Inspector Abbeline





In Hollywood movies the vigilantes carry torches and some rope. Movie directors have the less handsome actors stand outside the town jail and shout at the Sheriff. The British are different. We meet in the local pub and groan a little. Over a pint of beer the committee members vote for a chairman and treasurer and draft a constitution. The Ripper experts are vague about how many vigilance committees existed in Whitechapel in 1888. There were at least six. The most famous was the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee and local businessman George Lusk was the chairman. George was a 49 years old successful builder and decorator, and the Committee had a dozen businessmen. The treasurer was George Aarons. He was the landlord of the Crown Tavern, the pub where the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee met. The businessmen made the decisions but also drafted unemployed workmen to help. These men patrolled the streets. Organised by Lusk the businessmen supplied each volunteer with a whistle, a pair of strong shoes and a heavy stick. The patrols of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee and other vigilance committees had the approval of the police. Neither were the street patrols restricted to working men. Students also acted as vigilantes. The students operated out of Toynbee Hall, which today is a community centre but back in 1888 it was a charity dedicated to social reform.

Six vigilance committees have been identified by historians and these are supposed to be the ones that employed the men who patrolled the streets. The other committees were St Judes, City V.C., Jewish V.C., Spitalfields, and Workmens V.C.   Mile End VC appeared in 1889 but that was the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee renamed, possibly to suit the chairman that replaced George Lusk. The vigilance committee of St Judes had 70 members and was formed the day after Martha Tabram was killed. Her murder preceeded the ‘the canonical five’ that is associated with Jack the Ripper but there were also four female Whitechapel victims before Martha Tabram. The distinction between the Whitechapel murders and ‘the canonical five’ came later.

The likelihood is that there were more vigilance committees than six but if they existed, they have not been remembered.   Neither can we assume that all the vigilance committees that existed in Whitechapel were a response to the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Some were formed to mitigate the high level of prostitution and disorderly behaviour that existed in Whitechapel.  Some committees faded quickly, others existed before the murders began.


Jack the Ripper left a legacy of fame but most of it landed on unwilling victims, confused medics and weary policemen. The vigilantes were not destined for immortality but George Lusk was different. This 49 years old builder and decorator became famous because he had industry and confidence and identified initiatives before others. His Whitechapel Vigilance Committee organised street patrols and collected £5 from each of the Committee members to pay for a reward. More money was collected to support the volunteers with the heavy sticks. Lusk hired private detectives and plastered billposters across the buildings of Whitechapel. The posters pleaded for people to come forward with information. Lusk also wrote letters. Some of them went to the police. Lusk targeted all levels in the police force including the Commissioner Sir Charles Warren. His other correspondence landed on the desks of powerful politicians. Lusk wrote to the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, the Home Secretary Henry Matthews and, most audacious of all, he presented a petition to Queen Victoria where he found a critical ear. ‘Our detectives must be improved,’ said the Queen. She did not say how.

Apart from the reward of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee that he helped fund, Lusk also demanded that the Government and the Metropolitan Police offer a substantial reward to the public for information about the crimes.   Lusk is viewed by historians with sympathy. The view is that he had a genuine concern for the victims and had worries about the future. He sensed that the murders would continue. Decency and a willingness to devote his spare time to the good of his neighbourhood would have been enough for Lusk to be remembered. More, though, happened.   Someone claiming to be Jack the Ripper wrote Lusk a letter and enclosed half a human kidney. The letter was in red ink, and the home address was Hell. The letter imitated what had previously been sent to the Central News Agency. The first letter is regarded as a hoax. Police reckoned it was written by a journalist looking for a story.   The imitation, though, may well have been written by the Ripper. The enclosed half kidney was human, and, when she was killed, Catherine Eddowes had her kidney removed by the assassin. The person who wrote from Hell claimed to have fried and eaten the other half. Lusk thought the letter was another hoax and left the letter and kidney in his desk until the next meeting of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The other committee members persuaded Lusk to take the kidney to the local hospital where it was examined by police surgeon Dr Brown. Police memos state that the kidney could have come from any human body.


The uninspired 1988 British TV series Jack The Ripper not only had a charmless Michael Caine as Inspector Abberline it portrayed George Akin Lusk as a radical socialist who had a compulsion towards violence. Most of the time he snarled and acted unreasonably.   This has shocked those who feel Lusk should be remembered as a responsible and admirable citizen. The shocked have a point. Fiction is obliged to amend history but this invention was twisted, irresponsible and crude. The shocked should not be surprised. British tirades against left wing thinking and activists neither honour accuracy nor show respect to those whose views were later vindicated.

Vigilance against crime, though, is not restricted to those who regard themselves as vigilantes. We all contribute to vigilance if only because we reply to questions from the police, report on wrongdoing and do what we are told. The Whitechapel community cooperated and was supportive of the action taken by the police. In less than two months after the murder of the final victim Mary Jane Kelly, the police received 1400 letters from the public. Some may have been the product of overactive imaginations but most of the correspondents meant well.   A few writers nominated suspects. If the murders strengthened community spirit and purpose, they also encouraged neighbours to be suspicious of each other and sometimes surrender to vindictiveness. Compassion was mixed with grievance.


Mary ‘Polly’ Nichols is regarded as the first Ripper victim but she was the sixth in the series of Whitechapel attacks on women. The Morning Advertiser stated that the time and route of her funeral was a ‘profound secret’ but when the hearse was observed in Hanbury Street the crowds ‘numbered some thousands’. Twenty-five years old Mary Jane Kelly the supposed final victim of the Ripper was murdered on the 9th of November 1888 and buried ten days later. Several thousand gathered outside St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch. This is not vigilance against crime but it is a response from a community that recognises when support beyond the police and authority is needed.

The work of the police requires assistance from the public. Modern policemen and policewomen appear on television screens and emphasise the importance of good community relations.   Journalists and Queen Victoria were critical of the efforts of the police but the people of Whitechapel cooperated. On the 18th of October 1888 the police organised a house-to-house search of all of Whitechapel. The search discovered neither clues nor suspects but the subsequent statement from the police commended the locals. According to the police all the people of Whitechapel welcomed the police into their homes.


George Lusk died in 1919. His involvement in the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee reduced after 1889 but so had the incidence of murder in Whitechapel. His successor appeared to be more interested in self-publicity than protecting his community. The building company of George Lusk, which had once employed twenty men, also declined. Lusk was less prosperous than he had been. To concentrate on his campaigns on behalf of his community he may have neglected his business. His wife Susannah had died in March 1888.  Lusk was expelled from the Doric Arch Freemasons Lodge for non-payment of fees in 1889.  These two events have encouraged speculation even though much of it is groundless. But it is possible that the work of Lusk on the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee was an opportunity that allowed him to forget his grief as a bereaved 49 years old husband and also something that facilitated atonement for surviving his wife.  The lapse in paying his fees to the Masons may have been because he was short of cash but there are enough conspiracy theories about the Masons and Jack the Ripper for the fanciful to wonder about the cause of the rupture.


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.






‘The strangest part of the whole thing is that I heard no sound. As a rule I can hear the footstep of the policeman as he passes by every quarter of an hour, so the woman could not have uttered any cry without my detecting.’ These words belong to George Morris. He was the night watchman at Kearley And Tongue warehouse in Whitechapel. On the 30th September in 1888 Catherine Eddowes was killed in Mitre Square. Her body was found in a dark corner opposite the warehouse. The route, tour or ‘beat’ of a British urban policeman was arranged to last a quarter of an hour. In rural areas the local policeman had a bigger geographical area and was given a bicycle.   This itinerary or arrangement persisted in the British police force and throughout Britain until policemen in motorcars arrived in the late 1960s.

These short routes enabled individual policemen in the cities to be no more than half a mile from each other. A cry for help from the whistle carried by a policeman could be heard by a colleague.   Policemen could not vary the route but they could change the direction, which they did to avoid attack.  PC Watkins was the policeman that George Morris heard pass the warehouse every fifteen minutes through the night. Watkins may have reversed his direction or he may have been a settled and fearless soul who was content to persist with the same footsteps.   Fifteen minutes allowed a policeman to see almost everything that was happening on his beat.   Some years ago I asked a Liverpool policeman how difficult was it to detect crime. We were talking about what happened on the streets. ‘Dead easy,’ said the policeman, ‘you fall over it.’


Prostitution and thieving was common in Whitechapel. There was plenty of crime to fall over but some of it had to be ignored otherwise the policeman would have spent five minutes on the beat and the rest of time be in the station charging criminals.   And for the Victorian policeman prevention was as important as detection and arrest. An eight-hour shift meant a policeman could on an arrest-free night manage 32 trips around his area. Summer nights were preferable to the wind and rain of winter, which is why policemen were prone to make more arrests on unpleasant nights and dawdle over arrests in the police station.   Prostitutes sought dark alleys, and their business often involved brisk transactions but, because of the high incidence of prostitution, a policeman would have been obliged to either ignore much or control crime in his own way. A simple technique used by policemen was to tell the suspicious and criminal to go to bed and clear the street.

A quarter of an hour does not allow much space for a fastidious serial killer to find victims on the street and murder them.   In two of his killings on the street, Jack the Ripper inflicted injuries and mutilations that were extensive. The medical opinion was that the assaults would have taken at least fifteen minutes.   Dark nooks and crannies helped the Ripper. But, because of witness testimonies, we know that Jack the Ripper had no more than fifteen minutes to do what he wanted when he killed Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square.  The murder of Eddowes is horrific but how the Ripper avoided detection has to be acknowledged as an achievement. Because of the impact of the murders in Whitechapel, there were, apart from the usual policemen on the beat, plain-clothes detectives walking the streets.  Jack the Ripper also had to keep Catherine Eddowes quiet. His final victim Mary Jane Kelly was killed in her home. This is often referred to as an anomaly but the likelihood is that after four and possibly more murders out in the open Jack the Ripper needed to avoid the streets. Inside a home, beside a roaring fire and without the need to worry about police patrols the Ripper revealed the terrible extent of his imagination.


In Whitechapel in 1888, H Division of the Metropolitan Police Force employed 587 policemen.   The local CID accounted for fifteen men including Inspector Edmund Reid who was the man in charge of the detectives. There is a photograph of H Division CID taken while Reid was in command.  For some reason there are seventeen detectives in the photograph.  Detective Sergeant Thick is remembered because of his name.  Not that he needed it but the Detective Sergeant had a nickname, Johnny Upright. Detective Sergeant Thick arrested an early Jack the Ripper suspect, John Pizer. He was Jewish and Polish and sometimes known as Jack Pozer or the ‘leather apron’. There was no real evidence against Pizer or Pozer but the local prostitutes regarded him as a difficult and demanding customer. His odd behaviour and extreme sexual appetite made the police suspicious and possibly hope.

In the photograph of the CID at H Division that does exist all the men have moustaches and all wear waistcoats.   There are two detectives named Pearce. Detective Constable Albert Pearce is the younger of the two and he has the looks of a modern film star. The other detectives are more ordinary, and some appear as if they might have developed an avuncular nature. Middle-aged Inspector Reid looks tired, gentle and haunted, an administrator rather than a zealot. Before he was a policeman, Edmund Reid had worked as a pastry chef and a ship’s steward.  In his spare time he was fond of acting and singing.   The artistic background of Edmund Reid may have been the reason why Inspector Frederick Abberline was taken out of Central Office in Scotland Yard and assigned to the Jack the Ripper murder investigation in Whitechapel.   If Reid felt the presence of Abberline was external interference, there is little record of conflict between the two men. Presumably the arrival of Abberline allowed Reid to continue dealing with the usual crime of Whitechapel.


Sir Charles Warren was appointed the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in 1886, two years before the Ripper murders. He was an ex-military man. Little has been said of his artistic endeavours.   Although Warren was a welcome appointment he was soon unpopular with the press and public. His military priorities were not viewed as effective for policing, and he was criticised for a heavy-handed approach to radical protest. This is not without irony. Warren had Liberal sympathies and clashed with his Conservative Home Secretary Henry Matthews. The failure to apprehend Jack the Ripper prevented Warren from having a distinguished career in the police. He resigned after the murder of Mary Jane Kelly.   Well before his departure Warren assigned Chief Inspector Donald Swanson to the Ripper investigation.  Swanson was based in Scotland Yard, and his role was to keep Warren informed of what was happening in Whitechapel. Warren, though, was not adept at delegation. On the 30th of September he arrived to look at the body of Liz Stride, the first of the two victims of that night. Warren visited Whitechapel despite having in the area two Inspectors that had the responsibility of reporting to Chief Inspector Swanson in Scotland Yard. Swanson was based outside Whitechapel so that Warren would have up to date information on his desk and be able to focus on his responsibilities to Henry Matthews the Home Secretary.  Politicians are not the most adept at evaluating operational reports, and Government Ministers need careful handling, accurate information, assurance and flattery.  The appearance of Warren at the scene of the Whitechapel murders clashed with the chain of command and the responsibilities and priorities that he had created.


The other 572 policemen in H Division were overseen by Chief Inspector John West, and he was managed by Superintendent Thomas Arnold. The likelihood is that during the Ripper crimes Superintendent Arnold would have had a lower profile. The busy communication chain would have been the one that linked H Division CID to the Home Secretary.  Back in 1888 the Metropolitan Police did not skimp on managers.  Of the fifteen detectives in CID, nine were either Detective Sergeant or above. Amongst the other 572 policemen there were 66 who were either sergeants or above, and the remaining 506 constables were divided into three classes.  In 1888 the population of Whitechapel was around 78,000. This meant that for every 133 residents H Division employed one policeman and for every 154 residents there was a policeman walking the beat. These manning levels and the huge difference in numbers between the fifteen CID detectives and the 572 policemen reflect how crime prevention rather than detection was the priority of Victorian police forces. Detection had limited potential and success.  In 1888 there were no fingerprints. Blood tests could identify blood from mammals but not human blood.


The various policemen were based in four locations. These were in Leman Street, Commercial Street, King David Lane and Arbour Square. The building in Leman Street is still used as a police station.   The other three police stations are now used for residential housing.  In 2005 the empty Arbour Square Police Station was taken over by squatters. Unused police stations were popular with squatters.   The toilets and the facilities in the police canteens were appreciated by those looking for a home.  Today Commercial Street has properties worth £750,000.

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.