No news of the “Ripper” as London carries on as normal in the 1880s

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Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, areas coloured blue or black represent the worst level of poverty in the capital; red and gold indicated relative comfort or wealth

I thought today I’d peer into the pages of the London press a year after the so-called ‘Ripper’ murders reached their height. In late September 1888 the killer struck twice in one night (30 September), murdering Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before he later killed and savagely mutilated Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. The ‘double event’ and the infamous ‘dear boss’ letter raised the level of public engagement with the Whitechapel murder series to fever pitch and helped to make it a global news event.

Researchers do not agree on when the murders ceased. There is some consensus that the last victim was Mary Kelly but three other homicides have been attributed (by some) to the unknown assassin known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. These are are the headless body a woman found in Pinchin Street in 1889, and the murders of Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (in July 1889 and February 1891). So given that ‘Jack’ was not (officially at least) in custody in September 1889 is there anything in the Police Court reportage that might link at all to the killer that had terrorised London in the autumn of 1888?

The answer for the 28 September 1889 is no, not really.

At Guildhall a general merchant was prosecuted for obtaining 400 sponges by false pretences. The case was complicated and the magistrate adjourned it for further enquiries. A salesman at the London Poultry market was charged with cruelty to chickens and was reprimanded several by the justice and fined 5s.

At Marlborough Street three men were charged with running a disorderly gaming house in St Martin’s Street. The court heard that the Cranborne Club was, despite appearance sot the contact, a ‘common gambling house’. The men were released on substantial recognises to appear again at a later date.

At Dalston a 22 year-old wood turner was committed for jury trial for assaulting and robbing a vicar. The Rev. Matthew Davison had just got home to his house in Downs Park Road, Clapton when Walter Taylor rushed up and rifled his pockets. The vicar lost a valuable watch and chain and worse, when he set off in pursuit one of Taylor’s associates attacked him from behind knocking him to the ground. Taylor was also charged with a similar theft, that of robbing a young woman named Lucy Millard in Hackney. Taylor (and two others) eventually faced a jury at Old Bailey in October 1889, where they were convicted and sent to prison for between 12 and 18 months.

At the West London Police Court violence was the subject of the newspaper report that day but not stranger violence (as the ‘Ripper’s murders were). James Cook was sent down for four months for for beating his common law wife, Caroline Moore. Cook had fractured his partner’s ribs by jumping on them but Caroline was still very reluctant to bring charges.

Over at Bow Street, the senior police court, four men were brought up to answer a charge of conspiracy to burgle the premises of the Railway Press Company. The men were tracked down by undercover detectives to a house in White Hart Street. The four were all in their twenties but a young girl of 16 was found to be living with them. This may have been what prompted the newspaper editor to choose this story from amongst all the others at Bow Street that day. Rose Harris said she ‘had neither money nor any friends’, and had lived in the sam room as the thieves for three weeks. She was, therefore, a possible witness, and  while the men were remanded in custody Rose was taken to the St Giles Mission to be cared for.

Finally there was a case from the Thames Police Court, one of two (with Worship Street) that covered the East End, the area that has since become synonymous with Jack the Ripper. Thomas Booth, a beer and wine retailer, was prosecuted for selling adulterated beer. Booth’s premises had been inspected by an officer from the Inland Revenue and his beer tested. On two occasions his beer was found to contain too much water. Booth tried to argue that his pipers were faulty and this had led to ‘washings’ (the beer slops) ending up back in his barrels. Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrates, accepted his excuse in part but not in full and fined him 5s plus 10s costs. Watering down beer was inexcusable.

So a casual reading of the police court news from a year after the most notorious murder series in British history had unfolded would perhaps leave us to think that London carried on as normal. The everyday crimes and misdemeanours continued to occupy the columns of the London press and here was to be found ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ (and women).

The only footnote to this was a letter to the editor of the Standard, published in full at the end of the court reports section. It was from a R. C. Bedford, Bishop Suffragan* for East London. It was a long letter and concerned the ‘East End Poor’. He noted that the levels of poverty in the area were higher than usual by the docks, although had improved from the period of the Great Dock Strike earlier in the year. He was particularly concerned for the plight of the casual labourer in the wake of the strike, because while the workers had secured better pay (the ‘dockers’ tanner’) and some security of employment, those reliant on turning up for the ‘call’ in the early morning probably faced a more unpredictable future.

Bishop Bedford was asking for charitable help to be distributed through his church, and not indiscriminately.  However, he clearly believed that charity was not the solution, the real way to help the poor was to provide them with proper work not ‘doles and shelters’. The letter serves to remind us that late nineteenth-century Britain was a desperate place to live if you were poor and that in the 1880s unemployment was rife, and few areas were as badly affected as the East End. It is no coincidence in my mind that the editor of The Standard choose to position the bishop’s letter on the same page as the Police Court news. Here it would seen by the working and middle classes that read these reports (albeit for slightly different reasons). But it also serves to draw a link between crime, environment and poverty; something that was increasingly recognised in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 28, 1889]

*’A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan bishop or diocesan bishop. They may be assigned to an area which does not have a cathedral of its own’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragan_bishop#Anglican_Communion)

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