In the early hours of the morning, 125 years ago today, London's autumn of terror began. The man we know as Jack The Ripper claimed the first of his victims, in the backstreets of Whitechapel, and the East End barely noticed. Nobody realised at the time that a serial killer was on the loose, one who'd inspire endless media speculation and a series of £9 nightly tours. But his notoriety grew with each passing murder, spread irregularly over the next ten weeks, as tales spread of blood, guts and butchery. So my plan is to visit the five confirmed murder sites as the anniversaries pass, comparing what happened then to what's there now. And you may be surprised by the location of number one.
The first Whitechapel murder took place on Buck's Row, a backstreet running parallel to the Whitechapel Road. This had once been Ducking Pond Row, a wedge-shaped expanse complete with watery pool for the dunking of potential witches. In the early 19th century one end was filled in with back-to-back terraces, the slums of the future, while a wool merchant's warehouse was set up along the northern side. The East London Railway (now the Overground) cut through in 1876, with an arched brick bridge carrying Buck's Row across the platforms at Whitechapel station*. And immediately alongside, at the entrance to a stableyard between the first house and the railway, that's where Jack The Ripper's first victim was found.
It had been a dark and particularly stormy night. Cart-driver Charles Cross was on his way to work, walking down Buck's Row at twenty to four in the morning, when he noticed a prone woman in front of a gate. He may have assumed this was a drunkard sleeping off the gin, there being scant illumination hereabouts, but closer inspection revealed she was dying or dead. Charles and a fellow passer-by rearranged her skirts to give her some decency but failed to spot the terrible injuries inflicted upon her. That fell to a local doctor, summoned shortly afterwards by the police, who noted bruises, missing teeth and a double incision across the neck deep enough to reach the vertebrae. There was more to discover:
Mary Ann Nichols, better known as Polly, had ended up in the workhouse after an unsuccessful marriage. Like so many in the East End at the time she relied on prostitution to pay her way, not as a positive choice but through lack of other options. The previous day she'd bought a new bonnet, black straw trimmed with black velvet, in an attempt to make herself more alluring to potential clientèle. As a shabby 43-year-old she didn't earn much per trick, but we know she pulled three times that night and spent her takings on gin. She was therefore in no fit state when client number four turned up, whoever he may have been, and so became easy prey for the Ripper-to-be.
So infamous were Jack's murders that Buck's Row got a name change, becoming Durward Street in 1892. That's still its name, although the street itself is vastly altered. Its cottages survived until the 1970s but were then demolished, and have since been replaced by long blocks of unremarkable flats. The warehouse on the opposite site of the street is now part of the playground of Swanlea School, a modern secondary, while the only surviving building from Victorian times is the four-storey Board School overlooking the station. Opposite is the Whitechapel Sports Centre, while at the far end is a massive Sainsburys, which ensures considerable footfall. And then there's the latest demolition agent, currently barring all through traffic, which is Crossrail.
To say Crossrail have taken over Durward Street would be an understatement. No cars can pass through until at least 2017, cyclists must dismount, and there are hi-vis hard-hatted personnel everywhere. We seem to be in the "wandering around with a theodolite" stage of construction at the moment, so intensely that engineers must be checking the street level daily for signs of movement. A large expanse of land immediately opposite the murder site has been razed and a mighty mobile crane erected while work proceeds on digging a 35m deep shaft. Meanwhile a brand new station concourse is being created above the Overground platforms. So far it's only gone in at the northern end, but soon they'll be adding a floor all the way along to join up with a restored entrance on Whitechapel Road. Indeed if you use Whitechapel station you're shortly going to have to get used to entering round the back in Durward Street, for up to three years, which I don't think is going to go down well.
And what of the murder site itself? It survived as an open space for many years, an off-road indentation used for parking, on the site of a former garage. This summer, however, Crossrail have (almost certainly unintentionally) sealed it off. Two flimsy looking blue-ish walls have been erected against the station parapet, decorated with a list of site regulations and a red reflector, removing all public access. A little imagination and you could well believe there's still a dead body behind, or at least a chalkline on the tarmac, precisely screened off from prying eyes. I fear that the original Victorian wall won't survive Crossrail's latest intrusion. A new publicwalkway is due to be opened up linking this very point to Whitechapel Road, and a glass or steel replacement looks likely. But if you wander down Durward Street soon, or glance up to the brick wall above Overground platform 6, Polly Nichols' final resting place lingers still.