The Whitechapel Women History Tour is Going Online!

Nov 23, 2022

On 25th November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we are launching our online Whitechapel Women alternative history tour. This day exists to raise awareness of violence against women; to challenge attitudes and mislabelling, victim blaming, and stigma.

Our free online tour exists for that same purpose; it challenges the current context around women who sell sex and draws attention to the violence they have faced for centuries.

The origins

Working with local activists, Beyond the Streets started the Whitechapel Women alternative walking tour of east London in 2017. It was the first regular tour, amongst many Jack the Ripper tours, to focus the content on the lives of the women that were killed by the infamous 1880s murderer, as opposed to their deaths.

Although officially unidentified, this murderer is widely referred to as “Jack the Ripper.”

The purpose

Our Whitechapel Women tour attempts to change the dominant narrative around the unidentified murderer by looking at the lives of the women rather than their deaths; and to raise awareness of some of the similar disadvantages and stigma faced by the women Beyond the Streets support in the Whitechapel area today.

We champion the five women’s resilience, and share fascinating stories of the hardships they faced, with parallels in east London today.

The Whitechapel Women

Their names are Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride,  Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

The Whitechapel Women hail from a range of different backgrounds, from relative privilege to poorer families. This led some of the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ (cheap sensational newspapers) to dub the formerly wealthy women who were killed as ‘fallen women,’ a common phrase which demonised any woman who became unlucky in life, some of whom may have turned to the sale of sex to pay for necessities like food and lodging.

The five women who were killed by the unidentified murderer in the 1880s are joined together by more than their shared tragedies, as they all did what they could to survive tumultuous lives in the East End; sewing, crocheting, working as a charwoman doing housework, coffee-selling, flower-selling, flower-making, and selling sex.

The women all outlived the average life expectancy of the area; they were truly resilient. All the women also had experiences of trauma, from losing their siblings through disease and illness in childhood, marriage breakdown, coercive control in relationships, to the death of their own children, among just a few examples.

As a charity that supports any woman who sells, or has sold sex, with no judgement and expectations to exit, we are motivated by the stories of these five women, and how far society has come, to continue this work. We are saddened that these women could not have received the kind of specialist trauma-informed, person-centred support that is available through VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) organisations like Beyond the Streets today.

While it is important to acknowledge progress, we are also determined to seek change, for example; better communication between services, as well as better understanding and approaches to increase and improve the women’s access to this crucial support. Alongside this we want to see changes in government policy that takes lived experience, VAWG and trauma into account, and a change in societal attitudes towards women, those who experience sexual exploitation, and women who sell sex.

There is still a mountain to climb, but we will continue to work to see women safe from coercion, violence, and abuse.

How does a charity campaigning for an end to sexual exploitation link to Jack the Ripper walking tours of east London?

There are a few reasons why we made the decision to offer this as a regular event, and are now taking it online to be available 24/7, internationally:

  1. To challenge and change the narrative around themes that still pervade today: gender-based violence, the stigma around the sale of sex, victim blaming, to name a few.

    For example, in the tour, we are taught some interesting facts about stigma in the 1880s such as how workhouses routinely shamed women, with single women being made to have to wear yellow badges and women who were believed to be selling sex would wear red.

  2. To raise awareness that the patterns of deprivation that existed then are still in existence.

    where life expectancy was just 30, compared to the West End where it was 55. Those who could not afford lodgings would end up in the workhouse, forced to undertake menial, physically demanding, and sometimes dangerous work like breaking apart stones in exchange for basic food and housing.

  3. Today, the East End of London still experiences similar deprivation.

    In the tour, you are shown sociologist Charles Booth’s 1889 poverty map of London and its contemporary equivalent, in which pockets of poverty and deprivation have stayed in similar areas.

    The 2021 census results revealed that London’s Tower Hamlets has experienced the biggest population growth in the UK; it is also the local authority with the highest level of child poverty, 25 percentage points above the national rate. In the East London borough, 56% of children live in poverty, more than double the rate seen in Kensington and Chelsea.

    Measures such as austerity, and disorganised welfare reforms have a had a huge effect on the number of women falling through the cracks of the benefit system and support provision.

    As many are all too aware, wages in the UK no longer reflect the cost of living, particularly in cities like London. Housing is out of sync with earnings, and it is becoming more common to find people working two jobs that cannot stretch far enough.

  4. Tower Hamlets, where the Whitechapel Women lived holds a place in our history as a charity, as our Door of Hope project, undertakes outreach and support work with women who sell sex in present-day Whitechapel.

    The women we work alongside all have unique experiences, so we cannot state that all the women we walk alongside will have experiences that echo those of the Whitechapel Women.

    However, we can see that the multiple disadvantages a woman could face today were likely in the 1800s. This could be financial struggles, educational difficulties, disability, childhood or adult trauma, dependency on alcohol among others.

  5. If the stories and lives of the Whitechapel Women are going to be continually retold in sensational

    In the words of VICE Journalist Sophie Wilkinson: “Why care? Jack the Ripper will never be caught or brought to justice, but the five women he killed deserve more than being treated as cumbersome clues on the hunt for a mystery man’s identity. Because what remains to be captured is the courage and mettle of the women who did all they could to survive the deprivation of Victorian London.”

    The five women who were murdered by the unknown murderer have been, and continue to be, repeatedly de-humanised by storytellers, tourism, and the media. Their bodies macabre entertainment, their lived experiences untold.

    Excited to experience the Whitechapel Women online tour? Follow us on social media for updates on the launch!