Anyone who knows me well enough will know that the East End of London absolutely fascinates me. From walking on cobbled streets my great-grandparents would have strolled down, to the social changes the past 200 years have brought with them, it’s undoubtably my favourite part of London.
North, south and west just don’t fascinate me as much as east London does. To know that my grandparents’ parents would have worked and lived in the same area Jack the Ripper walked the streets is both chilling and outstanding.
So when Richard of Jack the Ripper Tours invited a group of bloggers along one perishingly cold night last week, I was more than happy to join in the fun and visit the pubs, houses and streets integral to the Jack the Ripper mystery.
Choose your tour guide wisely – which is the best Jack the Ripper tour?
Now, there are literally hundreds of Jack the Ripper tours happening each week in London, with each professing to be the best, original, and most authentic. So how is a regular tourist or Londoner meant to know which is worth their salt?
My night started with a circle line trip from Knightsbridge tube station over to Aldgate, where I planned to head over to Aldgate East station on foot, a two minute walk. As I exited the station, I saw a man holding a free Jack the Ripper tour placard. ‘Great!’ I thought. ‘I’ll ask this friendly gent the direction and save my phone’s battery!’
Of I totted to ask the man, who proceeded to almost bite my head off for daring to ask if he knew where my tour group might be. ‘Look love,’ he snapped, ‘there are over 50 tours happening tonight.’ Yeah, I know that. I asked where Aldgate East was, surely something a man who offers walking tours should know. ‘You’re at the wrong station love.’ Yeah, yeah see I know that. I’m meant to be on a tour and I don’t know which direction it is. Left or right? I wasn’t actually able to endure his churlish answer as he turned his back to me, trying to tout tourists coming up out of the station.
After shouting a helpful, quite loud THANK YOU at the man – who proceeded to give me evils – I got my phone out to get directions, and trundled over to the meeting point.
There were a few groups waiting for tours to start and I joined the bloggers. I spoke to one blogger about the rude guide I experience, and she’d had the same encounter. Fortunately I discovered the tout wasn’t part of Richard’s company, and I felt sweet relief at not having to send a Thanks But Sorry But I Ain’t Writing About You email.
Anyway. If anything, it should serve as a good warning to check the tour group you’ll be walking with for their experience and accredditation. As Richard’s been offering these tours for longer than I’ve been alive, I was excited to see what the night would bring and whether his claims of being the best Jack the Ripper tour in London were true.
The poor in Victorian East London, and their hangovers
East London wasn’t a safe place to live in the late 1800s. With gangs roaming the streets, and most families living in deplorable conditions, the rest of London turned a blind eye to the undesirable people struggling to eke out a living. Can you guess which professions most women had no choice to endure?
For those who followed on twitter (you can unmute me now, London-hater losers), you’ll get a good idea of how the night progressed.
We started at a small relic, all that now remains of the building that gave Whitechapel its name. The chapel when built had installed a fountain at its base, the only part that still stands today. Why? It was London’s answer to a growing problem in the late 1800s – alcoholism.
See, rather than paying for water or chancing supping cholera-ridden water from the Thames, most poor people would frequent the pubs for a cheap drink and a chance of numbing the pain of a cruel, hard life. And this is the reason many women – from their late twenties right up to their fifties – had turned to prostitution.
In fact, London in the 1800s was home to tens of thousands of prostitutes. And rather than worry about the plight of the poor, most middle class folk just ignored the whole area as the seedy underbelly of a broken city.
The poor of East London had few living options. Some were lucky enough to be able to rent a room in a dwelling, which would have perhaps 10-20 people per floor. Some families might be lucky enough to have their own room, or perhaps rent a portion of their space to a lodger who would help pay the bills.
Some preferred the Two Penny Hangover. This was a rope tied in the middle of the room. For two pennies, a person was allowed to sleep off the booze hanging over (get it?) the rope. In the morning, the landlord would cut the rope – think of it like a rude alarm clock – and off they went.
Some were forced to live in slum houses. Pretty houses, like the photo above, were rarely for one family in the east end. Here, there would be 10-20 FAMILIES on a floor, all sleeping on whatever space there was for a pretty penny and a chance to get out of the cold.
You can bet broken, draughty windows and roofless attics were the order of the day.
Whitechapel, Brick Lane, and the High Rip murder gangs of East London
With less than lovely living conditions, most of the poor had nothing much else to do than try and get their hands on enough money to pay their rent. But gangs on men preyed on the weak, and when one prostitute was attacked, the police had to take action.
Richard walked us through the narrow streets to the site of Emma Smith’s murder, right off Brick Lane. Now, Emma Smith wasn’t one of Jack the Ripper’s victims. She was attacked by a High Rip gang, robbed, stabbed and viscously beaten.
Rather than go to hospital, a place many of the poor distrusted due to legislation which allowed student doctors free access to any terminally ill patients and their soon-to-be cadaver, she took an hour to walk less than a few hundred feet, across the street home to her dwelling – a room she shared with others. Her housemates saw the terrible condition she was in and urged her to go to the hospital.
Finally she relented, and although she died, she was able to explain how she’d been attacked by a gang. Due to the nature of the attack – she was stabbed in the vagina – the police opened the Whitechapel murder files, and began to record the violence prostitutes faced.
Was Jack the Ripper introduced to violence through being a gang member? It certainly was one of the most sadistic attacks the police had witnessed.
Leather Apron Man
The police now had work to do – and a terrifying man would be described by those who met him, which set the chase in motion.
We walked through more of the side streets, hearing how two more prostitutes were murdered. After the police started investigating, they questioned the night walkers about anyone acting suspiciously. Many had spilled the beans on Leather Apron Man, a violent man who would take their earnings or threaten to kill them.
Richard then explained how immigration, anti-semitism and xenophobia were at an all time high in 1888. Thousands of Jewish families had moved into the area, and much like today, the locals weren’t happy. Anti-semitism was rife, and rumours splashed the papers that Leather Apron Man was a Jew.
Showing us a present-day mosque, Richard showed us how this used to be a Protestant church, before a methodist church, a synagogue, and how it stands today. The East End has always seen an influx of immigrants, and it’s interesting to see how this will change now that most of the once-slum houses sleeping fifty or sixty people we passed are worth £1.5million each, with some floors barely used by their posh residents.
29 Hanbury Street, and the case changes
Although people were afraid of who the next victim might be, the women of the East End had no choice but to carry on working. This put them in immense danger, especially when the police followed the wrong lead, a lead that changed the perception of who the killer might be.
Walking past artists’ houses and film locations, we stopped at Hanbury Street where Annie Chapman was murdered. Richard showed us photos of the house she was found in.
Annie was seen by her friend, Elizabeth, talking to a man in an unlit doorway. He asked her, ‘will you?’ and she replied ‘yes’. When questioned by the police, Elizabeth was sure of the time as the bells had just struck, and as she saw Annie’s face lit by street lamps her testimony was solidified.
Some time later, a carpenter went to his back yard, possibly on his way to work or maybe to the bog, and heard a struggle against his fence. He heard a woman shriek, but went back inside. Annie was found a few hours later having been murdered.
The coroner then changed the fate of the inquest. He believed that the way Annie had been murdered – possibly with a surgical knife and definitely not something blunt – showed Jack the Ripper to be a doctor, surgeon or even mortician.
So rather than focus on the locals, the carpenters and cartmen, the jews, polish and poor, they began looking for someone rather more respectable. And so the image of a caped British gent crept into the papers and the public’s mind.
The letter, hoaxes, and two murders in a night
A few weeks later, the press had saturated the East End of London. Interviews were carried out, philanthropists were lamenting the state of the poor, politicians were asking how London had sunk to such depravity, and the social scene was recorded properly en masse for the first time.
Without these murders taking place, very little would be known about the people of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Aldgate.
The murders made Londoners anxious. For the first time, people were scared about someone watching them. After all, it was more than likely one of their own personal doctors, right? Soon, a letter was received. The writer taunts the police, and their theory he was a doctor. He says he’ll murder again soon, sending a trophy though the post. He gives himself the name Jack the Ripper.
Once published, over 1,500 copycat letters were sent in, each purporting to be Jack, each of which had to be investigated. Taking up so much time and burning police resources, this left the ripper able to wander around with impunity. Because unlike the mortician’s theory, the chances are he was a local. Butchers who frequented the market were often seen with bloody clothes carrying knives, and people worked all hours of the day. He could have walked right by the police, a local tradesman, bloodied and armed, and they’d have assumed he was one of the many butchers in the market.
Jack’s victims also made the job easy. They knew where to go, quiet dark places that wouldn’t be disturbed by police. So when the ripper murdered two women right in the middle of the police investigation zones, panic set in.
Mary Jane Kelly, the last
London was in turmoil. Women were being targeted in barbaric attacks, and the police had made so many mistakes in the case, the chances of finding the killer were slim to none. When a pretty blonde prostitute was murdered savagely, the police broke protocol for the first time…
With London panicked and police dressing up as women trying to lure the murderer to them (seriously. Just. Wut.) Jack made what some believe to be his last kill. While all his other victims were in their late forties suffering with stomach, lung and kidney illnesses, Mary Kelly was only 25 and had contacts in Paris, Knightsbridge and Chelsea. Tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, the police knew of her, calling her a stunning woman. She might have even been a courtesan at one point. How she ended up in the squalid east end no one knows.
She was always surrounded by friends, police say, and although quiet when sober, after a drink she became quite loutish. She’d lived with a man called Joseph in a single room in the East End, and was often seen drinking in the Ten Bells pub, which still stands today (and still had drunken morons falling out its doors over 100 years later…)
For some reason, probably to find rent money, at 2am Mary was out and about and met with a man called George who’d just been to Romford for the day. She asks him for money, and he replies he’d spent it all in Essex. Mary then meets another man, and they both laugh. George gets a good look at the man, he had a moustache, dark hair and eyes, and looked to be Jewish, about 30 to 35-years-old.
Feeling something suspicious about the scene, he follows her and waits for around 45 minutes as the couple chat. Nothing strange happens, Mary kisses the man, and he hands her his hanky. Assuming she’d pulled a punter and got her money, George leaves.
Back at Mary’s room, her neighbours hear a cry of MURDER! at around 4am. But as everyone any anyone cried murder in those days, they all fall back to sleep. Around 6am the landlady hears someone leave her room, and a few neighbours say they see Mary right up until 10am.
As Mary was late on rent, though, the landlord knocked on her door later on in the day. Getting no answer, and with her being in some serious arrears, he peered through the window and saw a sight.
Richard showed us the photos of the crime scene. Usually police would take photos at the morgue and clean up the area so as to avoid the public seeing the scene. but Mary had been savaged so badly and was almost unidentifiable police instructed the window to be removed so it could be documented – one of the first times this had happened.
With blood creeping through the floorboards, one witness to the scene said they’d been looking for a man who’d committed these acts, when really it was the work of a devil. Poor Mary, that’s all I’ll say.
Happy Days, and Jewish graffiti
Anti-Semitism was rife in Victorian London. With papers today printing stories about foreigners taking jobs and killing Londoners, there was a fine line that needed to be trod to keep race relations in a good place. The police’s next discovery threatened that.
The tour was ending, we were chilled (both from the stories and the weather) so we picked up the pace and enjoyed fish and chips at Happy Days, just around the corner from Mary’s room.
There was a reason Richard chose this place. Settling in with gin and tonic and mushy peas, he told us that the police were so afraid of causing the Jewish and gentile communities upset, they destroyed what could have been vital evidence and turned the investigation on its heels. Because rather than focus on a doctor, a surgeon, an upstanding respectable type, they would have broadened their search to the locals – and probably more likely the killer.
On the doorway of the now-chippy, before one of the murders, was found some anti-Semitic graffiti etched into the bricks, and a blood-stained rag: The Juwes are not the men That Will be Blamed for nothing. The rag is believed to belong to one of the murdered women, but rather than wait until daylight to photograph the scene, fearing the public’s backlash at the obvious racist message, it was washed away.
Richard finished by explaining how the year 2019 could have significant impact on the investigation, which you could claim is still ongoing despite being closed for decades. Aaron Kosminski, a man with a real hatred of women, who heard voices and threatened his own sister with a knife, was detained in Colney Hatch mental asylum.
After that, the murders stopped. And police alluded to Jack having been put away. Some witnesses could place him as the man they saw acting suspiciously, but as the witnesses themselves were Jewish, and Aaron would have been a polish Jew, they wouldn’t rat on their own kind.
For 30 years he was locked away until his death in 1919. And only after one hundred years will the records be revealed. Did he confess? Was he truly insane? Will claims that DNA evidence narrows it down to his descendants be justified?
We’ll have to wait and see.
I’ve written over 2,500 words on this, and I know I’ve missed out huge chunks of what Richard explained on our two hour tour. We walked all the way though the East End and had a great time listening, not only to the story, but also hearing the social changes that came about shortly after.
Everyone ignored the east end in the 1880s. No one wanted to acknowledge the seedy underbelly of the capital. But with women forced to turn to a life of prostitution to get 4 pence for a room, murdered for it in all cases, the country stood up and took notice. The press documented in detail the plight of the working poor, and it saw reform and change brought in.
Today, some still visit the graves of the fallen women, and although their death was over a century ago, they changed London. And so, I guess, did Jack.
Even if you’re not so fussed about the women and the man, Richard has a wealth of knowledge on the area and loves it more than I do. He also has respect for the women, the area and the fact we’re essentially treading a fine line between glorifying a killer. While some may dress up in deer stalker hats and capes, Richard’s view is brutally clear: these women were mothers, daughters, sisters and wives, and they were killed by a man. They deserve respect as much as I do.
3,000 words now, and it was one of the most fascinating tours I’ve ever had the pleasure of joining. I’d highly recommend the tour with Richard. He was fantastic and knows everything there is to know about London. A tour costs just £10 and they run every day except Christmas and Boxing Day, whatever the weather.
I’ll be booking in his Secret London tour next year, that’s for certain.
Oooh, so my post has been featured as a case study! Have a read here.