The Moral Of The Whitechapel Murders

When the Whitechapel murders exposed the horror of the social conditions in large parts of London, and especially in the East End of the Victorian metropolis, newspapers began looking for a possible moral to the atrocities.

The Eastern Daily Press raised the issue in its edition of Saturday, 6 October 1888:-


It is a comforting discovery that the interest of the public is, to a certain extent, being diverted from the morbid side of the Whitechapel horrors into a healthier channel.

There are certain social and sanitary morals to be drawn from these tragedies which are not peculiar to Whitechapel, but to a large degree applicable to the urban life in poorer districts all over London.

We shall always be in danger of such abnormal outbreaks of criminal ferocity as the Whitechapel series as long as we have not succeeded in accomplishing the vital task of modern communities – the civilising of the barbarian element.

Matthew Arnold was a very shrewd observer of social phenomena; and we all know what he thought the problem.

The headline and illustration from The Graphic.
From The Graphic, April 24th 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Brutalising of the lower, materialising of the upper, vulgarising middle classes – that was how he summed up the triumphs of English “civilisation.”

All the evils arising from the improper distribution of wealth, and the extreme selfishness of what is known as “society”, are, of course, intensified in a place like London.

But it is not difficult to shew that, so far from being inseparable from urban life, they are curable by a steadier bent of our energies towards social reform than has hitherto characterised the policy of our administrators.


London is the worst place in England for local government; it is the most penurious in its expenditure on schemes of public improvement; the most neglectful of its poor districts; the most corrupt and inefficient, so far as the personnel of its vestries and boards of guardians goes.

Take the question of the proper lighting of Whitechapel, which nearly touches the murders.

The Vestry is afraid to spend, because a penny rate produces little, and the ratepayers are badly off and grumble at any excess.


Why does not the West come to the relief of the East in this respect?

Says the Lancet, in a very sensible and thorough article:-

“If local expenses incurred by the poorer districts amelioration of the home conditions the poor could be still further lightened, there would be greater incentive to undertake the performance this duty.

Throughout other parts of England and Wales local authorities have been able to participate in imperial funds for the purpose lightening the burden for which the payment of a salary for an efficient health officer’s services would entail.

The poorer districts of London may, therefore, not unreasonably claim that the cost of maintenance of a sufficient sanitary staff should be shared by those districts which are inhabited by the rich to the exclusion of the poor.

Metropolitan districts, it is true, will able to obtain such assistance in future, so far as the salary of their medical officer is concerned; but we would gladly see this principle extended further, and the local district authority encouraged to appoint ample staff in the knowledge that the whole expense will not be thrown upon their often overtaxed and needy ratepayers,”


In addition to this, there is the absence of inspection for the proper enforcement of sanitary laws – a duty which is laid upon the Local Government Board, and which it seems to have exercised effectively everywhere but in London.

All these are matters in which a reformed system Local Government can do much.

The proper lighting of dark passages, the inspection lodging-houses, the provision of model dwellings, the enforcement of sanitary laws, and some measure of control over the owners of tenements occupied the criminal or vicious classes, all come within the scope of municipal administration.

This is what London  lacks, and what provincials, in some form or another, possess.

The famous Punch Cartoon that shows a knife wielding phantom drifting through the slums of London's East End.
The Nemesis of Neglect.


Nor is this all.

Without quackery, there is a way of dealing with the question of poverty which is very far remote from the method of  laissez-faire

The moral of Whitechapel is not a let-it alone moral.

Nor, as far as we can see, does the tendency of thinkers and workers in the East End lie at all in that direction.

Toynbee Hall, the colony of voluntary exiles from West End life, who have gone to live in Whitechapel in order to help the poor to spend their lives more hopefully, is the beginning a considerable change in the social outlook.

Unless society is going to pieces altogether, it will have to rid itself of some of its individualistic habits, and realise the great commonalty interest which is at the root of the Christian religion. We are all members of one body, and what hurts one limb of the social organism hurts the others.

Even if we put the case for the poorer classes on the low ground of self-preservation, it might be just as well to warn a luxurious age that a policy of indifference qualified by a pattern panem et circenses has all the teachings of history against it.


London went to sleep over the riots after it had wasted £80,000 on abortive charity to the mendicant classes.

It will probably do the same in relation to the Whitechapel murders.

At its best, charity is but a very poor and ineffectual way of dealing with social evils in their advanced stage, when the proper method is to touch them in their causes and in their beginnings.


Of course, the intellectual pessimist comes in here and tells you that it is no use reforming society from without until you have reformed it from within; and that, again, is true enough, but hardly pertinent.

Yon can only give effect to your reforms by way of law, and right thinking is not of much avail without right action.

The plain fact is that modem society, organised as it is on the basis of competitive industry, bears with terrible hardness the weakest and poorest.

Can we do nothing to lessen the pressure?

If we cannot, we are afraid that we must say that the London of the nineteenth century is tending much the same way as the Rome of the first.”