Sir Charles Warren’s Defence

Following the “night of the double murder” – the 30th of September, 1888 – criticism of the evident inability of the Metropolitan Police to catch Jack the Ripper increased dramatically.

Several newspapers placed the blame for the police failure firmly at the door of the police commissioner, Sir Charles Warren; and he found himself being attacked in the media on an almost daily basis.

He seems to have borne his ordeal with great resilience, albeit every so often he would write to various newspapers to correct them on any inaccuracies that they may have published.

However, it wasn’t just the newspapers that were critical of the Metropolitan Police.


For example, in early October, at a meeting of The Whitechapel District Board of Works, a resolution was passed that not only mentioned the effect that the murders were having on the economy of the area, but which also suggested that the police could, and should, be doing a lot more.

The meeting was reported in The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, on Tuesday, 2nd October, 1888:-

“A meeting of the Whitechapel District Board of Works was held yesterday evening, Mr. Robert Gladding presiding.

Mr. Catmur said he thought that the board, as the Local Authority, should express their horror and abhorrence of the crimes which had been perpetrated in the district.


The result of these tragedies had been loss of trade to the district, and the stoppage of certain trades by reason of the women being afraid to pass through the streets without an escort.

The inefficiency of the police was shown by the fact that but an hour or two later than the tragedies in Berners-street and Mitre-square the Post Office in the vicinity had been broken into and much property had been stolen.


The Rev. Daniel Greatorex said the emigrants’ houses of call were feeling the panic to such an extent that emigrants refused to locate themselves in Whitechapel, temporarily.

He ascribed the inefficiency of the police to the frequent changes of the police from one district to another, whereby the men were kept ignorant of their “beats.”

Mr. Telfer said that he hoped that these recent crimes might result in a reversion to the old system by which constables were acquainted with every corner of their “beats.”

Mr. Caramelli said the change in the condition of Whitechapel in recent years would suggest an entire revision of police arrangements.

Whitechapel was now a place for the residuum of the whole country and the continent, but it was not so a century ago.


After further discussion, the following resolution was carried on the motion of Mr. Catmur, seconded by Mr. Bonham:-

“That this board regards with horror and alarm the several atrocious murders recently perpetrated within the district of Whitechapel and its vicinity, and calls upon Sir Charles Warren so to locate and strengthen the police force in the neighbourhood as to guard against any repetition  of such atrocities, and that the Home Secretary be addressed in the same terms.”


Warren was quick to respond to this criticism from the board, and he pointed out that the police were doing all that they could to prevent any further murders.

However, he also pointed out that the board itself must accept responsibility for the crimes because they refused to provide adequate lighting for the darker recesses of the district that this had enabled the perpetrator of the atrocities to carry out his crimes and then melt away into the night.

He also made the point that, even if the police numbers were increased, this would not necessarily prevent further murders so long as the prostitutes of the area continued to lead their clients to the dark, deserted corners of the neighbourhood.

A portrait of Sir Charles Warren.
Sir Charles Warren, The Metropolitan Police Commissioner. From The Illustrated London News, 1st May 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Western Daily Press, published an article about Warren’s stance in its edition of Friday, 5th October, 1888:-

“The Board of Works for Whitechapel district has called upon Sir Charles Warren so to regulate and strengthen the police force in the neighbourhood as to guard against any repetition of such atrocities as have recently taken place.

It would appear from the wording of this resolution that the Board is of the opinion that Sir Charles Warren is the master of the situation; that he has only to order so many extra policemen into the district to effectually prevent a recurrence of the terrible crimes that are now the talk of the whole country.


The resolution was suggested by the best of motives, and it deserves consideration, but it must be obvious that in dealing with so crafty and remorseless an expert as the Whitechapel murderer, the weakening of the police force in one part of London to strengthen it in another is only an invitation to the murderer to change the scene of his crimes.

It is desirable, of course, that the police of the district should have all the aid which the special occasion requires, and Sir Charles Warren, without going into details that could not be disclosed without injury to the public interests, says the detective department is doing its work with secrecy and efficiency.


The public, and especially the residents of Whitechapel, are naturally alarmed at what has taken place, and are impatient as they read from day to day that the murderer has not been apprehended; but the police cannot accomplish impossibilities.

The murderer has selected for his victims’ women who, in their desire to avoid the public gaze, practically assisted him in his diabolical work.


It is, moreover, a fact that the local authorities in Whitechapel and elsewhere have parsimoniously withheld effective lighting in the streets, courts, and squares.

The paragraph in Sir Charles Warren’s reply to the Board of Works for Whitechapel district in which he points out that the purlieus about Whitechapel are most imperfectly lighted, and that darkness is an important assistant to crime, is not a merely smart retort, but the sober statement of truth which is known to everybody.

When the body of the woman who was found in Berner Street was discovered, the person who found her had to “strike a match to see what the bundle was.”

And, in Mitre Square, the corner in which the murder was committed was so dark that the full light of the policeman’s lantern was required to show what had happened.

It may be concluded that darkness gives opportunities for criminals, and when Local Boards are disposed to complain of other public departments they should also ask themselves whether they have or have not themselves fully discharged their own duties.

The corner of Mitre Square where the body of Catherine Eddowes was found.
Murder Corner, Mitre Square.


If it could be shown that the neglect of the Local Board in Whitechapel directly contributes to the commission of crime, the fact would not diminish the responsibility of the police force. They cannot absolutely prevent crime, for to do this would require the power to control the criminal instinct, but they can make it difficult to do wrong, and when crimes have been committed they can show alacrity and intelligence in their efforts to trace the criminals.

They have failed in the Whitechapel cases, but it can be truly said that they have had to deal with very extraordinary circumstances.


As a rule, the perpetrator of a murder has a motive which affords a clue. If his object is robbery the stolen property supplies evidence against him; if revenge is the motive, the previous history of the murderer and his victim often reveals the mystery. In cases of jealousy, the murderer is not difficult to trace. And, in most cases, the murderer in his hurry to get away leaves something at the scene of the murder that leads to his discovery.

But, in the Whitechapel cases, motive cannot be surmised.

Some of the victims were among the poorest of the poor. One woman asks for a bed to be kept for her in a common lodging house while she goes out to obtain eightpence.

The motive cannot be jealousy or revenge; and not a particle of evidence likely to disclose the murderer was left behind.

In the last two murders, as in the previous ones, the murderer evidently desired to remove and take away with him portions of the body of his victim. He was disturbed in Berner Street before he had accomplished this object, and immediately, within three-quarters of a mile, he found a second victim on whose body his horrible purpose was attained.

A sketch of the murderer escaping from Berner Street.
The Escape From Berner Street.


It will be admitted that the various ordinary clues by which policemen are guided are in these cases absent.

What is the motive of a murderer who merely wishes to carry off a part of the body of his victim? Neither the police nor the public can surmise the motive.

And, as the crimes have been committed in dark corners, and the murderer has been cool enough to leave nothing behind that might supply a clue, the difficulty in which the police force is placed is so great that it has not, up to the present time, been overcome.

The best organised force in the world may be temporarily baffled, and however unsatisfactory this position may be, it is not, when all the very peculiar difficulties are considered, a failure which will create great astonishment.


When once the murderer has got clear away from the body of his victim, and has left nothing by which he can be traced, the only hope of discovering him depends on the revelations of those with whom he comes into daily contact.

The six murders have been committed within the area of a square mile; but it does not follow that the murderer resides in the immediate neighbourhood. It is probable that he has not far to go before he reaches his house or lodgings. But, wherever he resides, he cannot in London be far from other residents.

At such a crisis, every inhabitant of the metropolis should become a detective. Every householder should ask himself what his lodgers and his neighbours are doing.

It is to those with whom the murderer associates that the police must look for a clue. There is nothing else to guide them.


And the outlook should extend far beyond Whitechapel.

The letters that have been written and published purporting to come from the murderer are no doubt forgeries, and the persons who can be guilty of writing such letters, and thus make light of crimes so heinous, must themselves have deplorable instincts.


The Vigilance Committee, which recently forwarded a petition to the Queen asking that a reward should be given, had the object of stimulating the watchfulness of private individuals.

The whole burden of responsibility does not rest on the police force; it is shared by the Local Boards who permit dark corners to exist, and the public, who, by a more careful examination of their immediate surroundings, might be very helpful to the police.

The drafting of detectives to Whitechapel may suggest to the murderer that he could more safely carry out his horrible practices in another part of the metropolis; but, if every man and every woman who has been shocked at the atrocities that have been perpetrated, were to become a voluntary detective it would be difficult for the murderer to commit the further crimes which have been anticipated by the Vigilance Committee.


The police can do something; but the public can do more, and the responsibility which rests on the public is not removed by any complaints about the police.

A combination of the respectable classes, aided by the police, is more than a match for criminals, although now and then the redemptionlesss scoundrelism of London will have its temporary triumph.”