Where The Wise Men Came From

In the wake of the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes – on the 30th September, 1888 – there was an upsurge of interest in the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, and in the type of people one was likely to encounter if you journeyed out to the East End of London.

Throughout October, 1888, newspapers began sending journalists out East to report back on what they found in the area that had become notorious as a result of the Whitechapel murders.

The Sporting Times, on  Saturday, 13th October, 1888, published the following article that gave an insight into a Sunday monring on Petticoat Lane, as well as giving an idea of how the murder sites themselves were rapidly becoming tourist attractions.

The article read:-


“I have recently found that nearly every man of my acquaintance who comes to London on a visit wants to go “slumming;” and, what is perhaps more to the purpose, so far as I am concerned, he generally elects me to act on these excursions as his, guide, not necessarily as his philosopher, but certainly as his friend – the latter ambiguous term being understood to include the personalities of a well-up slummer, a slang linguist, an occasional bully or punching man, and the kind of individual who, either by the suaviter in modo or fortiter in re, is to be relied upon at all times to get him, drunk or sober, out of Bethnal Green baccarat-clubs, Ratcliff Highway dancing saloons, Spitalfields disorderly houses, and indeed, scrapes of all shapes and forms.


What constitutes “taking man round the East?” And why “round the East” when I could so much more ably conduct him in a tour in quite an opposite direction?

Alas! the filthy, blood-lusty beast who has to answer for the half-dozen tragedies of darkness that are just at the present moment attributed to “Jack the Ripper” has been the means of turning a once thriving (if unpleasantly malodorous to educated noses) quarter into a settlement of shunned streets, a neighbourhood where even able-bodied men have ceased to walk alone.


A great, unspeakable fear hangs over Whitechapel, a fear that is betrayed only too plainly upon the countenances of its inhabitants. The men, pot-valiant at the beerhouse bar, who speak all manner of strange oaths of what they would and would not do, hurry away when they are once outside; and the women, who grow careless on a little gin, find caution returning when it’s time to go.

The one sad jest of ‘Arry and his ‘Arriett turns upon the libelled “Leather Apron.”

They bandy with the name and laugh at its associations, but they are mighty careful to leave the music hall or the theatre to get home whilst the streets have still the illumination of the shop fronts and the costermongers’ naphtha lamps.


But undetected murder has its fascinations.

Hanbury Street, since the 8th, has been like a little fair at night; Berner Street, Commercial Road, has had an extra draft of police allotted it; and you have only to go yourself to Mitre Square, the most accessible of the three lately-notorious spots, to see a crowd of men thronging round the corner where the wretched woman, Eddowes, was decapitated and disembowelled, and taking it in turns to stand upon (as near as they can fix it) the identical stones where the outraged woman lay.

The corner of Mitre Square where the body of Catherine Eddowes was found.
Murder Corner, Mitre Square.


All slummers and guides to slumming agree that Middlesex Street, Aldgate – better known, perhaps, as “Petticoat Lane” – is a place to be visited early in the pilgrimage. “Petticoat Lane” is not a revelation to me; I  have been too fond of picking up characters and slang there for that.

A view along Petticoat Lane in 1889.
Middlesex Street, Better Known As Petticoat Lane.


For the information of those who know it not, it is a long, foul-smelling thoroughfare running between Aldgate and Bishopsgate Street, and to be seen at its best on a Sunday morning.

A couple of rows of low-class shops, principally inhabited by English Jews, and the roadway crowded with a most heterogeneous mob of Russian, German, and Polish Jewish exiles, the lowest of London thieves, practising what is known the “purse-trick,” and a multitude of other and less honourable devices, to entrap the unwary, costermongers of every degree, keepers of whelk and the cheaper varieties of oyster stalls, sellers of bootlaces, hawkers of all the “penny novelties” one sees on Cheapside by day and the Borough High Street by night, and ten or twelve barrows laden with ginger-beer in earthen bottles.

“Here y’ar, penny a time – who’ll have a cooler?” – in many cases a refreshing beverage enough to the parched-tongued and blear-eyed who have dipped too freely in the bowl on the Saturday night.


The Jew is very rarely a drunkard.

Apart from the abomination drunkenness that he is taught to shun from his mother’s knee, the vice is too costly,’ both to his self-respect and to his commercial welfare, for him to dabble with.

But there is nothing of scorn or of pity in his eyes on Sunday as he spikes out the cork of the effervescent beer for the penny and the parched thorax of the over-indulged and inordinately thirsty Christian; and if, as he admiringly watches the non-intoxicant of his own brewing literally bubble down his customer’s throat, he may murmur anything in his own patois about a “shikknring shigats,” it is very far from being his intention to hurt his patrons’ susceptibilities.

I insist upon Hawkshaw partaking of this brew, and, to his subsequent sorrow and inward physical disturbance, he himself elects to dive deeper into the luxuries of lower Jewish life by investments in a peculiar breed of exceedingly bilious-spiced fruitcakes known as “stuffed monkeys,” and, by way of variation, in a couple of soft cucumbers, pickled in brine and vended by a gentleman stained with many other things than travel, who carries them in a glass fish-globe upon a porter’s knot upon his head.

A Police Constable keeps and eye on a group of men.
A Police officer In Middlesex Street


But the staple commodity is old clothes, and, any one of the hundred and odd establishments where cast-off garments are on sale, I will be bound to say you could be rigged out in ten minutes in any earthly style, from Field-Marshal to tramping hop-picker.

The fronts of those shops are really sights to see, the “clobber” not only being exhibited from what one might term the “legitimate shop,” but right from the ground to the second-floor windows, clean up the whole of the house; and, indeed, one enterprising sweater, who made speciality of “three and sixpenny round-the-houses,” had a pair of these infallible trousers hanging from a fishing-rod out of the first-pair window.

“Look at these ‘ere seams,” he cried, as, with a leg of a sample pair of the bags in question in each hand, he tugged vainly and violently in an apparent endeavour to tear them in half. “There’s no fear o’ yer meetin’ with no embarrassin’ accidents when ye goes down on yer knees to propose to her in these kicksies.”

Nor did there seem to be, so that the amorous youth of Whitechapel, in possession of a pair of Mr. Aaron’s wonderful “continuations,” may go on proposing in the most accepted London Journal fashion to his heart’s content, and never have a qualm or an anxious thought on the score of a stitch giving.


The perseverance of these clothes salesmen really is remarkable.

If you have no wish to be stripped in the street and publicly fitted with a splendid now overcoat – made for “a perfeslional shentleman, no lies about it, on’y it didn’t kvite fit the captain in the set o’ the collar ” – for Heaven’s sake hurry past the clothes salesman, otherwise he’s certainly sure to sell you something.

They “try on” everything but trousers in the open thoroughfare, and are determined to let no opportunity of doing business escape them.

For my own part, felt quite thankful to get out of “the Lane” with nothing less useful than a brocaded silk waistcoat, Hebrew Dictionary, a packet of collar studs, and a second-hand truss.

Au revoir Petticoat Lane, at least for today.”