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The Setting
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The Setting
“An evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on penn’orths of gin, where collars and clean shirts are decencies unknown, where every citizen wears a black eye, and none ever combs his hair.”
Arthur Morrison: Tales of Mean Streets


IN VICTORIAN TIMES, most of Whitechapel and neighbouring Spitalfields was a grim warren of streets, courts and alleyways. Here some 80,000 souls eked out a miserable existence in appalling poverty and squalor. Over half the children born here died before the age of five.

The district was completely foreign to London’s other residents; Rebuilding in southern parts of Whitechapel had only served to drive more outcasts into the tenements and slums.

In broad terms, the East End’s 900,000 inhabitants were made up of three classes: the poor (made up of casual builders, dockers, labourers, shopkeepers, sweatshop tailors); the very poor (mainly women and children, who scrubbed, washed and sewed for those almost as needy as themselves); and the rest, a shiftless underclass of occasional labourers, loafers and semi-criminals. While the ordinary poor faced a lifelong struggle to make ends meet, the underclass lived in a permanent state of chronic deprivation.

Accommodation for anyone with a few pence consisted either of stinking, hideously overcrowded tenement rooms, or rank lodging houses – hostels which were paid for on a nightly basis, where as many as 80 people might sleep in one dormitory.

A stark choice faced those with no money at all: to doss down on staircases, in doorways, even lavatories, or to go to the workhouse, exchanging their liberty for meagre rations and numbing drudgery. For everyone that dwelled in the slums, diet was minimal and drink the only luxury.

Alcohol offered one fleeting refuge from reality and sex the other. The sheer need to survive forced many women to become prostitutes; police estimated that in 1888 there were 1,200 of these “unfortunates” operating in Whitechapel. Sexual encounters might take place in one of the many brothels, a lodging house o, equally likely, in some dark alley.

The Spitalfields area of Whitechapel offered the perfect lair for criminals, a labyrinth in which to hide, lying just beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London police. Crime and violence were commonplace – so common, in fact, that the fatal attack on prostitute Emma Smith on 3 April 1888 went unreported by the newspapers. Was this the first killing carried out by Jack the Ripper?

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