Throughout the latter years of the 19th century – and particularly during the coverage of the Jack the Ripper atrocities – the public throughout the rest of the United Kingdom gained the distinct impression that Whitechapel was a lawless den of iniquity into which no law-abiding member of society should venture without fearing for their own personal well-being.
However, many residents resented this press portrayal of their district – and throughout the late 1880’s and 1890’s articles were appearing that sought to dispel the universal impression of Whitechapel as being little more than a criminal enclave.
The following article, which came to the defence of the neighbourhood, appeared in the London Daily Mail, on May 6th, 1896:-
WAY DOWN EAST
Whitechapel Is Not At All What Most People Think It.
On every hand were the evidences of solid and openhanded prosperity. Shops – four, five, even six stories high – ranged along as far as the eye could reach.
I was in the Whitechapel High Street, whither I had journeyed to see if it really was the place the average man pictured it.
I counted the corners as I passed them, for I was in search of a gentleman who knows Whitechapel as well as anyone – Mr. Edward Miles, M.A. – and, on taking one of the turnings, I found his house.
ONE OF LONDON’S HEALTHIEST SPOTS
Mr. Miles declares Whitechapel to be one of the healthiest spots in the metropolis, and, taken in comparison with South London, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, and the Borough, one of the most law-abiding.
“The West End,” said Mr. Miles, ” is colourless, uninteresting, unpicturesque.
If you want to see man proud of life, not afraid to laugh, talk, sing, run, and jump, beat a bargain and make love, come and live in Whitechapel.”
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MURDERS?
“But you only refer to a certain section of the parish. This particular portion you reside in may well be very law-abiding, but how about the district where the eight notorious murders were committed?”
“Oh! They are committed round the corner,” responded Mr. Miles, quietly. “And they were two in number, not eight. The others took place in the adjoining parish. However, that particular criminal has succeeded in impressing the bulk of Londoners with the idea that Whitechapel is the rearing ground of murder and brigandage, the paradise of the outlaw, and the refuge of the cut-throat. Well, all I can, say is, I have lived here two score years, I have reared a family here, and have many friends in the parish, and I would not exchange my Whitechapel, for your Clapham, Hackney, or Ealing.”
“You must not forget the literary associations of Whitechapel,” continued Mr. Miles. “Dickens once spent some time here. John Leech lived here, George Eliot came here often, so did Charles Reade, and Mr. George Gissing and Mr. George R. Sims often make it their habitat for weeks.”
TO ST JUDE’S ON COMMERCIAL STREET
Leaving Mr. Miles, I found the curate of St. Jude’s in the rectory near by.
“Yes,” he remarked, “I suppose you might call this the very heart of Whitechapel certainly the least savoury in the eyes of West Londoners.
Two of the famous murders were committed close by here; but as to Whitechapel being a hot-bed of crime and vice, I think the persons who make the allegation have never taken the trouble to visit the parish.
CRIMINALS ARE NOT RESIDENTS
Criminals there are here certainly, but they are not residents of Whitechapel.
They are nomad tribes, constantly shifting, and as often to be found in Seven Dials or Clare Market as with us.
I need not tell you of our great institutions – institutions which have done so much to alter the character of the parish – such as Toynbee Hall, and the Victoria Home, and the Improved Dwelling System.
You must not look for squalor in Whitechapel now, any more than in the congested districts of London, and it is a pity that it is so identified with all that is bad.”
“I quite agree with Mr. Metcalfe,” says Mr. George R. Sims, “that many people have an erroneous impression of one of the cleanest, most prosperous, gayest, best lighted, and best-ordered parishes in the metropolis.
BROAD, BRILLIANTLY-LIT THOROUGHFARES
Whenever I have country cousins or foreign visitors on my hands, I always give them an evening in Whitechapel. They are astonished at the broad, brilliantly-lighted thoroughfares, at the splendid shops, at the gay, light-hearted crowds, and at the thousand and one amusements, which are provided gratis for the passer-by.
It is one of the gayest and busiest thoroughfares in the whole wide world, and it is one of the safest in Europe.
You are much more likely to be robbed in Regent Street or strangled in the Strand than in Whitechapel.
AS GOOD AS PARIS
“Whenever I have a more than usually fit of the blues and I haven’t time to go to Paris, I always go to Whitechapel, and I Invariably come back refreshed and invigorated by my journey and more reconciled to life.
To the jaded flaneur of the West, to the tired brain worker, to the weary professional man, I would say if you are dull and out of sorts, go to Whitechapel.
“Go any evening you like, but of course Saturday is the best if you want to see the booths and to listen to the humorous patter of the quack doctors, the cheap-jacks, and the racing tipsters.
When you have been, you will bless me for sending you there, and you will agree with me that Whitechapel is a much-maligned district.”
THE PUBLIC LIBRARY
Having, in a series of chats with residents, spent my morning agreeably, I now took a turn into the public library.
How different was its aspect from kindred institutions in other parts of London.
Although it was pretty well filled – it being luncheon hour – there came no sound to disturb the tranquillity of its studious patrons.
The Whitechapel clerk brushed shoulders with the navvy and bricklayer. The costermonger glanced upwards from his volume of “British Battles ” to exchange a nod with a rich Hebrew clothier opposite, who was reading “The Sea Power in History.”
All was clean, orderly, and well-lighted.
A DECENT, WELL-REGULATED DISTRICT
And this was Whitechapel.
Outside, the High Street presented a gala appearance – with its array of barrows and beribboned pedestrians.
I explored on foot from one end to the other; and I can only say that it presents, on the whole, as decent and well-regulated an appearance at the poorer quarters of any city in the world and infinitely more so than fifty I could name.