Just The Right Time

As you read through the commentaries left behind by social reformers and others who had cause to venture into the East End of London in the years and months leading up to the Jack the Ripper Murders, you really do begin to get the impression that Jack the Ripper, or someone or something like him, was almost inevitable.

Although much of the East End of London was respectable there were parts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields that were sordid slums. Crime, violence, drunkenness and vice were rife, and it really did seem to many of the better off of the era that something just had to happen.

The famous Punch Cartoon that shows a knife wielding phantom drifting through the slums of London's East End.
The Nemesis of Neglect.

For decades the East End slums had been allowed to evolve into a festering sore on the underbelly of Victorian society.

Charles Dickens (1812 -1870) had, some 30 years prior to the appearance of Jack the Ripper, warned Londoners that they ignored the plight of the poverty-stricken Eastenders at their peril. “Turn that dogs descendents loose,” he had written, “and very soon they might lose their bark, but not their bite.”

In the years prior to the Whitechapel Murders the poor of London had started kicking back against the yoke of oppression and were beginning to demand their fair share of the spoils of the British Empire. There had been several mass protests in Trafalgar Square that had boiled over into full scale rioting and the wealthier west end citizens were casting ever more nervous glances eastward sensing that something untoward, such as a revolution, might well be brewing in the area.

Margaret Harkness, in her book In Darkest London had observed, in what with hindsight seem incredibly prophetic words, “One fine day the people about here will go desperate, and they will walk westwards, cutting throats and hurling brickbats…”

At first the Whitechapel Murders were confined to the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields and, although alarming to the west end citizens, they didn’t feel too threatened.

But that changed on the 30th September when the ripper crossed the boundary from the East End and murdered Catherine Eddowes in the City of London. In so doing he became the personification of all the fears and prejudices that many middle class citizens shared about the underclass of the East End. As they saw it, if the ripper could cross the boundary and murder in the City of London, and not be apprehended by the authorities, then there was nothing now to stop all the other horrors doing likewise.

Thus the fear instilled by the murders into the hearts and minds of the people who lived in the area where they were taking place spread throughout the whole of London and impacted on all classes of Victorian society.