Two people who were extremely involved in improving conditions in the district where the Jack the Ripper murders occurred were Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta.
Over the next twenty years, they laboured to assist the poor residents of the neighbourhood and to bring some semblance of law and order to streets where the populace were, to say the least, criminally active.
SAMUEL AND HENRIETTA BARNETT
The Reverend Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta, arrived in the East End of London in 1873, where he became the vicar of St Jude’s church on Commercial Street.
THE WORST PARISH IN LONDON
Before Samuel had taken up the post, Dr John Jackson, the Bishop of London, had warned him to think long and hard about the decision, as, so the Bishop informed him:-
“It is the worst parish in my diocese, inhabited mainly by a criminal population, and one which has, I fear, been much corrupted by doles.”
A CAREFUL DECISION
Recalling their decision to go there in her biography of her husband, which was written in 1918, Henrietta Barnett wrote:-
“We did not hurry, but made careful inquiries before deciding.
The census returns of 1871 showed that the population of the parish was 6,270 (of whom the majority were males), inhabiting 675 houses, many of which were common lodging houses.
Through the parish ran one large street; and behind it, both east and west, lay crowded and insanitary courts and alleys.”
MY VIDEO ON THE BARNETTS AND WHITECHAPEL
A VISIT TO WHITECHAPEL
As they pondered their decision, the Barnetts paid a visit to Whitechapel to view their proposed new home:-
“It was one of those warm winter days,” Henrietta recalled many years later, “when drizzle seems to magnify the noise and make sunshine a distant memory.
It was market day, and the main street was filled with hay-carts, entangled among which were droves of frightened cattle being driven to the slaughter-houses – then and now sights to shock the sensitive and encourage vegetarianism.
DIRTY AND BEDRAGGLED PEOPLE
The people were dirty and bedraggled, the children neglected, the streets littered and ill-kept, the beer shops full, the schools shut up.”
Describing the habitations of the people Henrietta was equally uncomplimentary:-
“They are “common lodgings” and “furnished lodgings.”
The ‘common lodgings’ are under police supervision, and certain rules as to cleansing, the number of inmates, and the immediate removal of the sick, secure health.
They accommodate men at threepence or fourpence a night; the “doubles,” as they are called, having rooms for men and women as well as for single men.
THE COMMON KITCHEN
The inmates occupy a common kitchen, and in turn cook their food at the big fire. In this kitchen some bully often dominates, and the prevailing opinion is that which favours the escape of a thief and laughs over the corruption of the young.
The “deputy,” who is left in charge by the owner, is simply concerned to get in the payments and to prevent such fights as might necessitate the calling-in of the police.
The “furnished lodgings” are much worse in character.
They are rooms in tenement houses, fitted with the most meagre of sleeping accommodation, cleansed at rare intervals, overcrowded, it may be, at once by any number of people, and occupied, it may be, during the night by many couples in succession.
For each occupation eightpence or ten-pence is charged.”
Samuel Barnett’s efforts to bring reform to the lawless streets around his church and vicarage met with official indifference.
As Henrietta put it:- “The respectable and the happy preferred not to think of these matters.”
A LETTER TO THE POLICE COMMISSIONER
In December 1879, in an attempt to get the police to do more to keep order in the district, Samuel wrote to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Edmund Henderson, voicing his dissatisfaction at the policing of the East End.
Henderson responded that:-
“The police do all they can to keep violence and vice within bounds, but their duties are confined to the streets, and their efforts there can do nothing to strike at the root of the evil, which is not to be found in the streets, but in the dens to which the abandoned criminal classes resort. . . An improvement in the moral surroundings of Whitechapel will be heartily welcomed by the police.”
AN ONGOING BATTLE
Neither Samuel nor Henrietta was content to put up with this official rebuttal and. over the next ten years. they struggled to alert the public at large to the awful conditions in their parish, as well as in the wider district of Whitechapel in general.
However, it wasn’t until the Jack the Ripper murders occurred that a general cry went up that something must be done about what were, as the murders had shown, some of the worst streets, not only in Victorian London but possibly in the whole of Victorian Britain.