By the 24th of September, 1888, it was more than apparent that a repeat killer was loose on the streets of the East End of London, and Victorian society as a whole had begun to take note of the horrific living conditions that women of the class of the victims were forced to live under.
One newspaper that led the call for change was T. P. O’Connor’s The Star, which on the 24th of September published a letter from George Bernard Shaw in which he made the point that the Whitechapel murderer had achieved with his crimes what socialism had failed to achieve through agitation – namely, getting the newspapers to take note of the plight of the poor in the East End of London.
THE HYPOCRISY OF PRESS, CHURCH AND STATE
However, the newspaper provided its readers with a synopsis of the points that Shaw was making in an editorial of that day:-
“At the recent meeting of the British Association the dovecots were much fluttered by the appearance of a strange and rather startling figure.
A tall, thin man, with a very pale and very gentle face, read a paper which calmly denounced as robbers some of the men the world is accustomed to regard as the ornaments of society, the patterns of morality, and the pillars of the church.
This was Mr. George Bernard Shaw.
The whole thing was done, not with the savagery of a wild and illiterate controversialist, but with the light touch, the deadly playfulness, and the rapier thrusts of a cultivated and thoughtful man.
A WING OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY
Mr. Shaw is as yet little known to the general world, but he is a power, as he deserves to be, among the militant Radicals of the metropolis. He represents one of the wings – he himself would call it the moderate and rational wing – of the Socialist party.
To the propagation of his ideas, he gives up willing time, labour, the opportunities of self-advancement.
To such men we can forgive much; their enthusiasm, and their self-devotion are more important than their opinions.
BLOOD MONEY TO WHITECHAPEL
We publish a letter today from Mr. Shaw.
It is on the hideous and squalid tragedies which, occurring in the East, have stirred up the West-end to unusual and unaccustomed interest in the fate of the poor and the disinherited of the nation.
Mr. Shaw writes with what will be considered violence by many, if not by most of our readers, and his proposals are far in advance of those which even some of our most advanced Radicals will be disposed to adopt.
They are certainly in advance of any measures that we ourselves are ready to recommend.
But we willingly give Mr. Shaw the opportunity of ventilating his ideas; first, because we are in favour of free discussion; and secondly, because though we may not accept his remedies, we sympathise largely with the protest he makes against the fashion in which some of our contemporaries have treated the Whitechapel murders.
His revolt against the gush and the cant which are now appearing in certain aristocratic journals, is timely and called for. These journals, which are now calling upon the West to do its duty to the East, are the very journals, as Mr. Shaw points out, which but a few months ago were applauding Sir Charles Warren as warmly and enthusiastically as though he were another Mr. Balfour.
In the House of Commons, and still more in the drawing-rooms of the West-end, gilded youths and Primrose matrons were pluming their feathers on the spirited way in which the mob had been taught to conduct itself; and after the triumphant reply of Mr. Matthews in the House of Commons, and the splendid majority – largely made up of men calling themselves Liberals – all the reactionaries were congratulating themselves on the excellent results of a policy of coercion in London, as well as in Ireland.
THE TRAGEDY OF THE MURDERS
On these gratulations come four hideous and squalid tragedies, and at once the same society, that was exultant with class triumph, has grown pale with class terror, and follows with babbling, childish, unctuous proposals – as much a remedy for the state of things revealed as the buns of the French lady for the starvation of the French revolutionaries.
We may ask why it required these murders to call attention to the state of the poor at all?
The deaths of these unhappy women certainly call aloud for vengeance, and the officials through whose incompetence such things are possible, will be called by-and-bye to a heavy account.
But death, sudden, swift, possibly painless – and especially to those who have tried the game of life and have lost honour, self-respect, hope, everything – is infinitely less of a tragedy than the daily struggle for work that can’t be got; for food that can’t be earned.
DEATH THE PREFERRED CHOICE
Give to many of the thousands that stand shivering every morning outside the portals of our great dockyards; give to the man that haunts the coffee shop or the newspaper office every morning to search out the places that are vacant; give to the father of children that meet him at night with the cry for food he hasn’t to give – give to many of these the choice between the continuance of life and the painless passage through sleep to death, and the result would be that death would be their choice.
It is the tragedy of defeated life, and not the calm of triumphant death, that should appeal to our hearts and imaginations.
And now as to the remedies.
First we want better, truer, more honest teaching in our churches. As will be seen from another portion of our impression, a parson is very indignant with us because we have opened our columns to a discussion on the failure of Christianity. The free discussion of any subject is doubtless a soreness and an affliction to many reactionaries – especially when they wear a black coat and have taken service in the Established Church.
How can anybody – how can the poor, especially – think well of Christianity when those who are its most eminent – its most highly paid teachers – always take the side which means the further enrichment of the rich, and the deeper impoverishment of the poor?
When the landlords had the tax on corn, starvation walked abroad through the land. When reformers like Cobden and Bright proposed to bring food home to the poor, the clergymen of the Establishment were among the most active apostles of the continued reign of high rates and dear bread, and starved homes.
THE PEOPLES VOICE
Take the whole talk which is the outcome of these Whitechapel tragedies; does anybody suppose that the interest, shallow and purposeless and resourceless as it is, would have shown itself at all in the days before the people had got some voice in the control of the country?
It is the voter and not the man that has excited the interest; and did not, again, the clergymen of the Establishment head the party in town, and still more the country, that opposed by every means in their power the admission of the artisan and the labourer to the franchise?
How, we ask again, can we expect humble men to believe in a Christianity which is always on the side of privilege, unjust burdens, deeper poverty, greater helplessness of the weak?
But we can place little confidence in the good teaching of others – or even in their goodwill.
The salvation of the disinherited must come largely, if not mainly, through themselves.
THE GOSPEL OF REGENERATION
We have no objection to men like Mr. Shaw preaching their gospel of social regeneration, though we may regard some of their opinions as unwise and impracticable, and the majority of them as unattainable for a considerable time to come.
What we ask is that they and their friends shall not neglect the political machinery through which ultimately all changes – social as well as political – have to be attained; and that if they care but little for these things, they will allow others who have taken this work in hand, to go forward without interruption.
GIVE EVERY CITIZEN THE VOTE
For our part, we think some of the humblest of these political changes would do much to solve some of the most gigantic of our social problems.
Suppose, for instance, that our politicians and our divines, and our social philosophers, and even our Home Secretaries and Police Commissioners, had to deal with a London in which every citizen had a vote – does anybody think that the cry of distress would be drowned in the tumult of bayonets and the clanging of swords?
As it is, we have to deal in London with masses that are still almost unenfranchised.
As long as that state of things lasts, we shall have no proposals for the fundamental changes that will reduce our poverty. We shall have to put up with such canting and shallow philosophy as that which Mr. Shaw so triumphantly assails in our columns today.”