Chasing Jack: Exploring the Remnants of Victorian London
January 1, 1970
There’s something oddly romantic about Whitechapel; not the emotional type of romantic, but the idealised, curious type. I often imagine myself walking the foggy, cobbled streets of Victorian London wearing a peaked cap, stopping off at a quintessentially British pub and washing down a hearty stew with a nice cold pint – served in a tankard of course.
This “romantic” image was spawned by my interest in the Whitechapel murders, which started at a very young age; too young in fact (I was 11 years old.) Today, at 27, I find the topic of old-Jack more fascinating than ever and have even started to develop my own theories about his identity. Some may even call me a “ripperologist.” Therefore, it probably comes as no surprise that taking a Jack the Ripper tour is always a top priority when I visit London.
In recent years Whitechapel has been heavily gentrified. The doss houses that once harboured London’s poorest for a few pennies a night are now trendy townhouses worth millions, and many of the original landmarks have been replaced with corporate offices. However, even with all the high rise buildings, polished in glass, adopting all sorts of strange shapes and sizes – the Gherkin for instance – remnants of old Victoria can still be found… but they won’t be around forever. That’s why, on my last visit to London, my brother and I decided to photograph some of the sites associated with the Ripper investigation.
First stop: Mitre Square. Now encased by modern office buildings, this unsuspecting square was where Catherine Eddowes – the Ripper’s forth victim – was murdered. We arrived to see a young, professional-looking couple sitting on the only bench. I found myself wondering, did they know that they were dining on the very spot that was once splattered with some poor woman’s entrails? Probably not.
Even today Mitre Square is a strange place. While seconds from the busy Commercial Street, it’s completely secluded and has little congestion. We stood around for at least ten minutes while I recited gory details of the gruesome event, but apart from the couple enjoying their lunch, we were completely alone. It was easy to imagine what it would have been like a century ago, and why Jack picked this particular spot.
Our second destination was the Happy Days Fish and Chip Shop on Goulston Street. And no, we weren’t stopping for a bite to eat. The restaurant is part of a block of flats that was once called Wentworth Model Dwellings. The wall of the chippie is where Jack the Ripper scrawled a macabre message – The Jewes are the men that Will not be Blamed for nothing – in white chalk while fleeing the scene of Eddowes’ murder; it was the only clue he ever left. He then dumped part of her blood-stained apron under the archway. One policeman arriving at the scene claimed to have even found swirling blood in a nearby puddle.
Nowadays, Goulston Street is home to a daily food court, serving a variety of ethic street dishes: Moroccan fish, Lebanese falafel, Thai curry, Jordanian rice, Japanese katsu, Beijing dim yum. Directly adjacent is the world famous Petticoat Lane market, which is where some of Jack’s victims worked as traders when they weren’t out on the streets.
And then on to our final destination: 29 Hanbury Street. Hanbury Street is essentially a thoroughfare between Commercial Street and Brick Lane, literally seconds from Spitalfields Market – also where some of Jack’s victims worked. We stood around for a few minutes, listening to another tour group as they stopped to describe the gory details of Jack’s second murder.
The original structure was a block of flats that had a hallway, leading from the street to the back garden. This is where the disembowelled body of Annie Chapman was found in the morning of 8 September 1888. Unfortunately, the house that once stood was knocked down in 1969 to be replaced by the Truman Brewery car park. However, the opposite side of the road is a near-mirror image of the original site and has been left virtually untouched. We lined up a photograph, and even today, it looks exactly the same.
The Jack the Ripper Museum
It was getting dark and cold, so instead of wondering the streets, we decided to visit the Jack the Ripper Museum, which opened in August 2015 and has since received a great deal of media attention for reasons I won’t get in to. What I will say is that, contrary to the press reports, my brother and I both felt that the museum was a dignified memorial to victims of the Whitechapel Murders.
The exhibition is split into five sections, the murder scene (first floor), Jack’s bedroom (second floor), the police station (third floor) Mary Kelly’s bedroom (forth floor) and the autopsy room (basement). A gift shop can also be found on the ground floor, stocking a variety of books and souvenirs. Each part of the exhibition contains relics and memorabilia, including the baton, handcuffs and whistle that belonged to the officer who found the body of Catherine Eddowes, and an original drawing by Ripper suspect and renowned impressionist painter, Walter Sickert.
Entrance to the museum was £12 and came with a free tour of the Ripper sites. Although we missed the next walk, the ticket had a 30 day expiration date. Photos were permitted and I even got the chance to dress up like Jack the Ripper himself! Or at least the fictional version we’ve all grown to recognise. All in all, it was certainly worth the money.
Jack the Ripper Tours
On any given night, hundreds of tourists can be seen walking the streets of Whitechapel, congregating around the murder sites, listening to “ripperologists” impose their theories without doubt or question. Locals have no problem displaying their disdain; some curse, some throw water bombs, others simply express their anger through cold, intimidating stares (which are even more scary). Since they’ve heard the guides recite details of the grizzly murders hundreds of times over from outside their living room windows, I can hardly blame them.
Having said that, I would highly recommend taking a professional Jack the Ripper tour. Most of the guides leave from Aldgate East tube station and will visit all of the murder sites in chronological order, as well as other associated hotspots. Of the four different tour companies I’ve used in the past, the Ripper Vision tour has definitely been the most engaging, entertaining and, most importantly, impartial.
Whitechapel is by no means the most glamorous part of London; it’s grimy, loud and at times a little intimidating. However, hidden in the dark, dank alleyways and cobbled streets lies one of the world’s most intriguing secrets. The identity of Jack the Ripper will probably never be discovered, but investigating the mysteries behind his Autumn of Terror is no-less gratifying and a story anyone interested in Victorian England should explore.