The East End’s Whitechapel may be most associated with Jack the Ripper, but there is more to this part of London than tales of his infamous crimes. Like many areas of the East End, Whitechapel made its mark on its own outside of the main city areas and it has an interesting, eclectic and varied history
Places to Visit in the East End of London – Whitechapel.
Whitechapel’s name originally came from a small local chapel, St Mary’s, which later developed into the local church of St Mary Matfelon. We do not know exactly how long a chapel stood in this area, but the first written recording of its existence was probably made in the early 1300s. The last church on the spot was destroyed in the Second World War in the 1940s.
Not much is known about Whitechapel until the 16th century. At this point in time London started a kind of class divide. Areas of the East End, which stood outside the city walls, were not regulated by London rules. They also were far enough outside of the city, away from the relatively well-to-do central London residents, to create perfect homes for some unpleasant and noxious businesses.
Londoners needed industries like tanning, brewing, abattoirs and foundries. The people living within the city, however, did not want these industries located within the walls. They produced noxious smells and were often quite dangerous. Many sprang up in the East End in areas like Whitechapel, where they were close enough to service the rest of London, but not close enough to smell or see!
One of the best known businesses during this period in the area was the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This factory cast bells for churches and manufactured the famous bells of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. It also produced the Liberty Bell of Philadelphia. The company still operates in a listed building in Whitechapel and is held to be the oldest manufacturing business in Great Britain, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
Whitechapel in Victorian Times
By Victorian times, an influx of Jewish and Irish immigrants and people moving into London from the country looking for work changed the face of Whitechapel. Like many of the poorer areas of the East End, it became a slum area; it was heavingly overcrowded and its residents often suffered from extreme poverty and a lack of decent living and social conditions. Dorset Street in the area was once actually described as the worst street in London.
Things were not all bad during this period, however, as the area did benefit from the works of some philanthropists and social reformers who helped improve social conditions. For example, William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, started his mission on Whitechapel Road in the 1870s. He did much to help local residents, although the area itself still remained in fairly dire straits despite his best efforts.
By the 1880s, the Metropolitan Police surveyed the area and claimed that it had over 60 brothels and 1,200 very low-class prostitutes. This was not always a safe or pleasant place to be. Charles Dickens had a character in Pickwick Papers describe the Whitechapel area as not very nice and he located one of Fagin’s dens in Oliver Twist in the local area.
It is thought that the character of Fagin was based on a well known Whitechapel criminal, Ikey Solomon. In real life in 1888, Jack the Ripper started to terrorise the local population. Many of his victims were prostitutes who worked in dark and cramped streets late at night with little or no protection. His reign of terror ended suddenly and nobody has ever been able to prove his identity.
One of the more famous residents of Whitechapel in Victorian times was Joseph Merrick, known as “The Elephant Man”. He ultimately moved into the Royal London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, where he was cared for by Dr Frederick Treves. Before this time, however, visitors to the area could see Merrick who was displayed as a curiosity in a shop window in Whitechapel opposite the hospital. If you are interested in learning more about his life, there is a museum about him in the Royal London itself.
Whitechapel in World War Two
Like much of the East End close to London’s docks, Whitechapel suffered from bombing raids in the Second World War and much of the area has been regenerated and has become more gentrified. This part of the East End is also well known for art and artists now and the Whitechapel Art Gallery is a popular visit for art lovers.
Whitechapel currently has a large Bangladeshi population and is close to Brick Lane with its famous curry houses. The area is now much more upbeat than in the past and is well worth a visit to see a great mix between old and new London.