Determined To Become Philanthropists

It is often said – and, to an extent – it is true that the Jack the Ripper murders helped attract wider public attention to the horrific social conditions in the districts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

Indeed, the point was made by several commentators that the murders had done more to highlight the poverty problem than had the campaigning and the pamphleteering of the social reformers who, for many years, had been trying to get the public at large to “do something” about the poverty that was endemic in certain parts of the Victorian East End.

A group gather outside the Workhouse.
Lining Up For Admission To The Workhouse


This was a point that George Bernard Shaw had made in his letter entitled “Blood Money To Whitechapel.

It is also an historical fact that several philanthropists, including Dr. Thomas Barnardo, soon spotted the opportunities afforded by the massive of mount of press coverage on the Whitechapel Murders to further their causes.

Others became somewhat curious about the unknown part of London that the crimes were shining a light into, and many an affluent citizen made the journey out East to take a closer look at these conditions for themselves.


On the 12th of December 1888, the St James’s Gazette published the following article that took a, somewhat tongue in cheek, look at the new craze for philanthropic endeavour that the murders had set in motion:-

“It was on a dull afternoon in the early autumn, before the excitement in Whitechapel had reached fever-pitch, that my friend and myself determined to become philanthropists.

I had tried my hand at several other professions, and had found them entirely unsuited to my requirements (they were neither remunerative, interesting, nor easy) while he was getting on at the Bar [the author is here referring to his friend being a barrister]. That is to say, I found him in a pupil room with a thick carpet, seated in a green-velvet easy chair, instead of the bare garret and cane chair that he had occupied a short month before.

I had always heard that the rise at the Bar is very rapid when once you make a beginning, so that I should not be much surprised now to hear one day that he had been called.

But he is of an enthusiastic disposition, and expressed himself willing to forego his professional gains for that day and to become a philanthropist.


We had a very early dinner and started for the East end.

It was not until we were seated in a third-class railway-carriage that we became aware of a startling divergence in our respective views concerning the nature of philanthropy.

To all who are thinking of taking up the profession I would say that it is important to hammer out this question at home, and to reach a satisfactory solution before taking a train for Whitechapel.

Here were we at loggerheads on the most fundamental points at a time when, if our crusade was to begin under favourable auspices, we ought to have been talking genially to the workmen who were in the carriage with us.


My friend’s view, I cannot help thinking, was distressingly crude.

We had come out, he said, to do good to some one; plainly it was our duty to get hold of some one and to do him good.

He was prepared to admit a great variety in the possible ways of doing good; but I could not help perceiving that two main notions were dominant – to instil into the bosom of the people an appreciation of the best English poets and to stand drinks to all comers.

I admitted that “to win souls to poetry ” was indeed an achievement; but then came a deadlock, for we found ourselves hopelessly divided on the question of the position occupied by Mr. Matthew Arnold in the hierarchy of English poets; while as to the second article of his creed, my view, which he regarded as sophisticated, was that to teach the working classes generosity was a nobler mission than merely to minister to their transitory mundane thirst.


It was ridiculous, I urged, to suppose that because I had only 1s. 2d. in my pocket the scope of my philanthropy was necessarily limited in proportion.

I had a great feeling for humanity in general, and proposed to benefit the world by taking this feeling to the East- End and bringing it en rapport with the suffering millions there, who would be as truly elevated by helping me as I should be by accepting help from them.

Perhaps it was this difference in our views that was the cause of our subsequent fiasco.


But I am inclined to believe that we should have got a lot of good work put in if it had not been that we had come away without a map of the East end.

This mistake was entirely due to my friend’s radically faulty  a priori method.

The first thing to be done, I at last convinced him, was to throw ourselves into the life of the poor, to double their joys and halve their sorrows by our presence at both.

In this way we should learn much that would be useful to us, and should thus be able to make recommendations to Government as to what legislation was required with a better confidence.


We found ourselves in the Mile end-road, and looked about for evidences of distress.

Before we had gone far a cry, as of a human being in intolerable anguish, smote upon our ears.

Hurrying to the spot, we found a man in a fur cap, with a red handkerchief round his neck, standing in front of a painted booth and inviting the passers-by, in a peremptory series of piercing shrieks, to witness a theatrical performance that was proceeding inside.

“We will share this joy,” I said; and we each paid our penny for admission.

The chief piece of the evening was a tragedy, representing the defeat of the immoral machinations of an Irish landlord by the heroism of a peasant called Dennis.

Dennis and the lady he loved were the only survivors of the tragedy; and I admired the profundity of insight displayed by the author in thus laying down the chief requisites of matrimonial bliss.

It was not easy to follow the action of the piece, for the landlord was in the costume of a French rat-catcher, and imitated the Irish brogue negatively, so to say, on the theory that the further off from English the nearer is to Irish, as if all the world were the St. George’s Channel.


But our philanthropy was still to do.

We walked a great many miles along the Mile end road without finding anything come to hand.

The people were astonishingly well dressed and orderly; nothing in their behaviour seemed to demand or even to justify our interference.

Our object was to get into conversation with someone, and then by imperceptible gradations to introduce the topic of standard poetry and so instil the taste.

But the people in the streets were becoming scanty, although it was not yet eleven o’clock, and those who were in evidence seemed disinclined, for some reason or other, to talk to us about poetry.


Moreover, we at length found ourselves in a district where there were no shops, and the houses behind their small front-gardens were closed and dark and dull.

We shuddered as we reflected that inside these dusky tenements the bourgeois were living their lethargic lives; and on my friend’s suggestion we struck out for Ratcliff-highway.

It was here that we suffered from the lack of a map.

I should not like to say how many miles we walked, but we never got there.

I cannot help regretting this; for our mistake, I think, was in choosing the wrong neighbourhood – and perhaps we might have been appreciated in Ratcliff-highway.

In the Mile end-road the people, or all that we saw, are quite fully occupied, and one of the first requisites for successful philanthropy is that the philanthropized shall have ample leisure.

It is impossible to philanthropize people who are trying to do an hour’s shopping in twenty-five minutes.


We got back at last to our starting-point, tired and hungry, just in time to gain admission to the latest-closing eating-house of the district, where we were royally entertained at a very moderate cost.

My friend has gone back to the Bar, but the passion for humanity burns high in his soul; and when I last heard of him he had taken up the good work again, although not this time in the cause of the working classes. He was organizing a system of hansom cab tickets for the shabby-genteel who are tired of omnibuses, and a “Home” in Mayfair for men about-town who have been black-balled at more than two clubs.

I have fallen into despondency, and could almost find it in my heart to love the human race less.

If this should meet the eye of any one who contemplates an evening’s philanthropy in the Mile end-road, I can only assure him that when he gets there he will probably experience a sensation of quite unusual superfluity, and not improbably be of as much use to the busy inhabitants as a cat in a shipwreck.”