London’s East End – Crime in the 1800s

During the 19th century, London’s East End was one of the poorest, most overcrowded areas in the country. Docks and factories were located close by, but the high number of people that needed jobs meant that they were hard to come by and employees were significantly underpaid. This created many social and health problems which arose from the poverty, including widespread crime. The residents of the East End were often referred to as ‘criminal classes,’ meaning those stuck at the bottom of the social ladder.

Young Criminals – East End Children’s Crimes

‘Children are trained in the gutter; their first lessons are in oaths and crime.’

One Daily Mail journalist made this observation when describing the young ones that lived in East London, where an estimated 10% of children passed away before their first birthday. Many of the others also became orphans when their parents died or abandoned them. They had no choice but to start fending for themselves and, for many, this led to a life of criminality.

Children as young as six would spend their days gambling, stealing or performing other petty crimes. They would work in teams, sometimes under the supervision of an adult, to trick their victims. Institutions were opened to provide schooling and shelter for these children, and authorities would do their best to round them up and get the youngsters into one. Conditions in some of them were so poor, however, that many children preferred life in the streets.

Other Crimes in the East End   

There were several crimes associated with the transport of goods down the River Thames to the docks in the area. This began with the ambushing of ships on their river journey. Many of the merchants were also robbed when they arrived in port or in transit to the warehouses. Crews were paid at the end of their journey, and the sailors enjoyed spending their earnings on women and drink in the area. The pubs only closed for five hours each day and many of their patrons would commit crimes fuelled by drunkenness, including violence.

One third of the families in the East End were without an adult male, and this forced some women to turn to prostitution to feed their families. In previous centuries, most people had an attitude of tolerance towards these ladies, but this changed in the 1800s when more women began to be detained. The Contagious Diseases Act was passed in 1864, and allowed policemen to arrest the women working the streets and hold them in hospitals. Prostitution was also dangerous for the women as many of the men were violent towards them, often seriously injuring them.

Infanticide was another common crime committed by women, as they could not afford to feed all their children and chose to kill the youngest instead. There were also many domestic crimes, including the assault of children, but there were rarely investigations and arrests associated with these.

Muggings would be committed in a variety of ways, and were often accompanied by violence. To incapacitate their victims, thieves would dip a handkerchief in chloroform and hold over their faces. Another form of distracting a victim was ‘bonneting,’ which was pulling a man’s hat over his face while the crime was committed. Prostitutes were also used as bait to lure victims down to the riverside, where they would be beaten and robbed. ‘Garrotting’ was most prevalent by the mid-1800s and involved one thief half-strangling a person from behind, while they were stripped of their valuables by accomplices. Muggings sometimes turned into more serious offences, such as murder and during the latter part of the century there was a surge in gun crimes.

East End Law  

The police force in East London was not formed until the 1820s and, even though its inception helped decrease the criminal activities in the area, most crimes still went unrecorded and unsolved. During the early days of the force, many policemen were dismissed for being drunk while on duty, and the overall lack of faith in the system resulted in many victims not reporting muggings. Criminals themselves had little respect for the police force, and would throw nitric acid in officers’ faces to prevent them stopping a crime.

Infamous East End Crimes

Some of the crimes committed in East London during the 19th century, were brutal enough to scare the entire nation and continue to haunt the public even today. These included:

  1. Jack the Ripper

A serial killer which plagued the Whitechapel area in 1888, he was also known as ‘The Whitechapel Murderer’ and ‘Leather Apron.’ ‘Jack the Ripper’ was the name that the killer gave himself via a letter that he reportedly sent to a newspaper, even though this may have been a hoax to sell copies. The still unidentified murderer, slit the throats of at least five female prostitutes before abdominally mutilating them. It was speculated that he had surgical knowledge due to the incisions made, and the fact that at least three of the victims had their internal organs removed.

  1. The London Burkers

With the rise of surgical procedures in the 1800s, the demand for cadavers to study anatomy was high and the number of bodies legally available limited. Body snatchers would dig up recently buried bodies to sell to medical practitioners and colleges. A group of body snatchers took this a step further when they began murdering people to sell their bodies.

The London Burkers admitted to luring victims to their home in Bethnal Green, drugging them with rum and laudanum and then hanging them in a well to die. Their brutality was discovered in November 1831, when they delivered the body of a 14-year-old boy to King’s College School of Anatomy. The body looked too ‘fresh’ to have been removed from a grave and college personnel alerted the authorities. Two men were arrested, and a subsequent search of their premises turned up a variety of clothing items suggesting that this wasn’t their first murder. The men confessed and were sentenced to death for their morbid acts.

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