Today’s review is about a non-fiction book on a very popular subject but from a different perspective.
The Hidden Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Victims by Robert Hume
Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly are inextricably linked in history. Their names might not be instantly recognisable, and the identity of their murderer may have eluded detectives and historians throughout the years, but there is no mistaking the infamy of Jack the Ripper. For nine weeks during the autumn of 1888, the Whitechapel Murderer brought terror to London s East End, slashing women s throats and disembowelling them. London s most famous serial killer has been pored over time and again, yet his victims have been sorely neglected, reduced to the simple label: prostitute. The lives of these five women are rags-to-riches-to-rags stories of the most tragic kind. There was a time in each of their lives when these poor women had a job, money, a home and a family. Hardworking, determined and fiercely independent individuals, it was bad luck, or a wrong turn here or there, that left them wretched and destitute. Ignored by the press and overlooked by historians, it is time their stories were told.
About the author:
Robert Hume was born in 1955 and grew up in Beckenham where he attended Beckenham and Penge Grammar/Langley Park School.
At Keele University he read History and Psychology, before undertaking research studies into the history of education for his M.A. and Ph.D degrees.
An experienced teacher, moderator, G.C.S.E. History examiner, ‘A’ level History, ‘A’ level Psychology and IB examiner, he began his teaching career in Kent in 1982, when he joined the staff of Chaucer Technology School in Canterbury.
In 1985 he moved to Tonbridge to become Head of History at Hillview School for Girls.
From 1988 to 2010 he was Head of History at Clarendon House Grammar School in Ramsgate, where he was voted ‘Kent Teacher of the Year’ in 1992. For many years he managed the football teams and ran the Scrabble club which won the U.K. Schools’ Scrabble competition in 1999, the first Scrabble tournament in the world to be broadcast live over the internet.
Robert has lectured before audiences of teachers in Kent (where he was Secretary of the Kent History Teachers’ Association between 1984 and 1989), Italy and the U.S.A.
In December 1992, as part of the 500th anniversary commemorations, he was invited to give lectures on Christopher Columbus and emigration on board the QE2.
In addition to a number of articles in history journals and magazines (including BBC History Magazine and History Today), Dr Hume has written several books, including Early Child Immigrants to Virginia, 1618-1642 (Magna Carta, Baltimore, 1986); a G.C.S.E. History textbook, Education Since 1700 (Heinemann, 1989); a biography of Christopher Columbus, Christopher Columbus and the European Discovery of America (Gracewing, 1992); a historical novel (Ruling Ambition); an investigation into a Victorian railway disaster (Death by Chance); and six children’s books – on Perkin Warbeck, Dr Joseph Bell, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Shelley, Thomas Crapper and Gretel Bergmann.
Recently, he appeared in an episode of BBC TV Crimesolver that investigated the Abergele train crash.
Robert lives in Broadstairs, Kent where he is currently a home tutor for the East Kent Health Needs Education Service (‘The Willows’), a reviewer for The School Librarian, and a feature writer for the Irish Examiner from 2010 to the present.
His website is www.stonepublishinghouse.com
Thanks to Rosie Croft of Pen & Sword for providing me a hardback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
The mystery of Jack the Ripper, one of the greatest unsolved series of crimes in history, is also probably one of the best known, at least superficially. Most of us have heard of it and have watched movies, read novels, or even perused and researched the different theories about who Jack might have been. Many authors and experts have also written about it, proposing solutions to the puzzle, or using it as an inspiration for their own fiction.
It’s difficult not to feel curious about it, due the nature of the crimes, the fact that they all took place in a short period of time in a very small area of London, and because the Victorian Era seems to have a hold on a lot of people’s imagination. While for many it is a historical period looked at with nostalgia and wishful thinking, others are fully aware of its dark side. It is not all full of sweet traditions, big houses, Queen Victoria, Christmas trees and the family singing around the fire… As anybody who has read Charles Dickens will know, things were quite hard for those who weren’t well off or whose luck had run out.
I am not an expert on Jack the Ripper, and I am aware there are Ripperologists who have read everything (or almost everything) written about him. That is not my case, and I chose to read this book because the idea behind it felt right. The media pay so much attention to murders and murderers (especially serial killers) that sometimes the victims and their families become an afterthought or a footnote at best. That is true here, where although the names of these women have reached us, they are often seen as just that, his victims, and we know little about their lives before they crossed his path.
I know there has been another recent book published on the subject, but I haven’t read it, so I can’t make any comparisons. I have read in some reviews that there are some mistakes and inaccuracies in this book, but I don’t know enough to comment, and because my book is an ARC copy, it might well be that any inaccuracies were corrected later. I can say that I learned a lot (within the limited amount of information available) about these five women and their sad circumstances.
The author dedicates a separate chapter to each, he includes an introduction, a list of illustrations, plenty of photographs (some very graphic, so I recommend caution to readers who prefer to avoid that kind of content), abundant notes offering information about the sources used in each chapter, and also a conclusion and a bibliography that will be useful for those who want to learn more.
What I found particularly compelling was the way in which Hume tries to bring to life these women by quoting the words of those who knew them, and trying to paint a picture of their lives and of the places they lived in. He is very successful in illustrating what Whitechapel was like at the time, and how easy it would have been for somebody to fall on hard times and end up homeless and without any means. Women had a harder time finding work than men, and he makes a point of emphasising that at the time there was little to no help for those who fell on hard times. Somebody might have been living a decent life one day, and be kicked out because of an accident and losing one’s job the next. He is very sympathetic and understanding towards the circumstances of these women, who were judged at the time as being morally deficient at best, or corrupt and not deserving of help at worst.
‘Although scarcely angels, these women were trying hard to survive poverty independently, by taking on any casual work that became available. Homeless and without support, their gradual move into prostitution was not due to laziness or depravity, but personal circumstances: betrayal, bereavement, unemployment, domestic violence, or a simple mistake here and there.’
One wonders what would have happened if the victims had belonged to one of the “better” sections of society and how much more effort would have been invested in finding the culprit.
I have read about the historical period in other books, and I was familiar with some of the information but was impressed by the amount of detail on the locations, the way the workhouses were run and functioned, and the day-to-day life of the inhabitants of the era. We become familiar with pubs, accommodation, brothels, churches, and we learn of the friendships and relationships between the residents of the neighbourhood, their often broken relationships with their relatives, and how this underworld was connected to the rest of London. It is not a place I would have wished to set foot in at the time, but some members of the best of society (mostly men) enjoyed visiting “the den of iniquity” as if they were going to the zoo to see the wildlife or to engage in some anthropological research, when not simply looking for other pleasures.
In his conclusion, Hume reminds us of how little things have changed in some respects and mentions the fact that prostitutes have a much higher mortality rate than the general population and are eighteen times more likely to be murdered. As he writes, all those women also deserve to have their stories told, and perhaps that will go some way to change these horrendous statistics.
I recommend this book to people who have an interest in the era and the area, and particularly in women’s lives. I don’t think experts will find anything new here, but for those who want a general overview of the social circumstances of Whitechapel and the East End of London at the time and also for readers who would like to get a different perspective on the murders, this book offers both, a good read and an important resource.
Thanks to the author, to Rosie Croft and the team of Pen & Sword, to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep safe and keep smiling!