Life In Whitechapel 1866

As I have mentioned in several previous blogs, the reputation of Whitechapel as an abyss of vice, villainy and poverty had been firmly established in the public consciousness long before the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 drew widespread attention to the lawless, poverty stricken populace that dwelt in squalor  in some of its slums, just across the border from the City of London.

Newspapers had long been warning their readers that an underclass was being allowed to develop, and many commentators had also observed that, unless something was done, this underclass would, one day, rise up.

Social investigators and philanthropists had been making forays into the area and, throughout the second half of the 19th century, numerous articles appeared in newspapers that depicted the slums of Whitechapel in terms that were reminiscent of the terms being used by the Christian missionaries who were, at the time, attempting to take their message to the far-flung reaches of the globe.

Indeed, several of the articles made the point that the time, effort and money that was being spent on the missionary expeditions might be better employed on trying to civilise the sordid underbelly of Whitechapel before that underbelly rose up and bared its teeth, with grave consequences for the rest of society.


One such article appeared in The Morning Post in early January 1866, under the headline “Life In Whitechapel.”

The article was reproduced by several newspapers, including The Dublin Evening Mail, which republished it in its edition of Tuesday January 2nd 1866:-

“Not many nights ago several inspectors of police, accompanied by a squad of sergeants, escorted a party of gentlemen of the highest rank and social position to the Whitechapel district.

Deep into the purlieus of vice the party penetrated, and their interesting inspection did not end until the ‘small hours of the morn.’

In this portion of London there is, as it were, a distinct nationality in existence.

The kingdom of thieves is there firmly established, and the argot of the cracksman and his associates, male and female, replaces the sonorous accents’ of our mother tongue.

A view along Dorset Street.
Dorset Street, Spitalfields, Considered The Worst Street In London


In that dank and foetid atmosphere, in hovels and dens bordering upon our dirty Thames, the contrast was vivid between the visitors, accustomed to all the refinements of life in its moral and social views, and the inmates, who regarded no law nor morals, excepting those laid down in the thief’s code.

Thousands of thieves, some with their wives and families – others with their mistresses and the attendant train of low characters who, though not actual criminals, consort with these prostitutes – nightly congregate in the various dancehouses, drinking-shops, and other dens with which that district abounds.

Those who have practised their profession during daylight meet to divide the spoils, or to spend it in debauchery.


The midnight prowlers come early to their rendezvous to concert their plans of action; but all, united in common bond, prepare to wage war against that society which declares them outcasts for their crimes.

The life of a woman, after reaching the Whitechapel district, was computed by the inspector to average about eight years

Imagine the minimum, when the wretched creatures are near the close of their miserable career.

A photo showing the interior of a common lodging house kitchen.
A Common Lodging House Kitchen


The liquor in this district is almost poisonous. Stomachs which endure it must really be coated with some rough substance to resist the action of the acids which undoubtedly exist in all these liquids.

The beer even was impregnated with a substance similar to cayenne, which burnt the throat of the unaccustomed drinker.

It seemed to have been thus adulterated for the purpose of exciting thirst.

A group of people, including Hookey Alf, outside a Whitechapel pub.
Outside A Whitechapel Pub


We spend millions in philanthropic efforts to convert the heathen, who lives in contented ignorance thousands of miles from our shores.

And yet, here we have, under our very eyes, a heathen far more pitiable and more deserving of our attention.


Think of the hundreds of little children, who should be innocent by nature, and whom education might fit for worthy members of society, actually being reared by their parents or protectors with the single design of playing upon their fellow-men, and boys to become ruffians in time, and to grace the prison or the gallows, and the girls to be thieves or prostitutes early in life, and to descend into premature graves.

Here is a field for labour pointed out, and inestimable returns may reward the efforts of kind hearts whose attention might he turned thereto.”


The authorities did try and do something about the conditions, albeit their efforts at reform were, to say the least minimal.

By 1888, conditions were starting to change, but, in many people’s minds it was  case of too little too late.

This is one of the reasons why Jack the Ripper impacted so much on society as a whole, and not just on the relatively small corner of London to which he confined his reign of terror.

The fact that this unknown killer was committing atrocious and horrible murders in a quarter of London that the press had been portraying as a hell on earth for so many years, resulted in him coming to personify the slums of Whitechapel, and, as such, he was seen by many as a monster that had been bred amidst the slums of the East End.