Whitechapel, throughout the latter half of the 19th century, had a dreadful reputation for villainy; and it wasn’t just the crimes of Jack the Ripper that imbued it with such a reputation for lawlessness that the very mention of it could strike genuine fear into many who were strangers to, or lived outside of, the district.
One of the much-reported problems, that was frequently mentioned in the newspapers, was the problem of the gangs.
This was seen to be a major problem in the East End of London in general and in Whitechapel in particular.
OTHER PARTS OF THE COUNTRY WERE AS BAD
However, in fairness to the East End of London, it should be pointed out that the problem of the gangs was not confined to districts within its boundaries; indeed, many other parts of London – in fact, many other parts of the country – were also plagued by gangs of roughs that made the everyday lives of local citizens almost unbearable.
And, the fact that the gangs seemed to be able to operate with little fear of police intervention, was one of the reasons that the Victorian Metropolitan Police found themselves being constantly criticised in the pages of the newspapers, not to mention by the people who it was their sworn duty to protect.
In short, there was a consensus across polite society in the 1880’s and the 1890’s that, in many places, the police had lost control of the streets to the gangs.
THE WHITECHAPEL MURDERS
In the investigations into the early Whitechapel murders – Emma Smith, Martha Tabram and Mary Nichols – there was a consensus amongst the police, press and public, that the crimes were being carried out by one of the local gangs that were running extortion rackets amongst the prostitutes of Whitechapel.
AN ATTACK ON A WOMAN
In the wake of the murder of Mary Nichols, which had taken place on the 31st of August, 1888, another attack took place on a woman that seemed to confirm the belief that an extortion gang was behind the atrocities.
The Gloucestershire Echo, on Tuesday, 4th September, 1888, reported on this latest case:-
“Another desperate assault, which stopped only just short of murder, was committed upon a woman in Whitechapel on Saturday night [31st August, 1888].
The woman was leaving the Foresters’ Music Hall, Cambridge Heath Road, where she had been spending the evening with a sea captain, when she was accosted by a well-dressed man, who asked her to accompany him.
She invited him to go to her apartments, and he acquiesced, requesting her meantime to walk a short distance with him, as he wanted to meet a friend.
HE SUDDENLY SEIZED HER
They had reached a point near to the scene of the murder of the woman Nicholls, when the man violently seized his companion by the throat and dragged her down a court.
He was immediately joined by a gang of women and men, who stripped the unfortunate woman of her necklace, earrings, and brooch.
Her purse was also taken, and she was brutally assaulted.
Upon attempting to shout for aid, one of the gang laid a knife across her throat, remarking “We will serve you as we did the others.”
She was eventually released.
The police have been informed, and are prosecuting enquiries into the matter, it being regarded as a probable clue to the previous tragedies.”
BLACKMAILING THE PROSTITUTES
The Stroud Journal, on Friday, 7th September, 1888, confirmed that the police were looking into the possibility that the crimes thus far had been gang related:-
“The officers engaged in the case are pushing their inquiries in the neighbourhood as to the doings of certain gangs known to frequent these parts, and an opinion is gaining ground amongst them that the murderers are the same who committed the two previous murders near the same spot.
It is believed that these gangs, who make their appearance during the early hours of the morning, are in the habit of blackmailing these poor creatures, and where their demands are refused violence follows.”
GANG THEORY DISCARDED
It would be the next day, in the wake of the murder of Annie Chapman, on the 8th of September, 1888, that the gang theory was discarded in favour of the idea that a lone assassin was the perpetrator of the recent crimes.
OUTRAGE IN WHITECHAPEL
However, this didn’t mean that the gang problem went away.
Indeed, almost two years after the Jack the Ripper murders, The Kilburn Times, on Friday, 20th June, 1890, reported on another crime, very similar to the one that had taken place on the woman who had left Forresters Music Hall on 31st August, 1888:-
“A brutal scene was witnessed on Saturday afternoon in the public recreation ground, Baker’s Row, Whitechapel.
About 5 o’clock the police were informed that the keeper was being murdered by a gang of roughs.
Several constables hurried down, but the alarm was given, and the roughs escaped by the opposite gates.
THE PARKKEEPER’S STATEMENT
The parkkeeper, whose name is C. A. Sole, who had been badly knocked about, was conveyed to his lodge, where, after giving a description of the men, he said the row commenced because he endeavoured to rescue a young girl of 15 or 16 years age, whom some women were following about and endeavouring to persuade to go with them into one of the houses near Buck’s Row.
Some of the women tried to frighten her into giving them money for drink, and because she could not, one of them gave her a blow in the face.
She appealed to him at the park gates to let her come in for protection, and he tried to close the gates against her pursuers.
The women, however, forced the gates, and struck him, and, immediately after, a gang of five roughs who were with them, and who had been following the girl about, snatched his stick, broke it up, knocked him down, and kicked him while he was on the ground.
He had watched the same thing going on all the afternoon – accosting and trying to allure other young girls.
The place was being made a regular hunting ground by the very worst of character.”
LONDON WAS OUT OF CONTROL
Many people reading these accounts of the gang activity across London, not to mention throughout the country as a whole, must have wondered to themselves whether England’s Capital City was safe to walk around or visit.
And many more must have wondered why the police weren’t doing more to seize control of the streets back from the gangs.