Gardiner’s Corner,junction of Whitechapel High Street and Leman Street


The curlicue gas lamps from the props department and the cubic gallons of dry ice pumped in from beyond the peripheral vision of the camera are fixtures in our retrospective landscape of Jack the Ripper’s East End. However, nineteenth-century Whitechapel’s social environment was notoriously awful, even without its post-Victorian celluloid transmission via the crowded imaginations of set designers. Examples of the personal consequences of poverty and deprivation are easy to find, scattered liberally across contemporary newsprint: hunger, crime, violence, social exclusion, abuse, disease, addiction, despair, madness, premature and accidental death, infanticide, suicide, murder. Despite this, the author Jack London, seeking a glimpse of Whitechapel’s ugly visage a few years after the Ripper had retired (or whatever), found the slums veiled by popular ignorance – the travel agent whom he consulted (on Cheapside) knew how to get him to the Himalayas, but couldn’t direct him to the East End. Whitechapel was a liminal zone. Like the dubious manifestations at a séance, it was visible only to those who already believed in it.

Two scenes in Whitechapel

Children were among the most vulnerable members of this luckless community. Unable to pay their own way for the first few years of their life, they were a drain on their parents’ limited resources, tricky to look after, and not guaranteed to repay even adequate infant care by surviving into adulthood. Many grown-ups had their own worries, or thirsts which were impossible to slake, or difficulties engaging effectively in social and commercial intercourse, all of which tended to distract them from the needs of their offspring. At the time of the Ripper’s murders, there existed a weary, disenfranchised adult population, and a younger population whose early experiences must have been characterised by the literal or figurative absence of the attachment figure, and by hardship, and by cruelty.

These are the psychological breeding-grounds of homicidal behaviour, but it is notable that the Ripper – whose identity is unknown – was not thought by the senior policemen of the time to have emerged from an East End childhood. Two suspects – Kosminski and Klosowski – had spent their formative years in Poland; Ostrog was a Russian; Tumblety an American via Ireland and Canada; Druitt grew up in respectable surroundings in Dorset. If the men who investigated the murders are to be believed, the effect of the social backdrop upon the early emotional development of the killer may have been negligible. Were they right? Or were they simply looking in the wrong places? Perhaps the killer was actually someone a little closer to home…

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Experience life in Victorian London during Jack the Ripper's 'Autumn of Terror' with Whitechapel Real Time