Slumming In Whitechapel

The Jack the Ripper murders resulted in a great deal of press interest in the actual area where the crimes were occurring.

As the atrocities increased in number and ferocity more and more journalists began heading out to the East End of London in order to report on the living conditions that were to be found in the districts of Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

The following article appeared in The Weekly Telegraph on Saturday, October 27th 1888:-


“Perhaps there is no locality in the United Kingdom which at the present time is so notorious as Whitechapel.

The horrible tragedies so recently enacted there in such rapid succession have sent a thrill of indignant fear throughout England, whilst in the neighbourhood itself the panic still lasts, and will do so as long as the bloodthirsty monster remains unknown and uncaptured.


These murders have cast a lurid side-light on the life endured by the East End poor.

The revelations concerning the lodging houses – where no questions are asked, providing the requisite four pence or eight pence are forthcoming, and which are the hotbeds of prostitution and crime – are sufficiently startling to ordinary decent folks; but when we also read of a wretched female who cannot get shelter till the earns the few coppers necessary to pay for her bed, and is forced to seek them after midnight by going on the streets, the question may well be asked, “What sort of a neighbourhood can this Whitechapel be, where such hideous vices can flourish darkly, but apparently unheeded?”

And this is the query that I am about to answer.

Whitechapel road, itself, I am perfectly acquainted with, as I have frequently walked down there, and been quietly amused at the “all sorts and condition of men” and women that I have encountered.

They have decidedly been a mixed, not to say job-lot, but their behaviour has been generally orderly, although their talk is louder, and the use of expletives freer than what we, poor benighted mortals, are accustomed to.

This, of course, is in reference only to Whitechapel road, which is a wide handsome thoroughfare, brilliantly lit, and exceedingly busy.

A view along Whitechapel Road.
Whitechapel Road


But like the majority of respectable people, I had no actual knowledge of the slums that branch off from the main artery of this densely populated neighbourhood.

After the dreadful crimes so placidly perpetrated in Mitre square and Berner street, I conceived an ardent desire to visit and see for myself the region of a civilised city that seems to be given up to horrors unmentionable.


The thing that puzzled me was how to go.

Night was the best time, but it is hardly the place where a stranger would care to go alone, and, in a great measure, unprotected.

I mentioned the difficulty to a friend of mine, Inspector R—, of the City police.

“It is not a nice neighbourhood,” he said thoughtfully, “and it is of no use going there unless you know your way about, or else you stand a tidy chance of getting knocked on your head, or returning minus your watch and chain.”

I looked rather glum, and he went on to remark “that he would have been pleased to accompany me only he was leaving town the next day on particular business.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked. “Well,” I replied, “I want to go to Mitre square, Buck’s row, Berner street and Hanbury street, and just to see for myself what class of people really do live there.”


“I can manage that for you”, he said; “one of our men, Mr. B—, is a thoroughly efficient and highly respectable and intelligent officer, and he can go round with you.”

I thanked the worthy inspector, who introduced me to Mr B—. a tall, muscular, and rather handsome man, and an arrangement was made there and then that I should meet the officer on the next night by the Lew Courts.

“Will you know me again?” I inquired.

He glanced at me sharply from a very keen pair of blue eyes. “Yes,” he answered, “I shall know you.”

I felt that mentally he was taking my photograph, and how correct my prescience was I found out afterwards, when he accurately described a ring that I wear, and also a peculiar but trifling mannerism that I am unconsciously guilty of.


The next evening we met at the appointed place, my escort looking very big and stalwart in his civilian dress, and I, clad in the darkest and least conspicuous of clothes.

It was is a lovely night, clear and cold, the blue heavens all aglow with myriads of stars.

The Strand was as busy as only the Strand can be.

Hansoms flitted by us; every now and again carriages drew up at the doors of the brilliantly illuminated theatres, and from them agitated gaily dressed ladies and their cavaliers in the regulation evening dress.

Busses, full inside and out, drove by, newsboys called out in stentorian accents, “Reported harrest of the Whitechapel Murderer.”

Laughing, innocent happy looking girls were hurrying along with their friends.

Polite and tired policemen were regulating the traffic, conducting nervous ladies across the road, directing deaf old gentlemen to various place, requesting knots of men to “move on there please,” and performing the various other duties incidental to the wearing of the blue coat.

The cafes were full and the air was noisy with the traffic, laughter, and conversation.

If a lady passed she was carefully escorted by some male friend. The majority were huddled up in furs, for the wind was keen.


If vice was here, it was emphatically well-dressed, well-fed vice, for dense as the throng was, it seemed to he almost exclusively formed of warmly-clad people.

I looked with pleasure at the lively, gay, and bright scene; I listened to the ripple of careless laughter, the soft, sweet, modulated voices, and the flow, flow of silken robes.

I inhaled the fresh cold air, the perfume that was wafted momentarily to me, from the delicate flowers that nestled on the white bosom of some lady as she passed me to enter a theatre, or the scent that arose from her handkerchief, and as I looked and listened I thought with a cold chill of that other neighbourhood, so near, and yet so distant, where innocent joy or pure amusements are not known.


We hailed a bus, and soon we left the glare and bustle of the Strand and Fleet Street far behind.

At Leadenhall street, we got down, and just at the end of that street and Whitechapel Road, is a narrow street which leads into Mitre Square.

“This is quite a respectable place,” says Mr. B—-, as he glances round with a professional eye.

A photo of Mitre Square showing the corner where Catherine Eddowes was murdered.
Mitre Square Looking Towards Murder Corner


Although the night is light the square seems enveloped in gloom, and in the darkest corner, shaded by a window, is the place where the wretched woman was so foully murdered.

Two young men and a woman are surveying the place with a morbid curiosity, and the latter tells me with unctuous relish “that the blood, all congealed, can still be seen down the area, where it dripped down from the iron bars.”

Slantingly opposite there is a warehouse all lit up, and opposite is the opening from which the assassin escaped after the completion of his ghastly work.


We stand still, the young men and the woman go away, the lights are put out opposite, the lamp is extinguished in the window, under which the murder took place, and yet we remain.

The square is now deserted, and it is quite dark.

We go up and stand in the shade of that dreadful corner.

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


The quiet is oppressive, we might be miles away from any living being, and I catch myself wondering if there is really a busy thoroughfare within a few yards from where we are standing.

Presently we hear a measured tread, it comes nearer and nearer, then dies gradually away. It is a policeman in Mitre Street.


A few moments after some men cross the square, but we are apparently unseen wrapped up in that murderous shade, for though they pass within a half-a-dozen yards of us, they are quite unconscious of our presence.

This rather unnerves me, for I realise how comfortably a person could be murdered here.

Just then a severe voice says, “what are you doing there?”


A lantern is flashed on us, and there is a bobby.

He looks at me, then at my companion, who he recognises immediately, explanations issue, and all is right.

Still, it does not do away with the fact that we have been allowed to remain there undisturbed for fully seven to ten minutes.


Although Mitre Square is respectable, it affords facilities for crime.

At night it is comparatively deserted, and, moreover, is badly lit, the corner being completely enveloped in gloom, and another thing is that there are two thoroughfares leading in and out of the square.

I honestly believe that the police do their best, and I had very little idea of the difficulties they have to contend with till the night of my expedition to the east, and I could then see what an intelligent and efficient body they must be to grapple at all with the vexatious obstacles thrown in their paths.


The next place we visited was Berner street, and to get there we had to cross Whitechapel road and go down Commercial street.

Of these places I shall have a great deal to say, but I will reserve my remarks for another article.

The bustle and noise was most grateful after the fearful hush of Mitre square; there were quantities of men and women, but what men and women were they?

As we got near to Berner street Mr. B— asked me “if I felt frightened?'”

I laughed and replied in the negative, and then he showed me with a certain amount of satisfaction that he was provided with his whistle and a thick, heavy walking stick.


In another few minutes we were in what my companion tersely described as a beastly locality.

A long, ill-paved, narrow, badly-lit street. The lamps are few and far between and show a flickering, sickly, yellow light. This insufficient lighting is simply disgraceful and is an evil that demands immediate attention.

After the glare of Whitechapel road, the darkness seems trebly bad.


The houses are small and squalid, and teeming with life.

Late as it is, one must walk carefully for fear of falling over half-naked infants, who crawl about the broken pavement.

Wherever you turn you see babies – dirty, unkempt, with hardly sufficient rags on to cover their nakedness.

Their helplessness testifies to their infancy, but their puckered-up faces are indelibly stamped with the legacy of crime. Conceived in vice, brought up on the streets, taught to steal and lie, good God, what can their future be?

A view along Berner Street
Berner Street


Children everywhere; but in all the scores I saw not one really childish or innocent face could I see.

Little girls nursing gutter brats, and pouring over their charges such torrents of invective, such vile blasphemy, that I fairly shuddered.

Girls a little older, but not yet in their teens, mauling boys as ragged, and as filthy as themselves. Girls hurrying to and from the public-house and smacking their lips over the drink they had surreptitiously taken. Girls carrying infants, and cursing and swearing at them like fish fags.

All young, all with matted hair and dirty skins, all with precociously sharp eyes and old wizened faces; few with boots and stockings, few plump or healthy looking, few decently clad, none with their heads covered, but nearly all sporting earrings and brooches.

Missionaries visiting the residents of a London slum in the 19th century.
A London Slum In The Late 19th Century


And this, mind you, not the daytime, but late at night, and within two miles from where I saw strong women swathed in sables and sealskins.

I now stood by half-naked infants crawling together as if to seek warmth, on pavements rendered disgusting by the vilest refuse.

Women with their hair uncombed, and their hands folded in their aprons or skirts, stood by the doorways and shrieked to their children in harsh, shrill voices.

And this was the first impression I received of Berner Street.”