It was on this day (September 24th) in 1888 that George Bernard Shaw’s letter entitled Blood Money to Whitechapel was published by The Star newspaper.
Today, of course, the name of George Bernard Shaw is famous throughout the World and his plays, such as Man and Superman, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Major Barbara, Saint Joan, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Pygmalion are still entertaining audiences at theatres across the Globe.
But, in 1888, he was making his living as a music and theatre critic whilst, at the same time, gaining a reputation as something of a firebrand with distinctly socialist views and opinions.
A STRANGE AND STARTLING FIGURE
It was his political leanings that brought him into the fold T. P. O’connor’s journalists on The Star newspaper and, on 24th September 1888, the journal carried an article about “the recent meeting of the British Association” and informed its readers how “the dovecots were much fluttered by the appearance of a strange and rather startling figure. A tall, thin man, with a very pale and very gentle face, read a paper which calmly denounced as robbers some of the men the world is accustomed to regard as the ornaments of society, the patterns of morality, and the pillars of the church.”
A NAME NOT WIDELY KNOWN
The man, so the paper informed its readers, “was Mr. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW” and, it provided an intriguing glimpse of Shaw’s skills as an orator by describing how his talk “…was done, not with the savagery of a wild and illiterate controversialist, but with the light touch, the deadly playfulness, and the rapier thrusts of a cultivated and thoughtful man.”
Although stating that Shaw’s name was not generally known to the World at large, politically speaking he was “a powerhouse” and. as such he ” deserves to be among the militant Radicals of the metropolis.
He represents one of the wings – he himself would call it the moderate and rational wing – of the Socialist party. To the propagation of his ideas, he gives up willing time, labor, the opportunities of self-advancement. To such men we can forgive much; their enthusiasm, and their self-devotion are more important than their opinions.”
THE WHITECHAPEL TRAGEDIES
The Star then went on to introduce Shaw’s letter “…on the hideous and squalid tragedies which, occurring in the East, have stirred up the West-end to unusual and unaccustomed interest in the fate of the poor and the disinherited of the nation,” and wondered why it had:-
“…these murders to call attention to the state of the poor at all? The deaths of these unhappy women certainly call aloud for vengeance, and the officials through whose incompetence such things are possible, will be called by-and-bye to a heavy account.
But death, sudden, swift, possibly painless – and especially to those who have tried the game of life and have lost honor, self-respect, hope, everything – is infinitely less of a tragedy than the daily struggle for work that can’t be got; for food that can’t be earned.
Give to many of the thousands that stand shivering every morning outside the portals of our great dockyards; give to the man that haunts the coffee shop or the newspaper office every morning to search out the places that are vacant; give to the father of children that meet him at night with the cry for food he hasn’t to give – give to many of these the choice between the continuance of life and the painless passage through sleep to death, and the result would be that death would be their choice.
It is the tragedy of defeated life, and not the calm of triumphant death, that should appeal to our hearts and imaginations….”
BLOOD MONEY TO WHITECHAPEL
Having prepared its readers for Shaw’s letter, the newspaper then handed over to the man himself and his subsequent missive is still as powerful today as it was when it fist appeared in print back in September 1888:-
SIR, – Will you allow me to make a comment on the success of the Whitechapel murderer in calling attention for a moment to the social question? Less than a year ago the West-end press…were literally clamouring for the blood of the people – hounding on Sir Charles Warren to thrash and muzzle the scum who dared to complain that they were starving – heaping insult and reckless calumny on those who interceded for the victims – applauding to the skies the open class bias of those magistrates and judges who zealously did their very worst in the criminal proceedings which followed – behaving, in short as the proprietary class always does behave when the workers throw it into a frenzy of terror by venturing to show their teeth.
Quite lost on these journals and their patrons were indignant remonstrances, arguments, speeches, and sacrifices, appeals to history, philosophy, biology, economics, and statistics; references to the reports of inspectors, registrar generals, city missionaries, Parliamentary commissions, and newspapers; collections of evidence by the five senses at every turn; and house-to-house investigations into the condition of the unemployed, all unanswered and unanswerable, and all pointing the same way.
PESTS OF SOCIETY
The Saturday Review was still frankly for hanging the appellants; and the Times denounced them as “pests of society.””
Having denounced the powers that were, along with the newspapers that, effectively, acted as their mouthpieces, Shaw went on to comment on how successful the recent Whitechapel Murders of Emma Smith, Martha Tabram. Mary Nichols and Annie Chapman had been at changing the views of the right wing press:-
PRIVATE ENTERPRISE HAS SUCCEEDED
“Now all is changed. Private enterprise has succeeded where Socialism failed. Whilst we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation, and organisation, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disembowelling four women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism.
The moral is a pretty one, and the Insurrectionists, the Dynamitards, the Invincibles, and the extreme left of the Anarchist party will not be slow to draw it. “Humanity, political science, economics, and religion,” they will say, “are all rot; the one argument that touches your lady and gentleman is the knife.” That is so pleasant for the party of Hope and Perseverance in their toughening struggle with the party of Desperation and Death!
However, these things have to be faced. If the line to be taken is that suggested by the converted West-end papers – if the people are still to yield up their wealth to the Clanricarde class, and get what they can back as charity through Lady Bountiful, then the policy for the people is plainly a policy of terror.
Every gaol blown up, every window broken, every shop looted, every corpse found disembowelled, means another ten pound note for “ransom.”
HOW MUCH ARE THE MURDERS WORTH?
The riots of 1886 brought in £78,000 and a People’s Palace; it remains to be seen how much these murders may prove worth to the East-end in panem et circenses.
Indeed, if the habits of duchesses only admitted of their being decoyed into Whitechapel back-yards, a single experiment in slaughterhouse anatomy on an aristocratic victim might fetch in a round half million and save the necessity of sacrificing four women of the people.
Such is the stark-naked reality of these abominable bastard Utopias of genteel charity in which the poor are first to be robbed and then pauperised by way of compensation, in order that the rich man may combine the idle luxury of the protected thief with the unctuous self-satisfaction of the pious philanthropist.
THE CURSE OF POVERTY
The proper way to recover the rents of London for the people of London is not by charity, which is one of the worst curses of poverty, but by the municipal rate collector, who will no doubt make it sufficiently clear to the monopolists of ground value that he is not merely taking round the hat, and that the State is ready to enforce his demand, if need be.
And the money thus obtained must be used by the municipality as the capital of productive industries for the better employment of the poor. I submit that this is at least a less disgusting and immoral method of relieving the East-end than the gush of bazaars and blood money which has suggested itself from the West-end point of view.
Well said Mr Shaw