Casual racism from the lips of someone who should know better: Anti alienist in nineteenth-century Whitechapel

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This morning I’m off to Whitechapel to show some friends of mine around the area. If the weather is kind to us (and it’s not looking good!) I will take them to see the strange sights of one of the most interesting parts of the capital. This was the area where Jack the Ripper selected and killed his victims, from amongst some of the poorest people in London.

In the nineteenth century it was an area that was home to a vibrant community of mixed ethnicities, and it must have been filled with a cacophony of competing languages. It was dangerous, exciting, troubling and fascinating and it drew visitors from across London of all classes to gawp at what they saw there. Soon after the Whitechapel murders began ‘dark’ tourists started to come to see where ‘Polly’ or ‘Annie’ were attacked and left mutilated, a phenomenon that has continued to this day.

We’re not going on a ‘Ripper tour’; while very good ones exist I’m not entirely comfortable with the whole industry that surrounds the case and anyway, I know the sites well enough to show my friends should they want to have a look. Hopefully I can contextualize them within the social history of the 1880s.

One thing I hope they do notice today (given that they are coming south from ‘middle England’) is the diversity of the modern East End and how this echoes the Whitechapel of the 1880s. In the last quarter of the century this was home to tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing persecution and hoping for better life in the West. Ashkenazi Jews from the Russian Empire (from modern day Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine) escaped from the Tsar’s terror and came to London and settled (or continued their journey to the USA).

Most stayed close to docks where they arrived and where there was already a well established Jewish community (so they had places to worship, kosher food they could eat, people that understood their language, and opportunities to work). They found work as boot and shoemakers, bakers, and in ‘rag trade’ sweat shops. They certainly impacted the area and tensions were often raised – no more so than during the Ripper case when some people pointed the finger of blame at the Jews, suggesting ‘no Englishman could have done this’.

While England in the 1880s had no laws against immigration there was racism, better known then as ‘anti-alienism’. Men like Arnold White stoked the fires of xenophobia, publishing lies and preying upon people’s fears of the ‘other’ and arguing that the new arrivals took locals’ jobs or deflated wages. Just like the lies spread by modern racists the claims were not true but the lies stuck. When times are hard it is easy to blame those that look different from the majority for all the problems in society.

This clearly wasn’t helped by the attitudes of those in positions of authority, or by the actions of influencers like the editors of newspapers. In 1891 The Standard newspaper reported the daily news from the Police Courts with the following story from the East End.

The sitting magistrate that day was Montagu Williams , QC. The clerk had handed him a list of summonses, the first six of which were applications from ‘foreign Jews’ who had taken them out against their co-religionists for threats and assaults. The report went on to say that, ‘as usual in such cases, some of other of the parties was unable to speak the English language, and there was a rush of persons to offer their services’ as translators.

Mr Williams had a rule that only one person should act as interpreter for the court, and he charged a fee. A solicitor for one of the men in court told the justice that his client could not afford that fee as he was a poor man. Williams said ‘he did not care’, adding:

It was not for the Court to pay the interpreter in these wretched squabbles. If these foreigners were allowed to flock into this country and, when settled here, were to disturb the peace by quarrelling and fighting among themselves, it would soon be necessary that they should have a Court with the officers and Magistrate speaking their language’.

This drew laughter from the public gallery.

As the cases were heard the same solicitor (Mr Bedford) was attempting to make his case about the threatening language used by one of the accused, referring to the ‘hard swearing’ that was common in the community.

‘You need not trouble about the language, Mr. Bedford’, Montagu Williams told him. ‘These people cannot speak the truth in any language. They are none of them to be believed on their oath’.

This then was the prevailing attitude towards Eastern European immigrants in late nineteenth-century London and it contributed towards the passing of the first anti-immigrant legislation (the Aliens Act) in the early twentieth century. Nowadays the dews have mostly gone from Spitalfields  (although there are traces of them in old shops signs and other buildings). They worked hard and prospered and moved north into the suburbs. Other groups followed them and now this area is home to many Bengalis.

Racism and xenophobia has not moved on sadly, and continues to blight society. London’s success (and that of Britain as a whole) is built on the industry of millions of immigrants over a thousand years or more and we would do well to remember and celebrate it, not immediately point the finger at ‘them’ when times are hard.

[from The Standard, Thursday, July 30, 1891]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

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