One of the saddest and most thought-provoking aspects of the Jack the Ripper case, is the plight that the victims had faced in the years, months and days leading up to their murders.
All but one of them had lodged at the common lodging houses that proliferated around the districts of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, and, certainly in the case of Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman and Catherine Eddowes, they were effectively murdered because they couldn’t find the required fourpence to pay for a bed for a night.
Like many of the women who lived in the area, the victims resorted to any means open to them of acquiring money, and, in addition to house-cleaning, selling matches and other items on the streets, they undoubtedly dabbled in casual prostitution, not out of any real choice but out of a necessity to survive.
Indeed, one of the scandals of Victorian society was that there was very little – other than to submit to the harsh, soul-destroying regime within the much-hated workhouses – that could be done for a woman who found herself abandoned by a husband or paramour, and who then slipped through the net to find herself living a transient life around the streets of the East End.
A CASE FROM 1867
A case that, tragically, illustrates the hardships that many of the East End women faced on a daily basis, was reported by The Kentish Chronicle, on Saturday, 12th January, 1867.
Although the case in question occurred twenty-one years before the Whitechapel murders, it is illustrative of the battle for survival that was the daily lot for many of the women of the area; and the woman in question could easily have found herself a victim of Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888.
The article read:-
DREADFUL DEATH OF A CHILD
Mr. Humphreys, coroner, held an inquiry at the Seven Stars Tavern, Brick-lane, Spitalfields, on Thursday, touching the death from want of Thomas Easthorpe, aged seven years.
Rosa Easthorpe said that she lived in a cheap lodging house at No. 1, George-street, Spitalfields. She was the wife of a commercial traveller, but she had been abandoned by her husband. The deceased was her illegitimate child. There were two other children, one of whom was supported by her husband; the other, a girl of thirteen, lived with the witness.
When the witness was left by her husband, she had no means of supporting them. She was the daughter of a publican, and “having been brought respectable,” she had no trade or calling to fall back upon.
HOW SHE SURVIVED
She at first sold lucifers about the streets, but as she could not get food for her children that way, by degrees she went on the streets.
She only had 6s. or 7s. a week for months past: out of that she had to pay 3s. a week rent, and the balance was all she had to support the deceased and herself.
Her daughter got a shilling a week and her diet as a servant latterly.
THE BOY NEVER HAD MEAT
The deceased never had meat any more than witness; she could only give him bread and butter, and not enough of that, and sometimes he got a little tea.
Sometimes, the witness got no money at all.
She did the best she could for the deceased, and he had not enough of food or clothing.
WHY NOT APPLY TO THE WORKHOUSE?
The Coroner asked the witness why she had not applied to the workhouse for relief.
The witness said that she had done, but they would give her nothing unless she would enter the house. She had once before gone into the house, so that the parish authorities might find out her husband. They did so, and took him before the magistrate.
When she was left destitute on the last occasion she would not go into the house again, for there was no comfort there to make it better than a crust of bread outside, got anyhow.
THE BOY HAD BEEN AILING
The deceased had been ailing for a long time past.
He became very bad; the parish doctor came to see him on Tuesday, but he was dead.
THE COMMON LODGING HOUSE
Charlotte Barrester, wife of the keeper of the lodging-house in George-street, said that the last witness and her two children had lodged with her for about six months. They had a meal one day, and were three days without.
The mother used to be out until three in the morning – sometimes the whole night.
The children were generally up till she came home, for if witness put them to bed, as the had sometimes done, then the mother would come in without money and could not pay for their bed; but when she knew that they were not to go to bed till the bed was paid for, she brought in the money.
A SOBER TRUSTWORTHY WOMAN
She was a sober woman – she never drank.
Witness trusted her a little at times, and the lodgers would give the children bits of bread when they had nothing.
Witness urged the mother to go into the workhouse, but she said she would not for she had been in it before.
The mother did her best for the children, but the deceased was shockingly clothed, and had not enough of food.
As for the girl of 13, for the last week or two, she had gone off with the girls that went on the streets.
THE CAUSE OF DEATH
Mr. Septimus Swyer, surgeon, said that in obedience to a parish order he went to visit the deceased on Tuesday last, and he found him dead.
The body was excessively emaciated.
The post-mortem examination showed that the intestines were atrophied from long-continued privations. The brain was congested; the substance of it had begun to soften from want of food. There was only a very little trace of food in the stomach.
The cause of death was congestion of the brain from want of proper food.
A LOW-CLASS LODGING HOUSE
A police sergeant said that the lodging-house in which the deceased died was occupied by about 100 persons.
Only those that were too reduced to get a home or a bed elsewhere lodged in it.
The price of a double bed was 7d. a night.
The Coroner having summed up, the jury returned a verdict of “Death from congestion of the brain from want of food and other necessaries.”