Jack the Ripper, the elephant man and prostitutes…
Christ Church, Spitalfields
Today Whitechapel is a vibrant area of London with a rapidly growing population. It is becoming an ever more desirable area for new homes and businesses and with the Council’s 15 year regeneration plan underway it’s set to get even better. Plans include the civic redevelopment of the Old Royal London Hospital (famous for giving santuary to Joseph Merrick – the Elephant Man in the 1800s), the opening of the new Crossrail station in 2018, delivery of new homes, and the emerging new Med City campus.
The old London Hospital, 1890s (other side of Whitechapel Road looking east)
According to Tower Hamlets’ ‘Whitechapel Vision’ report, as the City moves east, Whitechapel is set to become one of the most connected places in the capital by public transport, with a significant rail and tube interchange at Whitechapel station. Crossrail is expected to connect the centre of Whitechapel to Heathrow in 36 minutes, City Airport in 7 minutes, Bond Street in 9 minutes, Canary Wharf in 3 minutes and Stratford in 5 minutes.
It wasn’t always on the up though, the area once once providing refuge to the most destitute of Londoners. It’s history is characterised by its extremes of social conditions (think Dickensian London).
It used to stink…
Whitechapel and the surrounding area started to establish itself as ‘the other half’ of London by the late 16th century. It’s position outside of the City Walls meant it was beyond official control and attracted the less fragrant industries. As people began to move into the city from rural countryside in the 17th to mid 19th century, they took up residence among the tanneries, breweries and foundries that had attracted them, leading to a large increase of more or less destitute people.
A panorama of London by Claes Visscher, 1616.
By mid-1800s, the East End, Whitechapel along with Wapping, Aldgate, Bethnal Green, Mile End, Limehouse, Bow,Bromley-by-Bow, Poplar, Shadwell and Stepney had massive problems with poverty and overcrowding and the small, dark streets branching from Whitechapel Road contained the greatest suffering, filth and danger.
Serial killer on the loose…
In October 1888 the Metropolitan Police estimated that there were 1,200 prostitutes “of very low class” resident in Whitechapel and about 62 brothels.
Some of these prostitutes were the unfortunate victims of The Whitechapel murders. Some of which were the work of Jack the Ripper, a famous serial killer who caused widespread panic and who remains unknown to this day, despite the 100 or so suspects.
These attacks drew the attention of social reformers to the squalor and vice of the area.
Out of chaos comes reform…
In Victorian London the inequality was extreme. The period saw some of the greatest personal wealth the world has ever seen and this only helped to highlight the huge contrast when set against the poverty, exploitation and homelessness running rife in Whitechapel and the East End. This brought it to the attention of leftist reformers and revolutionaries of all kinds, from George Bernard Shaw, whose Fabian Society met regularly in Whitechapel, to Vladimir Lenin, who boarded and led rallies in Whitechapel during his exile from Russia. The area is still home to Freedom Press, the anarchist publishing house founded by Charlotte Wilson. These revolutionary movements help Whitechapel to be recognised as the birthplace of modern philanthropy.
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