GATHERED on a cold dark evening outside St Botolph, Aldgate, we are advised that our forthcoming tour will be different from those normally conducted in the surrounding streets.
“They focus on women’s deaths, and the way in which Jack the Ripper killed them,” our guide, Chrissy, explains. “This tour reminds us that these were real women. It commemorates their deaths, but celebrates their lives.”
The tour Hidden History of Women in the East End, organised by the charity Beyond the Streets (for whom Chrissy is a volunteer), is the latest in a series of initiatives designed to subvert the industry growing up around the area’s most infamous killer. Last year, the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, joined protests against the opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum, which was followed by the creation of an exhibition, “East End Women: The Real Story”, hosted by St George-in-the-East (News, 3 June 2016).
Tonight, the man who murdered five women in 1888 will be referred to only as “the unidentified killer”. It is a reminder that this was “a real man who committed brutal murders of the East End’s most vulnerable women,” Chrissy explains. She is joined by Rebecca, who will add a commentary about women experiencing sexual exploitation today, and the efforts that are in hand to help them escape. She works for Beyond the Streets in Tower Hamlets, befriending and supporting women in the sex industry.
“Beyond the Streets views prostitution as a form of violence against women,” Rebecca explains. “We do not think it is a form of work: we see it as exploitation.” This understanding is not shared by all those working in the field, but it does have the support of Tower Hamlets Council, which has increased its support to the charity. She describes the women she works with as “some of the bravest, strongest women we know”, but also people trapped “in cycles of poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse”.
After leaving St Botolph’s — known in Victorian times as the prostitutes’ church, because it offered some protection from the police — we visit former slums, including Thrawl Street, once home to Mary Ann Nichols, the first woman to be killed. Her story, and those of the other four, highlight the extreme vulnerability caused by poverty and the breakdown of relationships. We hear about Catherine Eddowes, once described as an “intelligent and scholarly woman”, who sold sex to pay the rent.
NEAR NEIGHBOURSEmpowered: an interactive display at the exhibition “East London Women: the Real Story”, now at St Botolph without Aldgate
Tower Hamlets remains one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, and Rebecca reports an increase in “survival sex”. Most of the women helped by the charity today have experienced abuse, she says, and may be coerced into selling sex to fund a pimp’s drug or alcohol problem.
At the site of the Providence Row hostel, founded in 1860 and said to have been home to another victim, Mary Jane Kelly, we hear about the impact today of cuts, growing homelessness, and women who ride 24-hour buses all night to avoid sleeping on the streets. Last year, Beyond the Streets worked with 64 women in 12 months; a number that had already been reached within the first two months of this year.
The tour also includes a visit to the original site of Toynbee Hall, founded by Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta, in order to enable future leaders to live and work as volunteers in the area, bringing them face to face with poverty.
Among those who came was Edith Ramsay, known as the “Florence Nightingale of the Brothels”, and a cheer erupts in the group when Josephine Butler, whose campaigning achievements included the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, is named. She was “the first to name the patriarchy as the problem”, and was pelted with cow dung for her troubles, Chrissy explained.
At St Botolph’s, where the exhibition “East End Women” is now on display, we learn that women working in the sex industry are still 18 times more likely to be murdered than the average citizen. In 2008, Derek Brown was found guilty of the murder of two women in the area (described in court as living “on the edge of society”). It was thought that he may have been seeking to emulate the Victorian killer. Among the actions that Chrissie asks us to take is to challenge the way that prostitution is joked about, and to consider giving to Beyond the Streets.
Before we enter the exhibition, we hear short excerpts of testimony from women helped by the charity. “I just want to be able to live normally,” one says. “I would like to get married and have children,” another says. “I would like to provide a nice house for my son, holidays: things that people would say are normal, everyday life,” a third says.
Tours will run monthly throughout 2018: beyondthestreets.org.uk/hiddenhistory