A Tour Of Whitechapel November 1888

On Saturday the 17th of November, 1888, The Weekly Telegraph published the fourth, and final, instalment of a series of articles that had taken readers on an armchair tour of the slums of East London, and which had visited the Jack the Ripper murder sites to report on the appearance of the locations, and on the type of people who inhabited and frequented the localities.

The article, which had evidently been researched and written before the murder of Mary Kelly had become public knowledge, read as follows:-


“The mist begins to fall in a steady melancholy drizzle, and the wind blows cold and raw.

I shiver involuntarily, for the chill breeze seems to penetrate even my thick coat.

The damp is surcharged with smuts, and wherever they fall they leave a black mark.


A cripple is sitting in a doorway, he looks wolfish and starved, a hunk of dry bread, the rejected evidently of dogs, is lying in the gutter, and this he presently sees. He gives a low cry, and with the aid of his rough crutch he hobbles towards it, his poor maimed leg working with excitement, he clutches at that bread eagerly, drags himself back to the step and commences to gnaw and tear at the crust, more like a wild animal than anything human.

His enjoyment, however, is of short duration, for a long, yellow thieving hand, belonging to a something that bears a faint resemblance to a woman, grasps him by his frayed shirt, and with the other hand snatches the food from him, and then vanishes in the mist.

First the lad curses and blasphemes, and then he gives way to a dreadful misery, he moans and cries, and the tears form grotesque little rivulets down his grimy face.

“He wishes he was dead, he prays for the pluck to cut his throat, he shrieks out for the woman’s heart, her vitals,” he curses her with every curse, and then he falls a moaning again.

Mr. B—- stands behind me as I drop a coin into the poor wretch’s hand.

He doesn’t thank me, but glares and blinks at me out of his wicked tear-stained eyes, and in a low, hoarse voice says that he’ll, “Go and get something to eat before “she” comes out again.”

I inquire if she is the person who took the bread from him?

He nods his head volubly.

“And who is she?” I ask.

My mother,” he responds, laconically.

I shrink back. the remembrance of the curses ringing in my ears, and I shudder.

Surely, instead of spending thousands of pounds annually on propagating the Gospel among the Jews, and sending missionaries abroad to reclaim the heathens,  a little of that money might be better spent in the efforts to Christianise and humanise the dwellers of the East End slums?


We cross the road, there is the lodging-house and there is the inevitable door that shuts in one of the usual dark courts that reek with life, and which form not only a happy hunting ground for vice but also a convenient and safe place for murders.

It was huddled op behind this door that the victim of the Hanbury street tragedy was found, close to the house where she was wont to sleep, and within a stone’s throw of the street that she had traversed in her blind despair.

“After midnight,” says Mr. B—-, “it is something dreadful to see the women congregate around the doss-houses and beg to be let in.

They have generally had the price of a night’s lodging during the day, but they spend it on drink, and when it gets late, and trade is bad with them, they get fair desperate at the idea of sleeping in the streets all night.”

A photograph of the corridors inside 29 Hanbury Street.
The Interior Passage Of 29 Hanbury Street.


As we go along we pass another lodging-house, and there we see a sight so indescribably painful that I find it difficult to realise that I am in a wealthy and humane city.

It is an unfortunate, young, and as well as we can see under the dirt and paint, pretty.

She has boots and stockings on and an old silk skirt, with a torn velvet bodice showing the flesh through the rents. She smells strongly of spirits, and we hear her imploring the deputy to trust her a night’s shelter.

She offers him anything only to let her rest there that night.

He refuses, she catches him by the hand, she almost kneels to him, but he is obdurate, shakes her from him, and shuts the door on her.

At first, the poor creature seems paralysed, then she shrieks and batters at the door with her hands, then she sobs with impotent misery and calls on Christ to assist her.

She tears at her dress and falls to beating her bare breasts. She seems to take a fierce delight in torturing herself, for she strikes her head against the wall and drags out her lank hair by handfuls. It is the very personification of abandoned despair. She tears and rives at herself, she drags herself shrieking and cursing to the windows, and then another woman that she seems to know comes along, and to her she explains her plight.

Oaths are interchanged, they both squat down on the curbstone, the second woman counts over her money; the results must be satisfactory, for they both go into the doss-house.

My companion tells me that there is an amount of clan-ship amongst these unfortunates; although they will nearly murder each other through jealousy. If one is down on her luck the others will help her if possible; for instance, to-night that woman will pay for the other one’s lodging.

Women outside a house in Flower and Dean Street.
Women In Flower And Dean Street


I look stealthily at my watch, and I find that it is getting late, so we proceed to direct our footsteps towards Whitechapel Road, which is the first stage of my return journey homewards.

As we go along the loafers increase in number.

“These men,” say. Mr. B—-, “are professional loafers; they sleep and drink all day, and at night they come out of the alleys and courts and lurk about the dark corners to see who they can knock down and rob.

Why, if I had not been with you, you would have had every bit of your valuables stolen by this time.

These fellows don’t work because they won’t; thieving pays them much better, and it is exciting.

They know me, and they know that I know them; so that is the reason they have left us alone.”

Thugs outside a lodging house being watched by a police officer.
A Cheap Lodging House In Spitalfields. From The Illustrated Police News, 15th September 1888. Copyright the British Library Board.


I hint a doubt as to the desirability of our detectives being so well known; but this Mr. B—  laughs at, “I’m in plain clothes,” he says, “and the folks about here recognise me; that is because I want them to. We are not down here on business, we are merely sightseeing, and I did not wish our pleasure to be spoiled by getting into rows which I knew we could avoid by letting my calling be clearly noticeable.

You mentioned a few minutes ago that since we left Berner street we have met no policemen. More we have in uniform, but we have kept constantly running against our men, so artfully dressed that you have seen no difference in them and the other individuals who were lounging about.

The number of police that have been drafted down here is surprising.

If the public only knew of the precautions that are being taken they would cease their grumbling at Sir Charles Warren, I can tell you.”

A cartoon showing a detective in disguise.
From Fun Magazine, March 4th 1885.


We are now on Commercial Street, and it seems to me a very paradise after the slums we have left.

The mist has cleared away, and if it were not for the all-pervading and abominable smell of fried fish, the air would be delightfully fresh in comparison with Hanbury Street.

In addition to the baked potato cans, the perpetrators of which are calling out in stentorian tones. “Hall ‘ot, hall ‘ot,” a man is doing a thriving trade in dispensing new walnuts at “ten a penny.”

A woman is standing in the road. by a stall on which is laid out some pallid and soft and moist objects. They seem to be in a state of mild perspiration and do not look unlike unhealthy babyhood. They, however, appear to be a choice delicacy, for when any are sold the purchaser walks off with them in proud triumph.

I ask what they are and I am told that they rejoice in the name of “trotters.”


A swarthy Italian is grinding away at a piano-organ, and round him are a bevvy of children, girls and women.

The children and the girls are dancing, some of them a sort of cancan, others kicking up their legs and whirling about like so many teetotums, whilst several girls are waltzing together slowly and gracefully.

A little, bare-headed ragged child, with a face like a cherub, and long golden curls half-way down her back, emerges from a group of juveniles; she glides gently along, makes a deep curtsey, picks up her poor frock in one hand, and dances a measure so gracefully and quaintly that we stop to see the finish of the performance.

The music gets quicker and she dances faster, her eyes glow like stars, the colour mounts her delicate cheeks, and she keeps time to the music in some fantastically graceful steps.

The can-can dancers are getting uproarious; they whirl their arms about, their bodies sway, and they are trying to see who can kick their legs up the highest.

The music stops, they sink down exhausted to sit down on the kerb and wipe their hot faces and their hair, and the child dancer pirouettes round one of them on one toe, kisses her hand, then rushes back to laugh and quarrel with her companions.

People around an organ player in the streets of Whitechapel.
People Dancing To The Organ Player.


Whitechapel Road itself is a great delight to me – it is wide and noisy, and presents all the excitement of a fair.

Either side of the road is a long row of stalls brilliantly lit up with portable gas, and everything under the sun can be bought there.

There are butcher stalls presided over by loud-voiced men, who inform bystanders that, as it is late, they are almost giving the meat away.

A lean, pale woman, carrying a baby, is haggling over the price of a piece of mutton; it is a fair-size, and he at length agrees to take fourpence, she pays him in half-pennies, and a little boy that is clinging to her skirt claps his thin hands rapturously.

There are fruit stalls, ice stalls, boot stalls, and stalls where unholy-looking shell-fish are being consumed with an appetite that speaks volumes for the digestive organs of the Whitechapelites.

The immense greeny-tinged mussels and the coy periwinkles are to be had with a sprinkle of pepper and salt and a soupcon of vinegar. for a halfpenny a saucerful, and it is a beautiful and edifying spectacle to see how clean the saucers are left with the aid of the tongue and a grimy forefinger.

There are jewellery stalls at which girls gaze lovingly, and where a brooch with a diamond rivalling the Koh-i-Noor in size can be bought for threepence; and there are tool stalls where everything from a hammer to a jemmy can be purchased.

And, of course, there are fried fish stalls. I abhor and detest this delicacy with my heart. I indulge in wondering what the fish was like before it was cooked, and I marvel at the quantity that is sold without any appreciable harm to the population in consequence.

A man on a wagon is selling a wondrous ointment, which, if he is to be believed, will not only cure all the ills that flesh is heir to, but which will also remedy everything from a smoky chimney to an obnoxious mother-in-law.

A view along Whitechapel Road.
Whitechapel Road


The people are better (not to say well) dressed than in the other streets that we have been into.

We pass many handsome girls. The majority wear hats, but they are noisy and self-assertive.

Men lounge about here, but they give me the idea of idling after work is done, for they have very little of the raffish look of there Berner Street and Hanbury Street compeers.


In short, the East End cannot be judged from the flourishing and busy Whitechapel Road.

It is the places that branch off from it that are so vile. It is the places where the moral sewerage flows till they become hideous cesspools of vice and crime.

Fine ladies and white-handed gentlemen will do as good down here; indeed, nothing will remedy the evils while lighting is deficient, sanitary convenience is absent, and these filthy dark alleys exist.


I say goodbye to Mr. B—  at Aldgate Station, and thank him, as well I may, for his courtesy and kindness. and for his presence, which has kept me from insult and robbery in what he describes as “one of the (if not the) worst localities in London.”

And, as I return to my hotel, I think with a thrill of disgust at the many horrible things I have seen and heard during my night’s slumming in Whitechapel.