By the 1880s, London had become the largest city in the world. At its heart sat the City, centre of the British Empire and world commerce and the wealthiest square mile on Earth. However, this great metropolis had its faults. The great power and influence hid many notorious slum districts and by the late nineteenth century, the East End, particularly Whitechapel and Spitalfields, had come to represent all that was wrong with Queen Victoria’s long and illustrious reign.
The slums of East London had been a cause for concern for decades. Predominantly a rural suburb until the early nineteenth century, the arrival of the industrial revolution had changed it forever. Here were built the factories, refineries, breweries and other stink industries, placed strategically away from the financial centre, making this an industrial heartland which attracted many poor migrant workers seeking employment. The construction of the docks to the south turned the East End into the gateway to London and the first point of entry for immigrants wishing to seek better fortunes in this great city. Ultimately, the infrastructure struggled to cope and by the second half of the nineteenth century, serious problems began to manifest.
Unemployment became a way of life that many tried desperately to avoid, often with little luck. The resulting hardship and poverty forced people to live in squalid, poorly-maintained properties because they were cheap. Entire families inhabited single rooms where inadequate sanitation was the norm, causing high infant mortality rates. Those who could not afford rent relied on common lodging houses or ‘doss houses’ where beds were cheap. However, this would mean sharing overcrowded rooms with strangers, many of whom had problems of their own or were downright dangerous to be around. Immorality thrived in these places and some doss houses were not segregated, allowing men and women to cohabit in what were essentially unlicensed brothels.
The criminality of the East End - the side effect of so much poverty - is what gave it a reputation as a no-go area for many. The Metropolitan Police’s H-Division (Whitechapel) had the unenviable task of keeping law and order in a district where housebreaking, selling of stolen goods, theft, street robbery and vice were commonplace. The huge number of pubs in the area made alcohol abuse a serious problem, resulting in drunken violence and other antisocial problems. Certain neighbourhoods, such as those around Flower and Dean and Dorset Street, were often patrolled by police officers in numbers, for their own safety. The many obscure courts and alleys of the East End were often poorly lit if they were lit at all. These provided refuge for the lawless and were places where prostitutes, literally forced to work on the streets due to homelessness, would serve clients for as little as four pence.
By 1888, the ‘oldest profession in the world’ had reached epidemic proportions in the East End, with an estimated 1,200 women working the streets on a regular basis. These ‘unfortunates’ were desperate and often vulnerable, forced to eke out their own living after leaving respectable and comfortable family lives. Frequently due to their drink problems, they took strangers to dark, lonely locations for sex and became targets for street robbers and gangs, who would subject these women to terrible beatings and other outrages.
The sum total of the East End’s problems with poverty and vice led many philanthropists such as General William Booth and Dr Thomas Barnardo to begin their groundbreaking work there. They believed that it was a place that needed their efforts, however, the problems were too big for just a few organisations to solve alone. And thus the East End sank as low as it would ever get. It was in the latter half of 1888 that all these issues were unavoidably forced into the consciousness of the public at large, no small thanks to the mass media of the day, when a mysterious individual who is now universally called Jack the Ripper targeted a relatively small number of prostitutes, murdering and mutilating them in a way which was both barbaric and unique. The Whitechapel Murders, as they have become known, would go on to become one of the most notorious series of killings in history and ultimately the greatest criminal mystery of all time.