Victorian Spitalfields

The East End parish of Spitalfields, in which much of the Jack the Ripper investigation was conducted, still retains some of the character and atmosphere of Victorian London despite the looming presence of the city's monolithic office blocks and the prospect of redevelopment. Spitalfields takes its name from the fields which lay east of the Priory of St Mary Spital (Hospital), founded in 1197. Here stands Nicholas Hawksmoor's magnificent Christ Church, erected between 1714 and 1729. Looking at it today, you can’t help but feel as though it is the gatekeeper to Spitalfields.

Beside this fantastic structure are fine examples of 17th and 18th-century houses built by fugitive Huguenots (French Protestants fleeing Roman Catholic persecution) and Spitalfields Market, granted its charter by Charles II in 1682. The market traded in fruit and vegetables until it was banished further east to Hackney Marshes in May 1991.

Here, too, is The Ten Bells pub with its Jack the Ripper associations and Hanbury Street, where Annie Chapman was murdered (although the house has now been demolished). The verminous and crime-infested Dorset Street, where some of the victims once lived, made way for a car park in the 1960s and now has made way once again for a modern office block.

Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe, recalled that in his childhood, cows grazed in fields covering what is now Spitalfields Market and that Brick Lane was an unpaved dirt road used by carts. But when building began, it was rapid. By 1675, over 1,000 small houses had been built and the area was a warren of narrow streets and alleys.

Spitalfields has always been a magnet for immigrants and refugees: Huguenots from 17th-century France who turned the area into a centre for silk weaving, Irish people fleeing famine in the 18th and 19th centuries, poor Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 1880s who settled here and in neighbouring Whitechapel, and Bengalis in the 1970s.

Overcrowding and destitution were appalling in late Victorian times. In 1888, the year of the Jack the Ripper murders, there were 233 common lodging houses in Whitechapel offering accommodation for almost 9,000 people every night. Entire families occupied a single room. Number 29 Hanbury Street, where Annie Chapman was murdered, had eight rooms that were home to 17 people. One room alone was occupied by a family of five adults. Because of high unemployment, many women turned to prostitution. Indeed, casual prostitution as a means of survival was commonplace. In 1888, there were 62 known brothels in Whitechapel and about 1,200 known prostitutes.

Drink provided many with temporary relief from reality. There were no licensing laws and many pubs stayed open until midnight or opened very early - even as early as 5am. However, drinking did not always mean that the customers were alcoholics. Some of Jack the Ripper's victims had difficulties with drink, but the attraction of alcohol was sometimes to do with the lack of drinking water. The slums in which many Victorian East Enders lived did not have running water that was clean enough for them to drink. Water was collected in rain barrels in yards or on street corners. If a barrel's lid was missing, the water would be polluted with dirt from passing traffic or dead rodents. Going for a glass of gin, therefore, might have been a more attractive alternative.

The East End became a focus of attention with the publication of books, pamphlets and newspaper articles concerning the poor and destitute who lived in its narrow and squalid streets. Texts such as William C. Preston's “The Bitter Cry of Outcast London” had an unexpected impact on the public, and W. T. Stead, editor of the campaigning Pall Mall Gazette, who was never slow to put his weight behind a good cause if it sold newspapers, took up the cry and brought national attention to the area.

Other newspapers soon followed and in their wake came more determined efforts to clear the slums and give aid to the poor. However, substantial change in the living conditions in the area only took place after, and in direct consequence of, the Ripper murders. As Jerry White has observed in his book Rothschild Buildings, Jack the Ripper did "more to destroy the Flower and Dean St rookery than 50 years of road building slum clearance and unabated pressure from the police, Poor Law Guardians, vestries and sanitary officers."

Public attention had already been drawn to the East End when the Ripper struck and therefore, the crimes had a relevance in a wider social context. They received more concentrated press attention than they would have had if they had been committed elsewhere.

Standing on the corner of Commercial Street and Fournier Street, The Ten Bells can probably lay claim to being the most widely publicised pub in England. Once called the Jack the Ripper, local tradition claims that one of the Ripper's victims was last seen alive there and today, the pub is a kind of mecca for anyone interested in the case. The origins of the pub are obscure, but they date back to the 1750s.

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The Jack the Ripper Casebook