Entering the abyss: a walk around late 19th century Whitechapel

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This week I took myself down to East London to stretch my legs walking around the area that has become synonymous with the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888. Armed with a camera, a voice recorder, and Charles Booth’s guide to the streets of the 1890s I ventured forth, like a ‘slummer’ might have 130 years previously.

I started at the entrance to Gunthorpe Street, under the archway that serves as a portal into what Jack London dubbed ‘the abyss’ in his ‘1903 account of going ‘undercover’ amongst the London poor.

‘You don’t want live down there!’ his friends told him.

‘Why, it is said there are places where a man’s life isn’t worth tuppence’, they warned him.

In 1889 Charles Booth’s maps had revealed the East End as an area of desperate poverty; much worse even that he had anticipated and the socialist revolutionary Henry Hyndeman had claimed.

As you hopefully see from the insert map above the streets above the Whitechapel High Street were dark – coloured blue and black (for ‘very poor’ to ‘vicious, criminal’) with patches of pink (which simply denoted these houses were less poor by comparison). Where there was red (for middle-class ‘well-to-do’) it was concentrated on the commercial buildings on the High Street.

I visit this area frequently, always seeking new things to share with my students or to inform my research. This week was no different as this is an area in a constant state of change. This time however, I thought I’d record my observations as an experiment in starting to create a semi-regular podcast.

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Walking up from the Whitechapel High Street I took in Gunthorpe Street (once George Street and George Yard – where Martha Tabram was murdered), to Wenthworth Street and the old Flower and Dean Street rookery. In the 1880s several of ‘Jack the Ripper’s victims lived in and around Flower & Dean Street, and Thrawl Street and this was also the centre of Jewish East London in the 1880s.

You can listen to my walk here

its my first attempt, so I apologise in advance for its very unpolished state! I will get better at this.


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