Poverty And Crime In Whitechapel

As the Whitechapel murders began to attract more and more press attention in the wake of the murder of Annie Chapman – which took place in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields on the 8th of September, 1888 – more and more commentators began looking into the possible causes of the crimes that we now know as the Jack the Ripper murders.

A photograph showing Hanbury Street.
Hanbury Street As It Was


One theme that began to run through numerous articles that appeared in the papers in the aftermath of Annie Chapman’s murder, was that the atrocities were an inevitable outgrowth of the terrible social conditions and the dire poverty, both of which had been allowed to develop, largely unchecked, in the slums of the East End of London.

There was a consensus amongst many commentators, notably, it should be said, amongst the radicals who had been highlighting the issue of slumland London for many years, that, in the sinister form of the unknown miscreant who was carrying out a murderous reign of terror in Whitechapel and Spitalfields, society was merely reaping what it had sown.


Many commentators were of the opinion that the endemic poverty that was so apparent in the East End was what lay behind the murders; and, in many ways, the line between the social conditions in the area and the actual atrocities was becoming quite a blurred one by mid-September, 1888.

Poverty, so many of the radical commentators claimed, was what was responsible for the murders. Eradicate it, or at least start to tackle it, and society could rest easy and free itself from the menace of the type of murderous maniac that was instilling fear and panic into the hearts and minds of citizens all over the country.


Perhaps one of the most famous illustrations that depicted this blurring of the line between the social conditions and the murderer was the Punch cartoon “The Nemesis of Neglect,” which showed a knife-wielding ghoul floating through the slums of the East End of London.

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


Several newspapers, however, began to dispute this simplistic version of the motive behind the murders, pointing out that poverty does not in itself lead to murder – or, at least, not the type of murder that was, at the, time being carried out on the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel.


The Forres Elgin and Nairn Gazette, Northern Review and Advertiser, on Wednesday, 19th September, 1888, treated its readers to a glimpse of the conditions and the violence that was to be seen, and which had been seen for many years, in the district:-

“It is a long time since there was such an epidemic of horrors.

The daily papers, which a few days ago were sadly in need of something to descant upon, are now teeming with ghastly murders and mysteries.

The gruesome butcheries of Whitechapel have had one striking effect. They have even produced a great sensation in Whitechapel itself.


The district has long held an evil pre-eminence for brutality. I remember the first day I was in London, now many a long year ago, seeing a howling and fighting mob in one of the semi-suburban districts bordering on the Kingsland Road. “They’re Whitechapel ” was the explanation afforded me, and it seemed to be considered sufficient.

I remember many such rows about that time, and I have the impression that gangs of Whitechapel roughs not uncommonly invaded the comparatively quiet and respectable districts of Hoggerston and Dalston and Stoke Newington.

A group of men watch two boys fighting.
An East End Street Brawl.


There are other parts of the East End of London which are more depressing, more squalid, and more poverty-stricken, but Whitechapel holds its own as the special home of the worst kind of rough.

The recent murders have brought into prominence some social features of the district which must have excited astonishment in the minds of persons unfamiliar with this delectable locality.”


Meanwhile, Eddowes’s Journal, and General Advertiser for Shropshire and the Principality of Wales, on Wednesday, 10th October, 1888, questioned whether poverty either could or should be used as an excuse for the abominable murders.

“Discussing the Whitechapel atrocities The Spectator, besides the senseless distrust of the police, notes with even deeper pain the increase of the desire to destroy, or at all events to limit, the sense of individual responsibility for crime.”

The article also pointed out that the perpetrator of the crimes was, in all probability, not a member of the poverty-stricken classes:-


“Fifty years ago a great criminal usually defended himself by pleading the instigation of the Devil; but the community, though half-believing his excuse, held that he, having free will, was none the less guilty of his acts.

At present, the Devil is disbelieved in; but not only is poverty held to be sufficient instigation for all evil acts, but society is loaded with all responsibility.

If poverty and toil create the disposition to murder, why are not Trappists murderers, or the men who in Tuscan villages die of pellagra caused by hereditary hunger and overcrowding?


In this very case, the worst man in Whitechapel, the criminal whom a whole community is hunting, is in all human probability a man who never felt hunger, who never slept in a crowded den, and who never was totally without money.

No description, either of him or of his acts, implies severe distress, even if he does not, as one detective affirms, buy grapes to give away.


It is, The Spectator is willing to believe, nay honestly does believe, a thoroughly good motive, a passion of pity, which induces the new philanthropists to declare all wrongdoers, except the rich, so clearly irresponsible; but the final answer to them is their own admission, viz, the civic virtues, or at least the self-control, of the infinite majority of the very poor.”