UK culture





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.






In the late 1960s Nic Cohn published an account of popular music. The title of the book, A WopBopAlopBamBoom, was a reference to a great rock and roll hit by Little Richard. Cohn nominated Last Train To San Fernando by Johnny Duncan as the best record made in Britain in the 1950s. The argument for the surprising claim was simple. Everything else was rubbish. Something similar can be said for Murder By Decree. If the film is the best of the Jack The Ripper movies, the competition is not great. The Lodger and Lulu have merit and may even be masterpieces but although serial killers are important to their plots they do not deserve a place on lists of Jack The Ripper movies.   Johnny Duncan could sing and strum, and Murder By Decree beats its competitors.

From Hell, which was made twelve years later, had more poetical ambition but that ambition was not realised.   Murder By Decree is different. It aspires to nothing more than entertainment, something to be consumed like a satisfying but plain British dinner. The movie relies on competency and craftsmanship rather than inspiration and it sidesteps innovation.  Indeed, the notion of having Sherlock Holmes investigate the Jack the Ripper murders had been tried before in the 1965 movie A Study In Terror. That movie patronised its working class characters and made the fatal mistake of allowing the talentless British Georgia Brown to perform two songs.  With no sense of what was either amusing or thrilling the movie refused to come to life.

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Murder Be Decree has sly light humour and intrigue. This unambitious movie feels like a victory for the technocrats over the poets.   Perhaps in a film that features Sherlock Holmes this is it how should be, a celluloid echo of the science of Holmes and the no-nonsense values of his creator Arthur Conan Doyle.  Murder By Decree is not perfect. Some of the interior scenes are routine, and the final confrontation where Holmes explains the aristocratic conspiracy could have been done in a quarter of the time.   There are almost twenty minutes between the climax of the film and the final titles. Yet it is not difficult to forgive the transgression.

The plot is based on the theory in the non-fiction book Jack The Ripper The Final Solution. According to the author Stephen Knight, there was an aristocratic conspiracy.  Knight alleged that the Duke of Clarence fathered a child and that the mother Annie Crook was hidden in a mental institution. The deceit was known by five prostitutes who were murdered to protect the secret.   The Duke of Clarence was an unimpressive individual but the theory has holes. For example, the child was conceived when Annie Crook lived in Britain and the witless Duke was wasting his days in mainland Europe.

Providing we ignore the facts, the theory makes an entertaining tale, which is why it has been used more than once by moviemakers. From Hell in 2001 and Jack The Ripper, a TV drama from 1988, both recommended the Knight account as the solution. Murder By Decree adds Sherlock Holmes, so it should feel even more opportunistic.   But the script is interested in its characters and there are subtle references that share knowledge of the actual history of the crimes and their investigation. The makers of Murder By Decree have taken time to think about what they are doing.  Nothing in the movie feels cheap or cynical, and in a Jack The Ripper movie that is rare.


John Hopkins wrote the screenplay. He came to fame in the 60s because of his tight scripts for Z Cars.  Hopkins does not overwrite.  Back then playwright Dennis Potter was heralded for his vision but Hopkins had the superior craft and technical skill. Boosted by his success on Z Cars, Hopkins was allowed by the BBC to write a four play series called Talking To A Stranger. Each of the plays tells what happened in the same weekend but from the point of view of a different character. Talking To A Stranger is regarded as a television masterpiece. In 1979, when he worked on Murder By Decree, Hopkins had acquired plenty of experience. His work was uneven but he was also prolific and versatile.   Hopkins was not the equal of Harold Pinter but he always had his moments. There are a couple in Murder By Decree. Watson is struggling to lift the last pea off his dinner plate. Holmes, always the lateral thinker, borrows the fork of Watson to squash the pea. The doctor is offended. He had wanted to eat the pea while it was still whole. Apart from being humorous and a welcome break from essential exposition the short scene defines the relationship between the two very different men.   Later, Watson visits a London pub to find a witness amongst the East End. He talks to a prostitute who thinks she has attractions that her peers lack. She is proud of her full set of teeth but during the conversation the prostitute realises that one of her tooth has loosened.   A simple idea explains a precarious livelihood and the defiance and lopsided delusion that the poor need to persist. For once the prostitutes in Murder By Decree are not patronised and reduced to being chirpy cockneys. There is conflict between the women, and in a subsequent scene Hopkins is able to describe quickly what it must be like for a poor woman to be dependent on a hopeless male.   What possessed a seasoned professional like Hopkins to extend the final scene is a mystery.


If the script is sturdy, the accomplished cast take it to another level.  Christopher Plummer leaves no room for doubt as Sherlock Holmes, and James Mason adds real dignity to the modest contribution of Doctor Watson. The script is well written but it is hokum. The actors could be excused for being frivolous but they treat their performances as serious work. They grace the film with their presence.  There are also dignified cameo performances from Frank Finlay and David Hemmings.  Geneviève Bujold appears as Annie Crook for one scene only.  She is discovered by Holmes in the asylum. The emotional scene between the shocked and upset Holmes and the ruined Crook could have unbalanced a modest film but the two actors ensure we are affected by a tragedy that is not real but typical.

Bob Clark directed the film and Reginald H Morris was the cameraman. Neither managed milestones in their careers but something went right when they combined for Murder By Decree. Perhaps the craftsmanship of Hopkins and the presence of gifted actors inspired Clark and Morris to remember their own technical skills.  The shots of Parliament behind the Thames evoke the paintings of Whistler.   For once the fog is not white. It does not have the authentic and sickly yellow tint but it is gloomy.  In early scenes we see the face of the assassin but like the vague witnesses of the Ripper we know we cannot identify him.  Indoors, the photography is less impressive but there the focus is on the actors, and Morris still leaves his mark with a memorable wide-angle shot that is filmed through a mirror. Holmes talks to three visitors who stand at the back of the room. The open carriage journeys through Victorian London not only give the movie visual distinction but reveal Holmes and Watson as gentlemen at ease with the city around them.



The plot may be based on nonsense but it does no harm to the British people if the Royal Family is portrayed as a shower of violent hypocrites, the pinnacle of the social exploitation that marred Victorian society. And if the Royal Family had nothing to do with the Ripper murders, there is enough in the history of our monarchs to justify a movie suggesting this particular family would not be averse to slaughter.   The script of Hopkins is as harsh with the radical politicians. The left wing Inspector Foxborough is a man who welcomes the Ripper murders because in his opinion it will precipitate social change. Holmes condemns Foxborough as a heartless man too willing to sacrifice innocent working people. This gives the film political balance, and it is consistent with how a man like Sherlock Holmes would think. Radical politics would have been beyond the great detective but, like Conan Doyle, Sherlock was capable of civilised compassion. The condemnation of Foxborough, though, does feel glib, especially as the judgement by Holmes is repeated in the overextended fourteen minute scene at the end of the movie. People adopted radical politics in 1888 for a good reason. They were horrified by the plight of the poor. At least we are given the satisfaction of seeing three powerful men humbled by the final revelations of Holmes. The consolation is that the powerful will always be paranoid about the threat of masses and that gives them real discomfort.   Fourteen minutes, though, is still too long for it to be explained.

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.