There can be little doubt that the citizens of Victorian Whitechapel were a rough and ready lot – or, at least, a large majority of them were.
Life was tough, poverty was rife, and violence was commonplace.
Yet, the majority of the residents made do and got by, and their fortitude in the face of fearful odds was, to say the least, impressive.
Most of them lived a hand to mouth existence from week to week, and, since Saturday was the day on which most of them were paid, Saturday night was the night on which they headed out in search of entertainment to enable them, for a few hours at least, to forget the hardship that faced them throughout the rest of the week.
The place to go was Whitechapel Road, which offered all manner of shows, attractions, delights and pubs.
THE WHITECHAPEL BEAUTY SHOW
One of the most intriguing forms of entertainment was the Whitechapel Beauty Show, in which both men and women would compete for a selection of prizes.
Given the fact that the audiences before which the competitors paraded themselves were, to put it mildly, a raucous bunch, you can’t help but admire the sheer bravado of the competitors in standing on a stage to be judged by their fellow East Enders.
Pearson’s Weekly provided its readers with a glimpse of what went on in these shows in its edition of Saturday, 25th December, 1897:-
A WHITECHAPEL BEAUTY SHOW
WHERE THE SENTIMENTAL MAN COMES OUT ON TOP
“One of the strangest sights in London is to walk down Whitechapel Road on a Saturday night, between nine and ten, to pass through the dense crowd, under the flaring gas-lights, between the street-stalls, and to turn into a place called “Wonderland,” and there behold a Whitechapel beauty show.
Whitechapel Road, when the Saturday night market is in full swing, is the brightest thoroughfare in London, and the types who make it interesting, Jews and costers principally, may be studied at their best at their own special place of amusement which they frequent when the day’s work is over.
A DECOROUS AUDIENCE
A beauty show attracts their attention more than anything else.
There are seats for two hundred, but this does not prevent many hundreds more from squeezing themselves between the walls.
The audience is picturesque, but not necessarily clad in rags and dirt; everyone is exceedingly decorous.
There is the stage at one end of the room, on which chairs are arranged, and on these the competitors take their places, amid such hoots as:- “Yah, yah, there’s a a beauty show for you,” and, “Don’t he think himself dysy?”
NO MERCY FROM THE AUDIENCE
The competitors receive little mercy, and frequently have cause to regret their appearance.
The audience is provided with voting papers, the ladies voting for the male beauties, and the men for the ladies. Otherwise, jealousy among the audience would frequently prevent the most handsome competitor from being successful.
THE MALE BEAUTY COMPETITION
Only a limited number of men enter for the male beauty competition; perhaps eight or a dozen types are bold enough to compete for the silver cigarette case, or the keyless watch, which is the first prize.
The most sentimental, poetical-looking man is generally first favourite; his chances, however, are small if he does not possess a long, drooping moustache.
There is a second prize for the best-dressed man, and the brown-booted, blue-frockcoated individual is always successful.
THE LADIES TAKE TO THE STAGE
The ladies’ beauty competition is more animated, for one of the highest honours of the Whitechapel woman is to be judged first prize in the beauty show.
It is a curious fact that the competitors are rarely more than 5 feet 4 inches in height; they all wear fringes, parted in the centre. Their sweethearts canvass earnestly among the audience.
They are led forward one by one before the onlookers, who critically examine their best points.
The lady members of the audience give their opinions in sarcastic tones.
AND THE WINNER IS …..
The favourite beauty is considered the heroine of the hour by the men, and the most despised creature living by the women.
Nevertheless, she carries off her silver locket, or “handsome new beaded cloak,” with a jaunty pride which only adds fuel to the fire of jealousy burning in the breasts of the unsuccessful ladies.”