The Ways of Whitechapel

It is often remarked how the Whitechapel murder generated a great deal of press coverage as journalists the World over spotted the opportunities afforded by the unknown miscreant, stalking the streets of East London, to increase sales of their newspapers.

Indeed, its is safe to declare that acres of newsprint were dedicated to speculation on the identity of the murderer whom history would remember as “Jack the Ripper.”

What doesn’t get commented on that often is the fact that the journalists who headed into to the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields were both fascinated and appalled by the scenes that greeted them; so much so that many of them became as intrigued by the living conditions in the district as they were about the identity of the killer.

Indeed, many reporters came to see the social conditions in the East End to be as much to blame for the crimes as the murderer himself.

On the 20th of September 1888, in the wake of the murder of Annie Chapman – which had occurred in Hanbury Street on the 8th of September 1888 – a syndicated news report appeared in several newspapers, which purported to have been written by a journalist who had been familiar with the area for many years, and who, according to the article, had spent the days since the murder exploring, not only the street where the murder had taken place, but also the surrounding district as a whole.

The following version of the article appeared in The Southern Reporter on the 20th of September 1888.


“During the past week, the one absorbing topic which has provided column after column of surmise to the London papers has been the series of horrible murders in Whitechapel, culminating in the atrocity of Hanbury Street.

Anxious to satisfy myself as to what manner of people the dwellers in Hanbury Street are, I have carefully inspected not only the street itself but the entire neighbourhood.

A photograph showing Hanbury Street as it was at the time of the murders.
A View Along Hanbury Street


It is difficult, if not impossible, to give readers who dwell in wholesome country towns, or still more wholesome villages, any idea of the conditions under which life goes on in the noisome dens of Whitechapel and the blind alleys by the docks.

Were I to draw anything like a true and faithful picture of what I myself saw I should, in the first place, not be believed; and, in the second, the details would be totally unfit for publication.

Mr G. R, Sims created a great stir in the columns of a London contemporary by essays on “How the poor live;” but even he drew a discreet veil over the more ghastly portions of his canvass, so that, shocking as his revelations were, they are not, as our American cousins say, “a circumstance to the real thing.”


The houses where the miserable wretches are huddled together are vile and obscene, the rooms they occupy in swarms are so many hotbeds of disease and vice; the food they eat is offal, their drink is but the scourings of the bar counter.

They hide their nakedness with scraps of rags which no dog would look at.

Much has been written by sentimentalists to prove that these people are superior to their surroundings, and that they only have to be kindly treated to imbibe culture, and to become like their happier neighbours.

This is a very pretty theory, but, alas! it is utterly worthless.

The people of other quarters, which are still called slums, may be amenable to the unselfish efforts of philanthropists, but their slums – the slums of St Giles, of Westminster, or of Marylebone – are heavens of sweetness and light in comparison with those of Whitechapel.

A view along Dorset Street.
Dorset Street, Spitalfields, Considered One of the Area’s Worst Streets At The Time


Here the nature of the inhabitants is subdued to that of the locality he works in; here, in brief, and to put it with brutal candour, the people are savages. Even this term is a compliment to them, for your natural savage has often lofty instincts and always some chivalry, and pride in his own person.

None of these qualities exist in the London rough. He is a coward, a bully; he lusts after blood, he is a mean – an unspeakably mean – sneak.

He subsists on the earnings of his wife, his mistress. or his sister or daughter; and my readers need not ask how these earnings are obtained.

He has no conscience, neither public nor private; and nothing, no not though one rose from the dead, would impress him.

Two men walking past a house not noticed by a policeman.
Press Cartoon Ridiculing The Police Showing The Roughs Of The District


Not twelve hours after the discovery in Hanbury Street, a waxwork exhibition was on the spot with a ghastly travesty of the whole crime.

Not six hours after, the murder men were hawking comic songs – not the ordinary street ballad, but comic songs – whereof the outrageous refrain bore a jesting allusion to the unspeakable details of the crime.

And, in the twenty-four hours succeeding the murder, there were six or seven violent assaults with robbery, some of them very nearly amounting to murder.


It is very much the fashion to scoff at foreigners for their superstitions, and even our own provincials are often made to feel the scathing lash of the London journalist, who is ever willing to head a paragraph, “Gross ignorance in Somerset,” or “Witchcraft on Dorset.”

We will venture to say that nowhere does grosser ignorance and superstition exist than in Whitechapel. “Leather Apron” has become the fashionable goblin, and the populace has constructed a something, half human and half fiendish, wherewith it is keeping itself in the delightful condition of hysterical nervousness which it has lately been enjoying.

So tangible is this mysterious shape to the popular imagination that the real murderer has many chances of escaping unnoticed.


It may be well asked, what remedy is there for the existence of this unseemly fringe to England’s capital?

The answer is, unfortunately, that there is no remedy, short of sweeping all slums of the Whitechapel variety away.

So long as these ghastly quarters are allowed to stand, so long will they be filled with their ghastly inhabitants, and so long will a heavy drag retard the progress of civilisation.

And the worst of it is that the barbarism which underlies our society in big towns – but especially in London – has a tendency to rise and permeate the strata above it, so that the lust for blood, the immorality, and the depravity leaven the whole fabric; and the same hunger for horrors, which prompts the denizen of Whitechapel to “bash” his wife’s head, displays itself in the City clerk who watches the foolish Baldwin drop from the clouds, and the Belgravia matron whose delight is in a Roman chariot race at the Italian Exhibition, where they manage to run over a Roman charioteer (from Bloomsbury) at almost every performance.


It is a long time since there was such an epidemic of horrors,

The daily papers, which a few days ago were sadly in need of something to descant upon, are now teeming with ghastly murders and mysteries.

The gruesome butcheries of Whitechapel have had one striking effect.

They have even produced a great sensation in Whitechapel itself.

The district has long held an evil preeminence for brutality.

A ghoulisg figure place posters about murder on a wall.
Punch Magazine Comments On The Excitement Being Generated By The Whitechapel Murders.


I remember the first day I was in London, now many a long year ago, seeing a howling and fighting mob in one of the semi-suburban districts bordering on the Kingsland Road. “They’re Whitechapel” was the explanation afforded me, and it seemed to be considered sufficient.

I remember many such rows about that time, and I have the impression that gangs of Whitechapel roughs not uncommonly invaded the comparatively quiet and respectable districts of Haggerston and Dalston and Stoke Newington.


There are other parts of the East End of London which are more depressing, more squalid and more poverty stricken; but Whitechapel holds its own as the special home of the worst kind of roughs.

The recent murders have brought into prominence some social features of the district which must have excited astonishment in the minds of persons unfamiliar with this horrible locality.”