One of the many theories concerning the motive behind Jack the Ripper’s killing spree in the East End of London in the autumn of 1888 is that the perpetrator was on a moral crusade to rid the streets of the scourge of prostitution.
Protests about the brazenly open way in which East London prostitutes went about their business had been appearing in the newspapers for several years prior to the onset of the Whitechapel murders.
Indeed, in the previous autumn, 1887, the Duke of Westminster was openly attacking the prevalence of the houses of ill-repute in the East End of London.
His ruminations brought forth howls of protest from the radical press, members of which were quick to point out that prostitution was as bad, if not worse, in the West End of London.
Several newspapers went on to point out that many women were being forced into prostitution out of simple necessity, since the wages available to them for working long hours in the factories, were scarcely enough to live on.
It was also observed that, in the case of many of the factory girls who toiled across England, they were very much at the mercy of the factory foremen and the factory owners as to whether or not they would be given any paid work on a particular day.
IS LONDON’S EAST END MORE WICKED THAN THE WEST?
Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper published the following letter, which dealt with the issues facing so many factory girls, on Sunday, 23rd October, 1887
“Sir,- I must premise that I couple the above words together upon this occasion to draw attention to the Duke of Westminster’s letter about the houses of ill-fame in the East-end of London.
It has suddenly struck the ground landlords of London, and several gentlemen who have associated themselves with them, that this mighty capital is in need of great social purification.
They have issued a letter to the public, in which the infamy of its dens is pointed out, and, with what is doubtless the best of good intentions, are determined to suppress the traffic which all decent-minded men must feel an abominable one.
VICE IS FLAGRANT AND BLATANT
Nowhere, as a matter of fact, is vice so flagrant or so open as in this shameless city.
Foreign capitals hide their shame.
Our purblind rulers allow it to parade itself in the streets.
Regent-street is a flesh market compared to which that of antique Babylon was decency itself.
No country visitor can walk along the Strand in broad daylight without feeling startled at the sights which he sees, but to which callous Londoners have grown all too indifferent.
THE HIDEOUSNESS OF POVERTY
In so far as the Duke of Westminster and those associated with him can do anything to lessen what is an outrage upon humanity, they will be supported by all who feel that man should endeavour to live a little better life than that of a brute beast.
But I want to ask, sir, a somewhat serious question about the action which the Duke of Westminster has taken.
Why does he confine his attention to the East-end where there are none of the refining agencies which tend so much, or rather should tend, to purify life?
Down there in those great thoroughfares, which stretch in the blank hideousness of unrelieved poverty for miles, existence is so cramped and so confined, that I, for one, feel but small wonder, although it is blended with a great compassion, that men and women occasionally forget even the sanctities of married life, to say nothing of that respect for innocence which it may be presumed is the characteristic of our nineteenth-century civilization.
BUT THE WEST END IS AS BAD
When, however, from the East the eyes are turned to the West, and its luxurious ease, wealth and vice are passed in review, no one can help feeling that if the Duke was really in earnest about his new moral crusade, he will first apply the moral whitewash brush to places where people of wealth, education, and social standing are to be found engaged in practices which I need not name.
That “august house” in which the Duke of Landlords, as a peer, has the “privilege” of sitting is defiled by the presence of other peers who have made appearances in divorce cases, the evidence in which has been of so disgusting a nature that it would have disgraced the most brutal rough who was ever whelped in the Seven-dials; for of such creatures it would be a misuse of language to speak of their being born, so unmitigatedly animal is the coarseness of their natures.
No doubt London’s East sadly needs light in a dozen different ways; but in this respect the West sits under a still sadder darkness, and is afflicted with a more cankerous malady.
THE POOR ARE NOT THE CLIENTS
As a matter of fact, and looking at metropolitan prostitution – as metropolitan prostitution exists – there can be no doubt that if it was supported solely by the poor it would fade out of existence in six months.
The women who sell themselves for a little silver could not live if they depended upon the contribution of the East-end.
It must be a well-known fact to all who are at all acquainted with London life that it is well-to-do men, and, as a rule, married men – men with the means which come in middle life – who purchase the attentions of Phryne and Lais and their terribly fallen sisterhood.
There may be some wickedness in the East-end; a great deal of human nature is to be found there, and human nature, we have it upon excellent authority, is prone to evil.
SORRIER WEST END BLACKSPOTS
But the huge crowded area which extends beyond that side of St. Paul’s which faces Cheapside has no monopoly of wickedness.
The keenest-eyed explorer would not find it to consist of a kind of consolidated Sodom and Gomorrah, while Park-lane and its vicinity was pure with the sanctity of asceticism.
And I venture to say, sir, if the Duke of Westminster would only take the trouble to inquire closely into the case, he will find that there are sorrier black spots in fashionable localities than in those where sordid cares and privation hold their gripping sway.
THE PURITY OF OUR WOMEN
But in yet another important point of what is really the grievous social question of the age – the purity of our women – the duke seems to have hopelessly started upon the wrong tack.
Why is England cursed at the present moment with the presence of so many prostitutes – and how should this terrific evil be grappled with?
It is useless to try to dam up a great river where it is broadest, and the social trouble of the time is largely owing to the iniquitous manner in which wealthy employers of labour grind their riches out of the thews of the poor.
THE NOTTINGHAM FACTORY GIRLS
There are thousands of girls, for instance, at the present moment in Nottingham who are expected to find clothing, food and lodgings, and yet to keep virtuous, upon a wage of five shillings a-week!
How is it to be done?
Who can wonder if these forlorn maidens sacrifice, for the sake of a piece of dry bread – as was the case in Paris during the siege, when inexorable necessity drove them to it – all that a woman holds near and dear in order to keep body and soul together?
THE POWER OF FACTORY FOREMEN
I have before now animadverted in this column upon the power the foremen in large works, employing women, have over girls under their command.
But the great factor in the production of women whom society names with a terrible word is, in thousands of manufacturing centres, the starvation wages at which they are expected to work.
The Duke of Westminster, or any large-hearted philanthropist, seriously determined to make an end of the greatest blot on England’s escutcheon, will have to do more than hunt down the owners of old, rickety tenements in the East-end, or even owners of more ornate and luxuriously-appointed places of fashionable address. They must go to the fountain head and see that capital does its duty by those who make the wealth which it enjoys.
THE CLEAVERS OF NOTTINGHAM
I have spoken of the low wages of Nottingham girls.
A curious proof of the last few days of the condition of things prevailing in the centre of the lace-making industry is to be found in the report published by a Nottingham paper of a case which was held in the Summons Court at the Town Hall of that town a short time ago, and which resulted in Mr. Francis Frederick Cleaver; an ex-sheriff of Nottingham, being fined twenty shillings for assaulting Henrietta Belcher, a girl in his employ.
The defendants in the case were Francis Frederick Cleaver and Harry Cleaver, father and son, and the lawyer who appeared for the complainant made the following statement of the case:-
“Mr. Clayton, who appeared for the Complainant stated that Messrs. Cleaver have works in Wilford-road, at which a number of girls are employed, the complainant being among the number.
GIRLS KEPT STANDING
On the day in question, some of the hands had been ‘standing’ for some considerable time. Accordingly, they asked to be allowed to go home. They were, however, asked to wait, as some work was expected later.
When the expected work came, it was given to some girls in another part of the factory.
HENRIETTA BELCHER COMPLAINED
Belcher complained to Mr. Harry Cleaver about this, and he told her to go home.
Mr. P. F. Cleaver then came in, but she would not go, and he tried to get her out of the room, and tried to eject the complainant by force. He seized her by the body and dragged her about the floor of the room. He also knelt upon her chest and slapped her. She became “black in the face” from the treatment she had received. He attempted to carry her out bodily with the assistance of a workman.
There could be no doubt that a violent assault had been committed by the elder defendant.
Mr. Cleaver was a man. of some position in the town, and he asked that, under the circumstances, he might be made an example of.
It would doubtless have been better if his client had gone home as soon as she was asked to do so; but he would submit that Mr. Cleaver had no right to use force to the extent he had done in ejecting her.”
Henrietta Belcher was examined as to the assault, and her evidence, according to the report of the case before us, bore out Mr. Clayton’s statement.
She added that on the way home she was very sick, and on cross-examination denied that she had kicked Mr. Cleaver or bitten him.
FRANCIS CLEAVER’S EVIDENCE
Then the following evidence is reported to have been given in court:-
“Francis F. Cleaver, the elder defendant, said that, when he came into the room in which Belcher was on the occasion in question, he found a disturbance was going on.
His son told him that Belcher would not go when ordered to do so. He put his hand on her shoulder and tried to get her to go quietly, but she seized hold of a bench and stood fast.
She would not go by any means, but went down on the floor of her own accord.
An attempt was made to lift her by the legs, but she said she was a respectable girl, and would not be handled in that way.
HE THOUGHT IT QUITE PROPER
Mr. Clayton: “Do you consider it proper for a young woman to be lifted in that way when there are other girls; about? ”
Witness: “Yes, it was quite proper to treat a girl in that way under the circumstances. There were three of them trying to get Belcher out, and then they could not do it. She kicked and made bruises on the witness’s legs, so he slapped her. He had given her the opportunity of going out before he laid hands on her.”
The bench dismissed the case against Mr. Henry Cleaver, but inflicted a fine of twenty shillings – the least they could do – on Mr. Francis Frederick Cleaver, following this verdict up oddly enough by censuring Belcher for not having gone out of the room quietly when she was told to do so.
This respectable girl, it must be remembered, was stated to have been standing there and waiting for work from half-past twelve to three, and no wonder can be felt that she evinced some temper by a waste of time which must have seriously minimised an already scanty wage.
NOT ENOUGH MONEY TO LIVE ON
Now, sir, to bring my argument to a head. Girls who are anxious to live a proper life, but who cannot upon the wages necessary to pay for a poor room to live in and dry bread to live upon, but too often get their money in another way.
In the Nottingham case, which I have quoted at length, it would seem as if for the moment a woman’s natural indignation overcame her at a promise of work being broken.
Many another girl in a similar position might have submitted with silent sullenness, and have endeavoured in the streets, and under cover of the darkness, to make up a scanty purse in an illicit way.
FACTORY LIFE IS TO BLAME
If those men amongst us who are concerned in the moral regeneration of London wish to prevent the ranks of the fallen being constantly recruited, let them look round at England’s factory life.
With regard to London, the East-end may profitably be left alone until purity blossoms like a flower in the West-end, and a thicket of it grows at the junction of Regent-street, Piccadilly, and Waterloo-place.
Dukes and others interested in the moral regeneration of England may profitably turn their attention to Society’s garden parties and its great balls.
Perhaps they would best study the interests of reform to indefinitely postpone the East-end crusade, which, although needed, is by no means so urgently wanted as in more favoured localities.”