Located next to London’s hipster neighbourhood of Shoreditch, multicultural Whitechapel in East London is most famous for its dark past. The grim 1888 Whitechapel Murders have given the area eternal ‘fame’. But also the harsh daily life of the souls roaming its crowded streets served as inspiration for numerous authors such as Charles Dickens. Delving into a part of London history, this article reveals some of the most memorable and famous people of Whitechapel, London.
Memorable people of Whitechapel, London
Having lived closed to Whitechapel, this is one of the London neighbourhoods I’m most intrigued with. Steeped in history and intrigue, Whitechapel might be one of London’s most chronicled neighbourhoods.
While Whitechapel is perfectly safe to explore today, it didn’t always used to be like that. Especially around the 1880s when it was London’s most notorious slum area. Being the refuge for the poorest Londoners and hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants, the East End of London wasn’t particularly a place you’d hang out for fun.
However, Whitechapel is more than its troublesome past. It’s also a place where some of most memorable events in London history took place and the city’s most notable residents once lived.
The mural at the top of this article was painted in 2011 by Mychael Barratt, James Glover & Nicholas Middleton. It depicts some of the memorable and famous people who lived or frequented Whitechapel, London. With the exception of Jack the Ripper, it features all the people mentioned in further detailed below. If you want to know more about the scenes and figures in the mural, then go to the source on Flickr.
Jack the Ripper: The Whitechapel Murders
Let’s start with the most famous Whitechapel character: Jack the Ripper. I think we have all heard of him, right? Even growing up in the Netherlands, I learned about him at a young age already. (But perhaps I just had strange hobbies as a child.)
Fast-forward a few decades later, I now I give East London walking tours in the very area he was active in, leaving behind a trail of blood and mutilated women.
Hardly being London’s first serial killer, Jack the Ripper is definitely the most famous one. Almost 150 years later, he still speaks to the imagination of people. But what makes him so special?
I think the main reason why people are still so fascinated with the myth of Jack the Ripper is that his true identity has never been revealed. Being such a high-profile killer, there have been many conspiracy theories about this.
According to some theories he was a member of the royal family and that the police were paid off to cover up his identity. Other theories suggest ‘he’ was actually multiple killers. And a common theory is that he had been a butcher or surgeon because the victims had been mutilated with such surgical precision.
Related article: 10 Unique Things to See in Shoreditch.
All we know for sure is that he killed at least five (and possibly up to eleven or thirteen) women between 1888 and 1891. From the beginning, it was claimed the women were all prostitutes. Interestingly, everybody knows the name of Jack the Ripper but have hardly ever heard the names of these women or wondered who they were. And why bother? After all, weren’t they just some immoral prostitutes who had it coming?
I recently read the insightful book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by the Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. I don’t know how she managed to collect all the information, but Rubenhold did an impressive job retracing all five women’s histories, often starting their stories from before they were born.
Until I read Rubenhold’s book, I never really knew anything about the Jack the Ripper victims – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – except that they had ‘just’ been prostitutes.
However, as the book reveals, they often came from affluent families but lost everything and everyone they cared about for several reasons, mainly their alcohol addiction, leaving them homeless. And while Rubenhold still acknowledges the women had sollicited sex, often just to earn enough money for lodging for the night, she puts their stories in the wider context of Victorian society. A society where women’s rights were negligible, especially when they were single or divorced.
Although there are lots of people out there who think Rubenhold’s book is rubbish (like the forum that put this blog post in one of their threads) I think Rubenhold’s main goal was to humanise the women by narrating their backstory, rather than profiling them merely as the anonymous ‘prostitute victims’.
If you’re interested in Jack the Ripper or London/British history, I really urge you to read this book. Going through documents of almost 150 years old, I don’t believe Rubenhold is 100% accurate when it comes to the women’s histories, but it’s refreshing to read the famous Jack the Ripper story from a different perspective. But most of all, to gain historical insight about the city and area I’m so familiar with.
The five Jack the Ripper murders, also referred to as the Whitechapel Murders, have been immortalised in London history. The Jack the Ripper walking tours are even one of the biggest tourist draws to Whitechapel. But even local shops and business owners exploit the area’s most famous character as you can see from the photos below.
Joseph Merrick: Elephant Man
Born in Leicester, England, Joseph Merrick (1862 – 1890) was an ordinary boy until he was five years old. That’s when his body started to develop abnormally. He began growing tumours that didn’t only disfigure him but also paralysed parts of his limbs. A rare bone disease caused his bones to grow unnaturally, transforming his face drastically.
Being called a monster and freak, you can imagine that life was far from easy for Merrick. Being shunned by his family, he soon joined freak shows. One of the showmen he worked for, gave him the stage name of Elephant Man. A name that would later be used as the title of the 1980 David Lynch film with John Hurt playing Merrick.
I remember watching this film as a little girl and that it made me cry. But then again, I cried at pretty much every film I watched. (Even, or rather especially, during Disney animation films.) Although I had some vague understanding that it was based on true events and a real person, I would have never guessed I would later live at a 10-minute walk away from the hospital he would spend his last years.
One of the showmen put Merrick on display in a shop on 259 Whitechapel Road. While the original shop is long gone, the building is still there and now houses a saree shop / gold jeweller.
The show drew many spectators, including surgeon Frederick Treves who worked at The Royal London Hospital right across the road from the shop. He was both repulsed and intrigued by the sight of Merrick and was eager to examine him.
It wasn’t till two years later though he got the chance to properly do so when Merrick was admitted as a permanent resident of The Royal London Hospital and he got to live in the attic room. It’s strange to think I have been a patient at this very same hospital! (Only for some innocent exams, nothing to worry about.)
However, despite the intense studies, neither Treves nor any modern doctors of our time ever found the exact disease(s) Merrick suffered from.
He died in his sleep in 1890 when he was only 27 years old. Because of the weight of his head, Merrick couldn’t sleep horizontally as that would dislocate his neck. In the end, he did attempt to sleep as any average person which sadly resulted in his death.
Merrick’s skeleton is on private display at The Royal London Hospital and since 2012 you can see a replicate of it in the The Royal London Hospital Museum and Archives.
Hubby and I discovered this great London gem a few years ago and were so impressed. Besides Merrick’s personal belongings, this fantastic little obscure museum is also home to other East London exhibits such as Jack the Ripper newspaper clippings of the time.
Catherine and William Booth: Founders of the Salvation Army
I don’t know how many times I passed these statues on Mile End Road without even thinking who they were supposed to be. Located at the edge of the pavement in an area where there’s nothing much around, I never even bothered stopping to have a look. But of course I eventually did one day and uncovered another great piece of London history. Proof that the city’s history is often literally written in its streets.
I discovered that these statues represent husband and wife Catherine and William Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army. And their statues aren’t just ‘dumped’ in some inconspicuous part of Whitechapel. They are actually located near the spot where Methodist preacher William Booth gave his first speeches in Whitechapel in 1865.
Although they weren’t originally from London, William and Catherine Booth played a significant role in the history of the East End of London.
As I said earlier, this part of London was one of the most deprived areas at the time. There probably wasn’t a better place for the Booths to their work than in the slums of Whitechapel.
William and Catherine didn’t only set up shelters and soup kitchens there, but also fought for more sustainable solutions such as better working conditions.
Both a church and charity, the Salvation Army would soon expand beyond London and England. Today the Salvation Army covers 130 countries with their UK head office still located in Whitechapel at Booth House.
Although I don’t agree with their conservative beliefs (they denounce homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia for example), I do appreciate how much the organisation has done to improve the living conditions of East Londoners and people in need across the world.
James Cook: Explorer of the Southern hemisphere
Having been to New Zealand twice now, I’m tuned into everything that has to do with James Cook, explorer of New Zealand. (Not the one who discovered it, because that was of course Dutch explorer Abel Tasman!)
In the last years I’ve seen various exhibitions in London based on Cook’s explorations and read a significant amount on him. But one of my most impressive discoveries took place completely by chance during a walk in Whitechapel.
Passing some local Indian grocery stores, of which there are many in Whitechapel, my eye was drawn to a plaque on the wall. Always eager to read local facts, I quickly rushed over and couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that this random site in Whitechapel had once been the home of the famous James Cook! The people at the grocery store next to the plaque were far less excited I must say.
So why would a notable person as Captain James Cook live in Whitechapel, an area I’ve described several times as a notorious slum area? Well, that’s because Cook lived here in the the 1760s when Whitechapel was still a nice semi-rural area. It wasn’t till at least a century later, that it became overcrowded and turned into the ‘hell hole’ Victorian Whitechapel is described as in London history books.
Cook didn’t spend much time in his Whitechapel home though. He was at sea most of the times and when he died, his wife inherited the house on 88 Mile End Road. The plaque that caught my eye was placed on the wall in 1907 already, but the house itself was pulled down in 1958. It was said it was part of the council’s redevelopment plan, but to this day nothing has been done with the plot. It’s just one of those short-sighted decisions of eradicating great historical sights in London.
But at least we still have the plaque…
Altab Ali: Victim of 1970s East London racism
The London neighbourhood of Whitechapel gets its name after the white St Mary Matfelon chapel that once stood here. Known as ‘the White Chapel’ amongst locals, it quickly came to denote the whole area. After the chapel was destroyed during WWII, the church grounds and graveyards were made into the public park St. Mary’s Gardens.
However, after the racist killing of 25-year old Bangladeshi clothing worker Altab Ali in 1978 here, the park was renamed the Altab Ali Park. Today multi-ethnic Whitechapel is safe to visit for anyone, but at the time there were huge conflicts between East London fascists and the newly arrived Bangladeshi immigrants.
Being stabbed to death by a group of teenagers on his way home after work, the murder of Altab Ali had been completely random. But it was sadly not unique as racially motivated attacks on Bengali immigrants happened frequently. Yet, after this tragic event the East London Bengali community grouped together and demanded action.
“Ten days after Mr Ali’s death, about 7,000 people marched behind his coffin through central London, calling on the government to address racism in east London. They marched to Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and to Downing Street.” (Source)
The protests didn’t lead to political changes though and another man was killed in a racially motivated murder soon afterwards. It was a long and gradual process and it wasn’t till the 1990s that the far-right lost territory in East London. It’s very strange to think that walking through multi-cultural Whitechapel today, an area that is celebrated for its ethnic community and curry houses in tourist guides.
Edith Cavell: War hero and pioneer of modern nursing
Remembered mostly for saving the lives of both Allied and German soldiers during WWI, Edith Cavell is also celebrated as the pioneer of modern nursing. However, nursing had never been a life calling for Cavell and she probably came to this profession by chance. After having treated her father who suddenly became very ill, she didn’t take up nursing until she was 30 years old.
As a nice connection to an earlier notable Whitechapel persona, Cavell enrolled at the Royal London Hospital in 1896 and attended lectures by surgeons such as Frederick Treves. Indeed, the same surgeon who treated Joseph Merrick.
After having worked at several London hospitals, Cavell went to Brussels in 1907 to “help introduce modern nursing practice as director of a nurses’ training school and clinic. In 1914 she took sole charge of the St Gilles hospital, which became a centre of resistance to Belgium’s German occupiers. Allied soldiers were hidden inside the hospital, given false papers and helped to escape into allied territory.” (Source)
Unfortunately, Cavell’s good work didn’t go unnoticed and the Germans grew suspicious of her. They arrested her and executed her soon afterwards, “causing international outrage. Cavell became a heroine, a martyr, and an instrument of propaganda for military recruitment.”
You can find a blue plaque in commemoration of Edith Cavell on the Royal Hospital of London in Whitechapel.
Vladimir Lenin: Instigator of the Russian Revolution
Let’s finish this list of notable people of Whitechapel with one of the most obscure facts in London history. Before he founded the Russian Communist Party, Vladimir Lenin lived in London for a short period. Eager to overthrow the Russian Tsar, he met with party members including Leon Trotsky, in several London pubs between 1902 and 1903.
Lenin and his followers would meet frequently in different European cities in the years to come. But having been banned in several countries, they returned to London and arrived in Whitechapel. In 1907 they held a large congress here, which was attended by more than 300 delegates.
All the secret meetings and meticulous planning eventually led to the October Revolution in 1917. Having overthrown the Russian government, Lenin withdrew the Russian participation from WWI, re-organised the country’s political system, and became the first Prime Minister of Russia.
The revolution instigated by Lenin had far more complex consequences than I could possibly summarise here. But it’s quite incredible to think that the seeds for his actions were planted in London years before.
Had you ever heard of the people I mentioned in this article?
Let me know in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx
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