It is fair to say that the “Whitechapel Murders” of 1888, otherwise known as “Jack the Ripper” murders, have to be the ones most extensively written about in books and articles and examined in TV, films and other media. There has been debate as to “who did it” and “why” and recent debate whether more victims can be identified. There have been the locations, the gruesome details of the state of the victims and the quality and nature of the policing. But throughout much of the debate, other than identifying the women as “prostitutes”, very little attention has been placed on them as people. This book looks at five women who were murdered between the 31st August and 9th November and tries to track their histories that took them to this place and fate.

The sources used are contemporary newspaper reports. police and legal records – some identified by the author, others analysed by other researchers. But, in spite of the tendency for there to be poorer surviving records of working people, new records have been found for some of the victims. These are used to track the women and pad out the shorter previous narratives of their lives. Each has a chapter and collectively they build a broader picture of the difficulties of life in poverty stricken East End London in this period.

The author discusses the locations, financial background, the failing economy, the impact of the massive growth of London on housing, the scale of immigration from both the wider British Isles and abroad, and the particular financial risks to women who were rarely paid the same as men and who thus struggled financially without wider family income. People who fell through the cracks might need to rely on the – unreliable – system of work houses, infirmaries, or occasionally prisons. Institutions that had their own rules of admittance and support. But Hume also depicts the realities of life if you could not afford a stable weekly rent – the reliance on “lodging houses” paid on a daily rate with residents restricted as to their hours of entry, what they could do there – and critically for the five women – the inability to hold any possessions safely unless they wore them or carried them on their persons. This is life on the edge and shows why they chose prostitution – a last resort – to keep income coming in. But behind the grim reality all these women continued to work, pay their way, support families and friends, and live their lives to the best of their abilities as they started to slide down the financial ladder. Their lives became worse, the risks increased – of illness and early death – even before murder intervened.

All five stories show this inevitable slide, albeit from different places. Marriage failures often tripped the crisis, drink and domestic violence could play their part. Illness, often exacerbated by pregnancy and childbirth, was another risk factor. But we are shown Londoners born and incomers, including one from Sweden. Some once worked in seemingly secure jobs with links to the Royal household. The youngest, Mary Jane Kelly (25), married a supposedly respectable (undoubtedly odd) middle class man – supporting them both through high class prostitution – before choosing to “disappear” due to fear of her husband who was stalking her. Her life in the East End was difficult and short.

Collectively, these tales show how easy it was for women to fall into dangerous poverty; it shows the nature of that poverty on a daily basis and how it could impact on their wider families. It shows that the “safety nets” were more likely to be temporary sticking plasters. But overall we see the squalor of East End London in the 1880s.

The importance of this book is that it focuses on real people – women who have been callously marginalised elsewhere. No, it does not have the depth of economic analysis or of place given by other historians – and yes, there are a cluster of extremely fine women historians who have used place (and occasionally crime) to show people’s lives in greater detail. But it is nonetheless an important read for those interested in history of the working classes, particularly because it is not “theoretical” it was real.

Hilary White 4/4

The Hidden Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Victims by Robert Hume
Pen & Sword History 9781526738608 hbk Sep 2019