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Whitechapel in the Nineteenth Century

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Published: 27th Apr 2017 in History

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White chapel in the Nineteenth Century

The evolution of Whitechapel as the hub of the East End of London is a discernibly nineteenth century phenomenon. Along with certain districts of Manchester, Whitechapel was perceived to be such a den of working class squalor that it helped to inspire Engels to write his critique of capitalist society incorporating his conclusion that the status quo could not be maintained for as long as men and women lived within the deprivation he witnessed in the East End of London. With the historical tool ofhindsight, it is fair to say that Whitechapel has played the role of the most turbulent yet also most intriguing part of London with infamous figures such asJack the Ripper and the Elephant Man living within the area and forever tarring the district with Victorian ideals of segregation and scandal.

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For the purposes of this essay achronological analysis of Whitechapel will be adopted to highlight how the areaevolved over the course of the nineteenth century to see how the districtbecame a microcosm of the broader Victorian state at large. An examination ofthe structural, economic, social and political subtext of the area willlikewise be necessary to comprehend the myriad of external forces thatconstituted the volatile district of Whitechapel.

At the start of the nineteenthcentury Whitechapel was little different to urban centres in other Englishcities. However, the advent of industrialisation brought with it enormoussociological problems that greatly affected London’s East End. To fullyunderstand the shift in society, a glance at the facts and figures isnecessary. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, about 20% of thepopulation in England and Wales lived in towns with over 5 000 residents. By1851 this figure had risen to over 50%, and by the beginning of the twentieth century it stood at over 80%.Even Londoners were unaccustomed to immigration to the capital on the scale that was seen after the 1840’s when the Potato Blight bequeathed an exodus of Irish immigrants to Whitechapel, joining the existing social melting pot along withEastern Europeans and Jews.

Whitechapel thus transformed itselffrom a market area (centred upon the adjacent area of Spitalfields and itsfamous open air market) into an area of urban housing based upon this influx ofimmigrants. There were few factories in the area itself during the first halfof the nineteenth century; rather many men worked as dockers, which establishedthe area as a transient economy characterised by a constant state of flux regardingthe people who lived in Whitechapel. Indeed, the almost complete lack of economic and social stability for residents of Whitechapel was one of the reasons why The Ripper was never caught; very few residents left any trace that they ever existed.

Whereas men led subsistence level lives founded upon meagre wages, the lot of the Whitechapel woman was even worse, particularly when one considers that many were young girls who had fledto the area from hardship in some other part of the country or, as was just ascommon, from Ireland. Prostitution was rife resulting in a figure of20000 prostitutes working in London alone in 1860with a great many of these operating in and hailing from Whitechapel.

The structural and architectural appearanceof Whitechapel in the nineteenth century reflected Victorian attitudesconcerning the working classes, who were considered a pest. In 1834 the PoorLaw Amendment Act established the widely detested workhouses as institutions ofthe deprived and many Whitechapel residents found themselves spending time inthese state prisons, although conditions on the street were little better. Thealleyways and houses in Whitechapel were cramped close together with the resultthat up to three families lived together in a two bedroom dwelling. Housing was in the control of individual local landlords and not the council with thethe resultat eviction was a common feature of life in the area.

The relationship between landlordand tenant might be unproblematic but it could in certain circumstances becomea significant focus for social conflict, and it was in any case an importantelement in the texture of everyday life.

As a result most residents lived ona daytoday basis with employment prone to extreme fluctuations and mortalityrates extremely high, especially in comparison to the richer West End of thecity. Sanitation was an issue only tackled by Westminster in the second half ofthe nineteenth with the passing of the Public Health Act (1875) though theproblem in Whitechapel was one of overcrowding, which this bill did nothing toalleviate. Sever cholera outbreaks in Whitechapel in 1830 and 1866 underlinedthe marginalisation of the community from the rest of the city.

Testimony to Whitechapel’s historicalreality as an area of deprivation in Victorian London can be viewed via thecharities and hospitals that had their genesis in the district. The RoyalLondon Hospital was already established by 1757 but its growth into themedical centre for London’s poor and infirm was cemented during the 1800’s. TheSalvation Army and Dr. Barnardo’s likewise both have their roots in Whitechapelwith Barnardo inspired to setup his hospital in Stepney Causeway due to themisfortune he witnessed as a student at the Royal London Hospital.

Conditions in Whitechapel remainedwell below the standard of living for the remainder of the century, thoughincreased state intervention had at least recognised the gravity of theproblem. Late Victorian philanthropists such as Henry Mayhew and Charles Boothconducted research in the area offering the following conclusion.

Bad conditions, poverty,drunkenness, prostitution, begging and thieving went together. Children in suchplaces appeared to be born criminals, and in the later nineteenth century, asDarwinism made its impact, anthropologists pondered the apparently hereditarynature of criminality.

The dawn of the twentieth centurydid little to alleviate the overcrowding, structural degeneration and highmortality rates of Whitechapel – the widespread support for Oswald Mosley’santidemocratic tendencies in the 1930’s testimony to a century of political,economic and social neglect.


P. Ackroyd, London: theBiography (Vintage; London, 2001)

P. Bartley, The Changing Role ofWomen, 18151914 (Hodder & Stoughton; London, 1996)

G.D.H. Cole & R. Postgate, The Common People, 17461946(Routledge; London & New York, 1992)

M. Harkness, In Darkest London(Black Apollo Press; London, 2003)

R.B. Mowat, The Victorian Age(Senate; London, 1995)

E. Royle, Modern Britain: aSocial History, 17501985 (Hodder & Stoughton; London, 1991)

F.M.L. Thompson (Edtd.), TheCambridge Social History of Britain, 17501950: People and their Environment(Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 1990)

G.M. Trevelyan, English SocialHistory (Penguin; London, 2000)

A.S. Wohl, Endangered Lives:Public Health in Victorian Britain (London: Dent, 1983)

Selected Articles

M.J. Daunton, Housing,quoted in, F.M.L. Thompson (Edtd.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain,17501950: People and their Environment (Cambridge University Press;Cambridge, 1990)


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