Growing Up With Jack The Ripper

It’s a sobering thought to look back at the poverty of the East End of London and consider the effect that it had on the children of the area. A huge percentage of those born in the district where the murders took place were destined to die in infancy. Disease and poverty were both contributing factors to the high level of infant mortality in the area.

Yet the Victorian attitude, or at least the  attitude of the authorities and the middle classes, to the children of the poor was, to say the least, somewhat ambivalent.

On the one hand they were seen as a threat to the stability of civilised and ordered society and were, therefore, to be controlled and watched carefully at all times. On the other hand they were viewed with a certain amount of sentimentality and seen as innocent and unsullied examples of humanity who should be protected from the evils that surrounded them at all costs.

From the 18th century onwards, and, to a large extend, even today, reformers had, and have, recognised the fact that images of poor children could be hugely successful in evoking feelings of pity among the public as a whole and could, therefore, be used to encourage generous donations to charitable and humanitarian causes.

One person who most certainly recognised the pity arousing benefits of poverty stricken children was Dr. Barnardo, founder of the children homes that still bear his name, and one of the early pioneers of entrepreneurial philanthropy. 

Barnardo, who had trained as a doctor at the London Hospital, was very active in the East End of London throughout the Jack the Ripper murders, and his endeavours to rescue street urchins from lives of poverty and want, not to mention the clutches of the criminal underworld who were ever willing to lead them into lives of vice and crime, were commendable. 

The Barnado publicity machine was extremely slick and effective, and one of the ways he brought the plight of street children to the attention of the wider public was to utilise the medium of photography. 

One of the methods that he used to “make capital” for his charitable enterprises was to distribute and sell photographs of ragged boys (that is boys dressed in ragged clothes) which were effectively used as  marketing tools to raise the necessary funds for his endeavours to rescue poor children from life on the streets.

Indeed, many of the photographs that depict 19th century East End childhood poverty that are published in books, and which are used in documentaries today are, in fact, the carefully staged and posed images of  the ragged children that Barnardo produced, distributed and sold in order to raise the funds to enable him to continue his campaign to rescue as many of the East End children as he could.