The East End in 1888

The period in London’s history in which the Jack the Ripper murders occurred was a fascinating and tumultuous one.

Indeed, the murders can open up a whole insight into the social conditions, the political climate, the press abuse (how topical is that!)  and the development of crime investigation in the Capital.

Each of  Jack the Ripper’s victims had suffered personal tragedy and had, quite simply fallen through the net of Victorian society and had ended up on the streets of the skid row of the Metropolis. 

Confined to this area of squalid Common Lodging Houses, where villainy and vice were everywhere, they eked out paltry existences, supplementing whatever meagre wages they were able to earn from legitimate enterprise with prostituting themselves on the streets of the East End for the few pennies that a client was willing to pay.

By 1888 London was, very much, a divided city where immense wealth and grinding poverty co-existed almost side by side.

Walk through the streets of the West End and you’d find yourself confronted by numerous examples of copious wealth. Head East from there and you’d pass through the City of London where the newly emerged middle classes were enjoying life styles of every increasing luxury.

But, continue just a few streets further and cross the boundary into the East End and, within seconds, you’d witness people living in the most appalling poverty imaginable in one of London’s most densely populated and crime-ridden quarters.

Socially aware writers, such as Charles Dickens, had long been lecturing the upper and middle classes that they ignored the festering underclass, that was being allowed to develop in the East End, at their peril. “Turn that dog’s descendent loose,” Dickens had warned, “and very soon they might lose their bark, but not their bite.”

Yet, for many years, this situation had suited the authorities.

For, as long as this, ever-increasing, social underclass remained in the squalid district to the East of the City – an area that was often referred to as “the wicked” or “the evil” quarter mile – the powers-that-were could turn a blind eye to their plight and ignore the hardships of their everyday lives.

Or, at least, that is what they thought initially.

What they came to realise was that, a population can only take so much and that Charles Dickens had been right.

Ignore their hardships, let them dwell in poverty and squalor, whilst a cosseted minority live lives of luxury just a few miles away, and, sooner or later, that underclass is going to rise up and, to quote Margaret Harkness, writing under the pseudonym of John Law,  in 1888:-

“…One fine day the people about here will go desperate, and they will walk westwards, cutting throats and hurling brickbats, until they are shot down by the military…”

By 1888 the political climate was in turmoil and the downtrodden masses were starting to bare their teeth and demand change.  

In November 1887, on what became known as Bloody Sunday, the police and military had forcibly, and violently, broken up a protest demonstration in Trafalgar Square.

The Middle and upper classes were facing up to the dreadful possibility that there might well be a revolution in England. .

The East End suddenly found itself the focus for this fear, as well as the focus for almost every other prejudice that the middle and upper classes held about the poverty-stricken underclass of Victorian Society.

Nervous eyes were gazing warily eastwards from the offices of government, the palaces and mansions of the ruling classes and the boardrooms of the City institutions. 

Collective corporate breaths were being held as they waited for the East End to erupt in violence and for the people to, as Margaret Harkness had warned, “walk westwards, cutting throats and hurling brickbats..”

The only question was, what form would the violence take?

Then, on August 31st 1888, a lone maniac committed a murder in a dark thoroughfare, just off Whitechapel Road, and, suddenly, Jack the Ripper would, for the middle and upper classes at least, become the very personification of all the nebulous fears and prejudices they held about the East End of London.

You can watch our introduction to London in 1888 on the following video.