The Downcast Poor

Poverty was endemic in the Victorian East End of London. In fact, it was endemic all across London.

If there was one thing that the Jack the Ripper murders did, it was attract press attention to the plight of the poor – although whether that attention led to any real change is debatable.

What is certain is that newspaper reporters who arrived in Whitechapel and Spitalfields to report on the Whitechapel murders, were struck by the poverty and hardship that they encountered, and many of them continued to report on it for many years after the autumn of terror.

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


The Kilburn Times, on Friday, 4th June 1897, carried the following report which not only highlighted the plight of London’s poor, but also noted the way in which neighbours would look after neighbours when, as often happened, they fell upon hard times:-

There is an unfortunate word in the letter of the Lord Mayor to the chairmen of Vestries, District Boards and Guardians, anent the distribution of the Princess of Wales’ Poor Dinner Fund.

That word is outcast – the outcast poor.

Heaven bless us all!  are there no needy poor who are not outcasts?

I use the mild term “unfortunate,”  because, in these present days of charity and benevolence and unwonted munificence, it is not right to strike a jarring chord.

Put the word deserving in the place of outcast, and think what the difference means.

Why there are hundreds of houses in this neighbourhood the dwellers in which have hardly bread to eat, but these persons are not outcasts.

They are downcasts, if you will, but by a degrading epithet let them not made more desolate than they are.


In this connection, to record that some of the District Committees have decided to regard as eligible to participation in the fund all who are honest but impoverished, is a decided pleasure.

It is wise of the committees, for I really do want a good square meal.

Yet, apart from any personal gastronomical requirements and desires, I have a charitable eye to my fellows in distress.

How many are in houses with vacant fire-place and empty oil-lamps; with vacuitous cupboards and floor beds? Hundreds yea, tens of hundreds – but these are not outcasts.


They would work, many of them, if they could find it; but they can’t, and there’s the rub.

They get along somehow, and, having spent a week in Whitechapel as the commissioner of a daily journal, for the purpose of tracing “Jack the Ripper,” I have seen how they “get along.”

And the sight of it is not merely pitiable and pathetic, but in a large way gratifying and to some extent elevating.


You will see poor families reduced to rags and imminent starvation; yet they don’t starve; their neighbours – almost as poor as themselves – come to the rescue, one with a half-loaf, another with an ounce of tea, a third with some lard in paper, and a fourth with a patent brick of bitumen.

And the joy on the relieved one’s face! Tis the picture of an apotheosis.