Peril In East London

A point that I have made consistently in my blogs on the Jack the Ripper case is that, today, we tend to take the murders out of the context of the era and area in which they occurred.

It is important to remember that, no matter how fascinating the endless hunt to track Jack might be, daily life continued in Victorian London, despite the effect that the murders were having on society as a whole.

And, to be honest, it is imperative for us, when we study the crimes today, to be aware of the bigger picture of the everyday panorama of East End life against which the saga of the Whitechapel murders was played out.


One of the most important aspects of the case was that the newspaper coverage brought home to many of the more affluent citizens of Victorian London the horror of the social conditions that had been allowed to develop in many parts of the East End of London.

Indeed, it is often stressed that Jack the Ripper, in many ways, helped change the conditions.

Whereas this is a debatable point, it is certainly true that the focus that the press reportage on the case placed on the underclass that dwelt in the sordid slums of the East End had the effect of alarming the middle and upper classes who lived in the more affluent parts of the Capital.


But, this wasn’t a focus that was brought about exclusively as a result of the Jack the Ripper crimes.

Events such as the Trafalgar Square riots of 1886, and the Bloody Sunday clash, of November 1887, had already resulted in the better off residents becoming extremely nervous about the huge population of the poor and destitute that London in general, and the East End in particular, was home to.

So, by the time the Whitechapel murders began, in 1888, the “respectable” classes were already casting nervous glances towards the districts of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

The Police fight with protesters.
The Police Struggle With Protesters On The Haymarket. From The Illustrated London News, 19th November 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Jack the Ripper, by choosing to strike in the very heart of this district, simply fed into the middle and upper class angst about the East End, and, as a result, he became, in many ways, the personification of all the nebulous fears that the more affluent West End citizens held about their downtrodden East End neighbours.

Many of those who had, for years, been toiling to improve the social conditions, and who had been warning for years of the perils that allowing such an underclass to sink ever further into the pit of social despair and deprivation might unleash on society as a whole, spotted this middle and upper class nervousness, and realised that the activities of an unknown murderer were finally making the West End citizens sit up and take notice of the East End.


And thus they used the tragedy of the Whitechapel murders to hammer home their message in almost apocalyptic terms.

This was the point that George Bernard Shaw was making in his “Blood Money To Whitechapel” missive; and the meaning that the famous Punch cartoon, “The Nemesis of Neglect” was trying to drive home.

The cartoon of the Nemesis of Neglect.
The Nemesis of Neglect


But, there were many others, who had spent years working ceaselessly amongst the poor and destitute of the East End of London, who used the disquiet that was being generated by the Whitechapel Murders to focus the attention of society as a whole on the big problem of the unfettered growth of poverty and destitution in the district.

One such person was the Reverend W. Evan Hurndall, who, in mid-September 1888, in the wake of the murder of Annie Chapman, wrote to a newspaper to outline his concerns about what might happen in the East End now that the downtrodden were starting to find their voice.

His letter was picked up by several other newspapers countrywide, amongst them The Huddersfield Chronicle, which reproduced it on 19th September 1888:-


“The Rev. W. Evans Hurndall, minster of the Harley-street Chapel, Bow, writes to a London Contemporary as follows:-

“The terrible Whitechapel tragedies, with the lurid revelations of the condition of life amongst the East End poor, emphasises the need of getting more amongst the massed population.

We want, it is true, better police protection, and for this I would suggest the use of our idle military for many public police duties. This arrangement would allow of a much larger none military police for patrol and inspection work, at no additional cost.


But the people themselves need to be got at, and got at in their own homes.

The Homes of the poor should be regularly and frequently visited by level-headed, trained, Christian men and women, who, by counsel, sympathy, encouragement, temporal help judiciously administered, action in matters sanitary, and by other good and practical means, might largely purify the moral atmosphere, and keep the unfortunate in life’s fray from running into excesses in their despair.

This is a kind of work which several of us in East London are endeavouring to carry on, but we get scant sympathy and help from the affluent classes. Our funds are allowed to exhaust themselves, and the work, which sorely needs rapid development, is checked,  if not arrested.

I employ eight such men and women as those I have described, but with a practically empty Exchequer I cannot take a single step forward, whatever may be the urgency.


It is well for the peace of mind of many of the prosperous that they are ignorant of the real condition of the poor, and also of the sentiments of many of the destitute.

Next year Paris celebrates the centenary of her great revolution.

My deep conviction is that the French are more than 100 years ahead of us in revolutionary experience.


It needs but for suitable leaders to be forthcoming, and the impoverished multitudes of London will rise as one man.

Ten thousand may be driven out of this square or that, but when half a million people spring to their feet there will be another kind of reckoning.

Why not deal with the matter whilst there is time?

Those of us who are doing our best in East London will most gladly give up our posts to any who can do the very trying work better; but whilst we stand in the breach let us not be forsaken.”


Whereas it might be argued that the letter was exaggerating the problem in the hope of raising funds to fund the fight against poverty, destitution and the resultant moral abyss, it provides us with another snapshot of life in East London during the Jack the Ripper crimes whilst, at the same time, demonstrating the way in which the Whitechapel murders were being depicted as part of a much wider social issue.