Exploring London’s Sordid Past
For many people throughout the world, the London district of Whitechapel is known for only one thing – the 1888 rampage of notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. He is, arguably, the most famous killer of all time. His morbid legacy has been the subject of scores of books and numerous ripperologists put forward their own theories regarding Saucy Jack’s real identity. But Jack the Ripper is not the only chapter in Whitechapel’s sordid history.
1. The Other Murders
Five victims have been ascribed to Jack the Ripper with certainty – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride and Mary Kelly – called the “canonical five” by ripperologists. However, between 1888 and 1891, there have been eleven women murdered in Whitechapel whose killer (or killers) remained unidentified.
This prompted a long, ongoing debate regarding how many of the other six women were victims of Jack the Ripper (if any). It is possible that he killed them all. It’s also possible that their deaths were completely unrelated or that Whitechapel might have had one or more murderers hoping to tack on their own killings to Saucy Jack. Oh, and it’s also likely that one of the murders might have been a suicide or an accidental death.
2. The People of the Abyss
Even if the district didn’t have a crazed killer running amok, Victorian Whitechapel was not a pleasant place to be. In fact, it was full of slums that housed many of London’s 500,000 poor people who lived in absolute misery and squalor.
American writer Jack London wanted to document life in the East End of London and published “The People of the Abyss” in 1903. This was a firsthand account as he lived for months in the slums of Whitechapel, either finding shelter in workhouses or just sleeping on the streets. Afterwards, he said that “no other book [of mine] took so much of [my] young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor.”
“In such conditions, the outlook for children is hopeless. They die like flies, and those that survive, survive because they possess excessive vitality and a capacity of adaptation to the degradation with which they are surrounded. They have no home life. In the dens and lairs in which they live they are exposed to all that is obscene and indecent. And as their minds are made rotten, so are their bodies made rotten by bad sanitation, over-crowding, and underfeeding.”
3. Where Does the Name Come From?
Was there ever an actual white chapel in Whitechapel? Actually, there was… for over 600 years, in fact. It started out as a chapel-of-ease for the St. Dunstan Church in Stepney until becoming a church in its own right called St. Mary Matfelon. It was known to locals as the “white chapel” due to its whitewash paint made out of chalk and lime. Eventually, the road it was situated on became known as Whitechapel Road and, soon after, the whole region. The church lasted until 1952 when it was demolished after previously sustaining heavy damages during the Blitz.
4. The Kray Twins
As it turns out, Whitechapel’s murder history extends well beyond Jack the Ripper. During the 1960s, Whitechapel was home to notorious London gangsters the Kray Twins. In fact, we already talked about the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel. It became infamous as the place where Ronnie Kray gunned down rival gang member George Cornell in broad daylight.
5. The Salvation Army
Whitechapel’s history is not just about poverty and murder. There have been good things, too. For example, this is the place where William Booth founded the Salvation Army back in 1865. In fact, he started by preaching outside the inn that 30 years later would become the aforementioned Blind Beggar pub.