The destination for history

Growing up in London’s East End


I find it fascinating that the reign of Jack the Ripper was actually only 50 years before World War II and lots of people, lots of Londoners, lots of East Enders, would have lived through both events. And just as the ‘Dead End Kids’ invented a game in the middle of the Blitz, so their grandparents living through that autumn of terror in 1888 did the same, they had a skipping game about Jack!

Jack the Ripper, Stole a kipper,
Hid it in his Father’s slipper!’

When life is so tough, cracking jokes and playing games can help make the experiences easier for children to deal with. Despite the ghosts, the killings, despite deadly bombing raids, despite all this, the children of the courts never stopped coming out to play whether war raged or a serial killer prowled through their playground.

The children of the Blitz are the last remaining link between 1888 and the modern day. They are the final generation to have known every nook and cranny of the East End of the Ripper intimately. Although the notorious rookeries of Shoreditch had been demolished in the 1920s, large areas of the slums these kids called home had barely changed since 1888.

They played in the same locations Jack the Ripper killed in. Any connection to the famous murderer would surely have been pointed out and gratefully seized upon by small boys. Who in turn would be sure to reveal all to their impressionable pals, and no doubt later still, to their grandsons. This was still a time when those lucky enough to survive into their old age would usually see out their twilight years with whatever kin they had living in close proximity, poor perhaps, but rich in family, friends, human company.

Is it possible that even in dire, East End style poverty, even with mad men on the prowl, even with bombs dropping, if you have your family close at hand, if you feel part of a community, if, as you walk around people know your name and say ‘Hello’ without judging you, where they seem pleased to see you, where they help you out, isn’t that a richness that money cannot buy? And if danger can strike anywhere at any time, then it’s not worth worrying about. If life is precarious and hard, then you may as well relax and enjoy the ride surrounded by like-minded familiar faces. Let us also consider that in 1940 as in 1888, measles, smallpox, and cholera were still rampant and incurable. There was no BCG vaccination yet, and infant mortality in East London was still so high that most children in the area, again, as in Victorian days, did NOT reach their fifth birthdays.

It would therefore be fair to say that, overall, the habitat of the East End urchin changed very little in 50 years.

The slum kids of 1940 are a direct link to their predecessors living on the same streets in 1888, but could those who lived through something as traumatic as the Blitz be readily compared to those who lived through the ‘Autumn of Terror’? I think they can. They were not only related, on the whole, by blood, but also by environment, and in an age before mass media, were still very much influenced in the same ways as their grandparents had been in the 1880s.

So the kids of the Blitz played in the same dangerous, condemned ruins as their grandparents had at the same age. Surrounded by descendants of, by and large, the same families who lived there in 1888. They used the same hang-out spots and hiding places of 50 years before and would have known the local secrets of each and every courtyard and alley. They possibly would have handled items, knives for example, which had been in the area since Jack the Ripper’s days. Then they had gone out to play, with a few exceptions, in the exact same streets that Jack once slipped through. Yet the busy streets were full of familiar faces, and I think that ‘community spirit’ is what enabled them to get through those two momentous moments in history, en masse, relatively unscathed.

By Ian Parson on behalf of the Whitechapel Society


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books