The Weeds of Whitechapel

In July 1889, the murder of Alice McKenzie reignited interest in the “unfortunates” of Whitechapel, from whom all of Jack the Ripper’s victims of 1888 had been drawn.

The more “respectable” classes began pondering, once more, how it was that a woman could end up prostituting herself  on the streets of the East End for a pittance that would barely pay for the cost of a bed in one of the area’s common lodging houses.

Whereas the Whitechapel murders had generated a great deal of sympathy for the type of woman who was likely to fall victim to the murderer, there were still those who struggled to comprehend how a woman could find herself out on the streets of East London by night; and several commentators had come to see the plight of these women as being the result of lax morals.

On 22nd July 1889, an article appeared in the Daily Telegraph, about the women who it termed “the weeds of Whitechapel”, which purported to have been written by “One Who Knows Them”, and which enlightened readers as to the downward spiral that could see women end up on the streets of one of the poorest parts of London.

A group of three girls.
Whitechapel Girls in Flower And Dean Street.


“The Whitechapel lads and girls are not guarded, and they very often mate and live together when they are from 15 to 16 years old.

Why do city missionaries and others try to persuade these couples to get married?

Morality is an impressive word, but when you see a married lad of eighteen trying to get food for two or three skinny children you go back to first principles and begin to ask what
morality is.

We are eaten up with phrases, and the stock chatter about morality leads to more misery than does downright brutality.

It is bad enough for the mother when there is one child.

The girl knows nothing of that love which is so sanctified a name among fortunate women.

What are things like when the one bare room, or cellar, is tenanted by three or four unhappy children?

How do the little ones fare when there comes bad weather, and there is no fire, no food, or money in the den?

If one only dared speak out, what things might be said!


I shall only say that the missionaries should denounce early marriage as they would the deadliest of deadly sins.

Fancy an unset boy and a raw girl saving up to buy a table and a bed, marrying without fees, and starting life with about seven or eight shillings a week!

The end is always the same: The workhouse, the jail, the hospital, and the graveyard find occupants in plenty; while in the horrible interval that passes between the births in the cellar and the journeys tombwards there is not an hour of real happy human life.

Yon cannot do the least bit of good until you stop the reckless marriages which are made in ignorance, and that is about the beginning and the end of the question.

Scientific men illustrate theories by tracing the life-history of one organism.

How would it be to go through the life of one typical woman, picked from among those who supply the race of weeds.

This class has excited much sympathy during the past six months.


The Whitechapel girl begins her apprenticeship to the pavement very early.

She is a dodger as soon as she can toddle, and she acquires more and more animal cunning until she reaches the age when she can comb her hair back and grease it and tie it in a net.

Then she is ready at once for the great end of life – “going to meet the chaps.”

She does not care for domestic service. If she took a situation she would soon hate her mistress, and her mistress would rid the house of her.

The girl will slave at any indoor employment, so long as she can be free at some time in the evening, and then the street is her academy.

When good men are teaching the gutter children to pray I wish they would teach them to play as well.

Well, in the streets the boys are nasty, but the girls are indescribable; and if, on a fine night, a few of the hussies can form into ranks, they will make your hair rise.

I have known shanty men on board ship sing in risky style, but no shanty man could equal the British maiden of the East.


After a time our girl gets a nickname, and she usually carries that as long as she remains in the neighbourhood, for the one word, harmless or indecent, is constantly used to describe her.

‘”Carrots,” “Podgy,” “Tripe,” “Snowball” – that is the better style of name.

Let us choose “Snowball,” and leave the others.

After Snowball has gone out with the chaps for a while, she selects one, and, before she reaches sixteen, you may see her hanging about with a wizened baby on her arm.

She pets the child, but she uses the foulest gutter epithets among her endearments.

I do not in the least hate snowball. I would not harm her; I want sorely to help and save her; but we must have the truth regarding her, for she is not a nice individual.

You cannot call her immoral; she is merely unmoral, and you might as well speak shout the immorality of a lower animal as of hers.

Snowball can lie splendidly and cunningly; she is uncleanly; her hair is unpleasant; she has no useful accomplishment, and she could not cook a potato.

If you befriend her, you must not expect gratitude; she may talk in caring tones, but she probably laughs at you behind your back.

If ladies entice her to classes or meetings, or evening school, she goes for what else she can get, and she is impudent and very greedy.

After the wizened infant is born the mother may possibly become a draggletail, especially if she has been permanently bound to her chap; but if the male partner chooses to dissolve their partnership then Snowball looks out for herself, and “encumbrances” are somehow got rid of by one device or other.

Women gossiping outside a house.
From The Graphic, 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Snowball has her time of joyance – or, at least, joyance of a sort; you may see her at holiday time, with arms akimbo, dancing up to her partner in a riotous jig; on Saturday nights she is in the bar, and, until the time for incoherence arrives, she holds the usual mysterious conferences, broken by shrill and explosive shrieks of laughter.

If you are friends with her she will coax from you anything you care to bestow; if she has a comrade who beats her at times, she is his slave, and will give him anything.

She works, sometimes regularly, and sometimes by fits and starts, but task work is shockingly ill-paid, and Snowball does not care for it over much.

Her best time arrives when she can go off with her mate, and take a spell in the hop-grounds; into the sweet country she carries her vile songs, her vile oaths, her vile habits; and she joins in those frantic carousings which make night hideous – and morning, too, for that matter.

Poor Snowball is no conscious lover of scenery, but she gains good from her trip.


The days pass by and you find that Snowball has left her miserable room; and then she is seen in the common lodging-houses; her vitality is low, and she scarcely uses bad language at all till the drink is in her.

She often sits in an attitude expressive of vast despondency, but she does not think, for she cannot.

She is often hungry, and the men have grown very shy of giving her food or drink.

She tries to work, but her strength is small, and any effort galls her.


Sometimes, when the lodgers gather in the kitchen, a cadger may give Snowball some broken meat, but she mostly has to live on over-boiled tea and scraps of bread.

If she does by any chance get a drink from some man it affects her dreadfully, and next morning her life is more than ever a burden.

She can hardly bear to breathe, for her mouth is so drawn, and she will beg for a glass of “all sorts” from a publican’s pail.

Her ordinary companions are elderly men, who give her little food or money; some of them are sulkily kind; some strike her.

Men and women inside the kitchen of a common lodging house.
The Kitchen of a Common Lodging House.


If luck is fairly good Snowball can get drunk at times, and then she and her friend alternately fight and snivel.

All the while her looks are changing: purple blotches appear on her skin, her mouth falls in, she grows flabby, and her hands are coarse and clumsy.

She is still comparatively young, but she looks old – so old!


Then comes the fatal night when she cannot enter the lodging-house, and she must limp away into the streets.

On hot summer nights she can go into a court and find company, for the men, women, and children arc generally driven out by the vermin, and they sprawl naked, or nearly naked, on the stones, so that Snowball may lean her back against the wall amid these, and get some sleep.

But, in winter, it goes very hard with the poor wretch; even the area cats regard her as nothing; she is an outcast, and she crawls into any hole available.

On bad nights the galloping squalls come hurling along the wider roads, and chance eddies of wind whistle into the side-entrance, bearing the lashing sleet or snow; the place is all grim; the ugly mouths of the courts leer at her, and they seem to moan as the gusts fly through.

Snowball has no clothing save her scrimped gown, ragged, boots and stockings, and frail shawl.

With the tawdry shawl hugged in her numb, wet hands, she cringes into any shelter she can find, but the wind searches her out and shoots to her bones in dull throbs of agony.

It is very cold.

Despair, as sharp as the east wind’s knife, can cut to her poor heart.

A lady sits on a step, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, a bundle on her lap.
The Lady On The Step


Maybe in the hospital.

Or, perchance, Snowball is racked by bodily ailments till she can bear her pain no more. She has a gnawing anguish from lack of food. The low sky sheds rain on her, and she mechanically resolves to end it all.

There is the water at the dock looking quiet and grey under the light poppling of the rain.

It is an easy drop.

The cold water stops her poor pulses, and she goes down to the ooze until the gate lifts and the undertow draws her out.

Then the women say, “Nobody seen nothin’ of old Snowball?”


Adieu, Snowball !

God pardon you and all of us!”