Vagrants In Trafalgar Square

It is always intriguing to catch, possible, glimpses of the victims of Jack the Ripper, prior to their acquiring a tragic immortality by being slain by the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders.

Aside from the brutal manner of their demises, much of what we know about the victims comes from newspaper reports covering the inquests into their deaths which, which provide us with snapshots of them in the days leading up to their murders; and which, occasionally, supply us with a little of their backgrounds, revealing how they came to be leading day to day existences on the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

However, every so often, a particular victim’s name turns up in the newspapers in relation to other aspects of their lives and provides us with those tantalising glimpses of them prior to the year 1888.

For example, Mary Nichols, the first certain victim of the ripper,  seems to have appeared – albeit extremely briefly – in the newspapers in October 1887, as the social unrest began to build up that would culminate in the awful events of Bloody Sunday, 13th November, 1887.

It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty that the woman being referred to in the brief mention in the newspaper was the Mary Nichols who, a year later, would meet her awful fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper in Buck’s Row, Whitechapel. But the mention is, to say the least, somewhat tantalising.


Throughout the summer of 1887, much to the consternation of the authorities, the poor and the destitute of London had been congregating in Trafalgar Square to sleep rough in the open air.

By October this was being seen in official circles as a direct challenge to the forces of law, and order and the Home Secretary, Sir Henry Matthews, tasked Sir Charles Warren, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, with ensuring that the practice was stamped out sooner rather than later.

People gathering in Trafalgar Square.
Gathering In Trafalgar Square. From The Illustrated London News, 29th October, 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


On 29th October, 1887, The Illustrated London News, published an article about the state of affairs in the Square:-

“Trafalgar-square is certainly not a fit place either for meetings and speeches in the day, or for a dormitory of houseless people at night.

It is easy to understand why the promoters of a threatening agitation should choose to assemble there, at the west end of the Strand, in the vicinity of the government offices and the clubs, and on the way to the streets where fashionable shops, filled with valuable articles, are exposed to the attacks of the troops of rascality that always follow every assembly on the chance of a tumult.

But it is not so easy to explain why three or four hundred men, women, and children, who complain of the want of nightly shelter, and who are legally entitled to seek a refuge in the casual wards of the numerous workhouses all over London, should prefer an open space, miles away from their daily haunts, presenting no sort of advantage for those who suffer from the cold and dread the rain at this season of the year.


To allow such people to lie there at night is a very questionable mercy; and, if some grown-up men have recently taken to this practice, as a colour to the menacing demonstrations of “the unemployed,”they should not be permitted, at any rate, to inflict so much cruelty on the women and children, whose presence there during the night is an indecent scandal to a civilised community, and who are perhaps made unwilling victims of an organised imposture.

The homeless wanderers, many of them strangers in London, may be as innocent as they are unfortunate; but those who direct them to Trafalgar-square probably do so with no good intentions.


In a city with a population of four millions, and into which thousands are daily pouring, from all parts of the country, while thousands more are daily quitting one district of town for another, too often in a state of real destitution, there must always be hundreds, every night in the year, found sleeping, or trying to sleep, in the open air.

They congregate under railway arches, and in the open staircases of industrial dwellings, in the recesses of the bridges, in sheltered doorways. and, indeed, wherever there is a chance of their being allowed to remain undisturbed.


The recent nocturnal gatherings in Trafalgar-square cannot, as we have remarked, be ascribed to the natural instinct which directs mankind, like all animals, to find the most sheltered place of repose.

It is, of course, a sad and shocking sight to witness such an assemblage, and there can be no doubt that the condition of many who are induced to come there is one of hopeless poverty.

Homeless people sleeping beneath newspapers in Trafalgar Square.
Sleeping In Trafalgar Square. From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, 29th October, 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The matter is one to be dealt with by the public authorities; and on the night of Thursday week, at a very late hour, a new departure with reference to the outcasts in the square was made by the police.

By half-past eleven o’clock, between 300 and 400 homeless wanderers of both sexes had gathered in the square, and by a quarter to twelve many of them lay down to sleep on the seats and at the side of the square.

Shortly after midnight, a police inspector appeared with tickets for the Endell-street Casual Ward.

The outcasts were offered the tickets for the casual ward, with the alternative of being charged under the Vagrancy Act if they stayed.

Some accepted the casual ward tickets, while some preferred to go to other quarters.


On Tuesday week, there was an instance of the poor helping the poor, of which we give an illustration.

The costermongers of Whitecross-street, hard pushed as they generally are to make a living, collected amongst themselves the sum of three pounds, and this was spent in the purchase of sixty gallons of tea and coffee, and several hundred rations of bread and cheese, which were distributed in Trafalgar-square during the small hours of the Tuesday morning, to a ravenously eager but perfectly orderly crowd of between four and five hundred persons, who formed in line beneath the balustrade, and were marshalled along to the east side of the square, where the distribution took place.

It was evident from the manner in which most of the poor people devoured their portions that they were in a condition little short of starvation, and the kindly fellows who made the distribution were careful to give an extra quantity of bread and cheese to those whose appearance denoted the direst extremity of poverty.

Some there were who certainly did not seem to be in very urgent want, but, indeed, very much the reverse.

No applicant, however, was refused; and the generosity of these humble benefactors of their poorer brethren was enhanced by the kindly and unostentatious way in which the act of charity was performed.

An ilustration showing the distribution of tea, coffee and bread to the poor in Trafalgar Square.
The Poor Helping The Poor In Trafalgar Square. From The Illustrated London News, Saturday 29th October, 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Inquiries made amongst these people show that not much more than one third have any regular calling or occupation.

The rest have simply lived from day to day as best they could from childhood, and find it difficult to explain how they really have managed to exist so long.

Of those who are destitute only through the lack of work, which they profess to be willing to accept, something like thirty percent say, when questioned, that they have come from the country, in the expectation of finding employment in London.


The Commissioner of Police desires to point out to the public that his endeavours to provide sleeping accommodation for the destitute poor in Trafalgar-square have been prevented, to a considerable extent, for several nights by the benevolent efforts of those who have, without any arrangement with him, brought food there, and thus have attracted persons who would otherwise have gone to casual wards or common lodging-houses.

Arrangements have been made, with the concurrence of the Board of Guardians, to provide sleeping accommodation to all who may need it.

Sir Charles Warren adds, “It is to be trusted that the public will not interfere with the police arrangements in keeping the square clear at night of sleepers and vagrants, and that those who are benevolently disposed will confer with the Commissioner or the Chief Magistrate before they take any action calculated to attract persons to the square at night.


The Commissioner of Police is taking steps to arrest, under the Vagrant Act, all rogues and vagabonds throughout the metropolis who are found wandering or sleeping in the open air at night during the cold weather.”

It must be obvious to reflecting persons that true and wise charity will not encourage these wretched creatures to loiter at night in the open air in hopes of gifts of money or food alone; and those who bestow such gifts should take care to provide tickets for some refuge or lodging-house, to which the police should be instructed to guide the destitute vagrants, who should, on refusal, be taken into custody and removed at once to the police cells.”

A portrait of Sir Charles Warren.
Sir Charles Warren. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner. From The Illustrated London News. Copyright, The British Library Board.


However, many of those who were taking nightly refuge in Trafalgar Square refused to heed Sir Charles Warren’s proclamation and, as a consequence, they found themselves under arrest, charged with “wandering abroad without any visible means of subsistence.”


On Wednesday, 26th October, 1887, The Morning Post published a list of the names of those who had been arrested in the police roundup, and, amongst the list of names, appeared the name of Mary Ann Nichols, who, within a year, may have been the Mary Ann Nichols would become the first victim of Jack The Ripper.

“At the Bow-street Police-court yesterday Mary Ann Murphy, 50. Mary Duncan, 60, James Foley, 19, Joseph Drew, 16, Elizabeth Pegrim, 65, Elizabeth Lawrence, 30, Margaret German, 32, Mary Ann Nichols, 36, Annie Bates, 16, and Flora Isabella Cadman, 18, were charged with wandering abroad without any visible means of subsistence.


Inspector Bullock deposed that at half-past ten o’clock on the previous night a gentleman attended at Trafalgar-square and gave bread and coffee to 170 outcasts, and gave them tickets for admission to lodging-houses.

Several returned and said the lodging-houses were full.

The witness offered to admit them to the casual ward. They nearly all refused. Thirty were sent to the casual ward and 19 were admitted. The others ran away.

The prisoners were taken into custody.

Mr. Bridge: Does not the distribution of coffee and food induce these people to go to the square?

Inspector Bullock: Yes, sir, it does; but it is distributed at eleven, and there is plenty of time for them to get lodgings or go to the casual ward. Passers-by throw money from the terrace, and when they see a respectable person pass they will take off their shawls and shake themselves as if they were cold in order to excite sympathy.


The defendant Murphy was released, as she said she had work to go to.

Duncan was stated to be frequently drunk, and was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour.

German was discharged on a promise to go the workhouse unless she found some work.


Nichols was stated to be the worst woman in the square, and at the police-station was very disorderly. She was released on her own recognisance.

Pegrim and Lawrence were sent to the workhouse, Cadman and Bates were sent to a home, and the two lads, Foley and Drew, were discharged, with a view of obtaining them employment through the medium of Mr. Pike, of the Reformatory and Refuge Union.”