The Bitter Cry Of Outcast London

Nowadays, we tend to focus our attention simply on the period over which the Jack the Ripper murders occurred in the East End of London.

But the Jack The Ripper crimes didn’t happen in a historical vacuum.

They occurred at a time when people were beginning to take notice of the East End of London – and of Whitechapel in particular, or, to be more precise, of the huge underclass that lived in Whitechapel.

For twenty or so years prior to the onset of the Whitechapel murders, newspapers had been building an impression in the minds of the upper and middle classes that the area that lay to the east of the City of London was a dangerous hinterland that threatened the very fabric of Victorian society.

One publication in particular, which had appeared five years before the commencement of the atrocities, had had a huge impact on the general view of what the East End was truly like.


In the autumn of 1883, the Reverend Andrew Mearns shocked the delicate sensibilities of the English middle classes with a penny pamphlet that bore the provocative title The Bitter Cry Of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor.

This comparatively small publication had an immediate and massive impact, for it confronted its readers with the grim reality of everyday life in London’s slum lands, and it warned them that they ignored the festering underclass that dwelt in them at their peril.



The following is an extract from Mearns’s pamphlet, and, even today, it really does have the power to shock with its vivid portrayal of the Victorian slums:-

“Whilst we have been building our churches and solacing ourselves with our religion and dreaming that the millennium was coming, the poor have been growing poorer, the wretched more miserable, and the immoral more corrupt; the gulf has been daily widening which separates the lowest classes of our community from our churches and chapels, and from all decency and civilisation.

How can those places [in which they live] be called homes?

To get into them you have to penetrate courts reeking with poisonous and malodorous gases arising from the accumulations of sewage and refuse scattered in all directions and often flowing beneath your feet; courts, many of which the sun never penetrates, which are never visited by a breath of fresh air, and which rarely know the virtues of a drop of cleansing water.


You have to ascend rotten staircases, which threaten to give way beneath every step, and which, in some places, have already broken down, leaving gaps that imperil the limbs and the lives of the unwary.

Walls and ceilings are black with the accretions of filth that have gathered upon them through years of neglect. It is exuding through cracks in the boards overhead; it is running down the walls. It is everywhere.

People gathered in one of the East End Alley.
A Typically overcrowded East End Alley.


Every room in these rotten and reeking tenements houses a family, often two.

In one cellar a sanitary inspector reports finding a father, mother, three children, and four pigs! In another room a missionary found a man ill with smallpox, his wife just recovering from her eighth confinement, and the children running about half naked and covered with dirt.

Here are seven people living in one underground kitchen and a little dead child lying in the same room. Elsewhere is a poor widow, her three children, and a child who had been dead thirteen days.

Where there are beds they are simply heaps of dirty rags, shavings, or straw, but, for the most part, these miserable beings find rest only upon the filthy boards.”