In Whitechapel 1888

Gaining a clear understanding of the layout of the streets of Whitechapel, and the problems encountered by the police as they tried to hunt Jack the Ripper through the East End slums in 1888, can be something of a challenge for us today. After all, much of the area has changed beyond recognition, and we simply do not grasp the complexities of an investigation that had to be carried out in one of the most crime-ridden and densely populated enclaves of the Victorian metropolis.

However, it was equally as difficult for people outside the district to comprehend at the time, and, in consequence, the police found themselves subjected to a barrage of criticism for their inability to bring the Whitechapel murder to justice.

This criticism was particularly scornful in the American newspapers and, in defence of the Metropolitan Police in London, on Sunday, November, 25th 1888, The Philadelphia Times published the following article, which not only defended the police but really did give a vivid insight into what the area where the murders were occurring was really like:-


“The extraordinary series of mysterious murders in London have excited widespread attention in this country. Press and public have vigorously denounced the apathy and inefficiency of the London police, and have proudly remarked that such crimes – or rather a succession of such crimes – would he impossible in American cities.

The police systems of the larger cities in the United States, our newspapers say, would surely prevent the commission of such murders, or, in any event, soon unearth the murderer.

Englishmen who are familiar with the locality in which all these murders have been committed, and with the wretched beings who inhabit the district, are inclined to pityingly smile at our American comments.

And they have reason for their contemptuous criticism of our criticisms.

For in all America there is no such locality, nor even an approach to such a locality, as is the scene of the Whitechapel horrors.


The most wretched, the most degraded quarter of the largest of our cities does not even approximate the squalor and wretchedness of the Whitechapel district.

It is the very cesspool of London – London, with all its 5,000,000 inhabitants and its dozen criminal and pauper districts, any one of which equals in size and population most of our American cities.

Mr. Laurence Hutton, the literary reviewer of Harper’s Monthly, and widely known as an authority on everything connected with London, tersely sums up the characteristics of Whitechapel in the current number of Harper’s, when he says, in speaking of the East End of London:- “It contains miles upon miles of rows of houses – small, mean and monotonous houses – occupied by hundreds of thousands of persons who live mean and monotonous lives, all of them, like the houses, after the same model.

An illustration of a backstreet in Whitechapel.
A Glimpse of A Whitechapel Backstreet.


Probably there is no such spectacle in the whole world as that of this immense, neglected, forgotten great city of the east of London, as Mr. Besant, the author, found it half a dozen years ago.

It has little or no history; no one wants to see it for itself or for its association’s sake; no one has any curiosity about it or about its way of life; the books upon London, with few exceptions, ignore it altogether, and even its own citizens give it or themselves no serious thought. They are sure they want something, but what that something is they do not know and they cannot discover.”

It is in this district that the scene of “Jack, the Ripper’s” murder-mania is laid.

Perhaps Whitechapel proper is a mile or so in diameter.


The census of 1857 gives it something like 70,000 population; 200,000 would probably be a good deal nearer the figure of the present.

And such a 200,000 it is!

In the first place, the district is situated on the Middlesex bank of the Thames and is distant from the West End of London – the only section of London that the average American traveller sees or hears anything about – not less than four or five miles.

What Whitechapel was 200 years ago it is, to all intents and purposes, today.

The vast majority of the land and buildings in the district are, and have been, owned by the Marquis of Westminster and other noblemen, who, of course, rent the buildings through several series of agents, and, probably, scarcely know in what part of London their holdings are situated.

A sketch of a house and a gate in Whitechapel.
One Of The Properties.


The late Earl of Shaftesbury, who had large holdings in Whitechapel, interested himself in the district, however, and did more to civilize and purge the place than any ten men have ever done.

He erected a library, reading room and so on for the benighted Whitechapelites, and in this way and other ways he greatly improved the condition of the more honestly inclined residents.


The criminal classes, however, practically remained unaltered.

The civilizing influences, the tearing-down-and-building-up process to be seen elsewhere – have exerted but little or no influence on it.

Diverse bus lines, to be sure, do penetrate it.

And, of course, the tendency of modern cosmopolitan London is to amalgamate its elements, to draw from one district to another and thus in some degree to distribute the several classes of its population; but these influences have not been potent in the locality I am describing, and thus the Whitechapel of today is the Whitechapel of two hundred years ago, grown bigger and wickeder.


Other districts of London which were once the abode of the criminal and degraded classes have advanced with the progress of civilization and changed their very nature.

Two centuries or so ago Whitefriars was one of the worst, if not the worst, districts in London.

Macaulay in his history says:-

“On the confines of the city and temple had been founded, in the thirteenth century, a house of Carmelite friars distinguished by their white hoods (whence came the name of the district). The precinct of this house had, before the Reformation, been a sanctuary for criminals, and still retained the privilege of protecting debtors from arrest.

Insolvents consequently were to be found in every dwelling from cellar to garret. Of these, a large proportion were knaves and libertines, and were followed to their asylum by women more abandoned than themselves.

The civil power was unable to keep order in a district swarming with such inhabitants; and thus Whitefriars became the favourite resort of all who wished to be emancipated from the restraints of the law.

At the cry of “rescue”, bullies with swords and cudgels and termagant hags with spits and broom-sticks poured forth by hundreds, and the intruder was fortunate if he escaped back into Fleet Street hustled, stripped and bumped upon.

Even the warrant of the Chief Justice of England could not be executed without the help of a company of musketeers.”


What was a description of Whitefriars in the olden times is almost a description of the Whitechapel of today.

To be sure, the lawless inhabitants of Whitefriars were supposed to have a sort of traditional immunity from arrest which the Whitechapelites have never had.

But the almost innumerable holes and crannies and nooks and dens of the latter district offer ample means of concealment, and the common and mutual hatred of the officers of the law renders every Whitechapelite a friend to any other after whom the officers are looking. So that, while there is no theoretical immunity in Whitechapel, there is an extremely practical immunity.


For one thing, the residents of the district have a dialect – almost a language – of their own.

It Is known as the “back slang” and is based upon a very simple principle, viz: Spelling every word backwards.

Thus their language would be unintelligible to a stranger in their midst.

You and I could walk through the district, and neither of us would ever be the wiser as to what they were talking about.

The very name of the district in which they live they have corrupted until they would not understand you were you to ask them about “Whitechapel.” They call it “Whitchipple,” with the accent on the first syllable.


The name, Whitechapel, probably originated in the single structure situated within its limits of any prominence in its early history.

This structure was the Church of St. Mary, at one time the chapel of ease to Staney.

No one knows how far back the church dates, but it is on record that Hugh de Fulbourne was rector of the chapel in 1329.

The chapel was probably known as the “White Chapel” in its early history, and from this name, the district probably takes its name.

The present St. Mary’s Church is about the only picturesque building in Whitechapel, and in its graveyard rests the body of Richard Brandon, the supposed executioner of Charles the First.

Another building in the district, the London Hospital, dates back a good ways – to 1740 – and is one of the most useful and extensive charities in England.

A sketch of St Mary's Church, Whitechapel.
The “White Chapel.”


When High street, the broad eastern avenue of entrance to the locality, is noticed, there to nothing remaining in Whitechapel worthy of any attention, except it be the attention which the very foulest and most horrible abodes of humanity attract through the very fact of their exceptional wretchedness.

Hollingshead, in his “Ragged London,” says:-

“Whitechapel may not be the worst of the many districts in this quarter, but it is undoubtedly bad enough. Taking the broad road from Aldgate Church to Old Whitechapel Church, you may pass on either side about twenty narrow avenues leading to the sands of closely-packed nests full to overflowing with dirt, misery, and rags.”

This vivid description gives an outline idea of the quarter.

A sketch of Whitechapel High Street.
Whitechapel High Street In November, 1888.


Whitechapel Road is the main thoroughfare.

The houses on the road are mostly three-story or at best four-story affairs and are, as a rule, frayed and rent with age.

On the ground floor of most of them, there are stores, and over the stores there are as many human beings packed as nature will allow to exist within such crowded quarters.

The stores on the road are very cheap affairs, but like the people who live over them they are superior to those of the ninety and nine little alleys that run from the road to no one knows where.

Some of these stores are rather pretentious, especially those in the ship chandlery line.

But the majority are small, ill-smelling and handle goods of a character to attract the people of the neighbourhood.


And right here lies a peculiarity of London that Americans cannot appreciate.

The English capital is, as it were, a collection of a score or so of distinct cities.

Each parish, especially those of the East End, has its own peculiar characteristics and its own peculiar population.

Thousands of men, or rather hundreds of thousands of men who have lived in the West End of London all their lives know little or nothing of the East End.

And well-to-do Londoners who have any personal acquaintance with such districts as Whitechapel are very few indeed.


The Whitechapel folk are mostly to the manor born. Their parents lived there before them and died there, and so they and their children are born there, pass their lives there and end their miserable existences there.

Many of them never go outside the district.

The stores in Whitechapel, such as they are, supply all their wants.

Of the life outside they know little and care less.

There are pot-houses and “gaff-houses” (cheap theatres) galore. There are dozens of even less reputable means of whiling their time – not to say their lives – and, in short, all that their degraded tastes lead them to seek they can find without crossing the boundaries of Whitechapel.

So it comes that the people of the parish are a race by themselves, almost sui generis in fact.

This characteristic of the population plays no unimportant part in breeding crime and baffling all efforts of the police to discover it when some overt act compels the authorities to probe the dirty mess.


Take them all in all, East Enders are loyal to the Queen. But they don’t want to be bothered by the enforcement of the law, for they have their own unwritten code.

A policeman – or a “bobby,” as they know him – is an object of universal detestation in such districts as Whitechapel.

The police are fully aware of this, fact and act accordingly.

The main roads and thoroughfares are duly patroled.

When it comes to making the rounds of the courts and alleys and mews and other devious mazes of the slums, however, they respect the somewhat informal, but nevertheless potent, injunction of the Whitechapelites and stay away.

A policeman talking with a sinister looking local.
A London “Bobby” Questions A Local.


One of the dearest privileges of the Englishman is his right to settle a dispute with a fellow-Englishman by a resort to fisticuffs whenever and wherever he pleases and to have it out unmolested.

A London policeman rarely makes any effort to stop a street-fight, unless it becomes serious. And the “bobby” who would presume to arbitrate a bout between two residents of Whitechapel would pay dearly for his audacity.

If he thinks it is a case of prospective murder he will spring his rattle to call assistance and if a half dozen or so of his comrades respond the united force may beard the lion in his den. But brawling and quarrelling are too common here to attract the attention of anybody – policemen or residents.

How many unpunished and unknown murders have been committed in Whitechapel no one can say.


The population of this slum of slums is mainly made up of costermongers, dock labourers, ‘longshoremen, “old clo'” men – second-hand and third, fourth and fifth-hand clothing dealers – junk men, poor mechanics, labourers, butchers, fallen women, thieves and every variety of lower-grade criminals.

A very large element of the population is of the Jewish race, but, as everywhere seems the case, this class is not given to overt acts of crime, however shady its relationship with the criminal class may be.


Turn into some of the streets and passages, and the costermongers’ carts, drawn up by the curbs, forbid the passage of any vehicle through the supposed thoroughfare.

On Rosemary Lane, off Petticoat Lane, is the Rag Fair, a building of pretty good size, which serves as an exchange for the “old clo'” men and collectors of junk and refuse on the one side and the second-hand dealers on the other.

The collectors pay one penny apiece for the privilege of the floor, and there they dispose of their seemingly valueless stock in trade.


But even they are better off than most of the wretched Whitechapelites, to whom a shilling is a “find” and a guinea a fortune.

Hundreds, nay, perhaps thousands, of the men are altogether, or in part, supported by the fallen women.

If they see a chance to pick a pocket or turn “an honest penny ” in some like way, they do it. If they don’t they are for the nonce honest.

The big criminals – forgers, safe-cracksmen and the like – are not of them, but they know each other.

The code of signs – something like the deaf-and-dumb alphabet – makes them acquainted with one another, even in the various prisons of London, where every prisoner must wear a cloth mask over his face and is prevented from holding any verbal communication with other prisoners or visitors.


Should a “big ‘un ” get in trouble and manage to land himself in Whitechapel, his escape is practically assured.

In the first place the universal abomination of the police, the fellow-feeling, as it were, makes them all akin.

And the intimation that “the bobbies is arter me” makes every resident a friend.


Then comes in the supplemental advantage of the labyrinth of by-ways and crevices in the cluster of houses, dignified by the title of lanes, streets and the like.

Just picture it for yourself. Imagine a half dozen main roads in a district nearly two miles in diameter.

Fancy two or three scores of small streets crossing them, thrice as many narrow alleys branching off from these in all sorts of circuitous ways and hundreds of mere lanes between the buildings and yards springing from the alleys, winding in and out and crossing and recrossing each other.

Then reflecting that the outer doors of the rookeries are never locked, that a fugitive can dash into a hallway, scamper through it, cut into an alley in the rear, scale a fence after a steps and repeat the process ad infinitum, and also weigh the fact that every man he meets will assist him and do his best to baffle his pursuers, and you can get an idea of the probabilities of a police officer there catching his man.


When Americans are denouncing the London police for their failure to apprehend the Whitechapel fiend or to stay his murderous work, they disdainfully ask why the district in which the murders are committed is not properly patroled, so that such crimes would be impossible.

When you consider the facts here stated, do you still wonder why the labyrinth is not policed?

Are you puzzled to understand how such crimes can occur without detection in a district in which nine out of every ten women one meets carry two blacked eyes apiece, or more serious marks of the beatings which the miserable beings who live upon their earnings daily inflict?


Why, in Middlesex Street – formerly Petticoat Lane – through which Charles Dickens delighted to wander, your very clothes will be stripped from your back as you enter the narrow lane, and as you emerge at the other end you will see them hanging up, carefully shorn of all recognizable marks, and will in all probability buy them back on account of their surprisingly good fit.


For a man, attired no better than the average American mechanic, to attempt to make his way through the side streets in the day time is madness; to do so at night would be suicide.

The women of the place ply their trade in shoals along the sidewalk.

Some idea of their degradation and appearance may be gained when you understand that their demands are but a penny, “tuppence” or “thripence,” as the case may be – that is, two, four or six cents in our money.

A sketch of a Whitechapel woman.
One Of The Ladies Of Whitechapel.


Had a maniac deliberately set out to fix upon a class of victims and a place for carrying out his murder mania with the least danger of detection, he could not have hit upon a more
utterly friendless class than these fallen women, not a more promising spot than the slums of Whitechapel.

No wonder the baffled police attempted to find by the scent of bloodhounds traces of “Jack, the Ripper,” which human ingenuity had failed to discover.”