Fog in London. It is what everybody immediately imagines when they picture the streets of the Metropolis in Jack the Ripper’s day. Dense, smoke-filled air, swirling its way through the narrow, cobbled thoroughfares of the East End of London, providing the perfect cover for all manner of nefarious deeds – from robbery to murder to goodness knows what.
No movie on the Whitechapel Murders would be complete without a shot of a menacing figure in a top hat, his murderous intent immediately apparent, approaching his unsuspecting victim-to-be – who is often a chirpy, sweet looking cockney gal who, only just a few scenes earlier, had been partaking in a joyous sing-along in the local pub – and luring her into the swirling mists of old London town where he quickly dispatches her to a rising crescendo provided by an invisible orchestra who we can’t see because it’s so foggy!
THERE WAS NO FOG
And yet, in reality, there was no fog on the nights of the Jack the Ripper murders. His victims were anything but good old cockney gals who were ever ready to burst into song at the drop of a top hat.
There were no itinerant orchestras prowling the night shadows on the off chance they’d encounter a murder taking place and thus secure themselves a healthy future of endless royalties as the deed gets repeated night after night on the Horror Channel.
SO MANY FALLACIES
No, as with so many of the common images of Jack the Ripper – top hats, swirling capes, ‘cor blimey ‘appy go lucky cockneys, and murder-minded royals, or their physicians, trotting around the East End of London in coaches emblazoned with their crests – the image of the Jack the Ripper murders taking place in a London fog is a fallacy, an invention.
YET, IT’S ATMOSPHERIC
It is done – and I have to put my hands up here and admit that I’ve done my fair share of fog enshrouded re-enactments for documentaries – to give the films and the documentaries visual appeal. Be honest, would you find it that creepy if Jack the Ripper were to come skipping along the street on a nice August evening?
But, allow a menacing fog to drift across the streets and viewers instantly know that something sinister is afoot.
FISH AND CHIPS AND PIE AND MASH!
The fact is that, for whatever reason, fog and Jack the Ripper are as indelibly linked in the national – and the international – psyche as are fish and chips or, to use an East End comparison, pie and mash. You’d leave the cinema, or set down the remote, feeling somewhat short changed, if Jack the Ripper were to emerge from the dazzling light of a bright and sunny evening!
LONDON FOG NOVEMBER 2015
So, as October gave way to November this year, the Jack the Ripper guides, along with the members of the public who joined us on the tour, were delighted when nature came up trumps and, for a few nights, delivered a whopping great, old fashioned, peas-souper to the streets of the East End of London.
This was a rare old Jarndyce V Jarndyce affair, at the heart of which sat, not on this occasion, the Lord High Chancellor in his high court of Chancery, but Jack the Ripper in his low courts of Whitechapel.
SPECIAL AND ATMOSPHERIC
It was, to say the least, special.
So special, in fact, that our guides felt obliged to whip out their cameras and they began snapping away in order to record the occasion for posterity.
We do get foggy days, and nights in Whitechapel.
But the fog that ushered in November 2015 was particularly thick and delightfully atmospheric, not to say a little unusual in its consistency.
A GREAT START FOR THE TOUR
Heading off into that first thoroughfare of the walk, Gunthorpe Street – which at the best of times is one of those step back in to the past moments – guide and participants alike drew a collective breath as the fog closed in around them and nature obliged to give the tour a suitably sinister backcloth against which to tell the story of the World’s most infamous murder spree.
CRIME IN THE FOG
Whilst researching a story for a future blog I came across a newspaper report that illustrates how fog could be used as a means of carrying out a crime undetected.
The story in question appeared on the 29th December 1904 . Under the headline “The London Fog” the article reported that:-
“The darkness came as a boon to thieves, and many cases of robbery are reported. Watch-chains and purses were snatched with impunity, for the darkness soon swallowed up the figure of the escaping thief.
One pathetic case was that of a little girl of eleven who was found in bitter tears in the Commercial-road. She explained that she had been sent to pay 2s and 6d. into a local Christmas club. She lost her way, and asked a man to tell her way she was. He offered to take her to her destination, but on the way he snatched the half crown from her and rushed away.
A public-house on the Mile End Road was raided, but the thieves only secured some beer and seventeen copper coins.
LOOKING UP A CHIMNEY
Another newspaper report, this time from February 1880, described how healthy men, in and around London, “find it difficult to breathe in an atmosphere one could chew and which seriously irritates the throat and air passages.” The article went on to tell the story of an American visitor to London who, when asked to describe the weather in England, observed thus:- “Well, I guess, six months of the year it is like looking down a chimney, the other six months it is a good deal like looking up a chimney.”
YOU COULDN’T RECOGNISE YOUR OWN MOTHER
One correspondent wrote to a newspaper suggesting that, during a fog, Londoners should leave their shutters open, “that the light from the inside might afford some assistance to the benighted pedestrian groping his way outside.”
The fog in London, so this nameless correspondent reported, was so dense that “you could not recognize your own mother if you met her. or see your own hand held up an inch from your own nose.”
LINK BOYS AND LINK EXTINGUISHERS
During these fogs in the 1880’s, people still relied on “Link Boys” to escort them home through the streets.
These boys would go before their clients, holding a lighted torch, or link, and remnants of their service can still be seen outside the doors of some of the older London properties where the link extinguishers, in which they would put out the flames, are still visible.
However, according to one newspaper report from 1880, there were certain dangers in employing the services of the link-boys:-
“When all locomotion in cabs and omnibuses ceases, the the fog becomes a nuisance; and it is no pleasant matter to be escorted home from a place of amusement by a link-boy, who takes care to light his own path, but leaves you some yards behind to make friends with the lamp-post, by making a tinder-box of your eyes when striking fire from a severe blow on the nose…your eyes smarting with the smoky fog, and tears chasing each other down your furrowed cheeks like little floods of sorrow.”
It has to be said, there is a certain comfort in the knowledge that the fog we saw in London at the beginning of November 2015, is now an exception as opposed to the norm and that we can look on it with curiosity as we make our way through the streets of the East End with little need for a torch-bearing boy to light our way and lead us into lamp-posts and whatever else!