UK history




The British like to talk about the weather, and in Britain there is plenty.   Most days qualify as a metrological surprise. The weather is either variable, which is typical but even predictable change contains uncertainty, or extreme, such as the present summer and constant sunshine. The people of Britain often feel that the island is targeted by the climate.   Acknowledging the weather to someone can carry implications of how a person is or feels.  A person can mention disappointing weather whilst suggesting he or she is stoical. Good days can be utilised to demonstrate an ability to appreciate simple pleasures. Unpredictable weather allows us to insist we understand the world still has surprises. When we talk about the weather, we are often self-effacing and modest. The old can use conversations about the weather to convince others that they retain their faculties. Most of the time, though, gossip about the British weather is an excuse for legitimate and harmless moaning. And, like football chat, it passes the time.


Not everyone hated the London smog. Canadian writer Sara Jeanette Duncan wrote 22 novels and liked life in England. She was not a permanent resident of London but almost. Because her husband edited the Indian Daily News, she had to spend some of her life in India. In her 1891 novel, An American Girl In London, Duncan wrote this about the London smog, ‘… yet it gave a kind of solidity and nutriment to the air and made you feel as if your lungs digested it. There was both comfort and satisfaction in that smell.’ If the London smog enhanced the life of Sarah Jeanette Duncan, it did not extend it. She died when she was 61 years old.   The cause of her death was described as ‘chronic lung disease’. Today she would have been diagnosed as suffering from emphysema. Nine years after writing about her affection for the London smog, Duncan had to be treated for tuberculosis. The woman also liked a cigarette.   Her life did not last long but there was comfort for her from polluted air.


The smog was also popular with painters. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was inspired by the London smog and gloomy light. He was a nihilistic alternative and successor to J M W Turner.   The landscape paintings of Whistler were dominated by pollution and muck. Turner was interested in drama either contained or reflected by nature. The daylight dazzles Turner and adds excitement.   The smog in the paintings of Whistler contributes weight, denies drama and renders inconsequential what may be happening.  The bleakest example is Nocturne Blue And Silver: Battersea Reach. The painting consists of overwhelming grey punctuated by rare pinpoints of muffled light.

‘I am their painter,’ Whistler said of London fogs. And so he was until Claude Monet came along. Both men understood that fog is poetic. It disguises shapes and form and affects our sense of what exists. Fog transforms both the world and us. Monet avoided the bleak grey that Whistler captured in Nocturne Blue And Silver: Battersea Reach and used different colours to capture the changing light around Waterloo Bridge. His painting The Houses Of Parliament, London With The Sun Breaking Through, though, is as gloomy as anything by Whistler. The buildings on the Thames feel disconnected and isolated. The smog in the painting feels like a brake on ambition, amidst the unintended consequence of fog the politics has become remote and impotent.


London smog had various names. Charles Dickens either identified or invented two of them. There is debate about how and why London Particular was adopted. For Victorians ‘particular’ was slang for a mistress. London Particular may refer to the shabby truth that exists behind pretence. London Particular also refers to a brown coloured wine that was imported from Madeira. Either way it appealed to Dickens. Another was London Ivy. The smog left soot particles on clothes and walls. Both names suggest parochial pride and some of the stoicism the British use to discuss their weather. More common amongst ordinary people was the term ‘pea souper’.   In the movies London smog is somewhere between grey and white. The real stuff was less pleasant. The particles of soot and the poisonous gas sulphur gave it a strange yellow colour. Pea soup was popular and a stomach filler for the poor. Made from split yellow peas the mush had a coarse texture and felt nutritional. Not just fanciful Canadian writers associated the smog with nutrition.

London smog was not specific to the Victorian age and the period of industrialisation and immigration. The use of sea coal created pollution as early as the 13th Century. King Edward 1 banned the burning of sea coal in 1306.   Heralded as the first clean air act the law was ignored by Londoners. Each year the problem became worse but there were spikes in the 17th Century when London expanded and at the end of the 19th Century after industrialisation and the population was swelled by immigration. The location of London did not help. The water on the Thames added mist and fog. London is the warmest place in Britain, something known as an urban heat island.   The smog was reluctant to leave.


In 1952 the Great Smog arrived. Public transport ceased during the Great Smog and at least 8000 people died because of respiratory failure.   Legislation designed to clean the air offered ordinary people financial incentives to use something other than coal for heating their homes. Some progress was made, and the weather changed but there was another serious smog event ten years later. Gas central heating became popular, and radiators triumphed. The polluted air in British cities today is caused by motor vehicles.

For the Victorians the smog intensified the existing paranoia. Between 1886 and 1888 three street demonstrations involved violent conflict. In 1886 the protesters smashed windows in the affluent West End. In 1887 a demonstration of 30,000 people was charged by infantry, cavalry and the police. 75 people were injured and 400 people were arrested. The affluent worried about unrest and malevolence and how it could be policed under thick smog. Perhaps they also saw the smog as a symbol of the dark desires of the poor. Unable to see the road ahead the affluent felt besieged by poor people and their environment.

Between 1832 and 1854 there were four outbreaks of cholera. The physician Jon Snow was important because he convinced his peers that the cholera was the result of contaminated water. He had to struggle against those who believed the disease was somehow carried by smell, and for many that meant the smell of the smog. In the outbreak of 1854 there were 616 deaths in London because of cholera. The number suggests a modest outbreak but in parts of London the cholera mortality rate was 12.8%. At least the smog was an employment opportunity for young men who carried burning torches and guided gentlemen through the streets of London. These confident and sometimes chatty young men were called linklighters.


Movies and books have tried hard to persuade us that the smog was also an opportunity for Jack the Ripper. I am also culpable. Elsewhere I have referred to the killer sniffing the London fog. In my defence I was referring to the legend and myth. If Jack the Ripper ever did sniff the smog, it was not on those nights he murdered his victims. Although 1888 had plenty of smog the murders were committed on clear nights. One of those nights it rained but there was no smog.

The fanciful like to believe that Jack the Ripper was a gentleman with surgical skills, someone who would have returned to a comfortable home in the West End. In that case he would have avoided the worst of the smog. As it does in most of Britain, the wind in London blows from West to East. The East End also had domestic overcrowding and industrial chimneys. For the wealthy the polluted air of London was their legacy rather than their inheritance. In the Punch cartoon The Nemesis Of Neglect the smog is not just the unintended consequence implied by Monet. The smog is a manifestation of an indifference to poverty. Today smog looks great in movies especially the black and white classics. This would have been no surprise to Whistler and Monet but both of them would have been startled to see who happens to be stepping through the smog and how often the canes of gentlemen disappear around the well-shod feet of the wealthy.   Knowing that Jack the Ripper killed on clear nights we are entitled to wonder if he was inspired by open skies or, for those who enjoy being fanciful, the sight of the moon in the sky above his head.

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.









Critics have claimed that the supposed victims of Jack the Ripper have become celebrities for a modern generation that lacks sympathy.  The photographs of the slain bodies of the murdered women are now in the public domain and are essential to any book about Jack The Ripper. Some readers will examine those photographs more than once and perhaps look at the photographs before they read any of the text.   There will be readers who are disappointed that the pictures are not in colour and frustrated because it is not possible to identify the removed organs amidst the bloody mess.

The interest in Jack the Ripper has persisted for various reasons. There is the social significance of the crimes in an exceptional historical period. The tale is also a compelling mystery for amateur detectives. But it cannot be denied that the violence of the crimes of The Ripper has been relished by ghouls and sadistic misogynists. The critics are right to complain about attitudes to the murdered women.  The victims, though, are not the alleged celebrities.   In Britain the vast majority of people are unable to give the names of the women, and just as many become confused when asked about the supposed number of the victims.  For many readers and viewers their memories of the films and books are vague.  The fate of the women has claimed attention but only as part of an overall drama. People move on to the next movie or book. Little respect is shown to the victims by film directors. Middle-class actresses have overacted and created caricatures. Heather Graham as Mary Kelly in From Hell is an exception but that happens in a movie that is romantic fantasy.   The victims deserve respect but they also need to be remembered.   Resisting neglect is as important now as it was back in 1888.


The Nemesis of Neglect is the title of a cartoon that was published in Punch magazine. The illustration was drawn by John Tenniel. He illustrated the first edition of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.   The connection between the Ripper and Carroll in the work of Tenniel may be evidence of a civilised conscience and concerns or it may be something sinister.   In the British Library the creator of the accompanying verse is identified as nothing more than Punch. The cartoon and the verse had compassion.   The poem referred to ‘the slum’s foul air’ and concluded with ‘the murderous crime – the nemesis of neglect’. The poem and cartoon appeared in Punch on the 29th of September 1888, eleven days after a letter to The Times from Sidney Godolphin Osborne.   The signature was reduced to SGO. Osborne described Whitechapel as a community ‘begotten and reared in an atmosphere of Godless brutality’.  According to SGO, the people of Whitechapel had become ‘a species of human sewage, the very drainage of the vilest production of ordinary vice.’ We may have doubts about the word ordinary but we get the point.   Mary Shelley argued something similar in Frankenstein, which was published in 1812. Then as now improvements in technology were making some people rich and others poor. Shelley pleaded for nurture to rescue people.   In the case of Frankenstein and his creation neglect produced a monster. For the people of Whitechapel at the end of the 19th Century indifference from the affluent enabled the ‘vilest production of ordinary vice’.   The names and number of the victims of Jack the Ripper need to be remembered.

Inevitably there is debate. Some of the arguments about the number of victims are fanciful. If we assume that Jack left the country and continued his evil ways, the increase in numbers becomes exponential. We believe what we want to believe from the legend. An American, Martin Fido, is credited with introducing the term ‘the canonical five’.   The phrase refers to those murders most likely to have been committed by Jack the Ripper.   As there are other women that could qualify as victims of the Ripper, there should at least be consensus over these five. There is not.


The drama around the five murders is intensified by the timetable. The first of the five was killed on 31st August 1888, and the last was discovered on the 9th of November 1888, two victims a month.   Sensation is added by ‘the double event’. On the 30th of September 1888 two women were slain in the early hours of the morning. When discovered, the first victim was alive and still bleeding. Perhaps the modern NHS and ambulance service would have rescued her life. Instead, the victim was proclaimed dead by a doctor sixteen minutes after her wounds were noticed.   The second victim that morning appeared three quarters of an hour later.   The conventional opinion is that Jack the Ripper was disturbed during the first murder and, not satisfied, he found his second victim. But the wounds, location and doubts about the weapon used in the first murder that night have led some to challenge the notion of the double event.  Others are not only reluctant to weaken a good story; they think the doubters are being fanciful.   Neither side has convincing arguments. We believe what we want to believe.

In ascribing victims to serial killers the selection of criteria is important. Nothing beats a solid confession and reliable witnesses but Jack the Ripper was slippery, his crimes generated hysteria and the London streets were dark and foggy. All that is available to analysts are time or dates, location and method. The murders that occurred outside London are weakened further by details. When a murder in Gateshead is suggested and we note that the boyfriend was hanged for the murder, we realise that some people are too willing to indulge an imagination.

There were nine murders of women in the East End of London between April 1888 and February 1891. The first murder deserves to be discounted because the victim told a doctor that she was attacked by three men. The last murder occurred almost three years after the explosion of violence in 1888. This leaves two victims not included in the ‘canonical five’.


The first of these two victims was discovered a mere 24 days before the first of the ‘canonical five’. The method of killing was a little different.  The throat was not cut, and the body was not mutilated. The woman, though, was a victim of what has been described as a frenzied attack. Even serial murderers have to begin somewhere. The second of the murders not included in the ‘canonical five’ happened in 1889. Not as late as the murder of 1891 but less than a year after the series of killings in 1888. The body was mutilated but the injuries divided both medical and police opinion.   Those unwilling to believe it was the work of Jack the Ripper may have had political reasons for denying the return of the murderer.  It is not irresponsible to credit Jack the Ripper with seven killings.  The truth is that we will never know the exact number.   Some of the killings may have been the actions of a copycat.  Jack the Ripper killed more than one woman, and for some it is at least four, and for others at least seven.   We are all affected by our imaginations.


Three murders occurred that did not conform to the methods we associate with Jack the Ripper.   Between 1887 and 1889 headless torsos appeared in London. All three belonged to women. Limbs that could be matched to the torsos also appeared at random.   One of the torsos was discovered while building work was being done on the foundations of New Scotland Yard and around the time the police were being criticised for not solving the crimes of the Ripper. 1888 was not a good year for the Metropolitan Police.   The imaginations of policemen must have been affected by these discoveries.   It is an odd coincidence that headless female torsos popped up in the Thames while an unknown killer of women roamed the streets of Whitechapel. Some present day imaginations are also affected. Since Jack the Ripper there have been serial killers with diverse interests and tastes. When we imagine Jack the Ripper, we have to wonder what he did at home.   What happened on the streets of the East End was savage but perhaps Jack the Ripper was more twisted than we realise and unknown horror happened in the privacy of his home.

Two of the three torsos belonged to unidentified women. The third belonged to a woman called Elizabeth Jackson.   The names of the seven victims in Whitechapel, some of whom may or may not have been murdered by Jack the Ripper, are as follows- Martha Tabram, Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly and Alice McKenzie. They all had difficult lives and, when they were murdered, they were doing what they had done in the previous months, trying as hard as they could to get to the end of the day.  These women deserve to be remembered.  Before they were murdered they were given little thought.

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.