Wynne Edwin Baxter (1844 – 1920) was the East London Coroner who presided over the inquests into the deaths of the majority of the victims of Jack the Ripper.
He served as Coroner for almost forty years, presiding over more than a thousand inquests annually – Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elelpant Man” and the deaths at the Siege of Sydney Street being two of them – and he died in office, at the aged of seventy-six, collapsing at an inquest in October, 1920, and expiring a few days later.
Of course, many of the deaths that he held the inquests into were nowhere near as sensational as the aforementioned, and, given that he presided over in excess of 40,000 inquests, a large percentage of the more “mundane” ones received little press coverage.
But, as Coroner for one of the poorest districts of the Victorian Metropolis, he heard many harrowing tales, and he was, therefore, well-placed to opine on the inadequacies of the system, when it came to alleviating the sufferings of the poor, not to mention the lack of suitable amenities in the East End of London when it came to investigating unexplained and suspicious deaths amongst its residents.
THE HORRORS OF THE EAST END
AN INTERVIEW WITH MR. WYNNE BAXTER, CORONER
In 1890, The Pall Mall Gazette, sent a reporter to interview the East London Coroner. That interview appeared in the newspaper on the 16th of January, 1890:-
“The other day Mr. Wynne Baxter suggested that it would be well to waken the West-end up by holding a few inquests in Eaton-square. Of course, we might as well shout at the moon and expect the heavens to fall, as hope for such phenomena.
If, however, the East cannot come to the West, the West can go to the East. We sent a representative a night or two ago to see this outspoken coroner and ask him to explain. This is the result:-
PLAYING BALL WITH THE BABY
Ladies and gentlemen – Allow your imaginations to dwell upon that strange, and wild, and vast, and gloomy, and unknown, and mysterious country, about two miles off, over which Mr. Baxter travels day by day.
It embraces the Tower, St. George’s-in-the-East, Wapping, Whitechapel, Mile-end, Bromley, Shadwell, Poplar, and Stepney. These are the poorest districts in the East.
There, foul crime stalks undetected, and griping poverty hides itself and dies.
This small area probably includes some of the most miserable of our kind.
These are statements which will be borne out by Mr. Baxter’s facts.
To begin with, let me tell you a story about a baby, and give you a sample of the population which inhabits this wild district.
A young woman had an illegitimate child. She met a friend in a public-house who offered to take charge of it for a few hours. When she wished to return it to the mother the mother declined to accept it, and there was a row.
The two women then began to play a game of ball, with the child for the ball, and they threw it from one to the other.
At last the baby was left out in the street, and the police took charge of it.
When the quarrel was fought out at the police-court the child was produced as evidence. It died the next day.
I will now report a few bits of our conversation.
One of my first questions was whether Mr. Baxter had many cases of child murder for insurance brought under his notice?
“No,” he replied,” but the number of deaths of children under one year is enormous.”
“Because of the physical degeneration of their parents. The East-end mother is a pale spectre, gaunt, haggard, pallid, with cheeks sunken, and chest flattened by starvation. How do you think such spectres can suckle their babies? It is estimated that if you draw a circle round the wretched poverty-stricken East, and isolate the circle, the whole population will have disappeared in three generations.”
THE POOR OFTEN DIE WITHOUT THE DOCTOR
“And now, Mr. Baxter, how many inquests do you hold every week?”
“My average is about thirty. Of those, I should say that only about half are reported; and yet it is publicity that is wanted to shed a light upon the nameless horrors and cruelties which oppress the dwellers in the East. I am speaking of my own districts.”
“Well, now, would you tell me what is the most remarkable feature about the cases that come before you?”
“One of them is that, in the bulk of the cases, no doctors have been called in by the relatives of the sick man or woman?”
“Because they can’t afford to pay a doctor, and they will not go to the medical officer because they know he will order the patient to be taken to the workhouse, and they prefer death to that extremity.”
“But do they admit that to you at the inquest?”
“Oh, no. They say that the patient didn’t think he was bad enough for a doctor, so they didn’t send for one.
Then you know that medical officers are few and sufferers are many.
The consequence is that often, where application is made, such an amount of red tape is presented that the patient is dead long before the officer arrives.
In short, all sorts of difficulties are put in the way, and I have often known cases of a day elapsing before any help was, or even could be, given.
If a medical officer has fifty or sixty cases, and they still come, it is desperate.”
STARVED TO DEATH
“Of course,” continued Mr. Baxter, “it is seldom, if ever, that it is definitely stated that a person has died from starvation. This is the sort of dialogue that takes place:- A person is found dead, and I ask for any witnesses who may have known or lived in the same room with the deceased.
First, I learn that the deceased was out of work. Then, I ask if he or she had enough to eat. ‘Oh! yes. But he or she hadn’t a good appetite, sir.’
Then I find that half the earnings of the deceased, which may have amounted to three or four shillings a week, went in the rent.
I ask why the deceased did not get relief, and the answer would be, ‘Oh! they’d only have offered the workhouse!.'”
“Why do the poor evince such an abhorrence of the workhouse?”
“Well, they hate the restraint, to begin with; and, again, many of the cases of death from want of proper food occur amongst the more respectable class of the poor, who have tumbled down in the world, and have gone to the East to hide themselves and their misery.
That class, which exist largely at the East-end, nearly always prefer the slow pangs of starvation to the cold and measured charity of the workhouse, where all classes are herded indiscriminately together.”
THE POOR WIDOW WHO STARVES ON CHARING
“Take another typical case. A widow occupies one little hovel, and makes 3s. a week by charing. She pays 1s. 6d. rent and starves on the remainder.
One morning the rent collector finds her dead body on a bit of sacking. My officer is notified and makes inquiries. He finds the neighbours know nothing about her.
Further inquiries elicit the fact that now and then someone would bring her a scrap of food; but the supply ceased; the old woman was stricken down – how no one knew, no one cared. She hated the idea of the workhouse, and lay down to die.
The lower poor hate the restraint of the workhouse, just as they loathe the restraint of the model dwellings, in which the lowest classes of them will never remain. They prefer to exist in one of those wretched hovels upon which the landlords thrive in consequence of the prejudices of his tenants.”
IS THERE A REMEDY?
“Have you any remedies to suggest, Mr. Baxter?”
“Of course, living in the midst of all this horrible misery I naturally reflect upon it.
My idea is that before you can attack this vast area of wretchedness you must ascertain the facts.
At present, even those who live in the heart of the horrors can only have an extremely limited knowledge of what is going on around them. So you must take a census of the misery.
There are many small missions which work in patches all over the East, but no efficient organization exists for dealing with the problem. The missions work spottily. Many of these noble bands of workers are doing good work; but it is, as I say, only done ineffectively, in patches. Whilst in one parish the number of workers is so great and so well off that it is able to see most of its poorer brothers and sisters, in others the poor are left to despair and starve unheeded.
Take most of my own districts, you will readily understand that they contain few well-to-do people. That class has deserted the East long ago.
My idea, then, is that the districts should be mapped out under the auspices of some joint committee which would include representatives of the various religious denominations, a poverty census taken, and then the whole divided into sections which would be divided amongst the various parishes, who might then have some chance of being able to cope with the individual cases.”
SLEEPING WITH DEAD BODIES
“Amongst the many horrors of the East-end is the difficulty of separating the dead from the living.
It often happens that a man, his wife, two children, say, and maybe a lodger, occupy one hole called a room, which contains two or three chairs, a broken-down table, and some sacking for bedding.
Say the man dies.
Probably no one is informed for three or four days, and the corpse remains in the room the whole time.
Mind, I am only speaking of the cases that come under my notice, and on four-fifths of the deaths that occur no inquiry is made, of course.
We are short of mortuaries that is the reason. If there were public mortuaries the dead body could be removed, of course, and cease to be a danger to the living.
In Whitechapel proper, there is one shed, and that is used on sufferance only!
A man died in a lodging-house in which 300 people slept. The body was wrapped in a sheet and left at the front door.
THE BODIES AT WAPPING
“In Wapping,” continued the coroner, “the only mortuary I know of is what I call a cupboard in a churchyard. This is a waterside parish, and, owing to a peculiar twist of the river, many bodies are cast up by the tide in a decomposed state. When the jury has gone to view the body in the cupboard I have more than once seen them turn sick.
In Ratcliff a railway arch is used as a mortuary, and I have often seen traces of the previous body remaining.
In Mile-end there is no public mortuary. Sometimes the Board of Guardians allow us to use the workhouse mortuary,”
So much for mortuaries.
JURIES AND WITNESSES
“One of the difficulties of the East-end coroner is the jury. They are not paid, and they should be paid, for they are mostly recruited from the working classes, and of course lose a day’s work and a day’s pay.
Owing to the peculiarity of my division, my cases on the Surrey side of the river get a shilling a head. In the Kentish and Middlesex sections, the jurymen receive nothing. You will readily understand they don’t like that.
Many of them are grossly ignorant, and they generally ask me for beer when they sign the depositions.
Some cry out, when the officer produces the Bible, that they don’t believe in that book.
Others declare they are anarchists.
As for the witnesses who appear before me, they are terrible.
Many cannot write or read; many do not even know the name of the street they live in, and often I cannot understand the language they speak”
THE CHILDREN OF THE EAST
“The children of the East-end are a dreadful race.
You can imagine why: when the bread-winners leave their room they have two alternatives – the children may be turned out into the streets to play, in which case they are often run over; they may be locked in, in which case they may be burnt. Burnings and runnings-over are common cases with me.”