Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview THE HIDDEN LIVES OF JACK THE RIPPER’S VICTIMS by Robert Hume (@penswordbooks). Their plight should not be forgotten #non-fiction #truecrime

Hi all:

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

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.

Author Robert Hume

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

My review:

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!



Book review Book reviews Non-fiction

#Bookreview THE 19TH CENTURY UNDERWORLD: CRIME, CONTROVERSY & CORRUPTION by Stephen Carver (@penswordbooks). A must read for anybody interested in London crime history

Hi all:

Today I bring you a review of a book that I think many of you will find interesting. And what a cover!

The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption by Stephen Carver
The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption by Stephen Carver

The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption by Stephen Carver

Underworld n. 1. the part of society comprising those who live by organized crime and immorality. 2. the mythical abode of the dead under the earth.

Take a walk on the dark side of the street in this unique exploration of the fears and desires at the heart of the British Empire, from the Regency dandy’s playground to the grim and gothic labyrinths of the Victorian city. Enter a world of gin spinners, sneaksmen and Covent Garden nuns, where bare-knuckled boxers slog it out for dozens of rounds, children are worth more dead than alive, and the Thames holds more bodies than the Ganges. This is the Modern Babylon, a place of brutal poverty, violent crime, strong drink, pornography and prostitution; of low neighbourhoods and crooked houses with windows out like broken teeth, wraithlike urchins with haunted eyes, desperate, ruthless and vicious men, and the broken remnants of once fine girls: a grey, bleak, infernal place, where gaslights fail to pierce the pestilential fog, and coppers travel in pairs, if they venture there at all.

Combining the accessibility of a popular history with original research, this book brings the denizens of this vanished world once more to life, along with the voices of those who sought to exploit, imprison or save them, or to simply report back from this alien landscape that both fascinated and appalled: the politicians, the reformers, the journalists and, above all, the storytellers, from literary novelists to purveyors of penny dreadfuls. Welcome to the 19th century underworld…

Dr Stephen Carver
Dr Stephen Carver

About the author:

Stephen Carver is a literary historian, editor and occasional novelist. For sixteen years he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, spending three years in Japan as a professor of English at the University of Fukui. He left UEA in 2012 to become Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing, and to work with The Literary Consultancy in London. He retired from teaching in 2018 to write full-time, although he continues to be affiliated with TLC as a reader and a mentor. He is the biographer of the Victorian novelist W.H. Ainsworth, and his short stories have appeared in Not-Not, Cascando, Birdsuit, and Veto. His first novel, Shark Alley, was published in 2016. The 19th Century Underworld  was published by Pen & Sword last year and Steve has just finished a follow-up on Ainsworth and Dickens.

My review:

Thanks to Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I am not a scholar in the topic of XIX century Britain, London in particular, although I have read a number of fictional books set on that period and place (it has always proved popular, especially with crime writers, for evident reasons) both recent and from the era, and also some historical books (some of the best coming from Pen & Sword as well) on specific aspects of the era, like children’s deaths. I was therefore not sure about what I would find here but hoped that it would enhance my understanding and give me a better sense of what life might have been like, away from the sometimes romanticised version we have of the Victorian era. This volume did that and more.

The book, which contains illustrations of the period as well (some black and white photographs, but mostly sketches and ink drawings that appeared in publications of that era, with a separate table of illustrations), contains facts and descriptions of the less savoury aspects of the XIX century life in London, but the emphasis is not on a XXI century perspective, but on written (and illustrated) sources of the period, and how the different topics were approached by the press, literature, and theatre of the time (movies are also mentioned, although those are references to later versions of the stories and characters discussed). Although most of us will be familiar with the penny dreadfuls, the author shares his expertise and offers us a catalogue of publications, authors (quite a few anonymous), publishers, guides and popular venues that reflect the fact that the hunger for certain types of subjects and the morbid interest in crime and vice are nothing new.

The book combines scholarship (there are detailed footnotes including information and sometimes explanations about the quotes and sources used in the text, at the end of the book, and also a lengthy bibliography and an index) with an engaging writing style, and manages to include plenty of information in each chapter, without cramming too much detail or leaving us with the impression that we are missing the most important part of the story. Although I’m sure most readers will be intrigued by some of the events and characters mentioned in the book and will want to learn more about them, Carver facilitates that task with his sources, and this book is a goldmine for researchers, writers, and anybody interested in the era in general. I usually mark passages I find interesting, to research later or to mention in my review, and in this case I can honestly say I broke the record for number of notes.

To give you an idea of the topics, I’ll briefly (-ish) go through the chapters. Chapter 1: Various Crimes and Misdemeanours, where the author explains that our view of the XIX century underworld is a product of popular culture, and he explains the efforts the society of the time made to try to categorise and control the crime in the capital. Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and magistrate who liaised with Jeremy Bentham (a philosopher and social reformer we studied in Criminology for his ideas about prisons and reforms) wrote a book called A Treatise of the Police of the Metropolis in 1796, where he classified the criminals in London into 24 separate categories and estimated that there were around 115000 of them. The Radcliffe Highway murders and how these influenced some of the legal reforms are also discussed in detail.

Chapter 2: A Corinthian’s Guide to the Metropolis, talks about bare-knuckle boxing, betting, and also about a number of articles, guides, and books, purporting to inform discerning gentlemen of the entertainments and lifestyle that could be found in this part of town. We learn where Tom and Jerry came from (Pierce Egan’s writings and his characters seem to have inspired Hanna and Barbera), and the author notes that at this point (early in XIX century), the underworld was not represented as the gothic nightmare it would become later.

In Chapter 3: Bad Books for Bad People, we hear about authors that are more familiar to us, like Dickens and Thackeray, although also some others who’ve faded into oblivion mostly because their take on the topic lost the favour of the Victorians. They chose to write about criminals and outlaws (like Dick Turpin), but not in an overly moralistic or condemnatory manner, and although that was popular at first, later reformists condemned that stance, and it resulted in their loss of popularity and later ruin. There are wonderful examples of the use of jargon and vernacular, very popular at the beginning of the period but that would later fall out of fashion.  (This chapter reminded me of the gangster movies of the 1930s, which could depict violent and immoral characters as long as they ended up getting their just deserts).

Chapter 4: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, looks at the Resurrectionists, those who stole bodies from graves and sold them to medical schools. Although I’ve read some fiction about the subject and knew about Hare and Burke, I didn’t quite realise it was such an organised trade and the huge amounts of money involved. The inquiries and the law changes these incidents caused are discussed, and it is difficult to imagine how such events could have been ignored for so long, but there were powerful interests at play.

Chapter 5: The Real Oliver Twist, focuses on how life was like for children living in poverty, and it reminds us that studies of the 1840s showed that half the children born in the UK at that time died before age five. Children living of picking up dog’s dung, or being trained to become pickpockets or worse were not only the protagonists of fictional stories. They were all too real.

Chapter 6: Fallen Women, talks about prostitution, and I was fascinated by the author’s account of the biography and writings of French writer and activist Flora Tristan, a woman who was a feminist, a social commentator and reformer, who rather than blame prostitution on women’s lack of morals, blamed society and the lack of opportunities for women to get an education and make an honest living. She talked to prostitutes and wrote about what she found in 1840 and she anticipated some of Marx and Engels ideas. A woman I definitely want to learn more about.

Chapter 7: The Greeks Had a Word for It, talks about pornography, the ups and downs its publishers went through (as the period grew less and less tolerant), and it starts by reminding readers of the fact that pornography as a subject is very ancient, as people digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum found out. Many ancient objects of this nature that were recovered made it into private collections, mostly those of discerning gentlemen, and many museums had (and still have) hidden stashes of them. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this chapter, not because of the topic, or the content of the books mentioned (although some of the samples are hilarious) but because of the cat-and-mouse games writers and publishers played with the authorities and also of the evident hypocrisy of the whole endeavour.

Chapter 8: The Death Hunters, treats about what the author describes as “another type of pornography”, the interest in crimes and murders. True murder is not a new genre and although there were not many murders in London (or even the whole of Britain) at the time, the public appetite for it was huge, and sometimes writers would make them up. I had a chuckle at some of Illustrated Police News headlines (‘A Burglar Bitten by a Skeleton’ and ‘A Wife Driven Insane by a Husband Tickling her Feet’ are my favourites). The chapter ends up with Jack the Ripper’s murders, which the author elaborates further on Chapter 9: A Highly Popular Murder, where he notes that much of the speculation about the murders was created by media, and Jack the Ripper has become a phenomenon that combines reality with fiction. He does note that while the Ripper has grown in attention and popularity over the years, little time is dedicated to the victims. I am pleased to say that there is a new book due to be published by Pen & Sword about the victims of Jack the Ripper, and I hope to comment on it in the future.

I recommend this book to anybody interested in London history, history about crime in the XIX century, researchers and writers keen on exploring and writing on any of the topics covered in the book, and to anybody who wants to gain a different perspective on the London of the Victorian era. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Rosie Croft, to the author, and especially to all of you for reading, liking, sharing, commenting, clicking, and for reviewing. Remember to keep on smiling!

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