In his memoir I Caught Crippen, former Metropolitan Police detective Walter Dew (1863 – 1947) made the point that the area where the Whitechapel Murders occurred had long held a reputation for lawlessness.
Dew had begun his career with the Metropolitan Police at the age of 19, in 1882.
Then, in 1887, he was transferred to Commercial Street Police Station, where he became a Detective Constable for the Criminal Investigation Department, and was one of the officers tasked with the unenviable task of hunting Jack the Ripper through the area’s crime-ridden, dimly lit streets when the murders began the following year.
Writing about the area in his autobiography, he had this to say:
“…even before the advent of Jack the Ripper [the district] had a reputation for vice and villainy unequalled anywhere else in the British Isles…”
IT LONG HAD BEEN SO
Indeed, newspapers had been reporting on the criminal, anti-social behaviour of many of the local residents long before the unknown miscreant now known as “Jack the Ripper” would assure it a gruesome immortality that still continues today.
On Saturday 28th September, 1861, for example, The Shoreditch Observer, published the following article:-
“It does seem a very hard case that we cannot take a quiet walk down a wide street within a short distance of the Bank, after dark, without the fear of being cleared out and done for by persons “well known to the police.”
Isn’t it a crying evil that you must not venture into the modern Alsatia, where, alas!, no fees will procure exemption?
Does it not make you coddle over your bright fire when you read, “Another daring robbery in Whitechapel;” or “Application to Scotland-yard for more police;” or “Meeting of the Whitechapel tradesmen;” and when you carefully con your paper, a shudder cannot be repressed at the thoughts of a walk down Whitechapel way at the mystic hour of midnight, with not even a moon for the wolf to bay, but plenty of locks, bolts and bars to fly asunder.
IN THE MIDST OF A GREAT RIOT
Now, just fancy a case.
You go to spend a pleasant evening, after the labours of the day, with a very pleasant friend, and having enjoyed a nice supper, light your pipe, and trudge homewards.
Not a soul to be seen, save a few ladies who have to be cheerful for a living, mid those you pass quietly enough.
Well, you get to the corner of a court, and a Londoner, not “over the border,” knocks you down and sacks the prostrate enemy. You call for help, and the street is alive.
A constable comes up, and you arc suddenly in the midst of a great riot. If the thief is captured, you will never see your property again, for he has plenty of friends who kindly responded to your cry for assistance.
You think this is a very hard case, you blame the guardians of the law, and you set down our boasted civilization as nonsense.
PRAY FOR THE GOOD OLD TIMES
You wish and pray for the good old times of King Alfred, when a gold cup might be left in the highway without fear of its being looted.
But you don’t know the anecdote of a boy who upon being told this replied, “Ah, those were the days! what a jolly set of mulls!”
The fault is not in the police, but in the public.
Every man who becomes “drunk and disorderly” – every man who becomes “drunk and incapable,” – renders most valuable assistance to the sober and wide-awake capables infesting our White-chapel.
The fact is both potent and patent.
THE GOLD BECOMES SCARCE
One drunken man takes one, two, three, – or, by chance, four – constables from a beat, or some beats, and in the absence of the “copper” the gold becomes scarce. The thieves are on the watch for the “drunks and disorderlies, or incapables,” and while they are being removed to durance vile, then the games begin.
But this should not be, and is a scandal, yet so it is, and we lament it.
Seven men stand in Shoreditch and converse together.
CONSTABLES LOOKING FOR SOMEONE
Up come two more, and, having carefully scanned the group, pass on.
That group asks no question, oh no! for every man in it knows perfectly well that the two rude men are constables, “looking for someone.”
The constables go round and survey the groups which infest the corners of streets, and if the “one wanted” is not there, a low coffee or lodging-house produces him.
We have personally passed groups of men and lads in Whitechapel who are earnest about something, and are frequently seen at Worship-street for it.
It is a trade well managed, and the public pay the score.
A SHARP LOOK OUT
You may dive even further into the muddy pool, and the scum and filth will astonish you.
In the broad gas-light, with plenty of passengers, and the “drunks” not yet about; a respectable man stops at a stall for something cheap; precocious children, decently, nay, even well-dressed, come round as if out of curiosity, yet the stall-keeper has to keep a sharp look-out upon her apron pocket; and the purchaser loses whatever property is get-at-able.
Dirty mothers beat dirtier children, who, well taught, shriek hideously, and accomplices levy black mail upon the curious crowd.
Two close-cropped, tight-legged thieves come out of a public-house and fight, and many watches and handkerchiefs repay them for their trouble.
These arc not secrets, but well talked of and deplored, and so daring have the thieves become that it is time measures were taken for their repression.
Louis Napoleon would render Whitechapel and its purlieus one of the finest localities in the kingdom, and why may not our rulers? For if there were no rookeries how would the rooks lodge?
These matters are serious, but they are nothing to what is coming.
All of the foregoing has been about the night thieving, but the night is dangerous anywhere.
As Whitefriars had one Alsatia for few desperadoes, Whitechapel has many Alsatias for numerous villains.
As in the days of old the thief was safe in the sanctuary, so now it is useless to follow him if he gains his home; and all this in the broad glare of the sun.
“As the prosecutor was passing down Whitechapel High-street, a lad dashed out of Lower Kate-street, and, seizing the prosecutor’s watch, tore it from the chain and made off with it. It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and when the prosecutor followed him a door was banged in his face.”
There is a very nice paragraph, which we vouch is a fact.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
“Ah! more of Lower Kate-street,” say the officers; “that place is a perfect disgrace to the country,” and so it is, for we have heard hundreds of cases from this unsavoury spot.
But not to give Lower Kate-street all the blame, daring mid-day robberies are common in Whitechapel, and to put an end to them would require nearly as many cats as there are mice.
What is to be done ?
Is it not a very aggravating circumstance that people may not wear watches, or pins, or broaches?
Why should these blackguards have it all their own way?
Why should Whitechapel be so distinguished by the cowardly vagabonds? It has handsome shops, kept by highly respectable and wealthy tenants – aye, most of them quite as good as many in Regent or Oxford-streets – and there is no reason why such scenes as the following should be:-
“On Saturday morning as Mr. W. Stride was passing through Whitechapel, some daring thief squirted a lot of filthy water into his face, and, for the moment, he was deprived of vision. Raising his hand to wipe his face, the scoundrel availed himself of the opportunity to snatch his watch and appendage, value of £30, and got clear away.”
So says a newspaper, and we think it is time the “scoundrels” should he hunted out.
Let them go somewhere else, as Whitechapel has had enough of them.
Memorialise Government to interfere with the owners of those filthy styes in which the scoundrels wallow, and cause the landlords to pull them down and build up decent houses.
The grasping landlords, no doubt have a share in the spoil, and fatten on the beastly gains of these pestilential blackguards.
Scatter the thieves, for when scattered they will be cowards; it is but numbers makes them so daring.
Let us have comfortable tidy streets, with room for carts to go between the houses and honest workmen will habitate them.
Now we see holes like rabbit warrens, from which issue the vermin that disgrace our streets.
Cut these vermin out, root and branch, and act like St. Patrick in the sister land, or you will have something worse; for honest men can be as desperate as thieves, and the poor costermongers over the water made the Southwark burglars sing but a sorry chorus.
MAKE THE LANDLORDS PAY
We may say that the evil is caused by the landlords, who keep up the sanctuaries, and it is for the Whitechapel public to step in and post up the names of the owners of these places; rate them doubly, for they make the profit; treble their police-rate, for they cause the police most trouble; pave them out, water them out, gas them out—aye, clean them out, and a walk down Whitechapel will be as safe as your own fireside.”