Where Are The Police

On 21st November, 1888, a woman by the name of Annie Farmer was attacked at a Common Lodging House in Spitalfields.

Although the perpetrator of the attack was caught, almost red-handed, he was able to escape from the scene of the crime and, despite being pursued through the streets of the district by several men, he was able to make good his escape.

Illustrations showing the attack on Annie Farmer.
From The Illustrated Police News, 1st December 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The fact that such an attack had occurred in broad daylight, and without a police officer being in the vicinity to assist in the pursuit of the perpetrator, led to increased criticism of the London police in the newspapers.

Indeed, in many cases, so it seemed, the papers had turned against the police, and, for those unfortunate officers whose lot it was to hunt the killer through the labyrinth of some of the most densely populated and, it must be said, criminally inclined, streets in the whole of the Victorian metropolis, going out on duty must have been something they dreaded.

But, in fairness to them, they continued their manhunt and got on with their jobs, despite the constant sniping aimed at them by a hostile press.


Reynolds’s Newspaper, on Sunday, 25th November 1888, published the following blistering attack on the Metropolitan Police:-

The article began by highlighting the fact that such attacks were, in fact, horribly common in the East End of London, and then went on to outline the basic facts behind the latest attack in the area that had become notorious as a result of the activities of the unknown miscreant, who was now universally known as “Jack the Ripper.”

“London was subjected on Wednesday last to one of those recurring fits of horror that have given the East-end such unhappy notoriety.

An unfortunate woman, living in a common lodging house in, George-street, close by the scene of the last murder, had a wrangle with a man with whom she had spent the night, in the course of which a slight wound was inflicted on her throat, apparently by a blunt instrument.”

A group of men standing in front of a Common Lodging House.
A Group of Men Outside A Common Lodging House.


Having set the scene, the article then went on to make the point that such attacks were not in the least bit out of the ordinary in the district, but that, given that the murder of Mary Kelly had taken place just a few weeks before, and the fact that the attacker was actually pursued by several of the men of the district, the fact that he wasn’t caught suggested a lack of determination on the part of those who gave chase in the aftermath of the assault:-

“The whole affair amounted to nothing more than one of the usual brawls that occur every week between drunken and dissolute men and women in the hives of vice that abound in every quarter of the East-end.

But the alarm was given that it was the work of the same hand that perpetrated the seven murders which have made Whitechapel the synonym for horror throughout the civilized world.

Instantly the hue and cry was raised, and a number of men started in pursuit of the miscreant, who, however, succeeded in escaping – a fact that seems to prove that the pursuit was anything but ardent.”


There then followed the question as to why it was that, in an area in which the police were supposed to be ever-vigilant in the wake of the latest Whitechapel atrocity, such an attack could have taken place without a policeman being close at hand to apprehend the supposed attacker?

“The event is one of but little importance in itself, for brawls ending in the drawing of blood are the commonest product of society in all communities where wealth abounds side by side with abject poverty; but that in a densely-crowded district, at nine o’clock in the morning of a bright winter’s day, in the immediate neighbourhood of the scenes of seven or eight horrible and undetected murders, where we have been assured the police are keeping a vigilant watch in redoubled numbers, a ruffian supposed to be the real “Jack the Ripper” – who was seen, too, almost in the very act, red-handed – should have got clearly away, is one of the gravest and most depressing facts that it has ever been our duty to record.”


But, as the article then went on to point out, it wasn’t just the police who, so it appeared, had failed on this occasion, but also the members of the vigilance patrols who were meant to be out on the streets to supplement the police efforts in bringing the killer to justice:-

“We ask where were the police, and, we may add, the vigilance committee, which has recently shown signs (at least, in the new-papers) of new vigour?

How was it possible that, at such a place, at such an hour – or, indeed, at any hour – no policeman was to be seen, and not even a vigilance committee-man was at hand to trip the fugitive up and give him over to justice?

We have been assured that specially-trained officers, both in uniform and in plain clothes, are daily and nightly on the watch against another crime – or, rather, against the escape of the criminal, for the police have admitted the hopelessness of preventing the perpetration of the deed.

Let only the miscreant rip up another victim, said they, in effect, and his capture will be certain.”


Having cast doubt on the efforts of the police and the vigilance patrols, the article then went on to explain what the police were doing, and, yet again, the author of the piece was, to say the least, somewhat critical of the fact that the police were, in fact, keeping watch on the most recent murder sites, in the belief that the killer made strike again at the scenes of his previous crimes!

“Well, another was provided in Miller’s-court, and because the murderer – quite naturally, of course, from the point of view of the game between him and authority – varied his tactics, he escaped once more.

Miller’s-court is now guarded night and day by the police. Mitre-square is also under watch and ward, and Berner-street has a double share of protection.

But are the authorities simple enough to imagine that so skilful and wary a ruffian – that anyone, indeed, but the stupidest and most reckless of criminals – would attempt to repeat his barbarous experiments in one of these places – for the present at least?”

A policeman keeps crowds out of Miller's Court on the day of the murder of Mary Kelly.
Policemen On Guard Outside Miller’s Court, the scene of Mary Kelly’s Murder.


Having sharpened his pen and dipped the nib in an inkwell of vitriol, the author then went on to question whether the police stood any chance of catching the perpetrator of the crimes unless he committed a murder right under their noses!

“Must he oblige the police by committing the murder, under their noses before they arrest him?

It would really seem so.

They have exhibited an incapacity that amounts to imbecility in all their methods; and whether it is the outcome of divided counsels in high quarters or sheer incompetence, the result is the same, and a brutal murderer is given what seems absolute impunity to practise his horrid crimes.”


Although decidedly critical of the forces of Law and order, the author was also against immediate changes being made:-

“This is a terrible outlook for the poor of the East-end, but we are afraid that it must be accepted.

It may, of course, be provided against by volunteer agencies; but that would require the entire reconstruction of the civic system, for which the time is not yet ripe.

We have presented the matter as it is, without exaggerating a single point or going beyond the bare record of the facts as reported.”


And then the gloves came off, as the author of the article launched a blistering diatribe against the police and against their paltry efforts to apprehend the fiend who was bringing terror and panic to the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields:-

“The police have failed miserably.

They have obtained grace again and again from a horror-stricken public, and almost in so many words, they have dared the human fiend of Whitechapel to try his hand once more.

He did so seven times, and with all their assurances, he is as free as ever to pursue his hellish work, and may pursue it periodically, for aught the police can do, for years to come.

It is a ghastly prospect, but as we have said, Londoners must reconcile themselves to it.

They are doing so already.”


Finally, the author of the article made the point that, given the bitter infighting that was, at the time, going on within the higher echelons of the Metropolitan Police, it really wasn’t any wonder that the men on the ground were finding it so difficult to make any headway in an investigation that was being carried out under the full gaze and scrutiny of the public at large, thanks to the daily press reports on their progress – or, to be more specific lack of progress – in the hunt for the killer:-

“The authorities are at loggerheads with each other; the Chief Commissioner has resigned; the head of the Criminal Investigation Department is new to the duties, and no one knows anything about him; his predecessor is located somewhere in Whitehall under the wing of an incompetent Home Secretary, investigating, it is said, ancient agrarian crime in Ireland, for the benefit of the Times.

All is discord, confusion, and imbecility.”


Of course, the police on the ground were doing their utmost to catch the killer, and many of them, such as Reid and Abberline, were working eighteen to twenty hour days as they carried out their thankless task to bring the Whitechapel murderer to justice.

It cannot be denied that the fighting between their superiors could not have helped their morale – and the almost daily barrage of newspaper criticism that they found themselves subjected to can have helped it even less – but they were out their day in and day out and, often, night in and night out, trying desperately to gain the important breakthrough that would lead to the apprehension of the killer who, in the eyes of many, was running rings around them in the East End of London.


One of the biggest problems that the police faced, was the fact that the killer was not leaving them any clues, so they. effectively had nothing to go on.

Their only hope was that somebody who knew his identity would hand him over.

But, as was becoming more than apparent, this man was a man who was working alone, and, it must be said, that there was a good chance that nobody, other than he, knew his actual identity.


So, the only thing the police could do was exactly what the article criticised them for doing – that is, keep a close watch on the streets in the forlorn hope that, if the killer were to strike again, there would be a police officer on hand to apprehend him.

The problem was that, in an area that was notorious for its labyrinth-like layout, what streets should they devote their resources to watch?

There was also the added problem that the local unfortunates, in taking their clients to the dark corners of the dark thoroughfares, yards and squares of the neighbourhood, where they knew they would not be interrupted, were, effectively, choosing the ideal locations for a miscreant such as Jack the Ripper to carry out his crimes unobserved and then to escape through the streets undetected. As one officer had put it:- “It’s not as if he has to make his chance, those women make that chance for him.”

There is no doubt about it, theirs was a thankless task that was, almost certainly, doomed to failure from the outset.