Who are the Whitechapel Women? Telling Herstory.

Nov 06, 2023

Who are the Whitechapel Women of the East End?

You might know that we run a walking tour in the East End to raise awareness about the lives of the women that were murdered by the mythologised ‘Jack the Ripper’…

Well, throughout our NOvember campaign, we’re sharing humanizing facts about the women who were murdered, who are regularly dehumanised by horror-themed tourism in London and the UK. 

We’re going to be drawing parallels between the Whitechapel Women’s lived experiences and those of women today. This is to both emphasise the strength and resilience of women, while highlighting work that is still to be done to challenge the underlying issues, attitudes, and stigma which play into the continued occurrence of violence against women and girls.

The Whitechapel Women:

Annie was born in 1841 in Paddington into a military community and thus a Victorian middle-class lifestyle; her father was a Queen’s Lifeguard.

She entered into service for an architects family living opposite Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In 1869, she married a coachman named John Chapman. Their child Emily died of meningitis at the age of 12, and Annie succumbed to the disease of alcoholism that had taken her father years before.

Her husband and sisters sought to help her. They placed her in one of the country’s first rehab centres, near Windsor. However, the impact of this was short-lived, and Annie and John separated in 1884. Annie’s husband sent her 10 shillings a week (worth £36 today), more than the minimum required by law—a testament to his ongoing concern and affection for his wife. When he died, the payments stopped, plunging Annie into destitution.

She crocheted and sold artificial flowers to make enough money to survive on. Securing a daily income as a single woman was hard, with fewer options than for men. This meant that Annie had to stay in lodging houses.

There were around 200 lodging houses at the time in Whitechapel, which were home to around 8000 people (a quarter of the local population) and were the cheapest accommodation you could find. Some were single-sex lodgings, and others were mixed. They were the last place people could afford to rent before being forced to live in the workhouse.

If the ‘doss’ money could not be raised through endeavours such as selling goods, borrowing, begging, pawning, casual labour, stealing, or by selling sex to survive, then the choice people often made was to sleep out on the street rather than admitting themselves into a workhouse. This was potentially the case for Annie on the night her life was violently taken. We like to remember her life and that, at the time of her death, she was well over the average life expectancy for a resident of the East End (35 years), showing the true strength and resilience of Annie.

We have very few verifiable facts about the lady known as Mary Jane Kelly. One story she told was that she’d married as a teenager, losing her husband to a work-related accident. In any case, she lost, or never had, social and financial stability and lived in poverty, so with little alternative, it appears she turned to selling sex. She moved to London in 1884, at the age of 21.

She lived in upper-class brothels in the West End and spent some time in Paris before ending up back in London’s East End. It is thought that she eventually came to stay at Providence Row, then known as ‘Providence Row Night Refuge for Deserving Men, Women, and Children’. Individuals were only able to access the hostel if they could provide a reference supporting their cause as “deserving”.

Some of you may have heard of Providence Row, which still exists today, moving to another location near Toynbee Hall in 1994. It was founded in 1860 and run by the Sisters of Mercy, who came from Wexford in Ireland. It was one of the very few alternatives to the workhouse available to destitute and homeless people at the time, whereas at the workhouse, people were forced to do hard labour and were treated very badly. Providence Row sought to help homeless people out of poverty.

In the modern day, pre-pandemic, Providence Row was supporting some 100 visitors a day for food, showers, benefits advice, training, and volunteering schemes to help break the cycle of homelessness and deprivation. And of course, you no longer have to provide a reference about how deserving you are.

Known as ‘Polly’, she was born in 1845 in Shoe Lane near Fleet Street; her father worked in the printing industry there. She married William Nichols in 1864 at St. Brides Church. They had five surviving children together. The family lived in a number of rented properties, but at some point the marriage began to breakdown, and they split in 1881. It’s highly likely this was due to William having an affair. By this point, Polly had become alcohol dependent, a disease that likely began during the marriage.

The marriage breakdown meant Polly became incredibly vulnerable due to having little economic support. Polly was unusually educated for her gender and class, remaining at school until 15. She could read and write. However, this was no protection against the patriarchal Victorian times, where women had few rights, few employment opportunities, and no voice.

Her husband was compelled by the parish guardians to pay her an allowance of five shillings a week, worth about £18 today. Soon after, he heard that she was living with another man, meaning he was no longer legally required to support her.  Adultery was permissible for men at this time, but for women, it was not allowed without the husband’s consent. However, for destitute ‘single’ women, pairing up with a male was often a necessity in order to survive.

Polly had stayed in workhouses several times. Her poverty, singleness, and alcohol dependency would have contributed to her being labelled as a ‘prostitute’ at the time. Eventually, the workhouse helped her become a domestic servant, which sadly did not work out, likely due to her mental health, for which she would’ve received no specialist support. Again, when Polly’s life was stolen from her, she was already over the life expectancy for where she lived, showing her strength to survive.

Catherine Eddowes was the sixth of twelve children in her family, born in Wolverhampton in 1842. She grew up across the water in Bermondsey. She was one of the only members of her family to receive an education, which ended abruptly at age 14 when her mother died and her father shortly afterwards.

After some time living with family in Wolverhampton to earn money at a factory, she moved back to London with a man she’d started seeing called Thomas Conway, with whom she had a number of children. Her friends described her as “intelligent and scholarly, but possessed of a fierce temper” and “a very jolly woman, always singing”, which would all make sense as this is how she and Conway made a living through touring. They’d write and sell songs that they sang at public events. This wasn’t considered respectable at the time,  and women who did this were widely labelled as ‘prostitutes’.

In 1881, she was reported to be living in a Flower & Dean Street lodging house with a man named John Kelly. Sadly, Catherine was beaten by her partner, was estranged from her family, and developed alcoholism. During the summer, she and John travelled to Kent, as many East End families did, to do seasonal agricultural work. This work did not leave them with any savings, and it’s reported they’d only have money for an evening’s lodgings on their return to London.

During the 1800s, when a marriage ended, women were left with no financial support during an era where they had little access to the labour market to earn for themselves.

Elizabeth Stride lived in the same slum area as Mary Anne Nichols and Catherine Eddowes, at the time known as the Flower and Dean.

She was born in Sweden in 1843 and would eventually join the vast number of immigrants making up Whitechapel’s population.

She moved from the countryside to the city in Sweden at around 17, where she took on domestic work. We don’t know exactly what happened, but it’s thought that she fell on hard times, and by age 22, she was registered by the police as a “public woman” and thus regarded as a ‘prostitute’. On April 21 of that year, she gave birth to a stillborn baby girl, possibly due to syphilis.

Elizabeth suffered humiliation living in Sweden, which was similar to that faced by women in the UK due to the Contagious Diseases Act. After experiencing continual, significant trauma and social ostracism over the ensuing years, she was then supported into a new life as a domestic servant.

She came to London through the Swedish church, in domestic service to a British family. It was there that she married John Thomas Stride, a ship’s carpenter.

The couple ran a coffee shop together; however, she was later admitted into the workhouse, suggesting that their marriage had broken down. This demonstrates that the women of this period were left extremely vulnerable when marriages broke down as they could not support themselves; the workhouse was a last resort that many women had to take.

From 1882 onwards, she lodged on and off on Flower and Dean Street. Elizabeth was a very resourceful individual and was known to earn some income from sewing and house cleaning work, as well as from other less-legal devices, including confidence tricks.

From 1885 until her death, she lived some of the time with a local dock labourer, Michael Kidney. She filed an assault charge against him. This may suggest that she was in an abusive relationship. This was a widespread problem for women at that time and remains a widespread problem today.

There are a variety of sources for the information we’ve shared here. One particular source is the fabulous book by Hallie Rubenhold, ‘The Five’.

If you’d like to find out more about the women and how their lives share similar multiple disadvantages with some of the women that Beyond the Streets work with today, please head to our Whitechapel Women website to book either our physical walking tour, or free online tour.