Gas lamp lit streets and foggy dark alleys didn’t offer the residents of Whitechapel too much in the way of an inspiring backdrop by which to lead their lives. The area was steeped in poverty and all manner of crime and disease. Growing up in this part of London offered a challenge in itself; many children were seen as a strain on their parents’ resources, and two in every ten died before reaching five years old.
Needless to say that Whitechapel offered a breeding ground for crime and poor behavioural habits, including murder, prostitution and violence. Vicious circles were rarely broken in such poor districts. The lack of work and money would lead women and girls to prostitution, a service in high demand by those wishing to escape their grim realities. The women, commonly referred to as ‘unfortunates’ owned only what they wore and carried in their pockets, their deeds would pay for their bed for the night. However, a lack of contraception meant that unorthodox abortions were performed in dirty facilities, including back streets. This, of course, fed into the circle of disease and many women would die of infection from these ill-performed surgeries, or from ingesting chemicals or poison.
While the streets were lined with the starving, penniless inhabitants of the drab and dark capital, the insides of the houses throughout the borough were no less uninviting. Many were makeshift brothels and offered a bed and a room to those wishing to escape and form a living. However, this was a dangerous trade, as disease was passed from person to person very quickly and doctors did not come cheap.
Housing was extremely over-crowded, with entire families or groups of strangers crammed into a single room for cooking, eating and sleeping. They would share beds or sleep on the floor, with rags covering broken windows and often flea or insect-infested rooms. These damp and cold conditions offered an ideal climate for further disease and sickness to multiply.
Surviving in the late 19th century came through ‘sweated’ labour, like tailoring, boot making, and making matchboxes. The premises would more than likely be in small, cramped, dusty rooms with little to no natural light. Horrible living and working conditions resulted in large amounts of the population turning to drink to cope. Pubs and music halls were many in number in the East End, and drink was cheap. All of Jack the Ripper's victims were addicted to alcohol; some believe this would have made them easier targets for the killer.
It is difficult to imagine such dank and fearful times, and to picture how it was people managed to spend their lives in them. However, they did, and this blog has hopefully given you some insight into the reality of life in Whitechapel, 1888.
Most of the street names have been changed in and around Whitechapel, however, with reference to old street maps it is possible to identify particular locations and landmarks. So why not get down to London and see for yourself some of the remains of 1888; in particular the locations of where Jack the Ripper's victims were found, all of which are visited on Jack the Ripper tours.