At Work In The London Slums

The social conditions in the slums of the East End of London were being commented on for many years before the series of crimes, that we now know as the Jack the Ripper murders, brought them to wider public attention.

Indeed, there can be a temptation to lay the credit for the cleaning up of the streets at the feet of the unknown miscreant who carried out the infamous murders spree in the autumn of 1888.

However, the Whitechapel atrocities – although they most certainly did awaken public consciousness to the plight of the poor in the East End of London – were only a small part of a much wider picture when it came to tackling the problem of slum life in the Victorian metropolis.

For many years prior to 1888 – and for many years afterwards – philanthropists, as well the socially minded and socially concerned, were doing their utmost to alleviate the suffering of the poor in some of the worst parts of London, whilst, at the same time, pressing for the whole scale redevelopment of the slums.

Indeed, many people at the time came to see Jack the Ripper as a monster born out of the social conditions of the area in which the murders were occurring; and, in this respect at least, he certainly was able to focus public attention on the conditions that, for many years, had been causing  genuine concern to social commentators.

Perhaps one of the most famous images that this perception of him inspired was the Punch cartoon titled “The Nemesis of Neglect,” which showed a knife-wielding ghoul drifting through the Victorian slums of East London.

The cartoon of the Nemesis of Neglect.
The Nemesis of Neglect


However, and as previously mentioned, many people had long been trying to do something about conditions in the East End of London; and, in some cases, they had opted to take direct action – and, it must be said, make great personal sacrifices in order to make their own contributions to bringing civilisation to the residents of a district that – and this soon becomes apparent when you read the newspaper accounts about the conditions in the area –  was generally perceived as being both uncivilised and uncivilisable!

The Bradford Daily Telegraph, on Monday, February 25th, 1884, published the following article about a “titled lady” from Belgravia, one of London’s most affluent quarters, who had forsaken her privileged lifestyle to go and live amongst the poor of Bethnal Green.

What is particularly striking about the article is that it is written in tones that conjure up images of some distant third world country; whereas, in reality, it is, in fact, reporting on residents who lived in a district of London that was a mere mile or so from the City of London, the wealthiest square mile on earth.

The article read:-


“The endeavours to ameliorate the conditions of the poor of the East End of London are still being carried out with great success.

Most of the dark, green, mouldy courts and alleys around Bethnal Green are being cleansed and purified under the supervision of a lady of title, who, still young and attractive, besides being possessed of some fortune, has resolved to devote her whole life to the care of the poor women and children of the neighbourhood.

Looking along a street of 19th century East London.
One of The “Slum” Streets In the East End of London.


A few weeks ago this lady left her father’s house in Belgravia, after having distributed by a written document all her jewels and wardrobe, with a certain sum of money, amongst her friends and dependants; and, taking with her nothing but a carpet bag containing a few articles of clothing of the simplest kind, departed for the East End, where she now lives in one hired room, and employs her whole time in visiting her poor neighbours, with the great object of first inspiring a love of cleanliness in the women and girls of the locality, and the ambition of helping themselves to independence by work.


The system adopted by this practical philosopher is simple enough. She knocks at the door of the miserable room, laden not with provisions or warm clothing, as depicted in the goody-goody storybooks, concocted for the use of our Sunday schools, but with soap and scrubbing brushes, a pail, and a broom.

With these she sets the housewife and her daughters to work cleaning and scrubbing the floor and walls, while she minds the children, or watches the wretched dinner cooking on the fire.


When the job is over she inquires the price of their work by the hour, makes a businesslike calculation of the amount of time that has been expended in cleaning the room, pays the price that is demanded, and departs, bidding the occupants of the room to expect her again in a day or two.


It is thus that she has been able to purify many of the Augean stables of Bethnal Green, and has brought a new sense to the obtuse understanding of their inhabitants.

Two women inside a room.
Inside An East End Room.


By the females of the neighbourhood she is called “the queer woman,” by the children “the funny lady,” but during the many weeks she has been pursuing the good work of cleanliness, which she declares to be the first element of the education of the poor, and of far more importance than all the science imparted by the School Board, she has never met with the slightest opposition to her wishes, nor in any one case have the brooms and brushes disappeared.


This new instance of self-sacrificing charity of the women of our day has been variously commented upon.

Some see in it the pride of doing good which spells humility  – others again declare the effort to originate in a slight “crack” in the brain – but all agree in declaring that the houses under her surveillance are beginning to assume a cleanly and respectable appearance which shame the men into more decent and orderly behaviour when they return from their labour, and they sometimes even yield to the suggestion, made by the wife, of taking off the muddy boots before walking over the clean, well-scrubbed floor of the little room.”