Lawless Limehouse

When discussing the Jack the Ripper case in an historical context, there can be a tendency to focus, more or less, exclusively on the districts of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, and ignore the fact that the murders were, in the eyes of the wider public of Victorian England, very much East End murders.

The reason it is important to focus on the East End as a whole is that, for many years before the onset of the Whitechapel murders, it was the generic East End that had, in the wider public consciousness, acquired a reputation for lawlessness that, in some ways, was extremely unfair, and in others was, to say the least, richly deserved.


Take, for example, the neighbourhood of Limehouse.

Now, this riverside district was, at the time of the Whitechapel murders, a busy dock, and, from 1820, with the opening of Limehouse Basin, had been the East End’s major connection between the docks on the River Thames and the canal system.

It was the prime location where many sailors from Africa and China came ashore and settled, and, at the time of the murders, London’s Chinatown was based in this neighbourhood.

The area had, for many decades, been renowned, for its opium dens, and was also infamous for its lawless population that was frequently mentioned in newspaper articles, as well as in works of fiction, such as Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Limehouse’s reputation for infamy would continue into the 20th Century, and, by the 1940’s, some of the residents were complaining that this reputation was undeserved, as is evidenced by the following letter, that was published in The Daily Mirror on Saturday, April 20th, 1940:-


“Limehouse Blues”, of Limehouse E14 writes:-

“There are many books of fiction and even radio plays about the slums, fences, opium dens etc., in this locality.

Because of its bad name in the past, authors seem to relish Limehouse as a locality for the most dastardly crimes.

Please tell the world that it’s not so bad as it’s painted.”


The newspaper was happy to put the record straight with the short and simple statement:-

“ANSWER: Authors please note.”

However, it could not resist observing that “Limehouse Blues” might just be looking at Limehouse through rose-tinted spectacles by laying down the following challenge:-

“P.S. Any young ladies like to volunteer to wander round Limehouse alone on a dark night – just to prove our point?”


However, throughout the 19th century, newspapers had been alerting their readers to the lawlessness that was, apparently, endemic to the streets of Limehouse, and had been warning them of the dangers that lay in wait for unsuspecting wayfarers who might find themselves wandering the streets of this lawless locality at night.

The Morning Post, for example, published the following article on Friday, October, 5th, 1877:-

“At the meeting of the Limehouse Vestry on Wednesday, the insufficiency of the police force engaged in the district and the need for a local police-station formed the subject of discussion,

Mr. Peachey said the scenes of lawlessness and ruffianism with which the inhabitants of the leading thoroughfares were afflicted almost nightly would be a disgrace to the worst-governed towns in America.


As the port of London, Limehouse contained, as might be expected, a large proportion of roving and lawless ruffians, and it had recently become manifest that the police force engaged was inadequate to secure the observance of common order and public safety.


To take the incidents of a single week only, he pointed to the fact that on Monday night four unfortunate strangers, whose only offence was the inability to give money or tobacco to the swarm of riverside bullies by whom they were surrounded, were stabbed in the open street.

Flying to the Strangers’ Home, they were pursued by a riotous mob of 1,000 people, who were minded to besiege the place.


On the same night, two men, stripped naked to the waist, and, with duly appointed seconds and the paraphernalia of the “ring,” fought savagely for a lengthened period in the presence of a raging and eager mob, and no policemen appeared on the scene, and if they had they would probably have been fiercely resisted.


The next night a constable was set upon by three ruffians and brutally maltreated, but he stuck sturdily to his task of arresting them and he succeeded in holding two down until assistance was given by some respectable passers-by.


In fact not a night now passed without the rest of the residents, even in the better localities, being disturbed by alarms and disorders in the streets; and nothing was more certain than that the present state of affairs would not be tolerated for a day were the locality to be situated in the west end instead of the east end of London.


The India office had taken up the case of the unfortunate strangers who had been stabbed, and had addressed a communication to the Home Office calling attention to the inadequate strength of the police force in Limehouse.

The subject was then dropped, on the understanding that a memorial was to be drawn up for presentation to Colonel Henderson [who, at the time, was the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police], to the Home Office, or to the House of Commons.”