Misery And Murder

One of the things that truly shocked the Victorian public at large about the Whitechapel Murders, in addition to their sheer horror of the mindless brutality of the terrible mutilations inflicted upon the bodies of the victims, was the fact that the atrocities exposed the terrible social conditions that existed in the East End of London.

In the wake of the murder of Annie Chapman, which took place in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, on the 8th of September, 1888, newspapers across the country began publishing reports that were highly critical of the way in which some parts of Whitechapel had just been allowed to sink into a quagmire of degradation and poverty.

Two of the most famous criticisms of poverty and its effects were George Bernard Shaw’s article “Blood Money To Whitechapel” and Punch magazine’s hard-hitting cartoon “The Nemesis of Neglect“, both of which appeared in the second half of September, 1888.

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


However, many other newspapers were eager to publish articles that were critical of the failure of the authorities of the age to tackle the endemic poverty in the East End of London, amongst them The Fife Herald,  which, on Wednesday 19th September 1888, published the following article about the subject:-


“It is a significant fact that the organ of the aristocracy, The Morning Post, should have traced the cause of the recent Whitechapel murders to the squalor and misery which pervades the neighbourhood in which they were committed.

It is possible that our contemporary may be right when it tells its readers that the origin of it all is that not half enough is being done by the well-to-do portion of society to relieve the wretchedness and want of the densely-packed population of the East End of London.

The beds inside a common lodging house in Spitalfields.
From The Graphic 24th April 1886. Copyright, the British Library Board.


The actual murders, and the motive or maniacal passion which prompted them, may seem to be altogether disconnected from the manner of life prevailing in the neighbourhood; but, all the same, the ultimate cause of it all may be traced to the miserable state of existence of the over-crowded population.

Our contemporary looks to private charity and private enterprise to redouble its missionary efforts to reclaim this lost people. There is, no doubt, room for greater effort in this direction; and far be it from us to say slighting word of Christian missions.


But we are a practical people, and our Christianity, if it is to be true to its name, ought to be practical likewise.

If we are to cope with the evils which pervade this den of vice, and want, and disease, we must begin at the beginning, and improve the material part of the lives of these people.

What is a Christian worker to teach these people if he goes among them?

Is he to tell them that it is God’s will that they should live huddled together in rotten tenements in a city which is noted all over the world for the number and magnificence of the mansions of the rich which it contains?

Or that it is right that they should spend their lives in grinding labour for starvation wages without casting an envious eye, allowing a bitter thought, towards their wealthy and luxurious neighbours?

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


No one knows better than the Christian workers themselves among these poor people, that what is really needed is material improvement of the neighbourhood.

The people are made vicious and immoral because the conditions of their life, over which they have no power whatever, are utterly and altogether demoralising.

When three or four families are forced to live together in a single room, and men and women are huddled together for shelter in common lodging rooms, and all of them are reduced to desperation from want, how can we expect them to be better than they are?


Some years ago we heard a great deal of the “Housing of the Poor.”

What has become of this question?

Where are all the many schemes which were then put forward to provide the crowded populations of our large cities with houses fit for human habitation?


Surely our Government is a miserable failure if it cannot cope with this great evil.

The tenements in which these people live, their sanitary arrangements, the absence of all rule to secure even the commonest decency of life, are a standing disgrace to our civilisation.

It is the duty of Parliament to commence the work of regeneration.


It is idle to contend that it is contrary to the laws of political economy for the Government to interfere with the private property of the common lodging house keeper.

If no other way can be devised, it would surely be better that the State should interfere to provide decent dwellings for the poor in places like Whitechapel, rather than that a vast population should feebly be left to steady and utter demoralisation because forsooth! we are political economists in these days.”