The Scene of the Murders By Night

On the 11th September 1888, the East End, and London as a whole, was reeling in shock at what was being seen as the fourth atrocity in the series known as the Whitechapel Murders, which had taken place a few days before.

The murder in question was that of Annie Chapman, which had taken place on the morning of the 8th of September, in the backyard of number 29 Hanbury Street.

Illustrations showing the finding of the body of Annie Chapman.
From The Illustrated Police News, 22nd September 1888.


It was, by this time, universal knowledge in the area, that the police suspected a character known as “Leather Apron” and, some of the newspapers – most notably T. P Oconnor’s The Star, had so demonised this character that many people were beginning to wonder if he actually existed.

What was evident, however, to many newspapers, was that the reading public all over the country, were eager for every salacious morsel they could read about the killings, and, to that end, more and more journalists were making the trek into the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields to report back on the conditions that they found.

One such report appeared in the St James’s Gazette on the 11th of September 1888.

These articles are extremely interesting today in that – even allowing for a little creative licence and journalistic exaggeration – they provide us with an insight into the streets of the area around the time of the murders and, perhaps more importantly, give us an idea of how the people who resided in the district were reacting to the horror of the murders that were occurring in their midst.

The article read:-


“A representative of the Central News, who patrolled the streets and alleys of Whitechapel during last night, writes as follows:-

The scare which the disclosure of the fourth and most horrible of the murders occasioned in the district, has considerably subsided.

Calmed by the knowledge of the active measures adopted for their protection by the police, people are returning to their normal condition of mind.

This is plainly evidenced by the aspect which Whitechapel-road presented last night and up to an early hour of the morning, which was very different from that of the corresponding period of the previous day.

Then groups of men and women lingered upon the flagstones until long after midnight.


In passing through the groups of people the words most frequently heard in their conversation were “Leather Apron.”

The term has become a byword of the pavement and gutter, and one more often hears it accompanied by a guffaw than whispered in a tone which would indicate any fear of the mysterious individual who is supposed to live under that sobriquet.

Whilst a large number of persons – including many members of the police force – firmly believe in the existence and almost certain guilt of the aproned one, the talk of the footways indicates that a large number of other inhabitants of the East-end are sceptical as to his personality.


As has been said, the thoroughfares last night preserved their customary appearance.

There was the usual percentage of gaudily dressed, loud-mouthed, and vulgar women, strutting about or standing at the brightly lighted crossways; and the still larger proportion of miserable, half-fed, dejected creatures of the same sex upon whom hard life, unhealthy habits, and bad drink have too plainly set their stamp.


Soon after one o’clock the better-dressed members of the motley company disappeared; but the poor poverty-stricken drabs crawled about from lamp to lamp, or from one dark alley’s mouth to another, until faint signs of dawn appeared.

Off the main road – in such thoroughfares as Commercial-street and Brick-lane, there was little to attract attention.

Constables passed silently by the knots of homeless vagabonds huddled in the recess of some big door way; other constables, whose “plain clothes” could not prevent their stalwart well-drilled figures from betraying their calling, paraded in couples, now and again emerging from some dimly lighted lane and passing their uniformed comrades with an air of profound ignorance.

An illustration showing homeless people in Whitechapel in 1888.
The Homeless of Whitechapel. From The Illustrated London News, 13th October 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The streets inclusively referred to by the constables on beat duty in the main thoroughfare as “round at the back” presented a dismal appearance indeed; the dim yellow flames of the not too numerous public lamps only rendering the darkness of tight more gloomy.

Such passages as Edward-street, connecting Hanbury and Princes streets, Flower and Dean-street, between Brick-lane and Commercial-street, which in daylight only strike one as very unwholesome and dirty thoroughfares, appear unutterably forlorn and dismal in the darkness.


From an alley in one of these, leading to uninviting recesses, a miserable specimen of a man – hollow-chested, haggard, and dirty – shuffled hurriedly into the wider street, and crossing to the opposite pavement, dived into another recess and was instantly lost to view.

No constable would have thought of interfering with him had he met him, nor would there have been any excuse for accosting him; and yet his ragged clothes, of some dark hue, might have been saturated with the blood of a murdered victim which would not have been visible them.

In almost any one of these dark and filthy passages a human being’s life might be every night sacrificed were the blow dealt with the terrible suddenness and precision which evidently characterised those of the two last murders; and a police force of double the strength of that now employed, and organized under the best possible conditions might well be baffled in its efforts to capture the murderers.


In the immediate neighbourhood of St. Mary’s Church a vile entry presented a deep cavern of Stygian blackness into which no lamp shone, and where, for aught a passer-by at that hour could discover, a corpse might lie, and from which – such is its position – a murderer might easily pass unobserved.

In a squalid thoroughfare between Hanbury-street and Whitechapel-road some houses have apparently been pulled down, the space being now waste ground enclosed by wooden palings.

This unilluminated spot is separated by a house or two from an alley which, at a point some yards from the street, turns at right angles apparently towards the unoccupied space mentioned.

A view of St Mary's Church, Whitechapel.
Looking South Towards St Mary’s Church Through Green Dragon Yard.


Into the mouth of this passage a slatternly woman, her face half-hidden in a shawl which formed her only headdress, thrust her head, and in a shrill and angry voice shrieked the word, “Tuppy !”

The cry was answered in a few seconds by the appearance of an evil-looking man with a ragged black beard who, in reply to an impatient question of “Where is she?” muttered, in a surly tone, “Round there,” at the same time jerking his thumb backwards towards the alley.

“Well, come ‘long ‘ome, then; I ain’t agoin’ to wait for she,” replied the woman, who, with the man limping after her, soon disappeared round the corner of the street.

There was no subsequent indication of the presence of a third person.

The light from the street was so dim that there was no possibility of recognizing the features of the man and woman, and certainly either might have borne traces of crime which would have attracted no attention.

Such occurrences as the above are, the police say, quite usual.”