A few years back I happened to be working in Aldgate on the eastern edge of the City. I was just beginning to investigate my long family connection to Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Whitechapel and beyond to Stepney and Bethnal Green, so it was an opportunity to visit the places named in the family records I’d been reading.
The Gherkin Tower reflected in a Bishopsgate puddle.
As a west Londoner born and raised, I’m about as East End as your average American tourist or shire-bred hipster. So I did what any self-respecting tourist does, I got out my camera and pounded the streets, my grandparent’s memories as background music. It was also a chance to soak up that rich seam of crime for which Whitechapel and Spitalfields has become known – this, after all, being Ripper country.
Jack the Ripper and the five grisly murders he carried out in the autumn of 1888 has come to encapsulate a whole era of London – think of Jack and you are likely as not to think of fogs, top hats, grimy courts, storm lanterns, screams and whistles. The mayhem and terror he caused in such a short space of time has reverberated down the decades from the hysterical contemporary newspaper reports, right up to the present day with BBC’s drama Ripper Street and dare I say it, this blog post.
Suffice to say, if you want to find out more about the man and his work, there are a surplus of books, films, guided tours and websites peruse. A good place to start is http://www.casebook.org, which sets out the facts including official documents, details about the victims, plus contemporary maps and other historical sources.
Casebook has transcribed 5449 contemporary articles in 298 different newspapers around the world, which fed the huge public appetite for lurid details of the victims and and their horrific murders. These stories even provided the inspiration for a knife attack south of the river in Peckham.
On 15 October, just two weeks after the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on 30 September, Frank Hall cut the throat of Sarah Brett after her husband Thomas Onley drunkenly offered him 10 shillings to carry out a “Whitechapel murder” before passing out.
There was also intense interest in the place where such horrors could happen and the newspapers were only too willing to oblige. In “An autumn evening Whitechapel”, published in Littel’s Living Age, the reporter takes a night time stroll soon after the height of the terror:
‘Turn down this side street out of the main Whitechapel Road. It may be well to tuck out of view any bit of jewellery that may be glittering about; the sight of means to do ill-deeds makes ill-deeds done.
The street is oppressively dark, though at present the gloom is relieved somewhat by feebly lighted shopfronts. Men are lounging at the doors of the shops, smoking evil-smelling pipes.
Women with bare heads and with arms under their aprons are sauntering about in twos and threes, or are seated gossiping on steps leading into passages dark as Erebus.
Now round the corner into another still gloomier passage, for there are no shops here to speak of. This is the notorious Wentworth Street.
The police used to make a point of going through this only in couples, and possibly may do so still when they go there at all.”
Two of the murders took place in the shadow of the bone-white spire of Christ Church, the Nicholas Hawksmoor church that dominates Spitalfields, one of six churches built by the protege of Christopher Wren during the early decades of the 18th century.
Christ Church, Spitalfields
A mythology has built up around Hawksmoor, in which he is cast as a Free Mason occultist who not only designed his churches according to sacred pre-Christian geometry, but aligned them along ley lines, which attracted a dark malignancy. Built on plague pits and with its odd proportions, obscure pyramid, and severe lines, Christ Church certainly has a brooding presence.
Writer and London’s lead psychogeographer Ian Sinclair, fired the starting pistol of this occult trope with his 1975 poem Lud Heat, which was continued by contemporary novelist Peter Ackroyd in his thriller Hawksmoor. Alan Moore, writer of The Watchmen, drew the strands together in From Hell, in which Jack the Ripper is William Gull, Queen Victoria’s surgeon, occult practitioner and Mason.
Moore’s work is powerful and solidly researched, weaving esoteric speculation with historical fact, all the time laying bare the horrendous conditions and stark, precarious lives that Whitechapel’s residents endured. For it was poverty, hunger and illness that remained their everyday horrors, long after Jack disappeared.
A poor woman of Whitechapel, 1888