making industries decimated. Large numbers of Irish immigrants had also begun arriving with the potato famines of the 1840’s.
Employment was intermittent.
Men might find work in the docks, but this was a hit and miss means of earning a living, entailing as it did turning up early at the dock gates to await the foreman, whose arrival with the sought after employment tickets would be marked by a viscous scrum, as men kicked, punched and even bit their way to the front to ensure that they would be amongst the fortunate ones to earn money to feed their family.
Others might find work in the area’s sweat shops, working in trades such as boot and cabinet making, or in the huge factories that dotted the district. The hours were long, the conditions were horrific, and the pay was low.
Job security was none existent, since a vast reservoir of desperate men, women and children was ever on hand to replace those unwilling to tow the line.
By 1888 the indigenous workforce had come to perceive another threat in the form of a huge influx of Jewish immigrants who were fleeing persecution and economic hardship in Russia, Poland and Germany.
Throughout the 1880’s the Jewish Population of Whitechapel had increased to between 45,000 and 50,000.
As the economic depression of the 1880’s raised the spectre of mass unemployment in the area, the Jews found themselves vilified for stealing English jobs
Throughout the first part of 1888, two Parliamentary Committees had formed and were looking into the immigration problem. One of these was investigating the so-called “sweating system” in the East End, by which employees worked in tiny, stinking workshops, for anything up to twenty hours a day for minimum wages. This was seen as being particularly prevalent amongst the newly arrived Jewish immigrants.
Charles Freak, secretary of the Shoemaker Society, a trade that was synonymous with Whitechapel, informed the committee that “These Jew foreigners work in our trade at this common work 16 or 18 hours a day and the consequence is that they make a lot of cheap and nasty stuff that destroys the market and injures us.”
He went on to accuse the Jewish immigrants of frustrating English workmen in their battle to attain higher wages by “black legging “during disputes and taking “work out at any price.”
Another witness complained that native tradesmen were now only able to gain “a precarious living” and lamented that “Wages in tailoring, shoemaking and cabinet making, which had once stood at £2 a week, had now dropped by half to £1 and £1 5s.”
The committees would ultimately vindicate the immigrants, but their prolonged deliberations ensured that the matter was in the public eye throughout the first eight months of 1888.
THE LIPSKI MURDER
In June 1887 a notorious East End murder, where both the perpetrator and victim were Jewish, had shocked the area.
Israel Lipski, a lodger in a house in Batty Street, had poisoned fellow lodger, Miriam Angel by forcibly pouring nitric acid down her throat.
Although he was hanged, the murder had resulted in a good deal of anti-Semitism in the area, and “Lipski” was, by 1888, being used as a term of abuse towards Jews from Gentiles.
It was against this background that a series of murders in the East End of London – that began in April 1888, but which gathered their main momentum throughout the autumn of the year – confronted the indigenous population with a type of crime that was barbaric in its nature that they came to believe that an Englishman could not be responsible.
They were, therefore, only too willing to pin the blame on the community that they were already perceiving as being the cause of so many of the problems that blighted their everyday lives.
And, as the murderer increased in their ferocity and number, they began to exact mob punishment on members of that community in such a way that the police came to fear that they might well lose control of the streets, as the prospect of anti-Semitic rioting reared its head over the streets of the East End of London.