Whitechapel Way 1861

The Shoreditch Observer, on Saturday the 28th September, 1861, fumed at the crime, squalor and the dangers of a walk into Whitechapel, be it at night or even during the day.

For many years, prior to the onset of the Jack the Ripper murders, the newspapers had been portraying Whitechapel as a district from which little good ever came, and it was this image that was highlighted when the murders began in the autumn of 1888.

The article read:-


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 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.

An illustration showing the busy Whitechapel Road on a Saturday night.
Whitechapel Road On A Saturday Night.


Now, just fancy a case.

You go to spend a pleasant evening, alter 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, and 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 are suddenly in the midst 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. You wish and pray for the good old times of King Alfred, when a gold cup might have left the highway without fear of its being looted. But you don’t know the anecdote a boy who, upon being told this, replied, “Ah, those were the days! what a jolly set of muffs!”


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 Whitechapel.

The fact is both potent and patent.

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.

A group of people drinking outside a pub.
Victorian Drinkers Outside A Beer Shop on Whitechapel Road.


Seven men stand in Shoreditch and converse together. In 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.


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 are 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.

Sktetches of the various types of people to be encountered in Whitechapel.
Some Whitechapel Types. From The Penny Illustrated Paper, Saturday, 1st May, 1869. Copyright, The British Library Board.


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 a few desperadoes, Whitechapel has many Alsatias for numerous  villains.

As in the days of old the thief was safe in the sanctuary, 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 two o’clock in the afternoon, and when the prosecutor followed him a door was banged in his face.”

There is very a nice paragraph, which we vouch is a fact.

“Ah! more of Lower Kate-street,” say the officers; “that place is a perfect disgrace to the country;” and it is, for we have heard hundreds of cases from this spot.

But, not to give Lower Kate-street all the blame,  daring midday robberies are common in Whitechapel, and to put an end to them would require nearly as many cats as there are mice.

Two men walking past a house not noticed by a policeman.
Press Cartoon Ridiculing The Police.


What is done to be done?

Is it not a very aggravating circumstance that people may not wear watches, or pins, brooches.

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 £30, and got clear away.”


So says a newspaper, and we think it is time the “scoundrels” should be 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.

Stop this.

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.


To conclude, 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 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.