Social conditions in Whitechapel


In 1752, just at the time when the London Hospital construction had ended Whitechapel became a place where old and new immigrants tried to earn a living on the twisted, narrow streets by trading, silk weaving, furniture making, tailoring or sewing

In 1837 Queen Victoria came to the throne and as industrialization was getting more and more significant, masses from the country started to migrate to the capital. The population of London increased as the impoverished Irish came to the poorer districts after the 1850 famine together with Jews who fled Russia from the 1880s pogroms. The East End of London was becoming slowly but surely a dirty industrial district. Being a part of the Tower Hamlets District, the Whitechapel area was considered to be a ‘terra incognita’ that middle-class West End Londoners saw as a breeding ground for criminals, prostitutes, paupers, sexual aberration and child abuse. Jack London arrived at the same conclusion some years after the Whitechapel murders. In his famous work, The People of the Abyss he described the inhabitants of the East End as being ‘small’ and ‘ill-shaped’ but ‘when they spring upon their human prey, they are known even to bend the victim backward and double its body till the back is broken.’ He thought he discovered ‘a new species, a breed of city savages. ‘The streets and houses, alleys and courts, are their hunting grounds. […] The slum is their jungle, and they live and prey in the jungle.’ Only the presence of the police (or ‘keepers’ as he called them, referring to some kind of human zoo) prevented these savages from attacking the ordinary workers.


In 1886, the sociologist Booth assigned a team of young researchers to survey and map every street and block identifying the degrees of poverty. Booth had his assistants interview Londoners and write qualitative descriptions on their lives. Sometimes these researchers went house by house in various districts collecting valuable information for Booth’s initiative. After the mapping, school board leaders were interviewed. The research team finally revised their data and each street of London was hand coloured on the Booth-map. According to his findings the total population of the area rose to 909, 000 by 1887 and the poorest lived in the Whitechapel area.

Based on income of the households Booth finally determined that approximately 30 percent of London’s population lived below the poverty line.


The situation of young girls or children was the most rankling. In 1885 Williams T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette published a series of articles entitled the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. In order to prove that his stories were based on truth, he had arranged the ‘purchase’ of a thirteen-year old girl. Finally, he published his ‘findings’ in a four-part series, titled the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, certainly the greatest piece of scandal journalism of the 19th century. (Sadly, this man met his fate onboard the Titanic)

As the newsagent, W. H. Smith did not approve of selling the issues, the Pall Mall Gazette had to rely on town criers and they sold the papers literally on the street. George Bernard Shaw hailed the author and assured Stead that he was going to popularize the series on ’any thoroughfare in London’.

This campaign helped to force the government to increase the age of consent from 13 to 16 in the same year by passing the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885.

There also was an increasing demand to eliminate prostitution. In itself it was not a crime therefore the strict constables could not arrest these women for simply walking the streets therefore the real danger was not the risk of being taken to prison but the risk of becoming alcoholic or getting contaminated by some venereal disease. There is only estimation on the exact number of prostitutes because the census was not precise, and many women were only casual sex workers. The London Police estimated that more than six thousand full-time prostitutes were working on the streets in the 1860s, but this census did not contain women who supplemented their wages through prostitution. Pimps, who abused the women working for them, were not disturbed by the police.

Any time almost any woman in the Whitechapel had to prostitute herself as the only way to make ends meet.

Despite the increasing demands of shutting them down, the infamous brothels of the East End continued to exist, until one man started his campaign against them. Frederick Charrington, a respectable man from wealthy background used the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 and attacked the brothels and the lodging houses that served as brothels. Although finally he was successful in having the police close most of the brothels in the East End, he is also partially responsible for driving several prostitutes into the dark streets of London. Two of them were later found savagely murdered by Jack the Ripper.

Crusading for the poor and the abandoned always meant good financial politics for newspapers. The first London County Council election was taking place in 1888, radicals and extreme leftists believed they could win the East End. Liberal newspapers such as the Star and the Pall Mall Gazette (evening newspapers) realized that if they wrote up the murders, they could draw attention to the terrible social conditions of the East End. The best way to do it was to blame the management of the City.

Victorian News Reportage – The role of journalism in forming social forms

In the 1880s it was typical of the conservative press to use or even to create events in order to convince their readers that deviancy and crime grew to a certain extent and stricter laws should be made. Law abiding citizens were alarmed and smartly manipulated by the law and order type of news.

Passing the Education Act of 1870 made school attendance compulsory for children up to the age of 13. As a result of this a new generation emerged with different needs that of the Victorian middle-classes had. These masses preferred sensational news to political ones.

Victorian sensation news was not homogenous and can be classified into different categories. Upper-class scandals included divorces, extramarital affairs, and frauds impersonating the dead heir had always attracted wide attention. Sensation novel, for instance ship accidents, expeditions with mysterious disappearing, innocent young women seduced seemed to be appropriate even for the sophisticated readers.

Above all, sensation horror was probably the most popular. As executions were moved inside the prison walls in 1868 by the Capital Punishment Amendment Act, readers had to rely on their imagination – or on newspapers. Eyewitness accounts, autopsy reports of murders attracted attention the most. Stead’s investigative and shock journalism was the most disputed amongst all.

The autumn of 1888 happened to be a journalistic windfall. The Jack the Ripper murders were shocking because of the gratuitous mutilations and the lack of any obvious motive.

This analysis tries to present the era’s journalistic language and methods by examples from the Victorian newspapers, especially The Times and its conservative law and order reporting in comparison with the Star’s radical and sensational approach.

Other papers, for instance the Morning Post, the Globe, the Evening News and the People were as conservative as The Times. The Pall Mall Gazette, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Chronicle, the Weekly Times, the Reynolds’s, the Lloyd’s and the Punch were liberal or even radical. The East London Observer, the East London Advertiser and the East End News were local newspapers that showed much more sympathy for the victims. Their style lacked the method of as if the murders were committed on foreign land. Interesting fact is that most of the newspapers got their information from second hand sources as they relied on the Central Agency News. They often failed to agree on the names of the victims and even on the precise time of the murders.

Language, behaviour of Victorian newspapers focusing on the reasons of missing intimate details, i.e. the lack of reporting on the sexual nature of the murders.