The Fallen Women of Whitechapel

By choosing as his victims the prostitutes who roamed the night hours of the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper confronted the Victorians with a side of society that many of the more “respectable” citizens of London would rather have ignored.

Once the newspapers began reporting on the murders in great depth, from the early weeks of September 1888 onward, it became almost impossible for newspaper articles to report on the crimes, without also reporting on the lifestyles of the victims.

The subsequent coverage met with a variety of responses.

Some commentators began expressing a great deal of sympathy for those victims who, like, for example, Annie Chapman and Mary Nichols, were evidently as much the victims of circumstance as they were victims of Jack the Ripper.

Others began questioning whether a civilised society shouldn’t be endeavouring to stamp out the vice, the squalor and the iniquity that the murders had exposed as existing, right on the doorstep of the City of London.

An example of this latter attitude was demonstrated in the following article that was published in The Jersey and Independent Telegraph, on the 27th October 1888:-


“The recent tragedies in Whitechapel have, for a brief period, lifted the veil which, ordinarily, hides from the world the life and doings of fallen women.

An experienced clergyman says:-

“After a time they are practically hopeless. Their wants are very few. Food hardly seems to be a necessary with them. A bed to sleep in and plenty of beer seem to be all that they really require.

Even if they can be induced to enter a home, they are unaccustomed to the slighted restraint, and will submit to none.

They become amazingly reckless”


He gives an instance of of two strong, middle-aged women of this class.

They were quarrelling.

“One was down in the street and the other at an open window at the top of a house.

They railed and stormed at each other for a time, and the one who was up at the window worked herself up into such a frenzy of passion that, in her eagerness to get at her tormentor she actually flung herself down, headlong, from the window at her, just as a wild beast might have sprung.


There are many such women about who, like these two, are practically beyond hope.

They are a great terror to the police, for they are as strong as men, and the police constables cannot tackle them as they do men.

Being women, they can’t hit them, as they would a man in similar circumstances, but the women themselves are renowned for fighting desperately and violently.”


There is no romance here; these are hard facts of everyday occurrences.

Even callous and cold-blooded men must feel that they are terrible facts. whilst those who believe in the higher characteristics and possibilities of humanity are paralysed with horror and despair.

In the face of these and innumerable other evidences of widespread degradation and ruin among our fellowmen, it becomes all who are on the side of religion and virtue to close up their ranks, to put away all vain disputes and useless controversies, and to devote themselves to the one purpose of raising the social mass by means of principles and examples, until it shall become worthy of the name of man, and of the light and knowledge which distinguish him from the brute.”


As is evident from the above article, the widely-held belief amongst the middle and affluent classes was that drink lay at the root of the problem.

Of course, the problem didn’t end with the the cessation of the Jack the Ripper murders, and reports on the effects of drink on the lives of women – and in particular fallen women – continued to appear in the newspapers fro many more years.

One of the big problems was that it was difficult for those who had not been exposed to the downward spiral, that had led the Whitechapel Murders victims into the lifestyles that they were living, was that they saw the plight of the drunken poor in black and white terms.

Drink, so many of them believed, was at the root of many of the social ills that blighted Victorian society.

Yes, they had a great deal of sympathy for the less fortunate, but the less fortunate must first renounce drink before they could have any hope of redemption.

This attitude was amply demonstrated by an article that appeared in The Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, on Saturday 16th May, 1891,  which reported on a meeting of the local temperance campaign, which had taken place the previous week:-


“”Mr. T. HOLMES moved:-

“That, in view of the alarming increase of intemperance among women, and of the increase of re-committals of women for crime, this meeting commends to the public support, the maintenance and development of the Preventive and Rescue Work of the Church of England Temperance Society.”

He said there were many reasons why the women of England should come to the front in the temperance movement.


When he left the provinces to go to London, he was struck with the sufferings that the women in the Metropolis had to endure.

He wanted to bear testimony to the kind and humane way in which the London Magistrates performed their duties. They do not want to punish if they could help it.

Of course there were some cases in which they were obliged to punish.


It was no easy matter to go and stand in the Police Courts endeavouring to help and rescue those fallen women; he believed that where patience and faith were exercised it was possible to reclaim women from intemperance.

There was no Royal way to rescue this sort of humanity, neither by “General” Booth or anybody else.


Mrs. H. Kingsley said that she did not want to hold anybody responsible but herself for the opinions which she might express that afternoon.

Let them think for a few minutes of the Associations that were doing such grand and noble work, and yet they had a steady increasing tide of drink bills, and a steady increasing tide of drunken women.


If they wanted to get rid of a tremendous sin they must attack it at the root. They must remember it was not a mental or a physical question, but a spiritual question.

What was the use of many of the workers going out to those whose brains were muddled with alcohol?

All over England, ministers, district visitors, in fact everybody was always telling her how intemperance was always baffling them.

It was not of the slightest use for people to sit in their drawing rooms and talk of the terrible curse.

That did no good.

She had been for some years a Poor Law Guardian, and she found that most of the cases that came to the workhouse, were due to either the intemperance of themselves, or of their parents.


They must remember that no drunkard could enter the kingdom of heaven.

There were more cases of insanity from alcohol than from any other cause.

If any of them were in the habit of taking alcohol, they were sapping away their strength, and she asked them to be extremely careful never to let their children touch strong drink.

Could not they give up the terrible curse for the sake of Christ who died for them? Would they not give up everything and anything that was keeping them from Him?

After this resolution had been carried, the Rev. T. J. Bass proposed “that the very best thanks of this meeting be given to the speakers, including our worthy chairman.”

The Chairman’s reply brought the meeting to a close.”