She said, “You are a couple of old wh—s,” and hit me in the forehead with the brush! Violence in mid century Whitechapel

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Yesterdays’ blog detailed the everyday mundane violence meted out to working class women by men in the capital in the year of the Whitechapel murders, 1888. Today I’ve chosen a case from mid century, which involves violence committed by a woman on another woman.

Margaret Griffin was placed in the dock at Worship Street Police court (in the East End) charged with assaulting Mary Bryan (or Bryant). Griffin was described as a ‘decent looking Irishwoman’ and the alleged assault had taken place in mid January, some two months before the case came up before Mr Hammill, the justice on duty.

The reason for the delay was that Mary had been so badly hurt in the attack that she’d been hospitalized and was only now out of danger and sufficiently recovered to face her abuser.  The magistrate was told that Griffin – who worked as a cleaner – had forced her way into a house in Whitechapel and had demanded to see a women that lived or worked there. She was brandishing a scrubbing brush and calling for the ‘bitch’ to be sent out to confront her. When Mary Bryan got in her way she beat her severely with the scrubbing brush and denounced her (and the other woman) as a ‘ couple of old whores’.

Given the state of Mary’s injuries (which had been treated at the London Hospital on Whitechapel High Street) Mr Hammill decided this was far too serious a case to be dealt with summarily and he fully committed Griffin to take her trial at the Old Bailey.

The case was heard on 7 April 1851 and she was acquitted by the jury. It seems that Margaret was set upon in the house and the injuries handed out were in part deemed to be in self defense by the all male jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1851]

‘These cabmen always drive furiously’: Lord Rothschild has a lucky escape

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An 1891 caricature of Nathan (‘Natty’) Rothschild by Lockhart Bogle in The Graphic

It seems as if traffic accidents were just as likely to occur in late nineteenth-century London as they are in the modern capital, and that the roads were just as crowded. Moreover the image of the policeman directing the flow of vehicles – one we probably now associate with the 1950s and 60s – may be just as appropriate for the 1890s.

In early March 1890 Nathan, the first Baron de Rothschild, was being driven in brougham coach along Queen Victoria Street in the City. A policeman was holding the traffic and had his arm extended up, palm out to signal this. Lord Rothschild’s driver eased his horses to a halt to wait for the officer’s signal to continue.

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, the coach was hit from behind by a hansom cab. One of the shafts of the cab broke through the brougham, narrowly missing its occupants. Rothschild was shaken, but unhurt. The baron stepped down from the damaged coach and approached the policeman. He handed him his card and said, possibly angrily:

‘These cabmen always drive furiously. Take my card and give it to the Inspector. It will be all right’.

The incident ended up with the cabbie, James Povey, being summoned before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court where he was charged with ‘driving a hansom cab wantonly’. Povey pleaded ‘not guilty’ and one of his passenger that day, a gentleman named Palmer, was in court to support him.

Mr Palmer testified that the baron and his driver could not possibly have seen what happened as they were facing the wrong way. He said that Povey had tried to stop and it was entirely an accident, not ‘wanton’ or dangerous driving. The alderman agreed and dismissed the summons, adding that a claim for the damage to the brougham could be made in the civil courts. There was no need, Povey’s representative (a Mr Edmonds, solicitor for the Cab Union) explained, as that had already been settled.

Rothschild was an important figure in late nineteenth-century Britain, a banker and the financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, he was a noted philanthropist as well, helping fund housing (in the form of model dwellings) for poor Jews in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Rothschild sat in parliament for the Liberals, although he had been a close friend of the Conservative Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli. By 1896 he was a peer, sitting in the Lords (as he had since 1885) an honour bestowed by that other great Victorian premier, William Gladstone. He then left the Liberals in 1886, joining forces with Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists as the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland. He died in 1915 and the current baron, Jacob, is the 4th to hold the title.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 11, 1896]

A welcome new insight into the lives of the ‘Ripper’s victims

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Book Review, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Haille Rubenhold (London, Doubleday, 2019) 416pp; £16.99

This may not be the first study to look at the lives of the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but it is certainly the first published by such a prestigious printing house as Penguin/Doubleday. Haille Rubenhold has written about prostitution previously and is also a novelist and she brings both of these skills to bear in this excellent popular history. Rubenhold takes the lives (not the deaths) of the ‘five’ murdered women – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – as her subject and traces them from birth, detailing their highs and lows.

She uses a range of archival material, augmented by a strong selection of secondary reading, to map out the lives of these working-class women as they grew up, went into work, married and had children, before – in all cases it seems – beginning the descent into poverty, alcoholism and homelessness that led them to Whitechapel (and their deaths) in 1888.

However, Rubenhold does not describe their murders or give any space to their killer: ‘Jack the Ripper’ is entirely absent from the book, except for a discussion of the mythology and industry that has grown up around him since the murders.  This is deliberate and fitting in the context of the book. While in recent years studies have been at pains to provide context on the ‘Ripper’ case a great many of the books that have received media attention have been those which focus on naming a suspect, and most of these do so with very little attention to the victims.

This is a book with a clear central message, namely that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the unknown murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ were real people, with real lives, and that they deserve better than to be dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’.  Rubenhold writes that ‘in the absence of any evidence that Polly [Nichols], Annie [Chapman] and Kate [Eddowes] ever engaged in common prostitution, many have taken to claiming that these women participated in “casual prostitution”: a blanket term cast over the ambiguities of the women’s lives that is steeped in moral judgment’ (p.343).

It is fair to say that it is this assertion, namely the lack of ‘any evidence’ that three of the five were prostitutes (however we define that term for the 1880s) that has caused most dissent amongst the Ripperology community (another term that can be broadly defined). I am not a Ripperologist but I have researched the case and its contexts, have written and lectured on the subject, and often discuss aspects of the murders and the existing archival evidence with researchers that would classify themselves within that group. I am also a trained historian, like Rubenhold, with an interest in the social history of London in the nineteenth century.

I would say that plenty of evidence exists to suggest (if not prove conclusively) that all of the five canonical victims* in the Whitechapel murder series were, at one time or another, engaged in prostitution. This evidence has been presented by a number of researchers over very many years and while we might reasonably ask questions about police and public attitudes at the time (a point Rubenhold raises), we can’t simply ignore sources that don’t fit our particular view of the past. This book is notable both for the new information it highlights about the lives of the women murdered in 1888 and by the information (mostly about their deaths) that it omits.

Researchers like Paul Begg and very many others have been questioning our accepted narrative of the case for over 20 years and so it is wrong to suggest that it has always been assumed that all of the victims were sex workers. Moreover even a casual engagement with the information that is in the public domain (at the National Archives for example) would us cause to question whether Rubenhold’s assertions are entirely accurate.

I might ask why it matters whether the women were, or were not prostitutes? They were still human beings and innocent victims of a brutal, misogynist killer. As Judith Walkowitz’s work on prostitution in the nineteenth century has shown communities like that in Spitalfields and Whitechapel did not themselves denigrate those poor women who, at times of desperate need, were forced to sell themselves for the price of a bed, a meal, or a drink. The sneering tone of The Times certainly condemned those ‘unfortunates’ for bringing such horror on their own heads but then it was equally scathing about most of those living in the Whitechapel slum.

Rubenhold certainly makes an interesting suggestion when she argues that the victims were killed while they were sleeping rough on the streets. In my conversation with her in the summer it was this new interpretation of ‘street walking’ (from the comments made by Kate Eddowes’ partner John Kelly) that gave me cause to consider how this might affect our understanding of the case. I had previously thought of ‘street walking’ as a euphemism for prostitution but what if it simply it was sometimes meant literally: walking the streets because they had nowhere to sleep indoors?

It is an interesting angle on the killings and certainly one I was looking forward to seeing developed in the book. Once again though, I’m bound to say that I wasn’t presented with any real evidence that these women were killed whilst sleeping rough, let alone evidence that effectively challenges the considerable existing evidence that suggests otherwise. This partly because of her understandable decision not to detail the circumstances surrounding their murders. But it is within the information – such as exists – about the killings that evidence arises that might challenge this second assertion.

So in terms of the two key discoveries in her research I am unconvinced on the basis of the evidence she presents. This leaves her open to criticism by those researchers who know a great deal more about the case than I do, and that is a shame because she has made a significant contribution to the study of the murders in highlighting the lives of five of the victims. While we have had studies of the murdered women before we have never had such a high profile and well written study before.

As a result of Rubenhold’s book very many more people will know about the lives of poor working-class women (and men) in late Victorian London. Bringing these stories to a much wider audience is important, especially in highlighting that the problems of homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence (all current issues) have a long history.

This is a book that will get a large and a different readership to those that have knowledge of the ‘Ripper’ case before. The sympathy with which Rubenhold writes about the ‘Five’ is evident and her ability as a writer to bring these lives to life, to paint a picture of their struggles in the society in which they lived, is great popular history. She has a novelistic style which fills in the gaps left by the paucity of source material there is for almost any working-class life in Victorian Britain. I’m not surprised this has been selected for a television drama, it reads like a screenplay in places.

This sort of book engages new audiences with history and that has to be a good thing. Will anyone with a strong working knowledge of the Whitechapel case learn much from it? Maybe not, but if it asks them to question the way they approach the case then that too can only be a positive.

Finally, the book has made waves. Partly, of course because of Rubenhold’s bold assertions. But also because of the way that she and some elements of the Ripperology community have clashed both before and after the publication of The Five. Some of the social media exchanges have been unpleasant (to say the least) and seems to be dividing into two camps – those that support her and those that attack her ideas. I find this quite depressing and indicative of our modern society where the quality of intellectual debate is at the lowest I can remember it and where even complex questions are reduced to binary ones. So a lot of mud has been slung about and one comments on the book with caution, for fear of being dubbed a ‘heretic’ by either side.

I enjoyed reading The Five and would recommend that anyone with an interest in well-written popular history would enjoy it also. It is not fair to judge it as an academic study because that it not what it is, whether it is a ‘Ripper’ book is also open to question. It is however a very readable and engaging book about working–class women’s lives, and there are too few of them about so Rubenhold deserves a lot of credit for what she has produced here, I’d like to see more.

*And other women listed  in the Police File (held at the NA).

NB in June 2019 my own joint authored book on the Whitechapel murders will be published by Amberley. In it we argue that the killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered 13 women and attempted the lives of at least 3 more. 

From the Inner Circle to Crossrail: 135 years of ‘improving’ the capital’s transportation network

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Not everything that came before the magistrates in London was ‘criminal’; the Metropolitan Police magistracy dealt with a lot of business that we would deem ‘civil’, including complaints about all sorts of things that were result of the everyday nature of living and working in the world’s largest city.

If you take a trip into London today you will be struck by the sheer amount of building and repair work that goes on. London’s streets are in a constant state of construction and reconstruction; pavements are opened up so utility companies can lay new telecommunications cables, or fix leaks in water pipers, or reroute gas or electricity. New road layouts or junctions are being set out, traffic lights replaced or pelican crossings created, cycle paths painted in, and ‘traffic calming’ measures (a misnomer if ever there was one) put in place.

Meanwhile new housing or office blocks rise up as other buildings are demolished, and scaffolding wraps existing structures in a coating of branded cladding to let us know which major building company is disturbing the peace around us. An army of hi-viz, plastic helmeted workers occupying lofty or lowly positions as they beaver away like so many bright yellow ants to make these design projects a reality.

Foremost amongst all of this building activity is Crossrail, London’s new and expensive east to west underground railway, the first new addition to the capital underground since the Jubilee Line was opened in 1977.  Crossrail has been disrupting London for years, it seems like decades, making it impossible to visit the site of Polly Nicholls’ murder in Durward Street (then Bucks Row) and other places. Crossrail will eventually connect the tow sides of the capital via 26 miles of new tunnels and allow greater connectivity and volume for an underground system that is clearly creaking under the weight of millions of daily commuters.

London’s underground network is the oldest in the world and when it was first opened (in 1863) it was – and remains – a tremendous feat of engineering. From the building of the first lines by the Metropolitan Railway and the District Railway, work expanded to drill down deeper into the capital and them, in the 1890s, the first electric trains began to run. One can only imagine what it was like to travel underground in the Victorian period, on steam-powered engines hauling wooden carries, lit by gas lamps. It is not exactly a picnic today, and recent research has revealed that levels of air pollution are contributing to the ill health of millions of Londoners.

While the tube (as it is affectionately known) was both an engineering miracle and a tremendous boost for the Victorian capital’s economy, it was also a nuisance in just the same way that Crossrail is today.  It disrupted daily life, forced people from their homes and business, and cut deep swathes through the city.  Photos from the time (such as the one above) show scenes of building work that are not unlike those we experience whilst walking or driving in London today.

And for a small glimpse into exactly how this affected ordinary Londoners we can visit the Mansion House Police court in January 1884 just as the new Circle Line (known then as the inner circle) was being constructed. John Bates, who rented rooms at 137 Cannon Street, applied to the Lord Mayor for compensation for being, in effect, evicted from the home where he and his wife had lived for some time.

Bates paid 5s a week for his accommodation and his wife contributed to the rent by cleaning the offices in the rest of the property. The property had been recently acquired by the Metropolitan and District Railways Companies and they were asking the couple to vacate the premises because they needed to knock it down to build a ventilating shaft ‘or “blow hole” for the new underground line below. In court Bates argued that since he had a three year verbal agreement with his landlord he should be compensated for moving out. In reply the lawyer representing the railways insisted that Bates was simply a weekly tenant and had no real rights to his tenancy.

Bates’ representative explained that Mrs Bates also provided a catering service to the clerks that had been occupying the site before it was sold and that she earned £3 a week from this venture; the Bates’ had more to lose than their home then as a consequence of the building of the ‘Inner Circle Railway’. A surveyor calculated the loss of income at £94 per annum and Bates’ claim was for a year and a half, £141, plus costs (which were estimated at over £50).

So what was the Lord Mayor to do? Clearly the building work was going ahead – the tube needed to be built – and so the Bates’ would have to find a new home and a new way of earning a living (or at least some new clients). In the end, having heard from the original landlord that he considered Bates to be ‘a yearly tenant’, the Lord Mayor awarded damages of £100 with 5 guineas costs (a guinea was worth 21 shillings, or £1 and 1s).

This was considerably less than £50 and so the overall compensation awarded was about half what Bates had asked for. It was still about £7,000 in today’s money but I rather expect Crossrail has had to pay a lot more to compensate those in the path of the new railway. After all the estimated cost of Crossrail was supposed to be just under £18bn in 2009 but that was revised downwards to £14.8bn. In 2018 it was announced that the project was behind schedule (by nearly a year) and over budget, to the tune of about £600m.

Hopefully it will all be worth it.

[from The Standard, Saturday, January 19, 1884]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Matthew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know?

Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

A small success in the war on drugs (the nineteenth-century version)

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Plan of the London Docks, by Henry Palmer (1831)

Sergeant Aram of H Division Metropolitan Police (18H) was stationed in Flower and Dean Street, one of the most notoriously rough addresses in Victorian London. Now the street is altered beyond recognition; all that remains is an archway that used to mark the entrance to model dwellings built in 1886. By the 1880s Flower & Dean Street was lined with low lodging houses and several of the Whitechapel murder victims dossed there at some point.

It wasn’t much better in the 1850s and was a almost a ‘no-go’ area for the police who preferred to patrol here in strength. The sergeant may have been positioned here to receive information from his constables as walked their beat. There were fixed points like this throughout the police district but in this case it seems Aram may have been keeping an eye out for criminal activity himself, perhaps on the basis of information he’d received.

At about five o’clock in the morning a hansom cab pulled up and two men got out. One lobbed a bundle into the passageway of number 33 and then turned to see the police officer approaching him. Before sergeant Aram had a chance to ask him what he was up to the man fled.

Seeing his fare disappearing into the night the cabbie started to run after him but sergeant Aram called to him and instructed him to follow the other passenger, a man wearing a smock frock. It took a little while but both men were soon apprehended. At a first hearing at Worship Street both the cab driver (a man named William Perry) and the smock coated man were questioned before being released; the other individual, William Watchem, was remanded for further enquiry.

Two days later Watchem (also known as Will Watch or simply, ‘the Captain’) was brought up from the cells and set in the dock to be examined in the presence of an official from the Customs. He had been formally identified by Inspector White from H Division who clearly knew him (or knew of his reputation).  The Customs were involved because the bundle Watchem had lobbed into 33 Flower & Dean Street contained no fewer than 213 packages of tobacco with a street value of over £50 (about £4,000 today).

Perry, the cabbie, testified that Watchem had flagged him down in the Minories and said he wanted to transport a sack of potatoes. The magistrate was content that the driver was not otherwise involved and perhaps the other man was a police informer (and so was not prosecuted). I imagine the court could have prosecuted this as theft  but it may have proved difficult to gain a conviction. So instead the police and magistrate opted to deal with Watchem under legislation aimed at those that avoided paying the required taxes on imported goods.  So, ‘The Captain’ (described in the press report as ‘the Bold Smuggler’) now faced a hefty fine for non-payment of the duty owed on the tobacco.

The magistrate decided that Watchem should pay a fine of £100 which, at twice the value of the tobacco, was clearly unrealistic and he can’t ever have been expected to do so. Instead, in default, he was sent to prison for six months.

A smuggler was taken off the streets for a while and the police had demonstrated that their information networks were capable of penetrating the underworld of organized crime. It was a small success for sergeant Aram and the men of H Division.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 16 December, 1852]

December 1888: Whitechapel is quiet again,but ‘Jack’ is still at large.

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Today finds me, weather permitting, stumping around Whitechapel with my third year undergraduates. This is an annual occurrence for me; in the past 12 years I’ve only missed one year of taking students around the area to visit the sites of the ‘Ripper’ murders and the associated places of interest.

This year my route has again been carefully worked out to take in as many places that might prove interesting (from Flower & Dean Street, to Wilton’s Music Hall, to the Pinchin Street arches, and back up to Mitre Square and then Christ’s Church, Spitalfields). It will take us the best part of four hours with stops for lunch and refreshments. At the end of it I hope they will have learned something as well as getting slightly fitter!

130 years ago the shadow of the Ripper still lay across Whitechapel. Following Mary Kelly’s death in early November the case began to lose its interest for the newspapers but no killer had been caught and the police patrols continued. There had been an attempt of the life of one woman (Annie Farmer) on 20 November, just eleven days after Kelly’s murder, and there was another homicide that can be associated with ‘Jack’ on December 20 that year (Rose Mylett), but things were more or less back to ‘normal’ in East London.

On Thursday 13 November 1888 the proprietors of Batey & Company Limited, ginger beer manufacturers, were summoned to appear at Worship Street Police court accused of infringing the factories act. It was alleged that the company had employed 21 young women who were set to work beyond 2 o’clock on Saturday afternoon at the company’s factory in Kingsland Road.

Under the terms of the act they should have been released at 11.30 that morning but the company was hard pressed. There had been, its representative explained, an ‘extra demand for aerated waters, owing to the late summer’. They admitted their culpability and Mr Bushey fined them £21 (£1 for each girl) plus £2 2scosts. It was an expensive day in court for the Bateys and one wonders if an employee had blown the whistle on them or whether a factory inspector had been watching them. Often these prosecutions followed repeated infringements of the law, rather than being isolated incidents.

The paper that day also chose another similar case to remind its readers (who would have come from the same class as the owners of the factory in Kingsland Road) that the laws must be respected. Hannah Bender, who worked as a French polisher, was fined £1 plus 4sfor employing two young women after eight in the evening, against the statute. The Match Girls strike had happened in 1888 and so labour rights were fresh in everyone’s memory, perhaps that was why these cases were prosecuted, or at least highlighted by the Standard.

[from The Standard, Friday, December 14, 1888]

In June next year my own solution to the Whitechapel murders is due for release. Based on several years of research it is a collaborative effort with an independent researcher, Andy Wise. We hope to offer a new angle on the killings that terrified Londoners in the late 1880s.