Jack the Ripper and Victorian social issues

Much has been written about the case of Jack the Ripper. Indeed, scarcely a year goes by without the appearance of some new book or ridiculous theory about the identity of this notorious Victorian murderer – for someone whose identity is shrouded in mystery, it is surprising how many people seem to think they know who he was and all about him!

However, while most of the theories about Jack the Ripper, may be a load of cobbler’s wax, what is much more important is the question explored by year 9 students in their history studies, namely ‘What can a study of the case of Jack the Ripper tell us about crime and policing in Victorian times, and social attitudes and fears about crime and the “criminal classes”?’

The Victorians, as shown by publications such as Darkest England and the Way Out, written in 1899 by Salvation Army founder General William Booth, feared the growth of crime and the physical and moral degeneration of the poorer classes. The language they used to describe parts of the East End of London was reminiscent of that used in descriptions of (to people in Britain) remote and unexplored parts of Africa! Dr Watson, the faithful companion of Sherlock Holmes, once remarked that he would never go unarmed east of Aldgate, and many Victorians would have shared the same view of the ‘uncivilised’ East End.

The case of the Ripper is important for what it reveals about Victorian social issues, and the way in which it throws light on all that the Victorians did for us: hygiene, sanitation, improved housing and education, technological improvements such as street lighting and the railways, the establishment of public parks, seaside holidays, a better understanding of the causes of poverty and crime and ways to tackle them, and an emphasis on sport, leisure and health for all. We should be grateful to them rather than denigrate them!