Ripper Street and the reality of Jack the Ripper’s London
After more than a year of waiting, the return of Ripper Street is finally upon us. In celebration of series four on Amazon Prime Video, we took it upon ourselves to delve deeper into the backdrop that made for such an intense, interesting crime-drama. How historically accurate is the series in portraying the late-Victorian period, namely, the heyday of Whitechapel’s most notorious serial killer?
The Wicked of Whitechapel
In the late nineteenth century, the crowded and impoverished streets of Whitechapel were not only some of the most dangerous parts of London, but the entirety of England. Once a wealthy, semi-rural area frequented by the well-to-do classes, industrialisation had driven a rapid growth in the population that conditions could not keep up with. The rich left for the West, and gardened homes were built over to provide accommodation for the massive influx of Whitechapel residents.
Many of the new residents were poor immigrant families, with those able to find a job largely working in the East End as factory workers – an exhausting job that paid little and subjected them to extremely harsh conditions.
Sanitation and hygiene were ranked low on the list of priorities for the area, which subsequently caused rampant disease in the overpopulated area such as typhoid and cholera.
Hundreds of women were forced into prostitution due to the squalid conditions and a habit for gin, Ripper London’s drink of choice. Whitechapel was home to 1400 known prostitutes, 80 brothels and countless pubs. This grim backdrop created the perfect conditions for a terrifying serial killer to attack, devastate and escape. It also made for an exceptional crime-drama.
The Historical H-Division
The H-Division were a division of the London Met that covered an area of 1¼ square miles, working from four police stations. Yes, this included the divisional HQ, located at 76 Leman Street. In December 1888, a tally of forces reported there were 587 officers serving the H-Division.
Matthew Macfadyen’s Edmund Reid was a real officer, who worked as a local Inspector during the investigation of the Jack the Ripper crimes (see image above). Before becoming a police officer, he worked as a pastry chef and ship steward. He had an excellent reputation, despite never solving the Ripper murders, and upon his retirement in 1896, one newspaper declared him “one of the most remarkable men of the century”.
Chief Inspector Abberline, who oversaw the Ripper investigations, was also a historical figure – a well reputed inspector who had earned his stripes in Whitechapel before moving to Scotland Yard shortly before the rippings took place.
The Search for a Serial Killer
In the first series of Ripper Street, the search for Jack mirrored the fruitless real life investigation. While no one was ever charged with the heinous crimes, police did have a number of suspects (and pseudo-historians have invented plenty more since).
When Jackson is mistakenly arrested for the crimes of the pseudonymous serial killer, a comment is made there were rumours an American doctor was behind the crimes. This was true. One genuine police suspect was Francis Tumblety, an American quack-doctor who sold medicines of dubious origin and was known for his ostentatious and eccentric dress sense. He was present in a Whitechapel boarding house during the period in which the canonical murders were committed and reportedly had a hatred for women, especially prostitutes. In later years, he entertained a dinner party at his house where he displayed a collection of what he claimed were real female uteruses.
Crime at the Cull of the 19th Century
Jack is long-gone by the time the first series of Ripper Street begins, but Whitechapel is still plagued by the same conditions that made it susceptible to such harrowing crimes. The cases solved by our Detective Inspector Reid, Detective Inspector Drake and Captain Jackson vary in believability for the period.
Some crimes examined were widely-reported. One example is in the first series, where Reid, Drake and Jackson investigate a burglary assisted by the use of chloroform (an anaesthetic). The use of chloroform to subdue individuals before a mugging or burglary was a well-reported practice that may have plagued the streets of Whitechapel.
The possibility of widespread poisoning was also a real issue, though this being at the hands of a fame-hungry psychopath may have been a writer’s twist. One such mass-poisoning took place in Manchester in 1900 as a result of small quantities of arsenic in local beer, which was dismissed by medical practitioners at the time as a side-effect of alcoholism. Like in Ripper Street, the symptoms of poisoning were initially misdiagnosed by professionals.
However, Ripper Street does sacrifice history for story on several occasions. Most notably the locomotive disaster in season three which was caused by a criminal plot to steal the American bonds the train was carrying. No such locomotive disaster took place in Whitechapel in this period, nor one of similar impact or motive elsewhere in Britain. There was a rail disaster a few years earlier in 1889 in Armagh, Ireland, which took 80 lives.
Innovation and Investigation
Ripper Street is often referred to as CSI: Whitechapel for a reason. The series really makes the most out of the medical knowledge and science that was available to the police during the late nineteenth century. Reid is a self-declared atheist with an interest in science, which makes the show’s portrayal of the H-Division one brimming with cutting-edge technology.
Detective Inspector Reid is often seen obsessively compiling his archive of criminals and their defining features in Whitechapel, in what appears to be homage to French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, who created an anthropometric system to identify repeat criminals. While the Bertillon system was never officially used in England, Reid’s work seems to emulate Bertillon’s brilliance.
Storylines in Ripper Street have also hit upon technological debates of day, notable the war of currents. In the late nineteenth century, a fierce debate raged over the usage of direct or alternating electrical currents. While Thomas Edison championed direct currents and constructed 121 power stations using DC by 1887, industrialist George Westinghouse bought the patents for the cheaper-to-run AC. The rest is history.
Series four teases the use of a whole heap of new technology, with Matt Lewis appearing on the show as Sergeant Samuel Drummond – a young expert on new innovations including the telegram, micro-reader and telephone system.
We are looking forward to a new series filled with historical titbits, characters and era-infused storylines. Ripper Street releases new episodes on Fridays from today, exclusive to Amazon.