By the time of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888, the newspapers of the day had been reporting constantly on the squalor and the hardships faced on a daily basis by the poor of the area.
The result was that national attention had already begun to focus on the East End of London, and it could be argued that the groundwork for the change that would occur over the next twenty to thirty years had already been laid by the time of the murders.
An example of this reporting appeared in The St James’s Gazette on Saturday, 30th April 1887:-
AN EAST-END PARSONAGE
The ordinary conception of an English parsonage – gabled, ivy-clad, surrounded by trim little lawns in an ancient garden – is by no means realized as you approach the rectory of St. —— , in the heart of East London.
This rectory is something like a miniature Newgate. A high brick wall forms the street frontage, the only opening being through a narrow doorway, the door being very much the worse for wear.
WHOLE FAMILIES IN ONE ROOM
The street itself is in an almost ruinous condition, and is known as one of the worst of slums. Every house is divided into tenements of a single room, and almost every room harbours a whole family.
At night-time the passer-by remarks that there is a light in every window – testimony to the overcrowding within.
The appearance of the street is quite lively and cheerful; but take each dimly lighted room separately, and the scene changes.
SCORES OF BOYS AND GIRLS
Just now the roadway is turned into a playground for scores of boys and girls, all of the very poorest class. Many of them have never been outside this street, not even into the main thoroughfare from which it branches; and very few have ever seen a stretch of fields, an uncontaminated river, or wood.
The School Board officer makes a raid upon them now and then; but permanent conquests are rare, and these children, most of them, will grow up in the ignorance and wretchedness into which they have been born.
SHUT OFF FROM THE SQUALOR
But our business is with the vicar of the parish, and we pass through the doorway in the wall.
Here we find that the house is surrounded on all sides by this wall, and is to that extent shut off from the squalor in the midst of which it is planted.
The isolation strikes one, however, as that of a fever hospital rather than of a rectory.
A grimy two-storied brick building, with plain long windows, without the least pretension to adornment of any kind, a few stunted and sooty shrubs here and there, a general air of neglect and coldness, these are the main features of the parsonage close.
NO TEMPLE OF LUXURY
You are surprised to find the doorstep covered with a heap of old shoes, battered, tattered, altogether outworn. Picking your way over them, you accept the kindly invitation to “walk in,” and are at once struck with the barren and comfortless aspect of the interior.
This certainly is no temple of luxury and ease.
A chair and a table, a few faded prints, make up the furniture of the hall. In the library the forlorn condition of the place becomes even more striking. The threadbare carpet, the chairs covered with cretonne aprons, the aged prints on the walls, the faded table-cloth, all tell the same story – the story of a starvation stipend, of broken-down effort to keep up an appearance of comfort, of long-continued struggle against the depressing influences of the place.
But what strike you most arc the piles of second hand clothes on the sofa, the heap of new boots in the corner, the square tower of cheap blankets that half shuts out the light that enters languidly through the single window.
THE MASTER OF THE HOUSE
The door opens, and in steps the master of the house; a kindly, well-cultured gentleman, whom a life of poverty in the midst of squalor indescribable has not deprived him of the noble impulses and the gentle purposes with which he embarked on his mission twenty years ago.
But the mark of his lot is upon him, and both look and manner tell of settled resignation.
Earnest in his work, missionary enthusiast rather than a parish priest, he tells you with simple eloquence of the enterprises he has on hand – of his scheme for exchanging old boots for new, of his sewing-class where the women earn sixpence or eightpence a day, of his distribution of coals and blankets and bread and clothing, and so on.
Out of his own poor resources he has regularly laid aside a contribution to his charitable fund; and this kind of employment takes all the time he can spare from the performance of his ministerial functions.
He has just returned from inquest, and in an hour he is going to funeral.
The stories he tells about his poor people are heart-rending.
Just now, passing along his street, he heard some children crying and their father saying to them, “There ain’t nothing to eat, you know, but you shall have something when mother comes home from the sewing-class” – where she would receive sixpence for her day’s work.
Visiting a sick man, he found him stretched on a mattress on the floor, while the bedstead on which he had been lying was being burnt little by little in the fireplace.
He offers to take you to see such things – and worse – for yourself.
He explains the mystery of the heap of old boots on the doorstep; new ones have been exchanged for them, and they are waiting to be carried away by the dustman.
THE PARSON’S OWN AFFAIRS
Then he goes somewhat – though with diffidence – into his own affairs.
For himself he wants nothing; he lives as much upon his work as on his stipend. He finds something very sustaining in the good he can do to people so much worse off than himself.
But there is one thing he does want.
“If only you can induce men and women from more favoured spots to come here and see what work there is to be done; if you can contribute to the establishment of measures and influences which will improve the people and their surroundings, ameliorating their lot and at the same time fitting them for the proper use of their new opportunities – you need not concern yourself about the life of a poor East end parson, for it will have been made happier than your own.”