Victorian Whitechapel often receives a great deal of negative coverage in histories that retell the story of the Whitechapel murders and the Jack the Ripper crimes.
It is certain that parts of Whitechapel were pretty bad when it came to public health, social conditions and crimes; but was also just as true that a great deal of Whitechapel was not too bad, and, in many ways, was a pleasant place to live.
THE PUBLIC IMAGE OF WHITECHAPEL
The main problem for the public image of the East End of London was that, by the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, which took place in the autumn of 1888, the newspapers had, for a great many years, been depicting Whitechapel as an uncivilised hinterland where dwelt a dangerous and simmering underclass to who vice and crime were second nature.
However, what few people recognised was that this description only applied to a small segment of the district – the segment that was situated off and around Commercial Street.
LONDON’S WORST STREETS
Streets such as Flower and Dean Street, Thrawl Street, George Street and Dorset Street were seen as being – and probably were – home to this dreaded underclass, some of whom lived on the periphery of criminality, and it cannot be denied that vice was rife in these enclaves.
Indeed, it is testimony to just how bad these streets were – or, at least, how they were perceived to be – that at one stage or another each of them had, by 1888, been dubbed by the Victorian newspapers as being “the worst street in London” – a description now that tends to be thought of as only applying to Dorset Street.
A LOT OF WHITECHAPEL WAS FINE
However, much of Whitechapel was inhabited by residents who, whereas many of them could hardly be described as being wealthy and upper class, were, on the whole, law abiding and hard working.
Contrast, for example the wonderful little pocket of artisan dwellings that still stand off Hanbury Street, not a stone’s throw away from the site of the murder of Annie Chapman, and within ten minutes walk from Dorset Street.
These tiny houses, known as Albert and Victoria Cottages – which still survive were built for and lived in by honest tradesmen and their families.
They couldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as palatial, but the people who lived in them were as honest and law abiding – in many cases probably more so – than the wealthy individuals who lived in the West End of London, or in some of the middle class suburbs that had begun to emerge in the mid-19th century.
NOT NATIVE TO THE AREA
But, hard working, law abiding citizens were not the sort of people that the Victorian media was interested in focussing on.
They wanted to shock their readers with descriptions of the undeserving dishonest poor, and so many of the articles they published honed in on Flower and Dean Street et al, where they could be guaranteed to find the stereotypical type of Eastender that fed into their readerships preconceptions of the typical Eastender.
What is interesting to note, is that the type of individual that was presented to the Victorian public at large, was probably not even from Whitechapel, as Flower and Dean Street and its surrounding thoroughfares were mostly made up of common lodging houses where a large proportion of the residents were transient migrants, who had gravitated to the area from other parts of the metropolis, or even other parts of the country.
And thus, by the time the Jack the Ripper murders started in the autumn of 1888, the Victorian public had had their idea of the district as a whole shaped by terrible stories about the crime, vice and villainy that was endemic in a very small part of the district.
And thus the Whitechapel murders impacted on society in a way that they would probably not have done if they had taken place in any other part of Victorian London, or even Victorian Britain.