NINE – JACK THE RIPPER TOURS
The great mystery is not the unknown identity of Jack the Ripper but how the various tours manage to avoid collisions. The name Jack The Ripper Tour was claimed by the first company to organise tours. They updated the name to The Original Jack The Ripper Tour. The curious can now choose from The Jack the Ripper Mystery Tour, The Jack the Ripper Walk, The Jack The Ripper Museum, which also provides a tour to complement a visit to the museum, Ripping Yarns, Ripper Vision, which has added sound effects and projected images on buildings, The Jack the Ripper Tour Bus, and more. Author and Jack the Ripper expert John Bennett makes the tour most nights on behalf of The Original Jack The Ripper Tour. Bennett likes to finish his tour on the spot in Mitre Court where fourth victim Catherine Eddowes was slain. Most of the time, though, he has to take whatever available space there is in Mitre Court because most of the tour operators prefer to finish at the scene where Eddowes was slain. Audiences like to show their appreciation by clapping the presentations. The applause is steady and continuous.
Advancing the slaying of Mary Jane Kelly ahead of the murders of third and fourth victims Liz Stride and Catherine Eddowes makes sense. Juggling the chronology avoids dragging people back and forth across the East End, and the tour operators can climax their presentations with what may or may not have been the greatest achievement of Jack the Ripper, the famous double event. The word ‘may’ is important because many Ripper experts now believe that the murder of third victim Liz Stride was not a Ripper victim. Stride had her throat cut but there was no mutilation. Those who like to insist Jack the Ripper was responsible for the canonical five believe that Jack was interrupted in his slaying of Stride and, because his desires were not satisfied, he searched and found Eddowes. Yet Eddowes was discovered forty-five minutes after Stride. Three quarters of an hour would have been sufficient time for the Ripper to travel a few streets and slay someone but he would have had to be quick. The timing allocated to a double murder assumes that the body of Eddowes was found almost immediately after the murder.
Most operators provide alternative accounts and leave it up to the paying customers to decide for themselves. On the tour I attended, author John Bennett finished the tour by discussing the possible identity of Jack The Ripper. Bennett had a shortlist of ten names and asked his audience to shout out numbers between one and ten. In that way he talked about five possible suspects but reminded his audience that so far writers and theorists have identified 300 names. Within that list there are some good stories and, coincidentally, five people that members of the police believed to be Jack the Ripper.
The cost of the tours is usually somewhere around £10, and they last between an hour and a half and two hours. The importance of London as a tourist destination helps the tour operators to make money. The tours help visitors to London fill in the time with something other than eating and drinking but, as well as tourists, there are those who are just curious, and amongst these there are plenty of fresh faced young men and women. Tours that between them collect a hundred people a night are obliged to have a cross section of the population. There is the added bonus of being able to ask questions. And a tour and hearing the tale face to face from an expert takes less effort than reading a book. But neither a tour nor the books written by Bennett can include all the information he has obtained through research and that is shared with other enthusiasts. Some of these tourists will also become obsessed with the legend of Jack the Ripper.
The Original Jack The Ripper Tour begins at Aldgate East Underground Station in Whitechapel High Street. Those on the tour have the option of following the presenter back to the Station but the group I was in separated where Catherine Eddowes was murdered and found something else to do with the rest of the night. There is a park near the Underground Station. Those who have prospects and faith in their ambition walk through the park without stopping. The less fortunate spend time in the park talking, eating take away food, drinking alcohol and passing time. The park has a few giant tree stumps and half a dozen boulders. The East End has changed since the murders in 1888 but this park has never promised the sense of well being that is found in the green spaces around Bloomsbury. Photographs of how the East End used to look are handed out by the tour operators. Some of the tenement buildings remain but none of the murder sites are recognisable as the places where the murders were committed.
The trip to the East End, though, is worth the effort. Dorset Street may have a brand new building that transforms it into something remote from its history but it is possible to pinpoint 35 Dorset Street and imagine the doss house once used by the victims of the Ripper. There are two 18th Century buildings across the road from where the doss house used to be. The public house The Ten Bells sells Jack the Ripper souvenirs but also has a loyal local clientele that appreciates the comfortable interior and enjoys the draught beers. Upstairs is a gin bar. That and the traditional furnishings feel like homage to the tough lives of the past. The evidence is sketchy but the likelihood is that most of the victims of the Ripper would have visited The Ten Bells at some point in their lives. Some, perhaps all, would have regarded it as their local pub. Annie Chapman was rumoured to have drunk in The Ten Bells during the night of her murder. Mary Jane Kelly is supposed to have solicited on the corner outside the pub.
The name The Ten Bells is derived from Christchurch, which is on the other side of the road and once had ten bells that chimed. Christchurch is an impressive building. It has a sharp gothic steeple that even today feels contemptuous of urban life and concerns. The classical pillars are an extra weight on what is a compressed square base. Christchurch combines baroque style and puritanism. The building feels defiant and, considering what has happened near its borders, it needs to be.
Nicholas Hawksmoor lived in the 18th Century and was the architect who designed Christchurch. He designed six London churches. All are distinct and have memorable but gloomy facades. Ian Sinclair in his 1975 poem Lud Heat imagined that Hawksmoor located the churches across London to make a pentangle star that was supposed to connect the geometry of London and its institutions. A few people have taken this notion seriously and argued that Hawksmoor had mystical ambition that had nothing to do with Christianity. Peter Ackroyd played with the idea in his novel Hawksmoor and he emphasised the importance of the pentangle star as an occult symbol whilst also attributing serial killing to his architect. Ackroyd changed the name of his architect to Nicholas Dyer to remind readers that his book was fiction. The life and ambition of architect Hawksmoor may have contained nothing more than the dedication of a pious craftsman yet there is a thrill to be experienced in standing between The Ten Bells and Christchurch and acknowledging the dark history that links these two buildings.
The other spot worth lingering around is the archway where Jack the Ripper left a piece of the blood stained apron of Catherine Eddowes. The archway is now a fish and chip shop. The original building and tenements remain. In 1888 the building was occupied by poor Jewish immigrants. Close to the apron the police discovered writing on the wall that said, ‘The Juwes are the ones who will not be blamed for nothing.’ This supposed clue has inspired conspiracy theories, novels and books. But standing opposite an East End fish and chip shop and looking at a tenement building that was once overcrowded with the poor, I was convinced the writing was nothing more than protest from a neglected and strained community. On the street the history is mundane but powerful.
The East End has changed and, like everywhere else in London, it has been gentrified, but some tenements and terraced streets remain. A far from mundane experience is to stare down an ordinary street and see immediately behind the shabby buildings the concrete and glass of The Shard and the other skyscrapers of the City. They obliterate the sky and make the East End feel like a condemned cul-de-sac. The skyscrapers are like alien back projection from a surreal film.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.