In 1888 the population of London was almost five million out of which I would say that over 2 million lived below the poverty line and that of those about 900,000 lived in the East End about 76,000 in Whitechapel.
Why was there so much overcrowding in areas like Whitechapel? From the 1840s farming was becoming mechanised and so farm-hands lost their jobs and came to London looking for work. From 1845 the Irish Potato Famine began from a disease that blighted the potatoes causing them to rot in the ground. As this was the staple diet in Ireland at the time, famine spread across the land and a million Irish people left Ireland and came here or went to America. In Eastern Europe there were pogroms of the Jews. Both the Irish and the Jews came here with no, or relatively little money and so settled in Whitechapel as this was the nearest place to the River Thames where the ships bringing them docked. Most had no money to travel further on!
Consequently, Whitechapel became vastly overcrowded. It was described in the Morning Chronicle in a series ‘London Labour and the London Poor’: ‘roads were unmade, often mere alleys, houses small and without foundations, subdivided with often unpaved courts. An almost total lack of drainage and sewerage made worse by the excavation of brickearth. Pigs and cows in backyards, noxious trades such as boiling tripe, melting tallow for candles, preparing cats’ meat, slaughterhouses, dustheaps and lakes of putrefying night soil from toilets added to the filth.’
Most of the poor lived hand-to-mouth as jobs were dolled out on a daily basis such as dock work, ship building, cart driving, sweat shops, and market porters. Children were employed sometimes for a few pence as chimney sweeps. Other jobs were mostly self-employed. There were pie sellers, flower sellers, match sellers, and match-box fillers/constructors. These were usually women who worked at home aided by their children building matchboxes and filling them with matches. They were paid 2 1/4d to 2 1/2d per gross, (144 boxes). These matches were dipped in white sulphur as it was cheaper than red sulphur, which later became the norm. White sulphur was a poison causing Phossy Jaw (osteonecrosis) in which the jawbone died and rotted.
The main match factory was at Bow. It was owned by Quakers William Bryant and Francis May. The conditions for their workers in the factory were grim. They employed over 5,000 people, mostly girls of Irish descent. They were paid piece rates, and fined if they were late or took too long to go to the toilet. The conditions were so bad that the same year Jack the Ripper struck, encouraged by local political activists Annie Besant and Herbert Burrows they went on strike. By 6 July the factory was at a standstill. On 11 July certain changes to the rules were agreed. Fines were abolished, and grievances taken directly to management not supervisors. Soon after, the Salvation Army opened a match factory in Bow using red sulphur. The strike gave great encouragement to the trades union movement.
This gives you some idea of the terrible background conditions against which Jack the Ripper managed to murder his victims and escape silently into the night, aided by the fact that many people were homeless on the street and women sold themselves for less than the price of a bed for the night. I shall discuss their condition and problems in my next article. Find out more about what was London like in 1888. Book tickets for Jenny's Jack the Ripper Walk. Private tour also available here.
In : Jack the Ripper
Tags: 1888 london poverty whitechapel match girls strike
comments powered by Disqus