All Aboard The Slummibus

Today, when people take Jack the Ripper tours through the East End of London they are, in fact, following in the footsteps of long ago, middle-class Victorian citizens to whom the poverty, degradation and criminality of the East End proved an irresistible draw.

Men in top hats sitting on a horse drawn omnibus
A Typical Horse Dtawn Omnibus

In the 1880’s crowds of fashionable Londoners (not to mention visitors to London) left the respectable confines of their middle and upper class surroundings to clamber aboard omnibuses and be taken a few short miles from the centre of London to enjoy midnight tours on which they could witness the sight of the poverty-stricken, lower class neighbourhoods and observe the inhabitants of “Slumland” in their natural habitat.


By 1884, this destitution tourism had become known as “slumming” and – although it is difficult to ascertain with any degree of certainty an exact figure for the number of “respectable” men and women who headed for the East End of London aboard what Punch magazine referred to as the “Slummibus,” – anecdotal evidence suggests that there was a great deal of demand.

Indeed London guide books of the early 1890’s even began listing charitable institutions, located in notorious slum districts – such as Whitechapel and Shoreditch – that their readers should visit along with the other recommended London attractions such as theatres, restaurants and museums.


In October 1888 the radical journal Link published a blistering attack on this slum tourism and railed against the “… gorgeously plumed birds of passage” who “slummed because … the horrors they brushed by threw into more brilliant relief the daintinesses of their own fair surroundings…”


Whereas this was, no doubt, fair comment with regards a large number of well-heeled Londoners, to whom a “Slummibus” outing was nothing more than an entertaining pursuit with which to while away a few night time hours – the recounting of which might provide a conversational piece with fellow guests at future dinner parties – the fact remains that, for many, many others the scenes of poverty, degradation and hardship that they encountered truly moved them.

In fact, it moved them so much that, what had begun as a leisurely excursion across the London slumscapes – motivated by little more than morbid curiosity –  ended up becoming a life-changing experience that left them determined to devote themselves to putting right the wrongs and horrors of urban poverty to which their foray into the slums had exposed them.