“We wanted to remind people these are women, these are human beings, they have their own realities.”
Does scary stuff happen on the way? Does stuff jump out at you?” a tourist asks our guide, who informs her it’s not that sort of tour. Because though we’re in east London, close to the scene of five women’s murders at the hands of Jack the Ripper, this tour is about the women—not their mystery killer.
Ever since Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim 130 years ago, investigating his legacy has become both a mainstream activity and a legitimized hobby. There have been TV programs, films, video games and exhibitions. More recently, in 2015, the Jack the Ripper Museum opened in Whitechapel to protests after its proprietor initially promised to build a women’s museum to “celebrate the women of the East End who have shaped history.” A nearby barbershop is called Jack the Clipper and gaudily painted sandwich boards advertise tours of the murderer’s crime scenes. Ripperologists—enthusiasts who study Jack the Ripper—are preoccupied with discovering the murderer’s identity. But what of the women he killed?
That’s where the Alternative Jack the Ripper Tour comes in. Visiting the places where the women lived and worked, rather than the scenes of their brutal murders and mutilations, this tour’s advertised mission is to “explore their lives, celebrate them and commemorate their deaths.” Jack the Ripper is referred to throughout as nothing more than “the unidentified murderer,” because the nickname, our guides say, “has contributed to making him into a legend and hides the reality of what he did.”
“We became aware of the Jack the Ripper tours around here and they really sensationalize the deaths of these women,” explains Tessa Horvath, a local campaigner who provides the tour’s historical background. “So we wanted to remind people these are women, these are human beings, they have their own realities.”
We begin at St Botolph’s Church, known by Victorians as the Church of Prostitutes, because women could solicit clients from behind its railings, outside of police jurisdiction. The 90-minute route takes us to the two streets where the killer’s five victims—Annie Chapman, Mary Ann Nichols, Mary Jane Kelly, Elizabeth Stride, and Catherine Eddowes—lived in flophouses, and the charitable almshouses that offered help to those struggling in the slums.
At each location, Horvath describes the stark poverty of inner east London in the 1880s, where life expectancy was just 30, compared to the salubrious West End’s 55. Those who couldn’t afford lodgings would likely end up in the workhouse, forced to undertake menial, physically demanding, and sometimes dangerous work like breaking apart stones in exchange for basic food and housing. Workhouses routinely shamed women. “Single women would have to wear yellow badges, prostitutes would wear red,” Horvath explains.
Passing around laminated photos of the five women, alive and poised in their Sunday best, Tessa tells their stories of affairs, marital breakdowns, alcohol dependencies, insecure work and housing, violent and vindictive ex-partners, and bereavements including infant mortality and stillbirth. But these women are joined by more than their shared tragedies, as they all did what they could—sewing, crocheting, housework, coffee-selling, flower-selling, sex work—to scrape a living.
“Survival sex,” as co-tour guide Rebecca Branch calls it, has never left the East End. She works for anti-sexual exploitation charity Beyond The Streets’ Door of Hope project, which, supported by Tower Hamlets Council, does outreach work with sex workers in present-day Whitechapel.
Presenting laminates of sociologist Charles Booth’s 1889 poverty map of London and its contemporary equivalent, Branch explains that “pockets of poverty and deprivation have pretty much stayed in the same areas.” The East London parliamentary constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow is number one out of 650 constituencies in current national rankings of child poverty.
Vulnerable women in the area can be “pushed into selling sex for survival through poverty, for as little as a can of cider or a packet of cigarettes,” Branch claims, adding that their vulnerabilities are just as layered as their forebears—many of those she works with grapple with drug addiction and histories of abuse.
But these women aren’t victims, she says, and neither were those in Victorian England who met their death at the hands of their killer. “We want to take a moment to remember their strength and resilience in facing these life circumstances head-on,” she says. “Women are resourceful; they will sleep on buses, or sofa-surf, and will also exchange sex for a bed for the night.”
Outside the former location of Providence Row almshouse, Branch says that she blames the current UK government’s austerity policies and disorganized welfare reforms for “women falling through the cracks of the benefit system.”
“Wages in the UK no longer reflect the cost of living here, particularly in London,” she explains. “Housing is completely out of sync with what we’re earning, you find people working two jobs that can’t stretch far enough.”
There is hope, though. Outside Toynbee Hall, a 134-year-old organization dedicated to eradicating poverty, Horvath tells us about Josephine Butler, a Victorian-era social reformer who campaigned to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act. The law allowed police to arrest any woman suspected of prostitution and force them to undergo checks for venereal disease, including a three-month internment in a hospital for those found infected.
Though an angry mob smashed in the windows of her hotel and pimps slung cow dung at her at public meetings, Butler’s campaign was successful in pushing one burden of criminality away from women selling sex. If she could do that then, what could similar campaigners do now? Today, sex worker rights organizations like the English Collective of Prostitutes are calling to decriminalize sex work in the country, while other former sex workers are fighting for the right to be able to wipe their criminal records of prostitution charges.
The tour ends where it started, at St Botolph, where our guides explain how male violence upholds women’s exploitation. Nearby, a middle-aged man cries out “Le weekend!” A run-of-the-mill Jack the Ripper tour guide, he entertains a collection of louche Belgian teenage tourists with pidgin French as he explains—in gory detail—the unidentified murder’s M.O. “And who might ze killer be?”
Why care? Jack the Ripper will never be caught or brought to justice, but the five women he killed deserve more than being treated as cumbersome clues on the hunt for a mystery man’s identity. Because what remains to be captured is the courage and mettle of the women who did all they could to survive the deprivation of Victorian London.