Putting the atrocities of Jack the Ripper aside, it is a fact of history that the streets of Spitalfields were filled with numerous dangers for residents and chance visitors alike.
The common lodging houses, that had proliferated in the area over the years prior to the Whitechapel murders, were home to a varied assortment of residents, many of whom lived on the periphery of the law, and several of whom could, should the mood take them and the chance present itself, turn to extreme violence.
The type of violent criminal with which the citizens of Spitalfields had to cope, is illustrated in a particularly horrible story that was reported in April, 1889, following the arrest of the perpetrator.
POLICE INTELLIGENCE – WORSHIP STREET
The London Evening Standard, reported on the perpetrator’s court appearance in its edition of Wednesday, 3rd April, 1889:-
“Robert Runacre, 25, a shoe laster, was charged with assaulting William Tompkins, by biting a piece out of his cheek.
The Prosecutor, who lives in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, said that on Saturday night the Prisoner knocked at the door of a shop which was closed.
HE BIT THE SHOPKEEPER
The door being opened, he rushed in and assaulted the servant, and the Prosecutor went to protect her.
The Prisoner then attacked him, knocked him down, and, throwing himself on him, he bit a piece out of his right cheek.
Corroborative evidence was given.
HE ALWAYS FOLLOWED THE SERVANT
According to the evidence of the servant girl, the Prisoner always followed her and knocked her about because she would not give him money.
The Shopkeeper said that on Monday the Prisoner entered the shop again, and said he had heard there was a warrant out for him.
HE THREATENED TO BURN THE HOUSE DOWN
He went down on his knees and swore that if he (the Witness) appeared against him, he (the prisoner) would burn the house down when he got out of prison, and his wife should suffer for it.
The Magistrate (Mr. Moutagu Williams), asked the Witness if he wished to charge the Prisoner with threatening him, and the Witness answering that he would, the Magistrate ordered that charge to be entered.
HE DID NOT KNOW WHO HE WAS BITING
He then asked the Prisoner what he had to say.
The Prisoner replied that he pleaded Guilty to biting the man, but he did not know what he was biting.
The Magistrate said that a more horrid charge he had never heard.
He sentenced him to the maximum term of two months for assault and ordered him to then find bail in 20 shillings for his good behaviour for three months.”
A HORRID CHARGE
The Seven Oaks Chronicle And Kentish Advertiser, in its edition of Friday, 5th April, 1889, also reported the case and opined on just how “horrid” the crime was, and – no doubt expressing the thoughts of many of the residents of Spitalfields – hoped that the man responsible for the crime would be taken off the streets for a considerable period of time:-
AN EXCEPTIONALLY NAUSEOUS STORY
“London and other police magistrates have to listen, time and again, to the most revolting details of cruelty and brutality; but it must have been an exceptionally nauseous story that could have moved Mr. Montagu Williams, Worship-street, to declare the other day that “a more horrid charge he had never heard.”
Horrid it was, in all conscience.
Ruffianly shoe-laster, one Robert Runacre, knocked at a shop door in Spitalfields late at night, violently assaulted a female servant, and on the prosecutor going to defend her, knocked him down and bit a piece out of his right cheek.
When the cannibal, who was not arrested on the spot, heard that there was a warrant out against him, he repaired to the shop, went down on his knees, and threatened, if he were prosecuted, to burn down the house and injure the shopkeeper’s wife.
TWO MONTHS IMPRISONMENT
He was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for the assault, and ordered to find bail for his good behaviour for three months longer.
HOPING FOR FIVE YEARS IN PRISON
Those sureties, it is to be hoped, he will not be able to procure, so society will be rid of him for five months; but it is a matter for extreme regret that such a fellow could not be punished with five years’ penal servitude and a flogging boot.”
A CAUTION FOR PROFESSIONAL BEGGARS
The Islington Gazette, on Monday, 15th April, 1889 published a story that, whereas probably not as shocking for the degree of violence demonstrated, was certainly disturbing for the sheer lack of care for the welfare of their children demonstrated by a mother and father who resided in a common lodging house in Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields:-
ASSAULTING THEIR CHILDREN
“William and Annie Wood, a strong-looking couple, who were on remand charged with assaulting their three children, by exposing them to inclement weather for the purposes of begging, were before Mr. Bros, at the Police-court, on Thursday, when Mr. Nevill prosecuted on behalf of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; and submitted that there was a clear case of assault.
He called Inspector Delahay, who said that the children were standing with the prisoners in Mare-street. The rain was pouring down at the time, and the children ran out to the passers-by, and received money which they gave to the male prisoner.
The children were quite wet.
DONE NOTHING ELSE BUT BEG
He had made inquiries, and found that the prisoners had lodged for twelve months in a common lodging house, at Flower and Dean-street, Spitalfields, and had, apparently, done nothing else than beg.
He believed that the children did belong to the prisoners.
But the man had followed no employment, and he (the officer] had seen the people begging on several previous occasions.
HE WORKED WHEN HE COULD GET IT
The male prisoner said he did work at the docks when he could get it; and the female whined out that she clothed the children as warmly as she could before she took them out, and as proof that they were not wet, the clothing was not dried by the authorities.
THE CHILDREN TAKEN CARE OF
Mr. Bros said the fact of the children belonging to the prisoners showed a greater degree of cruelty. If they must go out to beg, they might leave the children at home.
The male prisoner: There is no one to take care of them.
Mr. Bros: You will both go to prison for a month, and the children will be well taken care of meanwhile.”
LIFE WAS HARSH
One thing that is, most certainly demonstrated by these two stories is that life for so many people who resided in the East End of London around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, was tough and the struggle for survival was relentless.
Casual violence, as demonstrated in the case of the Hanbury Street shopkeeper and his household could happen to anyone and at any time.
Is it, therefore, any wonder, that, in the eyes of many, the perpetrator who had carried out the Whitechapel atrocities – one ow which had taken place in Hanbury Street – was seen as an inevitable outgrowth of the deprivation and everyday violence that seemed to be endemic in the area?