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Why do we celebrate Jack The Ripper?

Updated Friday 10th November 2006

To what extent did Jack The Ripper mask more pressing fears of revolution in Victorian England? Michael Portillo investigates

Hotbed of revolution? Victorian Whitechapel Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: photos.com

Michael
By rights, it should have been foggy…but it was raining.

Michael
I might even buy an umbrella. How much is that?

Umbrella vendor
Three pounds sir.

Michael
Thank you very much indeed, that’ll keep the rain off. Thank you. Never judge a man by his umbrella, he may have borrowed it.

Michael
Outside Tower Hill tube station in London, a cagouled and expectant crowd is gathering to walk for two hours in the rain. And they are paying for the privilege.

Adam
That’ll be twelve pounds please. Thank you, that’s fifteen pounds. Er can you just hold that? One, two, three. Thank you.

Michael
Yes, there’s big money to be made out of memory, particularly if it’s the recollection of a Victorian psychopath whose identity remains one of history’s secrets. Our guide on the ever-popular “Jack the Ripper Walk” was Adam…

Michael
Adam, how many people have you got on the tour tonight?

Adam
Er around seventy or so I think. Er it can often get higher, we’ve, we’ve had as many as a hundred and fifty.

Michael
I can’t believe it. I thought there’d be you know three people, I’m just amazed by it.

Adam
Indeed, actually ... I said we can get about two hundred.

Michael
Despite the inclement weather there’s now quite a large crowd gathering to go on the Jack the Ripper tour, and I wonder what exactly has inspired them to be here this evening, and what it is they’ve come to remember.

Child on tour
He’s a man that killed people in Whitechapel where all the prostitutes…

Woman
Where all the prostitutes, yeah.

Michael
How many do you think?

Woman
Is it twelve or thirteen?

Michael
And so why do you want to visit such a macabre set of scenes as that?

Man on tour
Why go into politics?

Laughter

Michael
Well, I suppose he’s got a point. Still, if you think I’ve spent my time since leaving Parliament dreaming up new theories about who Jack the Ripper was, then I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.

Adam
Good evening, I’m your guide this evening, your guide back in time to the autumn of terror, 1888, to the Jack the Ripper murders. Folks please stick to the pavement at all times, safety is your most important thing this evening, and follow me in this direction.

Michael
As the crowd of Ripper voyeurs disappears into the gloom of an October night, hanging on Adam’s every word, I’m going to deviate from the well-trodden path of Ripper-ology and the myths surrounding the killing spree in the East End of London in the autumn of 1888.

Rich as the Jack the Ripper story is, with images as familiar as they’re chilling, why is it that we remember this particular murderer? And in remembering him above all else from that time, what have we forgotten?

[Music]

Michael
…and that will be the only piece of melodramatic Victorian mood music that you’ll hear in this programme, I promise.

The shelves of libraries and film archives groan with examples of Rippers – real and imagined.

I’m not going to compound those clichés, but I want to interrogate the myth. Could it be that we’ve allowed this one figure to overshadow the real fear that stalked London in the late 1880s – a fear not of a man, but for a whole way of life?

Listen to the voices of Londoners from that time – if there had been a Radio 4 they’d have been on it - as it was their words come from pulpits, newspapers and political speeches.

READING
“…we are living at the crater of a volcano which at any moment may over­whelm the community as with a torrent”

“We must see that those in high authority deal with this matter, and that the people are not driven to excesses in their despair”

“…sins condemned in savages are being committed in the centre of the Empire!”

Michael
So London was clearly afraid – but none of the fears we’ve just heard was about a murderer killing prostitutes in the East End. After all, as Dr Barry Godfrey, criminologist from Keele University, points out, violent crime was not new in 19th century Britain…

Barry
Well I think that any casual reading of Victorian newspapers will give you a great range of very gruesome crimes very quickly. There’s a very gruesome murder in Shropshire, around the same time as Jack the Ripper is going in London, where the parents of one eight-year-old girl they chop off her head, the mother goes out and wraps the head in brown paper, throws it in the local pond, while the father stays behind to burn the rest of the body on the fireplace. Now that’s happening at the same time as Jack, it’s not reaching the national press, it gets three or four lines in the Shropshire newspapers where it happened, it doesn’t even make The Times.

Michael
And yet, there looms Jack, cornering our memory of the 1880’s, casting a long shadow that hides something that clearly made contemporary Londoners very afraid. Paul Begg has made a study of the life and times of Jack the Ripper…

Paul
We remember one man but we don’t always remember what was going on at the time, and that all becomes overshadowed by this, this one almost iconic image that we now have of the, the top hatted and cape and, and black Gladstone bag figure disappearing into the fog. The fact that he probably didn’t dress like that and there certainly wasn’t any fog doesn’t matter to people any more. Our ghoulish interest today hides all this other stuff that was going on that really is so important to the way that we are today. But it is a little frustrating sometimes.

Michael
Jack the Ripper and the iconography around him – a terror incognito, a creeping sense of threat in foggy recesses of the imagination – can be seen as a kind of Victorian code for the real feelings of horror that Londoners felt. Jack was a metaphor for his time, but now we no longer remember the other anxieties for which he was the symbol.

So what have we forgotten along the way?

[Sound effect: Drums]

Michael
What worried the middle class in the West End of London wasn’t the sad demise of a handful of fallen women in the east, it was a terror that everything they held dear could collapse. What we’ve forgotten to remember about Jack the Ripper is that he concealed a real fear of violent revolution.

READING
Unless something is done and done soon, for the destitute masses of London and other great cities of this Empire, we should have… a revolution itself.

Michael
That from a local vicar, and this from a local newspaper

READING
Of what consequence are a few murders more or less in Whitechapel, as long as polite society is secure from the denunciation of the Socialists?

Michael
The 1880s brought a now forgotten economic depression. Harvest failed, and the level of unemployment was so high and so talked of, that the word “unemployed” first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1882. Propertied folk coined a new term, the residuum – a body that they feared more than any cloaked murderer. Professor Gareth Stedman Jones of Cambridge University

Gareth
The residuum had meant just a lingering remnant who were supposed to disappear, but in the 1880s, because there’s unemployment and because there’s great pressure on space and housing, and therefore rents go up, this leads to fears that this residuum is actually becoming very large, that it’s swamping the City as a whole, and that it of course is not a friend of private property or good order.

Michael
The residuum that most concerned the propertied classes was the one that inhabited London, slept rough on its main streets and looked with hungry eyes at a world from which it felt utterly alienated. And where did this spectre come from? Ripper country, of course, the East End. Social historian Don Rumbelow suggests that revolution was in the air…

Don
Talk of revolution is highlighted by the fact that 1889 was going to be the one hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution and there were many people actually sort of making links with that. And coming to sort of Victoria’s Jubilee year, 1887, and there is all this talk of the glories of the British Empire, whereas in the East End themselves they say we’re not British Empire, we are the empire of the hungry. And there is this threat, it seems, coming out of the East End.

Michael
Would 1889 be to England what 1789 had been to France? The streets of London had seen the poor in desperation before – in the so-called Hungry 40s and during the Chartist agitation - and no revolution had come…but 1887 felt different; this time the mob had a philosophy. Dr Peter Claus is a historian of Victorian London…

Peter
It was a crisis in the 1880s, a crisis of casual labour, a chronic shortage of working class housing, we had the de-industrialisation of London’s inner industrial perimeter which has caused all sorts of economic problems, and of course there was the beginnings of a collectivist alternative to what up to then had been a dominant liberal ideology. So we see these Communists and we see anarchists almost for the first time I suppose amongst the masses.

Michael
Professor Gareth Stedman Jones has studied the response of West Enders to the emergence of that radical mob…

Gareth
They remembered the Commune, in Paris – that had been dramatised in the newspapers – and in 1886 their fears seemed to be confirmed because there were loads of unemployed as it were gathered waiting to join the large unemployed march to march on Central London, the West End, and overrun propertied London. So these were the fears, and they were certainly widely reported. There were lots of people shutting up shops, a lot of, as it were, better paid working class parents went to the board schools to take their children away because they feared the arrival of this mob.

Michael
That mob, under the leadership of Marxists like Henry Mayers Hyndman, began to agitate for a wholesale reorganisation of British society. William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant, and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, all advocated a radical shift in property ownership and wealth. The plight of the starving East Enders, gathered in the squares and shopping streets of the West End, took on a dangerously seditious appearance.

The Ripper’s killing spree lasted about ten weeks and claimed five victims, whereas the threat of revolution and serious social disorder lasted for years. And, as with all good revolutions, its threats came from many sides. Don Rumbelow…

Don
Certainly between 1881 and 1885 you have sort of Fenian outrages, you have bombs in the Tower of London, the House of Commons, dynamiting of London Bridge. These political activities are very much the prime concern of the police. If you sort of want a gradation you’ve got the political problems – that’s a prime major priority – control of the streets – that’s the second priority – and then when you get down to crime, like the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, that is low on the list, and in fact some would actually go so far as to say well a few murders are worth it if we can keep control of streets.

Michael
In London, at the time of Jack the Ripper, a series of events dominated the headlines, made Londoners lock their doors and made the police look foolish. But they had nothing to do with Jack, and they’ve slipped from our memory.

Between February 1886 and December 1887, London saw some of the worst rioting in a generation. In February 1886, a cold and hungry mob set out from Trafalgar Square into Pall Mall, attacking the gentlemen’s clubs and shops just yards from Buckingham Palace. The police proved powerless to stop the crowd as it grew in size and menace. On 11th February, Queen Victoria wrote to the prime minister Gladstone…

READING
The Queen cannot sufficiently express her indignation at the monstrous riot... a momentary triumph of socialism and disgrace to the capital. If steps, and very strong ones, are not specially taken to put these proceedings down with a high hand, to punish severely the REAL ringleaders, the Government will suffer severely. The effect abroad is already very humiliating to this country . . . The police seem to be greatly to blame.

Michael
It wasn’t the last time that the police’s performance would be criticized. By the following Autumn of 1887 resolve on both sides had hardened further and conflict seemed imminent. I joined historian Professor Clive Emsley at one of the main gathering places for demonstrations against poverty, the point where the poor East met the rich West – Trafalgar Square.

Clive
There hadn’t been a major political demonstration which had turned nasty in London for twenty years. The Social Democratic Federation, they’re the nearest thing that Britain has to a Marxist party in the 1880s, but you’ve also got political groups converging on Trafalgar Square. You had a group coming down Haymarket, which is led by George Bernard Shaw, and that’s confronted by a row of police, and there is, there’s mass fighting over to the north-west of the square. You have another group coming down St Martin’s Lane, which again is confronted by the police. You had a whole series of groups trying to get into the square. The police lines hold, but there are very significant casualties on each side. The police bring up reinforcements in the shape of the Army. You have a couple of squadrons of the Household Cavalry come up Whitehall into the Square and eventually clear it, and just about where we’re standing at the moment there were two or three companies of Grenadier Guards ordered to fix bayonets. So it is, it’s a serious demonstration.

Michael
Women’s rights activist Annie Besant was amongst the crowd…

READING
As we were moving slowly and quietly along one of the narrow streets debouching on Trafalgar Square, wondering whether we should be challenged, there was a sudden charge, and without word the police were upon us with uplifted truncheons; the banner was struck down, and men and women were falling under a hail of blows. There was no attempt at resist­ance; the people were too much astounded at the unprepared attack. They scattered, leaving some of their number on the ground too much injured to move … the soldiers were ready to fire, the people unarmed: it would have been but a massacre.

Clive
It’s not clear whether one, two or three members of the crowd were killed on Bloody Sunday. Around two hundred were taken to local hospitals, and about seventy police. So the fighting was, was pretty intense. And it’s hand to hand fighting with batons and fists, and the police swinging their capes, it would appear. Fortunately the Cavalry aren’t used with drawn sabres and those Grenadier Guards aren’t asked to prod with their bayonets or to use their rifles.

Michael
Like all good would-be revolutions, this one had its martyrs. At the public funeral on December 18th, 1887 of Alfred Linnell, one of the rioters killed on what became known as Bloody Sunday, William Morris penned a verse to be read over his coffin…

READING
What cometh here from west to east awending?
And who are these, the marchers stern and slow?
We bear the message that the rich are sending
Aback to those who bade them wake and know.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

Michael
Now there wasn’t a revolution – we all know that – the vital elements that historians agree a revolution needs weren’t in place – a power vacuum, a sympathy in the armed forces and so on. But what makes these events fascinating is that Londoners thought that there might be a revolution, coming from the East End, and their police force might be incapable of defending them. The East End became demonised.

Michael
Whitechapel today is still an area where migrants to this the country set up home…today many of its inhabitants are from South Asia – in 1888 many were Jews fleeing the pogroms in central Europe. Although some of the Victorian buildings from the Ripper era still stand, it’s hard to imagine the overcrowding, squalor and the poverty that characterised this district in the autumn of 1888. Such conditions had spawned the rioters of the previous year – and the propertied classes feared that they could do so again.

But the rioters didn’t come back in 1888. Something else arose in the East End. I ventured there with Ripper expert Paul Begg. …

Michael
I’ve come to Bucks Row, a straight street that runs behind Whitechapel station, within earshot of the underground trains. At one end of the street I can see the Gherkin building in the City of London, but this is the heart of the East End. Just here there is still the nineteenth century Board School, and just outside that Board School was where a horrific discovery was made on the 31st August 1888. Paul Begg, what was it that was found?

Paul
Well it was on this spot that the body of Mary Anne Nicholls was found, and she was the first victim of a killer who became known to posterity as Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper would have come to embody a mobile East end if you like, and so that if he crossed over to the West End then other things could come in as well, and I think that was the way in which the Ripper crimes would subconsciously have been affecting people at the time. Jack the Ripper became a metaphor for what was wrong with society as a whole, or what people were frightened of in society as a whole. They would probably have looked at the murders and in a sense they would have been frightened that if things continued to go the way that they did then there would certainly be an uprising of the poor.

Michael
I’ve moved a short distance within the capital to the Metropolitan Police Archive, which isn’t open to the public and whose exact location I cannot reveal. I’ve arranged to meet the curator, Maggie Bird, to tell me how much trust the propertied classes had in the thin blue line that protected them…

Michael
Maggie, in the 1880s what was it like trying to police this area?

Maggie
Very difficult. They were containing the situation rather than actively policing it, because it was such a difficult area. And there was a lot of corruption between the locals and the police at the time.

Michael
I’m looking here actually at a Punch cartoon, October 1888, and it’s actually entitled ‘Whitechapel 1888’. You’ve got two villains in the foreground here.

Maggie
There’s two villains looking, yeah, yeah.

Michael
And the policeman in the background.

Maggie
Yes, and it says that they’ve got no large reserves for catching villains let alone doing anything else.

Michael
Because the first villain is saying: “Fine body of men the police”, and the second villain’s saying…

Maggie
“Uncommon fine. It’s lucky for hus as there’s such a bloomin’ few of ’em”.

Michael
Yeah it’s quite striking that in the year of the Ripper murders, following the riot in Trafalgar Square, here is Punch producing a cartoon which is actually entitled ‘Whitechapel 1888’, and making this point about the shortage of police to control the situation.

Maggie
Yeah.

Michael
You can imagine the middle class being pretty scared. I don’t know whether they’d be more scared by this mob, or by this murdered woman in the East End.

Maggie
Yes. I think they would be more startled by the, the mob than the, than the murders, because they would never have entered into this area of Whitechapel. The mob was much, much more of a threat to them and they thought of anarchy and the mob taking over.

Michael
If literate society in London feared the mob more than the murderer, why is it what we remember him? Barry Godfrey…

Barry
It was Jack which became the embodiment of a set of fears and political and cultural anxieties revolving around at that time, so I think that Jack was a great symbol for everybody. He was somebody that the Liberals and the nascent Socialist movement could pick on and say this is what happens if you don’t have social reform. He was also an idea in a way that the more Conservative elements of society could say this is what happens if you don’t control those areas, and we need more police in these areas. So he was not only Jack the Ripper, he was kind of Jack of all trades for practically everybody’s political theories at the time.,

Michael
Jack the Ripper became a shorthand for the social problems of the East End, the factors that underlay the Bloody Sunday riot. Jack’s impact was huge because he became a media event in a way that we can all recognise today. He was massively covered in the emerging illustrated press, and he fitted into a fashion of Gothic revival. Dr Peter Claus…

Peter
What we’re seeing from at least from the 1860s is several genres that begin to set the scene for how we understand this dark, dangerous, mysterious, complex urban place. All of these, all of these genres, are building a picture of deepest and darkest London, of an urban labyrinth, impenetrable, unknowable, mysterious - all the qualities that we associate with Jack.

Michael
There was a vocabulary of urban fear with which Victorians were familiar. Jack played to that very well. Professor Clive Emsley…

Clive
There’s a massive market for sensational literature in the late Victorian period, and this is pushing back the, the frontiers of what can be reported. And I think again what’s fascinating about the Ripper is it comes hard on the heels of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, which comes out in 1886. In the summer immediately before the Ripper murders there is a stage production of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. Now Mr Hyde - top hat, cape - you can see where one of the images of Jack the Ripper comes from – purely and simply from the novel and the subsequent play.

Michael
Contemporary scientific theory even made Jack symbolic not just of his age but of the human condition. Professor Stedman-Jones…

Gareth
It was locating in a particular place a fear which was actually much more basic and widespread. Don’t forget that the 1880s is a period where Darwin enters sort of educated popular culture if you like. Everyone is worried that maybe man is beneath the skin still a beast.

Peter
Without being able to locate the Whitechapel murders within those genres, within the gothic, within social investigation, and indeed of sensational journalism, we wouldn’t remember Jack at all. I think in many ways, if this had been somehow a rural or a small town phenomenon, it would have completely disappeared from our consciousness. It’s simply because we understood the environment and associated Jack with the environment in which he was working, that he’s actually survived at all. In that sense I think Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders are much more important for historians of the urban than they are for historians of criminology.

Michael
And that “urban” that Peter Claus is referring to is the East End – demonised, criminalised, and home to unspeakable, un-Christian acts. The East End in the 1880s was comprehended by the Victorians and feared by them. Jack the Ripper is just part of a way that they decoded the menace from the underclass. Yet by making philanthropists, journalists and politicians focus on the moral and material plight of the East Enders, Jack the Ripper played a role in a social revolution that the Socialists and anarchists of Bloody Sunday could only dream of, as Barry Godfrey explains…

Barry
The identity of Jack the Ripper is probably the least interesting part of the whole story. Much more important and interesting is the part that he played in the whole progress of social and welfare reform in the East End of London and eventually in the United Kingdom as a whole. There’s a great deal of commentary about social problems in the East End, and Jack the Ripper is drawing attention to them. And there’s a, an idea that this is the kind of thing that you’re going to get when social problems are left to fester. So it allows social reformers to press the case of the East End. For example there are cartoons of the figure of Death stalking the East End, with ‘Nemesis’ written underneath, and that did eventually bring about some Acts of Parliament which alleviated poverty and alleviated the living conditions of really the poorest section of society, certainly poorest section of London society. So I think we can say that although Jack wasn’t the, the motor of social reform, he did certainly help to focus attention on the social problems of the East End. So I think that yes you could give some of the credit of social reform to Jack the Ripper.

Michael
Jack the socialist? Perhaps. But if we give this murderer some credit for improving conditions in the East End, we should not forget the years of suffering, agitation and riot that also demanded a response. We’ve forgotten to remember those things, but why is that?

Barry
When it comes to trying to remember social protest, that’s a little bit more complex, it’s more difficult to understand. You need to understand the social and historical context in which demonstrations and political agitation took place. I guess I’m trying to say, it’s a little bit harder. It’s much more rewarding, because you can find out much more about society, the way it worked then, and possibly the way it works now, but it does take a lot of investigation, it takes reading, it takes some academic study. I guess Jack the Ripper is just sexier, much more exciting than popular protest and the growth of Socialism in this country.

Michael
Looking back on the 1880s, one figure stands clear in our memories, based on his 70 day reign of terror. But the fears of revolution that persisted for years have disappeared in the peasouper of our collective amnesia. Such are the things that we forget to remember.

 

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