Before The Jack TheRipper Tour Starts

Today John Bennett puts pen to paper, well fingers to keyboard, and tells you what to look out for as you arrive at the start of the walk. 

As you wait for the Jack the Ripper Tour to set off from exit 4 of Aldgate East Underground Station, look over the road and you will see the Whitechapel Art Gallery, founded by Canon Samuel Barnett in 1897 and opened in 1899.

At that time, this was a place that intended to bring an appreciation of the fine arts to the impoverished of the East End.

It quickly became the London art gallery in which to experience the new and avant-garde, a role which it still enjoys to this day. Designed by Charles Harrison Townshend (who was also responsible for the Bishopsgate Institute), its first exhibition featured paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites which attracted over 206,000 local visitors and since then, many internationally acclaimed artists have had their some of their earliest exposure here – Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Howard Hodgkin, the pop artists of the 1960’s to name but a few.

David Hockney, one of the world’s most enduring, prolific and popular artists had his first major retrospective here in 1970.

The old library next door (sadly closed in 2005 and now part of the gallery) was known to some as the ‘university of the ghetto’ and was where many East End Jews found their own education beyond the locally accepted culture of hardship and toil.

The scientist Jacob Bronowski learned English there after emigrating with his family from in 1920. He went on to work on the development of smokeless fuels (‘Bronowski’s Bricks’) and later studied the effects of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki as well as writing and narrating the TV series ‘The Ascent of Man’ in 1973. There is also a blue plaque on the wall dedicated to Isaac Rosenberg, the war poet who studied here and whose body was never retrieved from the Somme during the First World War.

But there is more along this stretch of Whitechapel High Street than just the gallery.

The Burger King nearby was once Bloom’s, the world-famous kosher restaurant, started by Stanley Bloom on Brick Lane in 1920 and which moved to the high street in 1952. Bloom developed a method of pickling salt beef that drew customers from all over the world, attracting numerous celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Cliff Richard and, on one of his trips to London, Frank Sinatra.

Some would come specifically to experience the rudeness of the waiting staff, which was legendary.

Between the White Hart pub and the gallery is a very narrow white building with the date 1900 emblazoned at the top. This was once ‘Ye Olde Angel’ pub, one of many original inns built when Whitechapel High Street was still the main artery out of London to Essex. The 1900 version was closed as a pub during the inter-war years, but the small alleyway beside it, Angel Alley, still bears its name.

Once the haunt of Irish immigrants and peppered with disreputable doss-houses, Angel Alley is home to the anarchist Freedom Bookshop, founded in 1886 and the source of Freedom, the UK’s oldest anarchist newspaper; the shop has operated continuously, despite firebombing by neo-fascist group Combat 18 in 1993 and a more recent arson attack in February 2013.

All that and the tour hasn’t even started yet!