Inside The Working Lads Institute

Jack the Ripper and East End philanthropy might, at first glance, seems like odd bedfellows.

However, the Whitechapel murders did actually result in more attention being paid to the plight of the underclass that lived on the periphery of the City of London and, in many ways, on the periphery of society.

When one studies the press reports that appeared between August 1888 and November 1888, it becomes apparent that the newspapers, as well as reporting as much of the salacious and gory detail as they could, also began to take note of the loves lived by the victims, which, in turn led them to invest more column space in examining the wider social context against which the atrocities were being played out.

It’s also interesting to note how several of the local institutions that had been set up with a view to charitable pursuits, suddenly found themselves featured extensively in the Jack the Ripper saga. Indeed, several of them are now solely remembered because of their, sometimes reluctant involvement, in the crimes.


One such institution is the Working Lads’ Institute on Whitechapel Road, which had opened in 1885. (You can read about its opening in this previous article.)

This sturdy building still stands alongside the old entrance to Whitechapel Underground Station.

It was here that the inquests into the deaths of several of the victims of Jack the Ripper were held, mostly presided over by the Coroner Wynne Baxter.

But, the Working Lads’ Institute’s history is so much more than its involvement in the Whitechapel Murders.

An illustration showing the exterior of the Working Lads' Institute.
The Working Lads’ Institute, Whitechapel Road. From The Illustrated London News, 7th November 1885. Copyright, The British Library Board.


On the day of its official opening, 31st October 1885, The Pall Mall Gazette ran the following article concerning the history of the Institute:-

“The way in which men are constantly being influenced to great achievements by the small incidents and accidents of our daily life finds its most recent illustration in the Working Lads’ Institute at Whitechapel, which will be opened this afternoon by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

One day towards the latter part of 1875 a lad, with a large parcel of quill pens upon his head, might have been seen slowly trudging his way through busy Cheapside, eagerly devouring, utterly regardless of the currents of humanity which swept swiftly along on either side of him, the latest issue of a “penny dreadful” for boys.

A servant of the firm by whom the boy was employed having accidentally met him thus, his conduct was reported to his master, Mr. Henry Hill.

Mr. Hill, having had the lad brought before him, elicited that the boy went to neither night school nor Sunday school, and read no other literature than the sensational stories which unfortunately find so large a circulation among the working boys of our land.

“Here,” was Mr. Hill’s reflection, “is a lad who is a complete a heathen;” and he was led to think seriously of the lot and fortunes of the working lads of London.


A single walk down the main thoroughfares of the East-end was sufficient to convince him as to the pressing necessity for action in the direction of the provision of facilities for the greater enjoyment and more profitable employment of the leisure hours of “our boys.”

The groups at the corners of the alleys and streets, the crowds of boys in the low theatres and “penny gaffs ” – all told a grievous tale; one friend of the movement who about this time visited a low theatre in Whitechapel counted over four hundred lads, of ages varying from thirteen to eighteen years.


Mr. Hill, once impressed with the importance of the subject, not merely to the lads, but to society at large, did not permit either himself or his friends to go to sleep; and an article, “The Lads of London,” published in the Christian of December 16, 1875, led up to a meeting at the Mansion House in October, 1876, at which this particular movement for the amelioration of the lot of the working lads of London was fairly set on its feet.


The Working Lads’ Institute was commenced in a very humble way in a house and shop at the Mount, Whitechapel; and, falsifying the fears of friends, within three years the premises proved far too small for the work in hand.

The committee experienced uncommon difficulties in securing a site for a new institute – thanks, largely, to the extraordinary behaviour of the District Railway Company.

But all the troubles of the past are likely to be forgotten by the friends of the Institute in the contemplation of the capacity, completeness, and attractiveness of the building that has just been erected opposite to the London Hospital, in the Whitechapel-road, which, when the plan is carried out in its entirety, will have cost £12,000.

An illustration of the exterior of the Working Lads Institute.
The Working Lads’ Institute. From The Pall Mall Gazette, 31st October 1885. Copyright, The British Library Board.


As the visitor passes from department to department of this extensive building, listening attentively meanwhile to the programme which the committee hopes to develop there, he irresistibly conjures up Walter Besant’s scheme for the regeneration of the East-end; for here, indeed, we have a Palace of Pleasure on a small scale.

From the first, Mr. Hill has recognised the importance of making provision for the physical recreation and mental relaxation of the boys, as well as for the cultivation of the moral and spiritual sides of their nature.


The gymnasium promises to become the most popular feature of the institution.

It will accommodate fifty boys, but already it is too small – for, truth to tell, the boys have been using it before the Institute was formally declared open – and everybody interested in the institution will await anxiously the incoming of funds sufficient to permit of a start being made with the second portion of the building at the back, as it will include a gymnasium, 38 feet by 62 feet, which will be convertible in the summer into a large swimming-bath.”


The article then goes on to make mention of a school that had been built behind the Working Lads’ Institute. This is, in fact, referring to the Buck’s Row Board School, which overlooked  the site where Mary Nichols was murdered on August 31st 1888.

The school building still stands today, and you can still look up at the protective fence that surrounds what was the rooftop playground that is mentioned in the article.

The Board School on the former Buck''s Row.
The Board School on Buck’s Row.


The article had this to say about the school:-

“It is pleasing to relate that the attractiveness of the Institute has been increased by the fact that a piece of ground immediately to the rear of the new building, which a neighbouring publican had sought to obtain in order to build upon it a music-hall, has just been purchased at a cost of £2,000 by a lady, who desires to remain anonymous, and handed over to the Metropolitan Playgrounds Association.

A playground has also been provided on the roof of the Institute, which is the highest building in the neighbourhood.”


At the front of the premises, on the ground floor, is a refreshment room, where the lads will obtain food at the cheapest rates; and upstairs, on the first and second floors, there are rooms in which innocent games can be played, and in which concerts and other entertainments, together with lectures and temperance and religious meetings, will be held weekly.

The reading-room is a fairly spacious apartment (30 ft. by 3o ft.), overlooking by three bay windows the Whitechapel-road, and 150 lads can find seats on the benches here.

This room will also serve as the library and games room.

The library, by the way, is small and ancient; and we may add that books of travel are in the greatest demand.

Behind the reading-room is an excellent students’ room; and on the second floor are half a dozen class-rooms, one of which will be available as a work shop for the use of boys with a taste for mechanical trades, and another as a school of art.

Many of the lads are eager to learn; out of an average attendance of eighty lads at the old premises sixty attended the classes for reading, writing, arithmetic, shorthand, drawing, singing,
and the like.


On the third door are dormitories, containing thirty-six beds, which are let to lads from the country or homeless lads at the rate of 2s. per week – an addition to the other departments of the Institute that the new building allows,  which those acquainted with East-end lodging-houses will appreciate highly.


A branch of the work which also deserves to be described as important is the employment agency.

Lads who give every satisfaction are constantly being supplied from the Institute; and by patronizing this department employers, if they care to help in no other way, can support an institution from the existence of which they cannot fail to reap advantage.


A very pleasing trait of these lads ought to be put on record.

When a homeless lad falls out of work, he has usually reached his “bottom dollar” by the third week; and at this stage it often happens that the other frequenters of the Institute subscribe their pence to keep him going until he falls into luck’s way again.

Last year £70 was received into the savings bank in pence.


That the Institute is highly valued by the boys who have used it may be judged from the fact that a number have remained members until they have grown quite big fellows, some of them, indeed, until they were married; and eight or ten of the teachers are lads who acquired the rudiments of education in the Institute.


Mr. Hill, of course, attaches great importance to the religious work undertaken in the Institute.

The instruction imparted is entirely free from sectarian bias, and goody-goodyism, we believe, is unknown. Mr. Hill’s Christianity, in short, is of the broad, generous, robust type – he brings up his boys to be frank, honourable, manly men.


Altogether, since the Institute was opened, nine years ago, 1,62o boys have benefited from connection with it, and the new building will be opened with 3,000 boys on the roll.

Each boy, besides an entrance fee of 6d., pays a subscription of 6d. per month, which it is hoped will enable the institution to pay its way, though there was a debit balance of about £300 a year at the old premises.

Mr. Hill’s manager is every now and again found complaining to him that So-and-So has gone to the Young Men’s Christian Association, or the City of London College, as the case may be. But, as he invariably replies, “I am glad to hear it – we have done our work; we have proved the stepping-stone to better things; we have saved a good citizen from the streets, with their misery, degradation, and despair.”


From several points of view it might be forcibly shown that no more important work can be undertaken than that which Mr. Hill and his friends have in hand.

This bright, cheery Institute, we are bound to believe, will be as a great an influence for good in dreary Whitechapel; and the end thereof we may not know.

The committee require £6,000 to complete their work.

The treasurer is Mr. Frank A. Bevan, 54, Lombard-street, E.C., and the financial secretary – a hard working member of the committee – is Mr. Arthur A. Knight, 19, Garlick-hill, E.C.”


The building that once housed the Working Lads Institute can still be seen on Whitechapel Road, although it has now been converted into flats the rents of which would, no doubt, draw gasps of amazement from many of the lads who passed through here in the 1880’s!

A photo of the Working Lads Institute showing it today.
The Working Lads’ Institute As It Appears Today.


If you would like to pay it a visit you need to head for Whitechapel Station and then walk a short distance along Whitechapel Road, where you will see the red brick exterior of the building looming over the busy street market that is held on the road on an almost daily basis.