Change for the Better?

It has been said that Jack the Ripper, whoever he was, did more to improve the lives of the people of East London than anyone in a position of authority had done in almost 30 years. A strange claim, but there is an element of truth in it.

A number of changes had already been made in the heart of the East End slums prior to the murders with the demolition of a number of dangerous and decaying areas, most notably sections of Goulston Street, Wentworth Street and Flower and Dean and Thrawl Street, the latter giving rise to the more sanitary model dwellings of Rothschild Buildings. However, the problems were still present as complete renovation had not yet happened and criminality and vice continued to flourish.

Following the murder of Annie Chapman, the prominent writer George Bernard Shaw felt moved to comment on how the often complacent press became incensed by revelations of how the poor in Whitechapel were living. He argued that, “Whilst we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation, and organisation, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disembowelling four women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism”.

The Whitechapel murders inspired a considerable change of opinion about the conditions of the East End which previously had only been highlighted by a small number of journalists, philanthropists and social scientists. Even Queen Victoria had something to say on the matter, suggesting better street lighting as well as questioning the efficiency of the detective services in that particular crime-ridden neighbourhood.

In the years after the shocking events of 1888, street lighting was indeed improved. George Yard Buildings, where Martha Tabram may have fallen by the Ripper’s knife (or knives) was given interior lighting upon its landings. Apparently as a direct result of the murder of Alice MacKenzie in July 1889, the scene of the crime, the narrow and dangerous Castle Alley, was widened to make it more open to public scrutiny and became a part of Old Castle Street. Most significantly, the Flower and Dean Street area, thought of by many for so long as one of the most dangerous parts of London, was cleared of its remaining filthy lodging houses and rebuilt with better dwellings within a mere six years.

But it wasn’t all done so quickly. The notorious Dorset Street would become the scene of several other murders following that of Mary Kelly in November 1888 and by 1901, it was dubbed ‘the worst street in London’ by the national press. Changing its name to Duval Street in 1904 did little to shake off its reputation; it would take complete demolition years later to achieve that.

Some have suggested (and George Bernard Shaw seemingly hinted at it in 1888) that the Whitechapel murderer was deliberately acting out his terrible crimes to focus attention on the dire conditions endured by some of London’s poorest inhabitants and acts of those who preyed on them, in order to instigate that social change for the better. ‘Jack the Social Redeemer’ is one theory, of course, on top of many...

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The Jack the Ripper Casebook