A Voice From The East End

Life for the women of the Victorian East End of London was harsh. Indeed, many of them fought an almost daily battle to simply raise enough money to keep a roof over their heads and keep the wolf from the door.

The Jack the Ripper murders certainly focused the attention of society on the terrible living conditions in the area where the murders were occurring, and many newspapers began reporting on the lives that were lived by the people of the East End of London.

The Hackney and Kingsland Gazette, on Saturday, January 2nd 1889, published the following short article that provided readers with a glimpse of the lives of some of the girls that lived in the area:-


Scattered about the streets adjoining Goswell and Whitechapel roads, and in the neighbourhood of Old Street, there are thousands of girls and women who manage to exist in some mysterious way. working late and early, or rather, slaving – one can call it nothing else – earning on average from three to six shillings a week.

These women and girls live two or three together in one room, generally a garret or a basement, and they deem themselves fortunate they earn enough to keep a shelter of some sort over their heads and the grim wolf, famine, from the door.

A group of three girls.
Whitechapel Girls in Flower And Dean Street.


They are wretched-looking creatures, stunted, sallow, hollow-eyed, but with a sort of grim cheerfulness that is infinitely more melancholy that the loudest complaints: their hard noisy laughter is but the very mockery of mirth and happiness.

These women and girls are for the most part untidy, yet they have something distinctive about them. The women generally wear very small bonnets, tilted very far back, and shawls of a universal depressing grey; the girls affect “Ulsters” and hats of the most nondescript shape, composed of greasy, rusty velvet. A worsted muffler of some sort completes their costume, and their hair is usually cut short and very much frizzed.


I once asked one of those girls, a bonnet shape maker, how it was that she always found time to ‘do up’ he hair, no matter how tired she was; and she replied, “Well, it is the only thing I ever do for myself from week’s end to week’s end; it is the only pleasure I have in my life.”

Another girl, a pretty, delicate-looking girl, who was very lame, and who worked in a very small laundry. She was over the washtub all day, amid steam and the horrible atmosphere of soap suds, but her hair was almost always elaborately ‘frizzed’. She said, “If it weren’t for doin’ up her hair at night, she’d drown herself, or worse.”

This sort of incongruous personal decoration seems almost to have a trace of savagery in it.


And, in truth, the conditions under which many women live and work in East London are very little short of barbarous; and, instead of finding fault with the unloveliness and untidiness of their lives and dream, one should only marvel how they manage to live and purchase any clothing at all, how they even contrive to keep body and soul together.”