One of the criticisms that is often made of television dramas, documentaries and films on the Jack the Ripper murders, is that they often show the murderer stalking his victims through thick London fogs.
Time and time again, modern commentators on the case will observe that there were no fogs on the nights that the murders occurred and, therefore, they will dismiss the depiction of the fog-enshrouded Victorian streets at the time of the Whitechapel atrocities as being nothing or than a fiction or a fallacy.
The problem with this approach – and it is a problem that afflicts a great deal of research into all aspects of the case – is that it is treating the individual crimes as standalone incidents, whereas historical events are almost always played out as splodges on a much bigger canvass.
FOG WAS COMMON IN LONDON
So, yes, there may not have been any fog on the nights of the majority of the Jack the Ripper murders, but fog most certainly enveloped the streets of the Victorian Metropolis with such regularity as to become, almost, a part of the very fabric of the 19th century Capital.
Indeed, writers – the names of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle spring to mind here – had long learned that fogs were such an integral part of the London landscape that they had frequently used them as backdrops, some might even argue as characters, in their novels and stories.
BLEAK HOUSE – FOG EVERYWHERE
Anyone who wants to get the feel for what it was like to be in Victorian London when a thick fog descended across the streets need only read the wonderfully evocative opening pages of Dickens’s Bleak House:-
“….Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time – as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look…”
Now, admittedly, Charles Dickens in the above passage is using the fog to set it up as a metaphor for the slow and grinding machinations of the Court of Chancery, but the point is, to have got the reference, his readers would have needed to understand its context and comparisons; and, there is little doubt that the average Victorian most certainly was used to visitations of dense, thick “London particulars”, to use Dickens’ own term for the fogs or smogs.
JANUARY 12TH 1888
So, although fog or smog may not have been hovering, menacingly, over the scenes of the Jack the Ripper murders, its brooding and threatening presence was always waiting in the wings, ready to roll in and bring the streets of London to a standstill.
On Thursday the 12th of January 1888, for example, London was in the grip of a particularly dense fog that had, according to the Daily News begun “…last Monday [and] has since continued with scarcely an intermission, ” and which had caused, “…Several serious accidents, some of them resulting in loss of life…”
The newspaper then went on to provide some examples of the carnage that had resulted from the miasma then engulfing London:-
“…About Ten o’clock on Tuesday night, the body of a man named Andgrave was found on the railway line near Dalston Junction, mangled, almost beyond recognition, by a train having passed over it. He had, apparently, wandered upon the line in the fog, not knowing where he was.
At almost the same time another man, named Faulkner, was discovered at the London Fields’ Station, of the Great Eastern Railway, having had both his legs shockingly mutilated by a passing train, the accident, presumably, being attributable to the fog.
On Tuesday afternoon, the body of a man was found floating in the Regent Canal at Millwall. He has since been identified as John Forster, 26, mate of a sailing vessel belonging to Guernsey, now lying in the East India Dock, and it is supposed that, in returning to his ship, he got lost in the fog, and walked over the side of the quay before he was aware of his mistake.
The body of a young man has since been found in the River near the same spot, and identified as George Govatt, aged 16, late of 11 Reame-street, Monlar-road, Poplar. The deceased, who was last seen on Monday night, is said to have been well acquainted with the neighbourhood of the quay, and to have returned home that way as it is a near [as in short] cut. He is also believed to have accidentally walked into the River during the fog.
At Clapton, the body of a postman, named Charles Field, who had unconsciously walked into the River Lea was recovered on Tuesday…”
FOG IN LONDON
The Daily News also went into detail about the effect the fog was having on the well being of residents and on the operation of transportation around London:-
“…Traffic has been impeded, the general health depressed, all the activity of the River has been held in arrest, here and there unwary pedestrians have plunged into rivers and canal basins and docks, or have stumbled on to railways and been run over, or have been knocked down in the streets by vehicles suddenly looming out of the dank mists.
It has been, no doubt, a high time for the gas companies and for the coal merchants, not withstanding that the days have been mild, but, for almost everybody else, this protracted fog has been very depressing.
The traffic in the streets has been slowed down and, in the evenings, much of it taken off entirely.
“Not a bit of use running ‘busses when nobody’s out of doors,” said a conductor. “We didn’t run last night, It don’t pay for the wear o’ horses. The fog wasn’t so bad part o’ the journey, but when we got up towards London bridge it came down just as if somebody had dropped a curtain, and the driver couldn’t see his ‘osses.”
TRAFFIC MATERIALLY REDUCED
During the daytime yesterday the street traffic was not very materially reduced in quantity, but it was, necessarily, carried on slowly, and the same was the case with the railways all over London.
The whole metropolitan area has been booming with fog signals since Monday, and the lines in all directions have been blazing with the coke fires kept up by the plate-layers, who, during a fog, are always detailed off for laying these explosives.
Trains have very generally lost touch with their time-tables, on some of the metropolitan lines at least, but there has been no actual interruption.
FOG ON THE RIVER
On the river, however, the case has been very different.
So completely has activity been suspended all down the Thames that the police have been withdrawn.
The men whose regular beats are patrolled in boats have been set afoot in the riverside streets, and were yesterday doing duty just as ordinary land divisions are accustomed to.
A few men on special duty were moving about the dreamy expanse of water, but scarcely anything was stirring anywhere on the Thames yesterday, and the great highway into London has rarely been so still and undisturbed.
About one o’clock in the day the fog thinned a little, and here and there a small boat might be seen paddling through the haze, and bigger vessels crept very timidly up and down; but, practically, there was nothing done on the water yesterday, and very little has been practicably done this week.
WORK ON TOWER BRIDGE SUSPENDED
The works at the new Tower Bridge have been entirely suspended, and yesterday everything was as completely at rest there as elsewhere on the river.
The two piers that have been planted out in the stream have, during the fog, been converted into lighthouses and a Lucigen light has been kept blazing from each both day and night, in order to prevent barges or other craft fouling with the works. This light is spoken of as very penetrating in fog – more so, indeed, than most others – but as it plentifully dispenses a spray of oily globules over everything around it, it is not very popular at the Tower works.
All day yesterday these beacon lights were looming large and ruddy through the fog, and their deep, ceaseless, hum was almost the only sound that disturbed the general quiet.
EASY TO LOSE YOUR WAY
Everybody who has moved about London in a thick fog must be well aware how easy it is to lose one’s way, even in the most familiar localities.
It is vastly easier to do so on the river, as those engaged at he new bridge experienced on Tuesday evening.
The two piers standing quite out in the river, and being, of course, both of them at a considerable distance from the shores, a small steamer The Alert has been employed in navigating to and fro.
On Tuesday this small craft left port with one or two on board, intending to make straight for the mid-stream pier. She started from Irongate Stairs, and after a long and eventful voyage, found herself compelled to cast anchor away in the west, somewhere along the rocky reef known to travellers as London Bridge.
On Tuesday they managed to continue work on the piers, and towards dusk they had some fifty men on one of them and ninety on the other.
They tried to get some of them off in a small boat, but here again they soon found themselves totally out of their reckoning, and after a protracted voyage…they were glad to find a harbour somewhere down about the London and St Katharine Docks.
FOG IN THE LONDON PARKS
The parks have been for the last three days, as regards all but the main paths through them at least, as quiet and as desolate as the river.
In Regent’s Park a child was, for some time, heard crying pitifully.
After a while, a benevolent passerby pushed out into the fog in quest of the child, who was found to be a comfortably clad little mite, about four years old, who had, somehow, strayed from her brothers and sisters, and who had been wandering about the open park for an hour at least quite lost, and, considering few people were about, really in no little peril…”
SO FOG WAS A REALITY
The Daily News article does, most certainly, provide us with a vivid impression of what it must have been like to move through the London streets when they were enveloped in fog.
Indeed, I don’t know about you, but, reading it for the first time, I was overcome by a real sense of the sheer disorientating effect that those Victorian fogs and smogs must have had on the senses and perceptions of wayfarers trying to negotiate their way through the streets, parks and along the river.
Fog may not have been a factor on the actual nights of the Jack the Ripper murders, but its brooding presence, coupled with its potential to wreak havoc, was as much a feature of the sinister side of London as any nebulous figure stalking the night shadows of the Victorian streets, alleyways and thoroughfares.
And – if you will permit me a little artistic Dickensian paraphrasing with which to end this article – in the East End of London, at the very heart of the fog, lurked Jack the Ripper in his high court of infamy.