A September Night In Whitechapel

Following the murder of Annie Chapman, on the 8th of September, 1888, there was an upsurge in newspaper interest in the area in which the Whitechapel murders were occurring.

At the time, it was believed by the police, the press, and the public at large that Annie Chapman was the fourth victim of the unknown miscreant; and the fact that the crimes had taken place in a relatively small part of East London was leading to feelings of extreme unease in that quarter.


Emma Smith had been attacked at the junction of Wentworth Street and Brick Lane in the early hours of the 3rd of April, and she died the next day at the London Hospital; Martha Tabram had been murdered in George Yard on the 7th of August; Mary Nichols had been murdered in Buck’s Row on the 31st of August, and now Annie Chapman had been murdered in the backyard of number 29 Hanbury Street, a house in which people were sleeping in their beds, just a few feet away from the spot at which the outrage was being carried out.


As the panic and excitement reached fever pitch over the weekend of the 8th and 9th of September, more and more journalists began arriving in the district to uncover as much information as they could about the crimes and the victims.

One of the things that caught the attention of many of these reporters was just how sordid the district was, and they soon became as fascinated by the neighbourhood as they were by the murders themselves.


On the night of Monday the 10th of September, a reporter from the Central News Agency, headed for Whitechapel to take a stroll through streets and passageways in order to gauge the mood of the inhabitants and to see what he could uncover about the endeavours being made by the police to bring the Whitechapel murderer to justice.

Over the next few days, his syndicated article appeared in numerous newspapers across the country.

For us today, articles such as this are as close as we will ever get to experiencing the district in the aftermath of a murder and witnessing the reactions and attitudes of the people who actually lived through the horror of the Jack the Ripper crimes.


The following version appeared in the London Evening Standard on Wednesday the 12th of September.

So let’s join our intrepid newshound as he ventures into the enclave to see it as it was still reeling from the shock of yet another terrible atrocity:-

“The scare, which the disclosure of the fourth and most horrible of the murders occasioned in the district, has considerably subsided.

People, having become familiar with the details of the tragedy, and being calmed by the knowledge of the active measures adopted for their protection by the police, are returning to their normal condition of mind.


This is plainly evidenced by the aspect which Whitechapel Road presented on Monday night, and up to an early hour of the morning – a very different one from that of the corresponding period of the previous day.

On Sunday night the pavements were almost deserted, but 24 hours later groups of men and women chatted, joked, and boisterously laughed upon the flagstones until long after St. Mary’s clock struck one.

A view along Whitechapel Road.
Whitechapel Road.


In passing through the groups of people, the words most frequently heard in their conversation were “Leather Apron.”

The term has become a byword of the pavement and gutter, and one oftener hears it accompanied by a guffaw than whispered in a tone which would indicate any fear of the mysterious individual who is supposed to live under that sobriquet.

Whilst a large number of persons, including many members of the police force, believe in the guilt of the aproned one, the talk of the footways convinces the passer-by that a large number of other inhabitants of the East end are sceptical as to his personality.

So it may be said with truth that the thoroughfares last night presented their customary appearance.


There was the usual percentage of gaudily dressed, loud, and vulgar women strutting or standing at the brightly lighted crossways; and the still larger proportion of miserable, half-fed, dejected creatures of the same sex upon whom hard life, unhealthy habits, and bad spirits have too plainly set their stamp.

Soon after one o’clock the better dressed members of the motley company disappeared by ones and twos; but the poverty-stricken drabs, to whom it would appear fortune is less kind, crawled about from lamp to lamp, or from one dark alley’s mouth to another until faint signs of dawn appeared.


Off the main road – in such thoroughfares as Commercial street and Brick lane – there was little to attract attention.

Constables passed silently by the knots of homeless vagabonds huddled in the recess of some big doorway; other constables, whose plain clothes could not prevent their stalwart, well-drilled figures from betraying their calling, paraded in couples, now and again emerging from some dimly lighted lane and passing their uniformed comrades as if they were perfect strangers.


The streets referred to by the constables in the main thoroughfare, as “round at the back,” presented a dismal appearance, the dim yellow flames of the not too numerous public lamps only rendering the darkness of the night more gloomy.

Such passages as Edward street, connecting Hanbury and Prince’s streets, Flower and Dean Street, between Brick lane and Commercial street, which, in daylight, only strike one as very unwholesome and dirty thoroughfares, appear unutterably forlorn and dismal in the darkness of the night.


From an alley in one of these, leading to uninviting recesses, a miserable specimen of a man – hollow-cheeked, haggard, and dirty – shuffled hurriedly into the wider street, and, crossing to the opposite pavement, dived into another recess, and was instantly lost, to view.

No constable would have thought of interfering with him had he met him, nor would there have been any excuse for accosting him; and yet his ragged clothes, of some dark hue, might have been saturated with the blood of a murdered victim, which would not have been visible in the depressing yellow shade of the flickering gas jets.

In almost any one of these dark and filthy passages a human being’s life might be every night sacrificed were the blow dealt with the terrible suddenness and precision which evidently characterised the last two homicides; and a police force of double the strength of that now employed, and organised under the best possible conditions, might well be baffled in its efforts to capture the murderers.


In the immediate neighbourhood of St. Mary’s Church, a wide entry presented a deep cavern of Stygian blackness, into which no lamp shone, and where, for ought a passer-by at that hour could discover, a corpse might lie, and from which – such is its position – a murderer might, if possessed of coolness, easily pass unobserved.

In a squalid thoroughfare between Hanbury street and Whitechapel Road, some houses have been pulled down, the space being now waste ground enclosed by wooden palings.

This unilluminated spot is separated by a house or two from an alley which, at a point some yards from the street, turns at right angles, apparently towards the unoccupied space mentioned.


Into the mouth of this passage a slatternly woman, her face half hidden in a shawl, which formed her only headdress, thrust her head, and in a shrill and angry voice shrieked, “Tuppy!”

The cry was answered by the appearance of an evil-looking man, with a ragged black beard, who in reply to an impatient question “Where is she?”, muttered in a surly tone, “Round there,” at the same time jerking his thumb backwards towards the alley.

“Well, come ‘long ‘ome, then. I ain’t agoin’ to wait for she,” replied the woman, who, with the dark man limping after her, soon disappeared round the corner of the street.

There was no subsequent indication of the presence of a third person.

The light from the street was so dim that there was no possibility of recognising the features of the man and woman, and certainly, if either had borne traces of crime, they would have attracted no attention.

Such occurrences as the above are, the police say, quite usual, and they neither have, nor wish to have, authority to question any individual whose conduct may attract attention without exciting suspicion.”


By this point, our intrepid newshound had seen, heard, and probably smelt, enough of Whitechapel to keep him in stories for several weeks, and, closing his notebook, he headed back to the offices of the Central News Agency to file his copy for distribution to newspapers across the land.

And, as people read his article a few days later, it no doubt confirmed their belief that Whitechapel was a district that it was much better and far safer to read about than to actually visit.