ONE – LONDON 1888
By the time 1888 was over, the Metropolitan Police in London had recorded 28 murders and classified 94 killings as manslaughter. But more adept investigations into child deaths committed by desperate mothers and fathers would have increased the numbers. Jack the Ripper was responsible for five of the 28 recorded homicides, almost a fifth, and because of his specific interests more than half of the total victims that year were female. In the previous seven years there were 82 murders in London. In 1883 and 1884, which were above the average, there were sixteen murders each year. In 1886 there were eight murders, not even double the number managed by Jack the Ripper, the unknown slayer that George Bernard Shaw described as an ‘independent genius’. Shaw imagined the chaos caused by Jack the Ripper destabilising an unequal society and precipitating subsequent reform.
Elizabeth Gibbs died on New Year’s Day and qualified as the first victim of 1888. Her slaying, though, occurred on the 27th of December. Unlike many of the women killed in London that year Gibbs was respectable and wealthy. She lived in quiet Belgravia but that did not prevent her being run over by what her husband, a wealthy estate agent, described as a ‘two horse van’. Two days after Christmas Day there would have still been Christmas food in their affluent home. Perhaps the servants benefitted from the unwanted food and the tragedy. The driver of the van was Albert Winwood. A postman saw the driver cut the corner. The postman ran after the van and summoned Winwood to a halt. The husband of Elizabeth Gibbs was also knocked to the ground but he survived without serious injury. The arm of Elizabeth Gibbs was crushed below one of the wheels of the van. The surgeons removed her arm but her body and spirit never recovered.
Accidents between horse drawn vehicles and pedestrians were not uncommon in 1888. Horse drawn omnibuses were also on the streets. The rival companies were competitive, and drivers, chasing extra earnings and reward, could be reckless. Neither were they always sober. Many of the deaths involving pedestrians and vehicles were recorded as accidental. Winwood was unlucky. Elizabeth Gibbs had status and wealth, and the postman was a persuasive witness. When incidents occurred in crowded streets, witnesses often disagreed for the sake of an argument, and this helped the coach and van drivers to avoid punishment. The legal system may have had its absurdities but the principle of beyond reasonable doubt was well established. Criminal trials were not foregone conclusions.
The incident with Gibbs occurred in a quiet exclusive street late at night, and the postman was adamant. Winwood had cut the corner, and the driver was lucky not to have also killed the husband. The subsequent attitude of Winwood did not win him friends or sympathy. ‘What the bloody hell has that got to do with me?’ said Winwood when he was stopped by the postman. As he drove off, it appeared to the postman that Winwood was affected by alcohol. Winwood was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six months hard labour.
In 1888 London had more than five million inhabitants. The Metropolitan Police, which had been formed in 1829, employed 12,025 policemen. Responsibilities were uneven. In the police stations and behind a desk the life for a policeman was secure although no pension was payable on retirement. On the streets there was a serious risk of assault. In 1888 there were 2,200 assaults on London policemen, one assault for every six policemen. There were 16,500 arrests for drunk and disorderly behaviour. Most of this would have occurred inside or just outside the 10,000 London public houses. The pubs were open from five in the morning until midnight. Because they offered relief from inadequate housing and provided warmth and comfort, the pubs were popular. Heavy drinking was common amongst both men and women. The average annual consumption per person for the English was a gallon of spirits, 40 gallons of wine and 30 gallons of beer. Teetotallers were included in the calculation, so the typical figure would have been higher. The surprise in the figures is not that the average English man or woman drank so much but that more wine was drunk than beer.
As in the American Wild West, firearms were legal. A gun licence cost ten shillings, and, if no licence was held, the misdemeanour incurred a £10 fine. Shootings were nowhere near as frequent as fistfights but when they occurred they excited journalists and their readers. Gordon Hare had tried to make a fortune in the colonies and even joined a travelling circus in Mexico but earning a living was an accomplishment that was beyond him. Maynard his brother described Gordon as a ‘source of great trouble. He took his allowance of one guinea a week with great scorn.’ When Major Thomas Hare, the father and provider of the allowance, refused to support any more what he regarded as wasteful behaviour, Gordon Hare shot his father through the neck before blowing out his own brains. The Times reassured its readers, ‘The lips were blackened but his moustache was not singed.’ Fifteen years after this killing the 1903 Pistols Act denied gun ownership to ‘the drunken and the insane’. It did little to affect gun ownership but it may have prevented moustaches being singed.
London had plenty of prostitutes, and there was sympathy for their plight. The women were described as ‘unfortunates’ or ‘fallen’. William Logan campaigned for teetotalism and against prostitution. He described the prostitutes as ‘miserable victims’ and claimed that ‘eight out of every ten were going about in a diseased condition’. Logan may well have been right. In London in 1888 there were plenty of diseases to catch and carry. From 1874 policemen had been allowed to arrest prostitutes and check for venereal disease. In 1886, though, the law was changed. Feminist activists had argued that exploited women were being targeted and their customers excused and to some extent protected by what amounted to a quality control check of the product. Various figures are quoted for the number of prostitutes in London. In 1888 the police supplied the precise figure of 5,678 and reported that they had arrested 2,797 that year. The police estimate of the number of practising prostitutes has been challenged and deserves to be. Before the law was changed in 1885 the police arrested between 5000 and 6000 prostitutes every year. For the estimate of the Metropolitan Police to be believed we have to assume that London had a police force capable of arresting every prostitute in London. This is unlikely, and the alternative figure of 80,000 prostitutes may have merit. Nor can we assume that for working class women there would have been a simple distinction between prostitution and respectability. Most prostitutes managed no more than six years in the trade. The lucky ones finished with the business before it finished with them. For working class women there were two problems in 1888. These were men and jobs. The men whose own economic opportunities were limited were poor prospects, and the jobs for women were underpaid and scarce.
Bryant and May the matchmakers provided 1400 jobs for women in their factory. The pay for a day’s work was about the same as for male labourers but the days were longer and there were health risks from working with the white phosphorous used in the matches. The girls acquired a disease called phosphorous necrosis of the jaw. This disfigurement made the lower half of the face look something similar to what Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man suffered. All of which should have given the Quaker owners of Bryant and May a conscience, especially as owner William Bryant was a Liberal. Instead, he appeared to resent what wages he did pay. To reduce labour costs there was a system of fines that ensured full wages were denied. After an employee was sacked the girls went on strike. The sacked employee was soon reinstated but the girls stayed out for improved conditions, in particular the abolition of unfair deductions and the creation of a separate room where the girls could eat food not contaminated by the white phosphorous. The strike, though, achieved more than improved conditions for 1400 exploited women. It persuaded other workers to protest and make demands. The Great Dock Strike of 1889 followed and that encouraged the growth of trade unionism throughout the country.
Jack the Ripper may have had the basest of motives but, in not quite the same way as Charles Dickens, ‘the independent genius’ achieved what George Bernard Shaw had hoped. The harsh lives of the poor in what was then the richest and most powerful country in the world became the stories on the front pages of the newspapers. Gentlemen who were able to commit suicide without singeing their whiskers were no longer the headline news. In 1888 there was not just sex and violence in the newspapers. Working class politics had arrived or, as someone almost said at the time, the war of the ‘classes against the masses’ would be resisted.
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.
Thanks to Peter Stubley, his book 1888 London Murders In The Year Of The Ripper was the source text for the above.