What was life in Whitechapel like during the Jack The Ripper murders?

Between 1888 and 1891, London’s East End was the scene of various brutal murders which remain to be unsolved to this very day.

All of the victims were prostitutes, all took place relatively close to each other (in the districts of Whitechapel, Aldgate, Spitalfields and the City of London), and all are believed to have been committed by one man. And although his identity has baffled historians and experts for over a century, today he’s known as the world’s most infamous (and unidentified) serial killer: Jack The Ripper.

Because Whitechapel was (unfortunately) considered to be the epicentre of these murders, to live in Whitechapel around the time when Jack The Ripper was stalking his next prey must have been a very dark time indeed.

From constantly looking over your shoulder when walking around the streets at night, or eye-balling each and every person who was strolling past, one can’t even begin to imagine how truly terrifying it must have been to be living in Whitechapel while Jack The Ripper roamed the streets.

But Jack The Ripper wasn’t the only worry the Whitechapel residents had on their minds during the time of the Whitechapel Murders…

A bird’s eye view of Victorian London: The East vs. The West

Have you ever taken a free tour of London? You might have felt impressed by the size of this metropolis. In fact, by the late 19th century, London was the largest capital city on the planet and the centre of the British empire. Queen Victoria had already been on the throne for over 50 years, and the now-famous Victorian lifestyle in London was in full swing.

By 1888, London’s West End was going through a massive renovation with new music and concert halls, restaurants and hotels propping up on nearly every corner. London’s East End, on the other hand, seemed like a world away from the “posh” areas of Chelsea, Westminster and Marylebone.

Stretching between Aldgate and Spitalfields in the west, to the Mile End in the east, Whitechapel was the worst district in London’s East End, and was considered a “no-go-zone” for those living in London’s other boroughs.

… And this was all before Jack The Ripper came along.

Whitechapel during the Victorian era

By the late 1800s, around 900,000 people called London’s East End their home, with a quarter of a million of its inhabitants being based in Whitechapel. Forget anything you might have seen of this nice area in any free walking tour today... Back in the past the area was overcrowded and littered with crime, and the working, living and sanitation conditions for those who lived in the area were horrendous (and that’s putting it lightly).

Whitechapel’s mazes of roads, alleyways and courtyards were only lit by a single gas lamp making the streets incredibly dark, and sheep and cattle were often herded through the streets, leaving trails of excrement behind them. Not only that, residents would often throw their raw sewage into the streets, so the wafts of smells drifting through the area would have been unbearable.

Many of the local residents were foreign immigrants with little or no money and education, and would often work for hours on end just to make ends meet. If they were lucky, some of the local men managed to find work in the docks, while others found work in various shops and factories where the hours were long, the work was hard, and the pay was low.

Life in the Whitechapel slums

Although some areas of Whitechapel during this time were relatively crime-free and had law-abiding citizens, there’s no denying that its slums were some of the worst in the city. Around 15,000 of Whitechapel’s residents were homeless and unemployed, and the little money they had often went to drowning their sorrows in the area’s countless different pubs.

Not just limited to poverty and crime rates, Whitechapel was so overcrowded in its poorer areas, up to two or three entire families would often be crammed into some one small room just because they couldn’t afford to pay rent anywhere else.

And these families in Whitechapel must have considered themselves lucky, as there were other “lodgings” in the neighbourhood where up to 80 other people would be crammed into one room for about 4 pence a bed, and for a tuppence you could lean yourself up against a rope (which was tied from one wall to the floor) just so you could sleep leaning against it with a roof over your head.

Many of these homes were damp and had little ventilation, and were infected with insects or lacked proper sewage facilities. Because of this, malnutrition and disease were so common, only half of the children living in Whitechapel would live to see the age of five.

Many of these “homes” would have been found along streets like Flower Street, Dean Street, Dorset Street and Thrawl Street, with Dorset Street being considered the worst of them all (as a matter of fact, even the local police refused to head down Dorset Street unless they walked in groups of four!).

The women of Whitechapel

And although the men living in Whitechapel often struggled to find work, for women it was even worse. Because it was incredibly difficult for women in Whitechapel to find employment by the late 1800s, many had no choice but to resort to prostitution just to make ends meet.

During the Victorian ages, around 1,200 prostitutes were working in Whitechapel – although some experts predict that the numbers could have been much higher.

Life was so difficult for these women, they would often sell themselves for as little as three pence or just a stale loaf of bread. The large majority of them were alcoholics, and could often be found hanging around the local pubs even when they weren’t working. Because of their hard-drinking lifestyle, many of these women looked as old as 40 despite the fact they were around 20 years of age, and were often bloated and diseased with missing teeth.

And whenever a prostitute was murdered, it was rarely reported in the press or discussed about in the other areas in London, which led to countless of these women being subjected to physical attacks by their customers… which was also one of the leading factors as to why Jack The Ripper got away with murder for so many months before officials finally started to take notice…

Interested in learning more about Jack The Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders? Check out the Free Jack The Ripper Tour.

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