‘We didn’t live – we starved’: Poverty and ‘foreign markets’ in 19th Century Whitechapel

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In my last post I started walking the streets of East London with Charles Booth’s poverty survey as my guide. Moving on from Gunthorpe and Flower and Dean Walk (which in the 1880s was George Street and Flower and Dean Street respectively) in this post I’ve arrived at Wentworth Street.

In the late nineteenth century Wentworth Street was extremely poor. In Booth’s original map (above) it is a mixture of colours from red to pink to blue but since it abuts George Yard, Thrawl Street and other courts and alleys associated with the ‘Abyss’ we can confidently assume that most people living here were living close or below what Seebohm Rowntree was later to define as the ‘poverty line.

This story, reported in the Manchester press, gives us some idea of exactly what conditions were like in and around Wentworth Street in the last decade of the 1800s.

In early November 1893 Mr Wynne Baxter, the local coroner (and the man that had presided over the inquests into most of the Whitechapel murder victims in 1888), convened an inquest on the death of Elizabeth Newton.

Elizabeth was only four months old; she was the illegitimate daughter of Martha Newton who lived at 75 Wentworth Street. The paper described Martha as a ‘poor, miserable-looking girl’ who lived with her mother.

At the time little Elizabeth had been born Martha was living in a local lodging house, and went to the infirmary to give birth. Once the child and mother left hospital they went to live with Martha’s mother Margaret but the conditions were awful.

‘Her mother only occupied one room’, the inquest was told. So Martha and her baby joined her ‘sister, aged eight years […] and her other illegitimate child, aged two’, in the room.

Margaret Newton was desperately poor and the augmented family struggled to feed itself. Margaret told Mr Baxter that Marth fed her newborn on ‘cornflour, arrowroot, or anything the mother could get for it’. She herself only earned 1s3d to 1s 6da day.

How much was the rent, the coroner asked her. ‘Five shillings’, was the reply.

‘How do you live’?

‘We didn’t live – we starved’, Margaret Newton told him.

The final witness was the doctor who declared Elizabeth dead. She weighed only 3lb 12oz when he examined her. He told a stunned court that she should have weighed at least 11b by then. The coroners’ jury delivered a verdict of ‘death by malnutrition’.

Sadly Elizabeth’s death was not uncommon in late nineteenth-century London. Without an effective system of state benefits or health service that was free at the point of need, many children succumbed to poverty and lack of nutrition in Victoria’s Britain.

In the 1880s and 1890s Wentworth Street was busy during the day and early evening. As Charles Booth observed it was:

 ‘thronged every day by stalls, both buyers and sellers nearly all but not altogether Jews, women bareheaded, bewigged, coarse woolen shawls over shoulders, more like a foreign market scene than anything English’.

The red on the map probably refereed to ‘the small shops and houses on the North side’, the poor were absent except in the nearby courts.

Today, as I found out on my walk, there is very little remaining of nineteenth-century Wentworth Street. This is hardly surprising when you consider that this area was very heavily bombed during the Second World War (see map from www.bombsight.org) and post war council rebuilding and slum clearance.

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There was still a strong Jewish community in and around Wentworth Street during and after WW2. Helen Shaw (Schevitch) remembered life back then:

We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up.

Now, as my walk confirmed, there is hardly any sign of the Jewish presence in Wentworth Street. Instead this area is home to a new set of immigrants and their British born descendants. The larget and most visible migrant group (akin to the Jewish residents in the 1880s that Booth remarked upon) are the Bangladeshis, most of whom trace their roots to Sylheti in the northeast of the country. They are Muslim and established their first roots in the area as early as 1910 and it took them until the early 1980s to win permission to build a mosque.

If you want to have any sense of the Wentworth Street that Booth described as ‘a foreign market’ in the 1890s then take the underground to Whitechapel and wander along the market stalls that throng beside Whitechapel High Street opposite the London Hospital. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself transported back in time.

Housebreaking in Stokey and Hackney; slim pickings perhaps but poverty was relative in 1887

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In early September 1887 William Parker (an 18 year-old box maker) and James Hall (also 18 and described as a boot maker), appeared at the Worship Street Police court accused of breaking and entering.

The pair, both Bethnal Green lads, had strayed west, targeting three different properties in Stoke Newington. They’d been picked up by police from N Division (which covered Islington and included Stoke Newington) with a bag that contained ‘housebreaking implements’ and their lodgings in Hackney and Globe Street, Bethnal Green were raided.

Sergeant Helson and his colleagues Sergeant May explained that they had arrested the pair on suspicion that they were involved with burglaries at the homes of a Mr Cameron (at 102 Clarence Road), Mr Mears (62 Bentham Road) and Ernest Beckman (a commission agent who lived at 82 Rectory Road).

Mrs Beckman testified that she’d left her home at 3 in the afternoon on Saturday 20 August and came back and hour and half later to find that the front door had been forced open. The dining room had been left in a terrible state, and upstairs in the bedroom her jewelry box was lying open and empty.

She said she had lost ‘£5 in gold, a gold watch and chain, a gold ring, two pairs of earrings, two brooches, and a pair of solitaires’.

The solitaires were found on Hall’s person when the police arrested him and a witness testified to seeing him loitering outside the property earlier that day. Sergeant Helson told the magistrate (Mr Hannay) that the area had suffered a great deal from break-ins recently and requested that the men be committed for trial. Mr Hannay obliged and both men were tried at the next quarter sessions. Hall was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for 15 months, Parker got an extra three months.

In Charles Booth’s 1888-90 poverty maps Rectory Road (where the Beckmans lived) is solidly red in colour, marking it out as ‘comfortable’. Rectory Road had ‘many old houses’ Booth reports, with ‘old fashioned wooden palings round the front gardens’. Several were semi-detached and rents were £45 (around  £,650 today). There were shops on Rectory Road’s west side and at the corner with Amhurst Road there was a large red brick building ‘with a  boy in buttons at the entrance’. This was the ‘Amhurst Club’ which charged a 2 guineas a year subscription. I have to check this but I believe this might be the site of the Regency Club (at 240a Amhurst Road) – popular with the Kray twins in the 1960s (below right).

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However, I can’t find a Bentham or Clarence in the near vicinity so perhaps those break-ins occurred further east, in Hackney (where  there is a Bentham Road). In the notebook covering the wider area Booth mentions Clarence Road (and Terrace) as a street where the houses have workshops ‘in their back gardens’; he coloured these purple moving to light-blue as it reached Clarence Terrace. One wonders what Hall and Parker could find to steal here but if they came out of worse conditions in the East End perhaps even slim pickings were worth stealing.

I’ll look in more detail at the area around Rectory Road in the next post.

[from Morning Post, 2 September 1887]

‘Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!’

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In the years following the murders of several women in Whitechapel in 1888, rumours of ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued to haunt the capital. The police investigation remained open because no one was conclusively proven to be the killer and he was assumed to have remained at large, if dormant. The discovery of a human torso in Pinchin Street in 1889 and then the murder of Frances Coles (in February 1891) fuelled popular fears that the murderer was still active in the East End.

In March 1890 a man presented himself at Buckingham Palace and demanded to see the Queen. A policeman on duty (constable 64A) told the Westminster Police Court that at 4 o’clock on the 18 March Charles Cooper , a ‘well-dressed’ railway sub-contractor, had walked up to the gates of the palace asking to be admitted.

He told the officer that his ‘particular business with her majesty was to inform her where “Jack the Ripper” was to be found, and where he had had his photograph taken’.

When he was refused entry he tried to force his way past the guards and was arrested. At Westminster he was charged with being a ‘lunatic at large’.

In court his wife told Mr D’Eyncourt (the magistrate) that her husband ‘had been drinking to excess lately’, and three weeks ago, when ‘quite out of his mind’, he was taken to the workhouse at Edmonton. Clearly Cooper was suffering from some form of mental illness and perhaps the ‘Ripper’ panic had exacerbated this.

He repeated his desire to talk to Queen Victoria but Mr D’Eyncourt ignored him and instead remanded him in custody for a week.

I’ve looked forward to see if Cooper reappeared in the pages of the London press but he doesn’t. The  provincial papers carried the same story – lifted word for word from The Standard – but I can see no record of him resurfacing at Westminster (which he must have done).

Sadly, the most likely outcome for Charles was that he was either readmitted to the workhouse or sent to one of London’s ‘lunatic’ asylums, such as the one near me at Colney Hatch. If he was sent to Colney Hatch then he may even have met one of those suspected of being the elusive serial killer – David Cohen, a ‘homicidal lunatic’ identified by Dr Scott Bonn in 2014.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 20, 1890]

This post first appeared in March 2017

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

‘A very serious thing’ means a birching for one young boy

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When Louis Perry sent his errand boy off to deliver some work for him he gave him strict instructions. Lipman Forkell was to take some boots to his customer on a barrow and then drop the barrow off at the hire place. The lad was told not to forget to collect the 10change due from his deposit of a shilling.

However young Lipman – a 12 year-old boy who lived in Eastman Court, Whitechapel in London’s East End – carried out the task but failed to return Mr Perry’s money. This was a second chance for Lipman; he’d been accused of stealing money before but had been let off with a warning. He wasn’t to get a third chance and the boot maker was determined to teach him a lesson.

On Thursday 7 August 1879 the boy was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court and formally charged with stealing 10in silver coins. The magistrate warned Mr Perry that he was also liable to be prosecuted, ‘for employing  a lad under age’. On this occasion he got off with a warning.

Lipman was not so fortunate. The magistrate told him that to have taken to stealing at such a young age was very serious and he would be punished for it. On top of sending him to prison for three days Mr Bushby ordered that the boy be given ‘twelve strokes of the birch rod’. These would be administered by a local policeman, which helps explain why the ‘old bill’ were far from popular in the district.

[from The Standard, Friday, August 08, 1879]

NB this post first appeared in August 2018

An unwanted ‘guest’ under a Whitechapel grocer’s bed

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Harris Rosenthorn ran a small grocer’s shop on Plummer’s Row, Whitechapel. For a few days he’d noticed a young immigrant loitering nearby and suspected he was up to no good. Then, on Thursday 2 November 1893 the lad had come into the shop and bought some butter. From his accent Mr Rosenthorn determined that the teenager was probably a Russian Pole, one of many in the East End.

At around 9.30 the grocer went upstairs to the second floor and into one of the bedrooms. The candle lighting the room had just gone out and worried, Rosenthorn lit another. He soon found the strange young man hiding under the bed. The lad crawled out and, before the shopkeeper could stop him, he pushed past and down the stairs.

He ran straight into one of the Rosenthorns’ servants, who, alerted by her master’s cries of alarm, tried to tackle him. She was punched in the chest and pushed to the floor and the man got away.

He didn’t get far however, soon several neighbours were after him and overpowered the burglar a few streets away. As he ran he dropped a chisel he’d been carrying, either to use as a jemmy or a weapon. His captors handed him over to the police and on Friday 3 November he appeared before Mr Dickinson at the Thames Police court.

The young man gave his name as Max Landay. He was just 17 years of age and under the powers bestowed on magistrates by the summary jurisdictions acts of the 1800s the justice decided to deal with him without recourse to a jury trial. Max was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 04, 1893]

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly’: the mythologising of a serial killer in the London press

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On the evening of the 1 October 1888 the Standard newspaper carried this report on page four:

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This was the infamous ‘double event’ when the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ killed twice within a matter of hours. We might it strange that it wasn’t ‘front page news’ as such a crime would be today but then nineteenth-century newspapers tended to carry adverts on the cover page, not news.

The Whitechapel murders were the news story of the day, relegating almost all other stories to ‘second best’ and bringing hoards of journalists, ‘dark tourists’, and ‘slummers’ to the East End to see where it all happened and to talk to the nervous locals.

The Standard went on to discuss the murders in a longer article on the same page. It described the killer as having an ‘absolutely demonical thirst for blood’ and dubbed him ‘a human fiend’. It also credited the murderer with ‘a swiftness, a dexterity, a noiselessness, and, we might almost say, a scientific skill’ which it suggested was a ‘very rare accomplishment in the class from which murderers are commonly drawn’.

Given that most of the murderers convicted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century might reasonably be described as working class and given that the Victorians blamed most serious crime on the so-called ‘criminal class’ (a class existing below the ranks of the working class), it follows that this editorial’s writer held a fairly low opinion of the ordinary working class man in the street.

The Standard launched in 1827 as an evening paper, and later a morning edition as well. It briefly challenged The Times for daily circulation and we might see it as a serious conservative organ. It was hardly likely then to be widely read by the working man.

The report of Catherine Eddowes’ murder in Mitre Square is full of quiet admiration for the ‘skill’ of the murderer:

 ‘Silently, swiftly, and remorselessly , the murderer performed operations which a practiced surgeon, working with all his appliances about him, could hardly have effected in the time; and then, as usual, disappeared, leaving not a shred of evidence behind by which he could be traced’.

The Standard was, like many of the other papers of the day, helping (albeit indirectly) to create the myth of ‘Jack the Ripper’; he was (so this rhetoric suggested) a fantastical figure who roamed the streets and attacked women at will, right under the noses of the impotent police force. He possessed almost super human skills, had a bestial nature, and an intelligence or animal cunning that far exceeded any of the other denizens of the East End or the ‘plod’ that were searching for him.

The Standard did call for calm and dismissed ideas (circulating elsewhere) that the murders were a reflection of the state of Britain in the 1880s:

‘Terrible as they are’, it said, the murders ‘do not show either that society is rotten to the core, or that human life is less safe in the centre of London than it is in the wilds of Texas. We are not all liable to be hacked to pieces in the streets, or murdered in our beds, because some diabolical maniac can decoy the outcasts of the pavement into dark corners and kill them’.

Finally the paper wrote that the killer must be caught and it urged the police to concentrate their efforts on the area in which the murders took place. The killer must be local it stated:

He was either a ‘resident of in a particular quarter of the East End, or, at any rate, an habitué there. He must have a haunt near the western portion of the Whitechapel-road, from which he issues before the commission of one of his crimes, and to which he ventures swiftly after the deed is done’.

The paper was at pains to dismiss the idea that the killer was a doctor or surgeon but it believed that he must have a working knowledge of anatomy, or at least was familiar with the dissection of ‘of the human or animal body’. He could be caught however, by persistent and determined police work, a task the Standard declared, that it had confidence the police could and would fulfil.

So, in this brief editorial from the day after the ‘double event’ we get very many of the themes associated with the Ripper murders. There is the notion of the mythical killer, the press attention, the moral panic that consumed London, the impotence (or otherwise) of the Metropolitan Police, the nature of the victims, elite attitudes towards the lower class, and the idea that the East End of London and killings there reflected in some ways the cancer at the heart of the British Empire.

This is why I continue to research and teach about the Whitechapel murders, because it is a rich source of discussion and debate about so many things in late Victorian London, and this is why so many people remain fascinated by the topic.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 01, 1888]

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

It is a year before the first ‘Ripper’ murder but the portents are visible in East End life

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In August 1887 London had little inkling of the terror that was to haunt the East End in just a year’s time. There was violence and crime aplenty of course, but no more or less than usual, and nothing to suggest that Whitechapel and the East End was soon to be the focus of world attention as a serial killer struck again and again with impunity.

Despite the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders being extraordinary by any standards I wonder if the foundations for the unknown killer’s actions were already well established in the community he later terrorised. Domestic violence was endemic; linked to alcoholism and poverty, and patriarchal attitudes towards women. With the campaign against contagious diseases and the well-publicized attack on vice and immorality prostitution was also in the spotlight with sex workers demonized as the carriers of diseases which had decimated the army in the Crimea.

But it was the causal, commonplace brutality eked out daily by working-class men towards their wives and common-law partners that really empowered the actions of the ‘Ripper’.

Men frequently beat and abused their womenfolk in the East End and while murders might have been relatively unusual, manslaughter and grievous bodily harm was not. Unless the police actually saw it happen they weren’t able to interfere and even then many if not most were reluctant to get involved in a ‘a domestic’.  The survivors were also reluctant to press charges against their abusers; in fear of retaliation or the loss of the main breadwinner. Magistrates were frustrated but there was little they could do save deal with offenders when they did come before them.

Frederick Smith was a 35 year-old milkman living in Britannia Street, off the City Road. In late August 1887, a year before the Ripper murdered Polly Nicholls in Bucks Row, Smith was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court. The milkman was accused of violently assaulting his wife.

PC 63G testified that he had been called to an incident at the defendant’s home and found Mrs Smith ‘lying insensible and bleeding on the pavement’. A few people had gathered and they told him that she fallen out of a window above. He got her into a cab and took her to the London Hospital to be treated. She regained consciousness on the journey and told him that he husband had attacked her and thrown her out of the window to the street below.

When he’d deposited her at the hospital he went back and arrested Fred who, he now realized, had been part of the crowd gathered around Mrs Smith’s body in the street. When he’d seen the policeman the milkman had quickly made himself scarce. Since Mrs Smith was still in hospital and unable to give evidence Mr. Bushby remanded the prisoner for a week and the gaoler locked him up.

We don’t know if Mrs Smith made a full recovery or, if she did, whether she pressed charges against her husband. There’s no record of a Frederick Smith being prosecuted at the Old Bailey for murder or manslaughter, which makes me hopeful that his wife survived.  Fred Smith is hardly an unusual name however, so newspaper searches are problematic.

I think it does indicate the casual nature of violence meted out to working-class women in the 1800s; when ‘ordinary’ me could do this and (mostly) get away with it then surely its not too far of a leap to understand why a disturbed individual could feel emboldened to take that violence much further.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 27, 1887]

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