Whitewashed Whitechapel

For many years, prior to the onslaught of the Jack the Ripper murders, the district of Whitechapel had become the focus of attention for the Victorian social reformers.

The fact that the district had some of the worst living conditions, in the form of vastly overcrowded slums, meant that people were extremely nervous, particularly as people were becoming more aware of the dangers posed by epidemics that might come out of those slums.

By the 1870’s, the slum clearances were well underway in London, and two areas – Holborn and Whitechapel – were seen as the main slums on which attention should be focussed.


On Saturday,  14th August, 1875, The East London Observer published the following article which painted a rather unsavoury picture of the East End as a whole and Whitechapel in particular.

The article is of interested from the perspective of the Whitechapel murders in that it gives a description of the living conditions in Castle Alley, which, in July 1889, would be the scene of the murder of Alice MacKenzie.

Illustrations showing the murder of Alice McKenzie.
From The Illustrated Police News. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The article read:-

“Under the heading of “Sanitary Reform,” and with the dignity attaching to Special Commissioner writing, the Morning Advertiser speaks of Whitechapel as follows:-

The district of Whitechapel, to which the reforming besom of the Metropolitan Board of Works, armed with the extraordinary powers of Mr. Cross’s new Act, is to be applied, even surpasses in squalor and filth that which we on Tuesday offered some general comments in our leading columns.

Probably, if the world were to be searched over, there would not be found anywhere within the pale of civilisation more nuisances, or a greater variety of them, than those existing in that district of the parish of Whitechapel which, with one or two courts in Wapping and Aldgate, is now doomed, and none too soon, to destruction.

The considerations, moreover, which apply to Holborn tell even more fully here. If there be a difference, it is that the people are more squalid, more ragged, more careless in their persons, poorer, and poorer-looking in nearly every way.


Many a year has passed since Royal Mint-street played a prominent part in the fiction of the day; but it has since been gradually going down in the social scale, and now it puts but a poor face on the unutterable and indescribable degradation and dirt which has accumulated behind it and between it and Upper East Smithfield, where, facing St. Katharine’s Dock, or rather that most curiously named of thoroughfares, Nightingale-lane, a row of outfitting shops serves to hide the fearful filth that exists to the north.

To the east runs that southern continuation of Leman-street which is called Dock-street, and the gardens of the Mint – most abrupt of contrasts between boundless wealth and unequalled poverty – from the boundary on the west.


It is a place to read of, not to see; and yet how much good would a visit to it do to some of those that have the rule over us?

They might feel nauseated for the moment, but they would go back to the west, where they may find out courts and alleys nearly as bad, convinced that, after all, there is no single thing so much wanted in this country as pure homes for poor people.

In such a labyrinth of courts and alleys as this of which we speak, what man, woman, or child can preserve one particle of self-respect? What woman can remain pure-minded, what man can help being brutalised, what child can help being brought up to hate the country which suffers him for a day thus to live?


We cannot trust ourselves to tell the naked truth about this area.

Let the figures and facts of the forthcoming quarterly report of Dr. Liddle, the untiring and accomplished medical officer of health of the district, convey to our readers what we dare not disgust them by depicting.

He says – and his words appeal even to our selfishness; for fevers once propagated in large cities are not particular as to the social status of their victims:-

“The total area of the several blocks is about 19,482 square yards, or a little more than four acres. In this area there are 2,369 people, each person having only on an average 8.2 square yards; and the rate of mortality in this locality was, in the year 1873,  38.4 per 1,000, or 12 per 1,000 above the rate of mortality for the entire district.


The mortality in the entire district was, in 1873, 2,471; but in this year there were 53 weeks; deducting, therefore, the average number of deaths (46) for the extra week, and deducting also the deaths (393) of non-residents in the London Hospital, the total number of deaths in the district was 2,022, which gives the annual rate of mortality of 26.4 per 1,300.

The rate of mortality, therefore, in the area above mentioned is 50 per cent, in excess of the rate of mortality of the entire district.”

Nor is it only from fevers that the dwellers in this and similar areas suffer.

Dr. Liddle continues:-

“Although deaths from epidemic diseases are usually very prevalent, yet the deaths from consumption and other tubercular diseases are far more numerous; for in the year 1874 the deaths from these causes were 623, or 30.8 per cent, of the total deaths, while the deaths from epidemic diseases were 313, or 15.4 per cent.”

This particular district was denounced to the Whitechapel Board Works as long ago as April, 1873, and the Board certainly then and subsequently did all that it was possible to do by way of amelioration of the condition of the place.

But no partial measures could ever cleanse it or make it fit to live in.

To sweep it away altogether was the only course that could improve it.

Thanks to recent legislation, that course is now possible, though some months must elapse before the remedy can be applied.


What has to be removed may be guessed from the words of the medical officer, written over two years ago, describing a court – Castle-alley – on the other side of Whitechapel High-street – an alley not so offensive as some of those now scheduled, and one which is not yet doomed, though we hope it may soon be so:-

“This is a very narrow thoroughfare, leading from Whitechapel High-street, which is entered by a covered way, several feet in length and only about three feet in width.

An illustration showing the entrance to Castle Alley.
Castle Alley From Whitechapel High Street. From The Penny Illustrated Paper. July 27th 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Owing to the frequent deposit of filth in this narrow passage, and from its defective ventilation, it is generally in an offensive condition.

This alley contains an area, including the space on which the houses stand, of about 1,496 square yards, and has a population of 347, consisting of the very poorest class, each person having an average space of only four square yards.

The eight houses on the west side of the court are very old; the walls and flooring of the cellars are wet, and a most unwholesome smell comes through the floors of the lower rooms, which renders such rooms unfit for habitation.

A policeman finds the body of Alice McKenzie.
From The Penny Illustrated Paper, July 27th 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The privy of each house is in the cellar, the nuisance from which – there being no other means for its escape – ascends by the staircase and makes its way into every room of the house.

It is almost impossible for the tenants of these houses to keep the rooms clean, for the houses are three stories high, the privies in the cellars, which are difficult of access, and the water supply is in the court.

As there are no sinks in the houses, all the dirty water must be either carried down four flights of narrow stairs to the privy or thrown into the open court.”


But we fall back here upon the question which we have asked anent Holborn.

What is to become of the poor people when they are forced to remove, equally to the benefit of their souls’ health and that of their bodies?

The similar congeries of foul dens lying right and left of Commercial-street and south of Wentworth-street cannot take them in, and though the place is not full as, in the judgment of some people, it might be – for we have seen the announcement in the very worst of the courts of “Rooms to Let” – it is teeming with life, and with life for which we are bound to find shelter, if we drive it for its own sake from under the sorry roof-trees that now leak above it.

The people cannot pay the rent of rooms in the great buildings that will take the place of their horrible hovels, and what their lot may be we can only guess, and guess again, without finding any answer to the problem.

Yet must not the strong hand be stayed or the work stopped on this account.


At any cost, the pest-holes of London must be cleared out.

We cannot begin too soon; and yet so fenced in are we by forms, that it is, we gather, necessary in the case both of Holborn and Whitechapel to wait till November before notice can be given of Private Bills to enable the Board of Works to do that which the Artisans’ Bill of this Session was passed to expressly enable it and similar bodies to do.


Another winter, therefore, will remain in which these and dozens of other such foetid and filthy courts and alleys will be breeding epidemic and tubercular disease in our midst.

Should one of the more than half-naked children out of a Leather-lane court run against any of us in the hurry of his agony to escape from a feared policeman, or a more dreaded School Board officer, we go home carrying with us the contagion of scarlet fever or typhoid, bred in the room in which he sleeps, and, when he can, eats.

A dress waistcoat is finished in the closest room of a close alley; we wear it to dinner or a ball, and presently the pet child of our friend’s home is stricken with fever, fetched with the waistcoat from Whitechapel.

Nay, even when are economical and buy a sack of potatoes all at once, how can we be sure that we are not bringing fever into our kitchen, for it may be the sack was made but a day before by thin fingers whose touch is yet contagion in Darby-street or Blue Anchor-yard?


When these things befall us, we especially wonder, but is not the wonder rather, so interdependent are we in this huge metropolis, that these things do not oftener come home to our hearthstones and teach us something more of the duty that we owe one to another – a duty not to be got rid of by paying poor rates, by setting up School Boards, by crying vainly, “God help the wretches!”

It needs sterner work than this, it needs a broader grasp than we take of things generally, but the great present need is, not that these two areas in Holborn and Whitechapel should be cleared, but that a more strenuous effort should be made to extend to other pest-nests the measure which we are feeling our way towards meting out to two only.”