This review is reproduced here by kind permission of the online inter-disciplinary journal Cercles, where it was first published. The original text has been reformatted and illustrated for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. Click on the images for larger pictures and full bibliographic and other information.


In this eminently readable book, Drew Gray, who teaches social history at the University of Northampton, casts light on the underworld of Victorian London. This topic has attracted much scholarly attention over the years and it is to the author’s credit that he is able to identify new angles. The "East End," both as a place and as a myth, forms his spatial focus and the series of murders of prostitutes in the 1880s attributed to "Jack the Ripper" provide both a thematic and temporal concentration for discussion. Dr. Gray declares that he is not a "ripperologist" and directs readers to the works of other historians for elucidation about possible suspects.

In the 1880s, London was a vast, sprawling metropolis whose affluent neighbourhoods drew on profits derived not only from Britain's farms, factories and mines but also from commodities produced throughout the British Empire. Those same beaux quartiers depended on routine services supplied from working-class London that housed the poor and recently-arrived migrants who laboured in docks, factories and markets, and were engaged in countless humble, but nonetheless essential, trades. This metropolitan diversity was captured in the pages of novels, official reports and newspapers whose contents are examined thoroughly and critically. As the nineteenth century progressed, the capital provided an ever-larger audience for newspapers and weekly journals whose owners and editors were anxious to retain, and if possible to increase, their share of the readership. Then, as now, sensationalism provided an attractive device and the murders attributed to "Jack the Ripper" were the kinds of event from which a moral panic could be created.

Left to right: (a) Whitechapel in Victorian times. (b) "East End Loafers" by cartoonist Phil May (1899). (c) "Matches! — Buy a box of matches from a poor girl!" from John Leighton's The Cries of London & Public Edifices (1847).

In his first three chapters, Drew Gray contextualises the Whitechapel murders with reference to the East End and the different groups of people settled there, including those of Huguenot origin, descendants of Irish migrants who fled the famine of the 1840s, Chinese labourers in the docks, and above all Jews from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Rumania. As many thousands of poor immigrants arrived in the 1880s, unemployment rose in London and those in work were further threatened by the influx of cheap, exploitable labour. Working conditions declined but rarely gave rise to popular protest such as the strike by "match girls" that closed the Bryant and May factory in July 1888. Poverty and crime as characteristics of the East End were proclaimed by the halfpenny press and in pulpits and music halls across the capital, reminding the public that "nothing is to be found in the East End that should be tolerated in a Christian country" (60). In many instances, fact was interwoven with fiction as Charles Booth proclaimed in his volume entitled East London that appeared soon after the Whitechapel murders. In Booth's words, for decent, respectable folk:

East London lay hidden from view behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures: starving children, suffering women, overworked men; horrors of drunkenness and vice; monsters and demons of inhumanity; giants of disease and despair. Did these pictures truly represent what lay behind, or did they bear to the facts a relation similar to that which the pictures outside a booth at some country fair bear to the performance or show within? [Booth, 1889, 591-592; qtd. p. 63].

In chapter 4, Gray focuses on the emergence of sensationalist journalism, associated in particular with William T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who proclaimed in 1886: "Nothing can get itself accomplished nowadays without sensationalism.... In politics and social reform, it is indispensable" (qtd. p. 95) By the time of the Whitechapel murders, the popular daily press was boosting its sales with salacious stories of crime and gossip that had previously been the mainstay of certain Sunday papers. A promotional alchemy of fact and fiction regularly rehearsed the misery of the East End but deprivation was not only found there. In 1883, after prompting by Stead, the Rev. Andrew Mearns wrote The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Enquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor. He showed that various churches had taken pioneering steps to improve conditions but such good work only affected "the merest edge of the great dark region of poverty, misery, squalor and immorality" that was found in many parts of the capital (119). The great majority of London's middle classes remained uninterested but public concern grew in late July 1887 when large numbers of homeless, unemployed people took to sleeping in Trafalgar Square and in parks in the West End. A blind eye could no longer be turned to their plight, and campaigners such as Octavia Hill, Helen Bosanquet and Beatrice Webb strove in their various ways to bring about change.

Left to right: (a) Memorial to William T. Stead on the Victoria Embankment, by Sir George Frampton. (b) "The Great Social Evil" (prostitution) in Punch (1857). (c) "The 'Hooligans'," one of Leonard Raven-Hill's atmospheric illustrations for Walter Besant's East London (1901).

All the Ripper's victims were prostitutes and a quarter of a century earlier Henry Mayhew had devoted the first hundred pages of his London Labour and the London Poor (1861) to the question of prostitution, incorporating text drafted by his colleague Bracebridge Hemyng. In July 1888, the Pall Mall Gazette reported on the trafficking of children and young women for sexual purposes, with Stead demonstrating how easy such transactions could be. Prostitution was not a crime per se and "few women were prosecuted for selling their bodies. However, prostitutes were viewed as part of the 'criminal class' that was closely associated with the East End" (165). Earlier in the nineteenth century, crime was seen as a manifestation of personal moral failings, but during the second half of the century the "science" of criminology emerged that sought to understand criminal behaviour. In 1876, Italian physician Cesare Lombroso introduced the notion of the "born criminal" in his book The Criminal Man. Psychologist Henry Maudsley identified "criminal classes" among whose members the propensity for wrongdoing was transmitted from one generation to the next. This view was also held by Charles Booth.

Analysis of records from the Thames Police Court for 1887 and of a long run of evidence relating to 52,000 trials at the Central Criminal Courts of the Old Bailey enable Drew Gray to identify the types of crime being committed. Cases in police courts were heard by a judge and a clerk, without participation by a jury, hence evidence gathered by the increasingly pro-active Metropolitan Police Force was especially significant. Over three-quarters of those summoned before the Thames Police Court in 1887 were men. Convictions for crimes against property were most numerous, being followed by violence and disorderly behaviour. At the Old Bailey, half the cases heard between 1850 and 1899 involved some form of theft. Imprisonment was by far the most frequent punishment for crimes that arose from a wide variety of personal circumstances. Nuancing the summary information mentioned above, Gray concluded that "there was no criminal class in the late nineteenth century, nor is it a very useful way in which to understand criminal activity or motivations" (206).

Police hunts for "Jack the Ripper" failed to find the killer(s), and were unable to determine whether he (or she) was a member of high society, a medical professional with skills of dissection, or a recent immigrant. Each of these categories of suspect was thoroughly aired in the popular press and debated by Londoners. Members of the Metropolitan Police tended to be "steady, reliable men who would obey their social superiors and not question orders" (227). Methods of detection were unsophisticated for years after the "Met" had been set up by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. They were becoming more professional by the 1880s, when Londoners were shocked by the Whitechapel murders and by Irish Republican attacks by Fenians that involved trains, prisons, the Tower of London, and even the Palace of Westminster.

In his ninth and final chapter Drew Gray concludes: "If you had money, then late nineteenth-century London was everything one might wish for. However, there was a dark side to Victorian London. In the shadows lurked all manner of vice and crime, degradation and despair" (231). As well as being the year of the Whitechapel atrocities, 1888 saw the establishment of the London County Council that would replace the earlier powers of individual vestries and build upon innovations introduced by the Metropolitan Board of Works to improve sanitation, housing, communications and administration. But the challenge was enormous and widespread slum clearance in the East End would not be accomplished until after the bombing raids of World War II.

Drew Gray tells a good story, covering much familiar territory but also introducing new evidence from court records. His book is illustrated with ten figures taken from such contemporary journals as Punch and Moonshine. Five tables condense statistical information on types of crime. A handful of maps relating to the East End and to inner London as a whole would have been welcome additions to display spatial variations in wealth and poverty.

Related Material


Gray, Drew D. London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City. Pbk reissue. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 280 pp. £20.00. ISBN 978 1 4411 4720 2.

Last modified 18 January 2014