You could be forgiven for believing that it was the Jack the Ripper murders that led to a fascination with the crime, vice and grinding poverty of the East End of London.
After all, today we tend to only focus on the period of the Whitechapel murders when studying accounts of how the Victorian public at large – and the middle and upper classes in particular – perceived the streets and the people of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.
However, throughout the second half of the 19th century, thanks largely to reporters who saw poverty as a newsworthy topic, there grew up a middle class fascination with venturing into the streets of the East End of London in order to witness, first hand, the poverty that was inherent therein.
This voyeuristic tourism was the subject of an insightful article that appeared in The Morpeth Herald, on Saturday 24th November 1883:-
EAST LONDON SLUM TOURS
“The public loves horrors.
A murder trial, a bad divorce case, or an exciting inquest – all attract enormous crowds.
It is on the same principle that “slums” have just now become popularised. I don’t mean that they have become sought after as a place of residence. But since the publication of “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London” and Lord Salisbury’s well-known article, and the numerous realistic sketches of low-class life in the Pictorial World and the Daily Telegraph, a taste has actually sprung up for visiting the East End.
THE OPIUM DENS
It was just the same a little while ago when the “opium dens” were discovered.
Men actually made a living, and do so still for aught I know, by “personally conducting” parties over the haunts of Chinese vice.
So now it is not merely statesmen and politicians who desire to see for themselves the wretchedness and poverty of East London.
There are those who go out of sheer curiosity and love of horrors.
Possibly some of these heartless idlers may be horrified and astounded into something like philanthropy.”
THE INTEREST CONTINUED
What is interesting to note is that, just as the article suggested, there were some who discovered the conditions in the East End of London, who did become interested in helping the poor and in trying to improve the horrendous social conditions that they had witnessed on their tours of the slums of London.
Many journalists, for example, first entered the area in search of a good story for their newspapers – and were so moved by what they encountered that they began pushing for an improvement in the social conditions in the area.
JACK THE RIPPER HIGHLIGHTED THE ISSUE
When the jack the Ripper murders began, in 1888, more and more people began taking an interest in the plight of the poor in the slums of London; and more and more journalists, who had headed east to cover the murders, began working to expose the conditions that had led to the plight of the type of women – the “unfortunate” or prostitute classes – that Jack the Ripper was targeting.