With an interest in ‘Jack the Ripper’ dating back to the late 1950’s a visit to the area where it all happened was inevitable. However, it was not until I bought Cullen and Odell’s books in 1965 that this interest developed into something more serious. I was very impressed with the books, and, I suppose because it offered a definite suspect, Cullen’s was the one that gripped my imagination the most. And, of course, I immediately believed the Druitt theory and agreed that he must have been the ‘Ripper.’ It exemplified to me, in later years, how the reading of a single book can convince you of its arguments when you know no better. Still he was a plausible suspect. By 1967 I was living in Ipswich, just an hour from London by train, and I thought that it was time that I visited the East End to see where it all happened. I remember that it was a warm August day, the 17th I believe, and I caught the train armed with a map drawn from the books. Disembarking from the train at Liverpool Street Station, I crossed Bishopsgate Street heading for Mitre Square. I had with me my primitive Brownie 127 camera loaded with a 12-shot film.
The London of the mid to late 60’s presented a city on the verge of great change. There were still many gaps amongst the buildings, many weed and rubble covered, marking the sites where the bombs of the Luftwaffe had fallen. There were still many Victorian buildings in evidence, and very few high-rise edifices. I located Mitre Square which I found to be immediately recogniseable from the illustrations in the books. All that was missing was the short row of terraced houses in Mitre Street which backed onto the spot where Catherine Eddowes was found. Here there was a fence and some waste ground, but otherwise the Square was little chaged from the time of the murder. It was still overshadowed by the huge warehouses of Messrs. Kearley and Tonge, and an office block. The narrow Church Passage, and covered St James passage were still there. With the cobbled area of the Square, and the footpath still as it had been it was possible to locate the spot where the victim had fallen with pin-point accuracy. I took three photographs, spoilt a little by the fact that there were a few vehicles parked in the Square. On a piece of paper I sketched out the location from which I had taken each photograph for later identification. Standing there alone with the warehouses towering over me the Square had a rather claustrophobic and enclosed atmosphere which is absent today. It was not difficult to imagine how atmospheric it must have been after nightfall. Well, here I was treading in the steps of the ‘Ripper’ just 79 years after the event.
Having finished in Mitre Square, I left through what was Church Passage in 1888. It was still the same in 1967, and I was amazed at how narrow it was, the photo I took of it at that time appears in my book. I had read in one of the books that Dorset Street had been turned into a car park, so I didn’t even try to find the site at that time! A pity because part of Duval Street survived at that time. Strangely I also failed to look for the entrance to 108-119 Model Dwellings in Goulston Street. I made my way via Duke Street down to Commercial Road and into Henriques Street ‘formerly Berner Street’ as it proclaimed on the street nameplate. I went down the street, which I found was a lot shorter than I had imagined itwould be to the junction with Fairclough Street, then looked back in the direction of Commercial Road and took a photograph. This was one street that had totally changed, even then since 1888. There was no sign of Dutfield’s Yard, scene of the Stride murder. All there was to be seen, as today, was a brick wall surrounding a school playground. With the spot where Stride had fallen within the playground. There were also some semi-high rise office blocks and the Commercial Road end, rather detracting from the atmosphere. There was no real feeling of Victorian London, nor of following the Ripper’s footsteps, at this location. I next headed for Gunthorpe Street, off Whitechapel High Street. This street was formerly know as George Yard and was the location of the Tabram murder, not a ‘Ripper’ victim I thought but it was en-route to Hanbury Street so I thought that I might as well give it a look.
In 1967 London was, of course, a busy place, but in comparison with today’s teeming populace and never ending flow of traffic it was relatively quiet. The whole area of Whitechapel had a quality of gentle decay about it, it really did seem on the verge of great change. There were no pedestrian subways under the main roads in those days, and the roads were easier to cross on foot! As I previously stated the Victorian atmosphere was easier to imagine then as so many Victorian buildings still stood, although many of the homes were little more than slums. Life did not move quite as fast as it does today.
I located the arched entrance to Gunthorpe Street (George Yard) with the White Hart public house on the west corner at the junction with Whitechapel High Street. Entering the narrow street with its cobbled road surface and gloomy Victorian buildings on both sides stretching northwards in front of me, there was an immediate feeling of atmosphere and a gloomy oppressiveness. At this point the true idea of the Victorian London of 1888 could be obtained. [Even today this bottom end of Gunthorpe Street is remarkably little changed]. I immediately took a photograph [it is reproduced in my book and also in Phil Sugden’s small Siena book and Jim Tully’s book], forever capturing two dark figures walking up the road, looking for all the world like the shades of two Victorian labourers on their way to work. At the distant end of Gunthorpe Street, on the left near to its junction with Wentworth Street, was the looming, dark and forbidding presence of George Yard Buildings. I walked up the narrow street until I stood at the front entrance of George Yard Building. It was dark, grimy, apparently unoccupied, and looking exactly as it would have to Martha Tabram 79 years before. I tried to get into the building but the door was locked and I could not gain entry. I took a photograph of the front of the building, looking towards the junction with Wentworth Street which was only yards away. [When I showed this photograph to Martin Fido in 1989, when I first met him, he was amazed to see the exact location of George Yard Building – it wasn’t there when he first visited the location and it was in a different spot to that which he had previously thought. I, for my part, was glad that my murky 1967 black and white photographs were proving of some use!] In Wentworth Street the high fronted tenements at the junction were still there, it provided an enclosed, overlooked, and much more claustrophobic feel than can ever be imagined today. Again this photograph is reproduced in my book. However, this, I thought, was not a ‘Ripper’ murder site, and it was time to move on to locate 29 Hanbury Street, a frontage that I knew I was going to recognise from the pictures I had seen of it in the books. I moved on…
I left Gunthorpe Street (George Yard), with a slight feeling of disappointment at not having been able to gain entry to the buildings. Still, I had two photographs to preserve the memory of my visit. How would I fare in Hanbury Street?
I walked through the oppressive streets, again sensing the feeling of age-old decay about the area, the grimy Victorian facades staring blankly down on me. Walking, via Brick Lane, to the middle part of Hanbury Street, I turned left in the direction of Commercial Street. And there it was. Set in the middle part of a terrace of Victorian tenements and shops one frontage stood out as a very familiar image. The dilapidated frontage of ‘N. Brill’ hairdresser’s shop – 29 Hanbury Street. It looked, and was, unoccupied. There were a few broken panes of glass in the first floor (second floor in U.S. currency) windows. An advert’ for ‘Brylcreem’ hair cream ran across the shop front window. To the left of this window were two wooden doors, painted in faded pale green, with flakes of paint peeling off. The left-most of these two doors gave entry to the passage that led through to the small back-yard where Annie Chapman had died 79 eventful years before. 29 Hanbury Street may have survived the attentions of Hitler’s bombers, but it didn’t look as if it would survive much longer. (In the event it didn’t). The street was quiet, I took a photograph of the front of the building, then one looking eastwards down Hanbury Street with no. 29 in the foreground, and another from a similar position looking westwards towards the junction with Commercial Street. Little did I realise that in later years these photographs would allow me to position the exact location of no. 29, in relation to the properties opposite which survived, after the north side of the street, along with no. 29, was demolished to allow the expansion of Trumans Brewery. I took a final shot, a close-up of the two doors, when processed this last shot came out dark, somehow grainy, and very atmospheric, looking for all the world as if it had been taken in 1888. I still have the photographs. I tried to open both doors, oh to get into that yard. Both were unyielding, I could not gain entry. An avid collector from an early age I then took several flakes of the old green paint from the very door that the ‘Ripper’ and Chapman had passed through. I cannot find them now, but I think they are in an envelope in a box in my loft somewhere. There was no more that I could do here, but there was still Buck’s Row to locate…
I walked eastwards along Hanbury Street in the direction of Durward Street (formerly Buck’s Row). Despite the August sunshine the area seemed oppressive, and the dark, Victorian facades showed the patina of great age. I walked for about half a mile before turning into the westernmost end of Durward Street. Here the road was wide, lined on either side by high, imposing, grey-fronted Victorian warehouses. Despite the width of the road, the high buildings maintained the enclosed feeling that I had experienced in nearly all the streets I had travelled along.
Ahead of me, in the centre of the road, rose the high, square, imposing front of the Board School. To the left of the school Durward street continued, in narrower form, for a hundred yards or so, until it joined Brady Street at its eastern end. To the right of the Board School ran an even smaller road, appearing for all the world as if it had been squeezed in as an afterthought, Winthrop Street. With the building tops as my only horizon I could not see far into the distance, I was enclosed by the world that had been the hunting ground of the Whitechapel murderer, ‘Jack the Ripper.’ I entered the narrow part of Durward Street, the low wall running from the rear of the Board School to my right, and Essex Wharf to my left.
Ahead of me, on the right, I immediately identified the spot at which ‘Polly’ Nichols had fallen. A ‘dropped’ section of footpath indicated the fatal spot, but now a garage stood where once had been the stable yard, and New Cottage, home of Mrs. Green, was gone, the site now part of the garage. But all the other Victorian terraced houses stretched down to Brady Street, and on the opposite side warehouses, or perhaps offices. On the opposite side of the road two men were working on a small truck. I raised my camera and preserved the scene for posterity. Turning the camera I took another shot, unfortunately marred by the camera strap. If only… how often may we say that, but I failed to call at any of the houses, which were still occupied, probably by families who had lived there in 1888. But I was too reserved to reveal to anyone the quest that I was on, and I left.
I walked out of the narrow part of the Street, and rounded the Board School, on my way to the London Hospital in nearby Whitechapel Road, where there was a souvenir of the murders to be found, I hoped…
I mentioned that my interest in ‘Jack the Ripper’ had been re-kindled by the appearance of the Cullen and Odell books in 1965. In 1966 Robin Odell’s book ‘Jack the Ripper In Fact And Fiction’ came out in paperback (Mayflower-Dell) and I had bought a copy. This book updated the previous one and contained an Appendix (B) which reported on an important find that had been made at the London Hospital that year. This find consisted of maps and medical sketches relating to the Eddowes murder. These had been reproduced, together with a selection of ‘Ripper’ letters in the ‘London Hospital Gazette,’ a magazine, in an article by the eminent patholgist Professor Francis Camps. [‘More About Jack the Ripper,’ by Professor Francis Camps, London Hospital Gazette, Vol. LXIX, No. 1, April 1966.] Of course I wanted a copy, would it still be available now, 16 months after publication?
It was 1967 and I was eighteen years old, dressed much in the style of a teenager of those days wearing an old fish-tail U.S. Army parka, with fur lined-hood hanging at the back, open because it was a warm day, but looking for all the world like a medical student. I passed through the first part of Winthrop Street and into Wood’s Buildings, a narrow alley connecting to Whitechapel road, at which end it passed, arched, under a building. The narrow alley (which is still there) was filthy and the stench of urine was strong. I emerged onto the wide thoroughfare of the Whitechapel Road, main artery into London from Eastern England. Opposite stood the seemingly ageless Victorian edifice of the London Hospital. It looked to me just as I had imagined it, and my mind went back to the 1958 ‘Jack the Ripper’ movie which was focused on the hospital. Crossing the busy highway I went down a side-street to the west of the hospital, and a short way down, to the rear of the hospital I located the library.
I walked into the London Hospital library as if I had every right to be there and entered the lofty main room. There were several students reading at tables, and the duty librarian seated at a desk which commanded a view of the whole room. ‘Here goes,’ I thought as I approached the gentleman at the desk. ‘I am doing some research and wondered if you could help me?’ I ventured as an opener. He enquired what I wanted and I told him that I was researching the East End murders of 1888 with a view to writing a book. (A white lie at that stage, as I was far from being able to write any book!). He was very helpful and I told him of my hope of obtaining a copy of the said magazine. He opened a nearby drawer in which I espied a few papers and magazines. He flicked through them and produced the very item I wanted. I paid the princely sum of half-a-crown (2/6d, two shillings and sixpence in our pre-decimal currency), and the magazine was mine. A minor triumph, I thought, and a fitting end to my tour of the killing ground of Jack the Ripper.
I made my way back along the Whitechapel Road in the direction of the City, and Liverpool Street Station to catch a return train to Ipswich, a very happy chap indeed!