Sex industry

Review: Emma Hamilton at the National Maritime Museum

"I wish... to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool." - Emma Hamilton, 1791
"I wish... to show the world that a pretty woman is not always a fool." - Emma Hamilton, 1791

At the moment I spend a lot more time sending emails about museums than I do getting out to visit them. But I was determined to get to the Emma Hamilton exhibition at the National Maritime Museum.

It sounded so promising: a major exhibition about an individual woman! At a prestigious institution! And, as a bonus, in a field in which women generally appear bare-breasted on the prow of a ship.

I braced myself for disappointment, but this time it never came. In fact I'd like to applaud the team behind the exhibition - especially curators Quintin Colville and Sarah Wood - for delivering a sumptuous, sensitive, intelligent exhibition which aims itself squarely at balancing the history books while still telling an enthralling story.

Emma Hamilton as survivor

It's an enthralling but painful story. Emma's early treatment at the hands of Harry Fetherstonhaugh and Charles Frances Greville is particularly unpleasant. The former took her as a mistress aged just 15 and abandoned her within a year when she fell pregnant.

Portrait of Lady Hamilton as Circe by George Romney
Portrait of Lady Hamilton as Circe by George Romney

The latter agreed to take her under his protection as his mistress but only if she agreed to give up the baby, change her name, cut ties with all her former friends, and live according to rules which he issued to her.

After a couple of years Greville also abandoned her, sending her to his uncle Sir William Hamilton in Naples to be his mistress, although she was half his age.

However he didn't let Emma in on the plan, and instead pretended he would soon be joining her. When Emma discovered the truth she was heartbroken and furious at the idea she should simply transfer her affections from nephew to uncle.

Often cast as a gentle rescuer who generously 'educated' Emma, in this exhibition we see another side of Greville: a cowardly, controlling hypocrite. And although her relationship with Hamilton - a famed connoisseur of art and antiquities - eventually developed into a genuine affection, it's clear he initially viewed her as another object in his collection.

One of the great strengths of the exhibition is that it even-handedly shows both Emma's vulnerability and her agency. She is passed from man to man, and each seems to have a different idea of what kind of woman he wants her to be. But rather than presenting her simply as a victim of sexual exploitation locked in a ruthless double standard, the exhibition shows Emma as a survivor.

Emma Hamilton as artist

Feminist books in the Emma Hamilton exhibition gift shop
Feminist books in the Emma Hamilton exhibition gift shop

She seized every opportunity to educate and express herself.  We see how she used her intelligence, experience, and talent as well as her beauty to live her life as fully as possible, and to expand the edges of her freedom.

For example the exhibition talks about her early experience working behind the scenes in the theatre, and connects it to her remarkable ability to adapt to and embody different roles.

This is apparent in her work with George Romney - more than a model, she was a collaborator in the creative process which resulted in the extraordinary portraits at the heart of the exhibition* - but also in her famous Attitudes.

In her Attitudes Emma Hamilton effectively invented a new form of performance art combining theatre, dance, and tableaux which is brought to life in the exhibition through video. She sparked a new craze, and her performance became a key ingredient of the Grand Tour (a kind of aristocratic gap year). On display is a tea set decorated with Emma in her Attitudes: a sure sign that you've made it.

Emma Hamilton as political agent

A section of the exhibition is devoted to the critical diplomatic role she played in the wake of the French Revolution. After developing a close friendship with Queen Maria Carolina of Naples (the sister of Marie Antoinette) Emma effectively became the chief liaison between the Neapolitan royal family and the British government.

As well as securing vital assistance for the British navy in the region, Emma personally managed the evacuation of Queen Maria and her family, and arranged for food to be delivered to Malta when its people were being starved by French blockades. For this she became the first woman to be awarded the Maltese Cross.

But sure, let's keep describing her as Nelson's mistress.

Out of the shadows

The exhibition has some flaws, of course. For instance 'Seductress' is an awkward choice of title for the section about the time a 14 year old Emma probably spent working in a Covent Garden brothel.

And the last object in the exhibition is Nelson's famous bullet-torn jacket, which is so detached from the narrative it seems to have been included just to keep the naval history fans happy.

But overall I found it a fascinating, moving, feminist representation of Emma Hamilton's incredible story, a story which has been overshadowed for so long by the men in her life. This is the big, rich, beautiful exhibition that she deserves, and I hope it places her firmly back in the spotlight.

* The exhibition also includes a striking portrait of Emma by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun among many other representations.

Mary Frith, or Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl

Woodcut of Mary Frith smoking a pipe and holding a sword
Woodcut of Mary Frith smoking a pipe and holding a sword

Mary Frith was born at Barbican on Aldersgate Street in 1584, and grew up to be one of the most famous women of her age, immortalised in not one but two plays: The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day in 1610, and The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker in 1611.

A "boisterous and masculine spirit"

Her life and times have been well-documented, not least in her own words in a 1662 autobiography, and in The Newgate Calendar, which describes the "boisterous and masculine spirit" which appeared in her childhood:

She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys' play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls. Many a bang and blow this hoyting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed, or taken off from her rude inclinations. She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.

Crime and punishment

As she grew up, Mary got into more and more trouble. At 16 she was charged with stealing two shillings. Her uncle tried to send her to America for a fresh start but she jumped overboard and swam ashore before the ship sailed.

Mary got her name, Moll Cutpurse, by stealing purses in the area around St Paul's cathedral. An accomplice would distract the target while Mary cut the strings of their purse, detaching it from their belt.

She was in and out of prison and was burnt on the hand four times, a common punishment for thieves. She also acted as a fence for stolen goods. One of her other roles was as a pimp and go-between, finding young women to be mistresses for men and men to be lovers for married women.

"Indecent and manly apparel"

Engraving of Mary Frith in doublet and hat, with a bird and a monkey
Engraving of Mary Frith in doublet and hat, with a bird and a monkey

She became a recognisable figure around town, drinking in taverns with men, smoking a long clay pipe, and wearing men's clothing: breeches and a doublet.

According to The Newgate Calendar: "This she took to from her first entrance into a competency of age, and to her dying day she would not leave it off... She was a great libertine, she lived too much in common to be enclosed in the limits of a private domestic life."

She even appeared on stage at the Fortune Theatre in 1611, singing songs and playing the lute.

In her autobiography she records a court case in which:

some promoting operator set on by an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel

As punishment she was sentenced to stand at St Paul's Cross wearing a white sheet during the Sunday morning sermon. However Mary gleefully points out that as she was not ashamed or repentant the punishment was pointless:

They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood.

"Thou shame of women"

Mary's friend the showman William Banks once bet her £20 that she would not ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man. She accepted the bet, and even bought a trumpet and a banner to go along with.

Riding on Banks' famous horse Marocco, Mary proceeded "undiscovered", and amused herself in imagining she was "Squiresse to Dulcinea of Tobosso", until she reached Bishopsgate and faced an unpleasant reminder of the danger she faced:

where passing under the Gate a plaguey Orange Wench knew me, and no sooner let me pass her, but she cried out! Mal Cutpurse on Horseback, which set the people that were passing by, and the Folks in their Shops a hooting and hollowing as if they had been mad; winding their cries to this deep note, 'Come down thou shame of Women or we will pull thee down'.

I knew not well what to doe, but remembering a Friend I had, that kept a Victualling House a little further, I spurred my Horse on and recovered the place, but was hastily followed by the rabble, who never ceased cursing of me, the more soberer of them laughing and merrily chatting of the Adventure...

So came late into Shoreditch, where I paced the same way back again to the winning of my Wager, and my great Content, to see my self thus out of danger, which I would never tempt again in that nature.

"She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her"

At some point towards the end of her life Mary was incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital, but was released in 1644, apparently cured of insanity. Later still The Newgate Calendar records that at 74 years old:

Moll being grown crazy in her body, and discontented in mind, she yielded to the next distemper that approached her, which was the dropsy; a disease which had such strange and terrible symptoms that she thought she was possessed, and that the devil had got within her doublet.

She died in 1659 and was buried in St Bride’s churchyard, Fleet Street. John Milton wrote an epitaph which was engraved on a marble headstone, later destroyed in the Great Fire of London, in which he celebrates her unique and rebellious spirit:

For no communion she had, Nor sorted with the good or bad; That when the world shall be calcin'd, And the mixd' mass of human kind Shall sep'rate by that melting fire, She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her.

Sources

Miss Muff's molly house in Whitechapel

A bare-breasted woman wears a masculine hat, a man wears an elaborate feminine wig and holds a fan.
A bare-breasted woman wears a masculine hat, a man wears an elaborate feminine wig and holds a fan.

One of the challenges of uncovering transgender histories is that even where we find stories which hint at trans identities, we can't go back and ask the individuals in question how they would describe themselves.

Even if we could, concepts of gender identity constantly shift and change throughout history, and the question would probably make very little sense to someone who lived centuries before us.

However, the hints we find show us that in the past, just like today, gender was not a simple binary.

Molly houses

In 18th century London a 'molly house' was a coffeehouse, inn, or tavern at which men could meet in secret to socialise and have sex. 'Molly' or 'moll' was a slang term for a gay man, and for a lower class woman, or a woman selling sex.

Although at this time in England sex between men was punishable by death, molly houses were part of a thriving gay subculture:

The legal records document investigations into about 30 molly houses during the course of the century. Considering that the population of London was only about 600,000 in the 1720s, having even just a dozen molly houses at that time is a bit like having 200 gay clubs in the 1970s. In some respects, the eighteenth-century molly subculture was as extensive as any modern gay subculture.

One of the main molly districts was on the east of the City, around Moorfields in Shoreditch. What is now the south side of Finsbury Square was a cruising area known as 'Sodomites' Walk'.

Cross dressing

Molly houses are a site where gay histories and trans histories intermingle. It was common for men at the molly house to wear women's clothes and to speak and act in typically 'feminine' ways. Most had alternative names such as Plump Nelly, Primrose Mary, Aunt May, Susan Guzzle, Aunt England, and the Duchess of Camomile.

One very famous molly called Princess Seraphina wore her feminine identity beyond these secret meeting places and into her public life. In 1732 she brought a case against a man for stealing her clothes. Her neighbour Mary Poplet described her in her testimony:

I have known her Highness a pretty while... I have seen her several times in Women's Cloaths, she commonly us'd to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl'd all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curt'sies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfation of dancing with fine Gentlemen. Her Highness lives with Mr. Tull in Eagle-Court in the Strand, and calls him her Master, because she was Nurse to him and his Wife when they were both in a Salivation (salivation was a mercurial cure for syphilis); but the Princess is rather Mr. Tull's Friend, than his domestick Servant. I never heard that she had any other Name than the Princess Seraphina.

Raids on molly houses

Much of what we know about mollies comes from court proceedings following raids on molly houses, the most well known of which was the raid on Mother Clap's molly house in 1726, in Holborn. (Incidentally, Mother Clap was a real woman called Margaret Clap.) After the raid several people were tried and three men were hanged at Tyburn for the crime of 'sodomy'.

One of the best documented examples from east London is a raid on a molly house in Whitechapel.

"Nine male ladies" arrested

The molly house was owned by Miss Muff - also known as Jonathan Muff - and it stood in Black Lion Yard. The yard no longer exists, but Black Lion House now stands on the site at 45 Whitechapel Road.

On 5 October 1728 The Weekly Journal; or, British Gazetteer includes a news item about the raid:

On Sunday Night last a Constable with proper Assistants, searched the House of Jonathan Muff, alias Miss Muff, in Black-Lyon Yard, near Whitechapel Church, where they apprehended nine male Ladies, including the Man of the House. They were secured that Night in New Prison, and Monday Morning they were examined before Justice Jackson, in Ayliff-streeet; John Bleak Cawlend was committed to Newgate, he being charged on Oath with committing the detestable Sin of Sodomy.

Of the nine arrested we know that two were whipped, one was fined, two were acquitted, and one - whose name was given as Thomas Mitchell - attempted to end his life in prison:

he attempted, and had near accomplish’d, destroying himself, in cutting the great Artery of his Left Arm almost asunder; but by the immediate Help of some eminent Surgeons he was preserv’d, tho’ at the Point of Death thro’ the great Effusion of Blood.

Glimpsed histories

We can never know at this distance how individuals would define or describe their identities, especially when so much LGBTQ+ history is uncovered through documents produced by a hostile state and media: court records, medical diagnoses, and newspaper reports. What is clear is that both homophobia and transmisogyny have long roots.

It's also clear that throughout history many, many individuals have resisted those forces, sometimes risking everything to be true to themselves. It's up to us to try and tell their story when we find it, even if all we have are hints and glimpses.

Sources

Ripper tourism and violence against sex workers

Eye-Popping Days Out poster featuring a top-hatted figure reading a newspaper with the headline 'Ripper Strikes Again' I've written before about my beef with Jack the Ripper tourism, and I recently revisited the subject at an event at Oxford House.*

We talked about why the Ripper myth has such a hold on people, about the other stories it overshadows, and about the breathtakingly insensitive marketing decisions made by the Ripper tourist trade, from cocktails and cupcakes to burgers and selfies with 'Jack'.

The latest of these sidled into my browser a few days ago: an interactive performance from Apocalypse Events. As you can see from the screencap below they initially used a picture of the Bow Matchwomen with their faces scrubbed out to illustrate their event page. Below this was a picture of Annie Chapman, one of the women killed by 'Jack', also with her face scrubbed out. Women's history literally being erased by Ripper tourism.

Thanks to historian Louise Raw the company have now changed the images and copy on their website for this event, but this is far from the only example.

Apocalypse UK screencap

Violence against women and failed justice

The obsession with the Whitechapel murders means that the story most people associate with east London is one of violence against women and failed justice.

Violence against women hasn’t gone the way of gaslights and top hats. It is incredibly common and frequently lethal, and Ripper tourism helps to trivialise it.

The never ending fascination with 'Jack' is especially galling for many women working in the sex industry, as the five women killed in the Whitechapel Murders - Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Lizzie Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly - were all working as prostitutes at the time they were murdered.

In 2015 Laura Watson, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, told the Guardian that:

“We object to the Jack the Ripper tours because they present the gruesome murder of five women as an exciting, tantalising event, glorifying the man whilst invisibilising the women... What a distortion and abuse of our humanity that five women who were tortured to death are of less interest than the monster who killed them.”

Women working in the sex industry, particularly those selling sex on the street, are some of the most vulnerable to violence:

  • In a 2001 study of three British cities, it was found that 81 percent of street workers had experienced violence (Church et al 2001).
  • A 1999 study of 193 street workers found that 68 per cent had experienced physical assault (Ward et al 1999).
  • In 2004, a study of 125 street workers in five cities found that three-quarters had experienced physical violence (Hester and Westmarland 2004).
  • A 2004 study of 71 street workers in Bristol (Jeal and Salisbury 2004a) found that rape and physical violence using weapons such as guns, machetes and chainsaws had been experienced by 73 percent.
  • Between the early 1990s and early 2000s, at least 60 sex workers were known to have been murdered in the UK, most working on the street (Penfold et al 2004, p.366).
  • It has been estimated that street sex workers are twelve times more likely to die from violence at work than other women (Sanders and Campbell 2007, p.2).

Red umbrella with slogan: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers December 17th'[Source: Phipps, A (2013) 'Violence against sex workers', in Lesley McMillan and Nancy Lombard, eds., Violence Against Women (Research Highlights in Social Work Series), pp87-102. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers]

Alia, a sex worker working in Mile End was quoted in the same Guardian article saying that:

“Rape and torture, let alone the murder of women, shouldn’t be fetishised into an intriguing murder mystery... I know about violence. I’ve been raped and robbed – and when I reported it the police did nothing, and then threatened me with prosecution for prostitution.”

Stigma and whorephobia

The practical vulnerability of street workers is compounded by stigma, 'whorephobia', and police harassment which prevents many women from seeking help or reporting violence.

One of the most famous examples of whorephobia comes from a statement by the Attorney General at 'Yorkshire Ripper' Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” **

Attitudes like this, whether conscious or unconscious, are common and insidious. The silent distinction between 'prostitutes' and 'innocent victims' has surely contributed to the widespread acceptance of the Ripper story as entertainment, and as the defining moment in east London's history.***

The single story

Violence is part of women's history as it is part of women's present, and it's a story that needs to be told. But it must be done with sensitivity, respect, and context, otherwise we're just feeding the problem by reinscribing misogyny.

And there are so many other stories we could tell about east London. It's on a rather different scale of course, but author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken brilliantly about the danger of the single story with reference to the story of Africa.

If the single story of our community is about the brutal, unsolved murders of five working class women, how does that shape the way people see us? How does it shape the way we see ourselves?

The aim of our museum is to present an alternative, to amplify some of the stories you haven’t heard before, to show how and where more might be found. By shifting the focus away from 'Jack' we can start to tell a richer story.

 

*Also on the panel was historian Fern Riddell, who live tweeted her visit to the Ripper Museum which you should read if you haven't already.

**Joan Smith wrote a fantastic essay about the coverage of the 'Yorkshire Ripper' case in her 1989 book Misogynies. You can read most of it on Google Books but it's worth getting hold of a copy if you can.

***If you'd like to read more around this I can't recommend City of Dreadful Delight by Judith Walkowitz highly enough.

Jane Johnson, a 'disorderly' woman of Rag Fair

Jane Johnson, along with her husband John, kept an alehouse and brothel in Shorter Street, just off Well Close Square, Rosemary Lane, and Cable Street. She was a well known thief and receiver of stolen goods around Rag Fair, and was cited in at least a dozen cases heard at the Old Bailey. In 1740, Johnson was accused in court of buying stolen handkerchiefs from small time thieves, John Sharpless and William Disney for half a crown. The handkerchiefs had been stolen from Sarah Stumper who kept a small shop in Leman Street, Goodman’s fields. Johnson was taken into custody but when the trial reached court, she escaped from custody with the help of her friends. (1)

Johnson turns up again in a burglary case in 1741 involving thief John Lupton. The Old Bailey court heard that Johnson had purchased a stolen cup with a silver handle and a silver spoon for four pounds from Lupton and his friends. However, although cited in court as the buyer of the stolen goods, Johnson escaped prosecution. (2)

In 1743 Jane Johnson was indicted once more on two separate accounts. She was charged with ‘feloniously receiving’ 26 pounds of stolen chocolate and a selection of brass ware and steel buckles from thieves John Read and David Shields.

The informant David Shields gave information that he had sold Johnson the goods, telling the courtroom, "she keeps a very bad House – there none resort to the House but a parcel of Boys who go out a robbing and picking of Pockets...there are two Rooms on a Floor, 2or 3 Beds in a Room, and 3 or 4 of these Boys lie in a Bed". (3)

Jane Johnson managed to avoid the death sentence, Newgate prison and transportation, making a living for at least a while from her criminal exploits. She is just one of many ‘disorderly’ women who lived around Rosemary Lane, east London in the 18th century.

Women like Johnson did not accept a life on the margins, and while they may not have been treated as equals to men, they had agency. They got by in whatever way they could.

Their stories are a hugely important component in our understanding of the lives of the ordinary and poorer members of early modern London society.

Thanks to Dr Janice Turner from the University of Hertfordshire for contributing this story to the East End Women's Museum.

 

(1) Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913, (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 24 March 2012),

(Hereafter, OBP), OBP, John Sharpless, William Disney, 16 April 1740, t17400416-25.

(2) OBP, John Lupton, 14 May 1741, t17410514-11.

(3) OBP, John Read, 13 April 1743, t17430413-14.

 

Mary Jane Kelly

A sketch of Mary Kelly from 1888Mary Jane Kelly was born in Limerick in 1863 and her large family moved to Wales when she was young. Her father John worked in an iron works, and Mary had seven brothers and at least one sister She was a tall (5’7”), pretty girl with blue eyes and though she may have been illiterate was reported to be very clever and to have some artistic ability.

When she was about 16 she married a coal miner named Davies, who was killed about 1881 in a mine explosion. Mary stayed for eight months in an infirmary in Cardiff, before moving in with a cousin and starting to work as a prostitute.

Mary moved to London in 1884 and found work in a West End brothel. Reportedly, she was invited by a client to France, but returned to England within two weeks, having disliked her life there. Gravitating toward the poorer East End of London, she lived for a time near the Commercial Gas Works in Stepney. When drunk, Kelly would be heard singing Irish songs. A friend commented that "she was a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink."

In 1888 Mary moved in with Barnett, they lived in a single room at 26 Dorset Street, Spitalfields. Barnett worked as a fish porter at Billingsgate Fish Market, but when he fell out of regular employment and tried to earn money as a market porter, Kelly turned to prostitution again to pay their rent.

She was only 25 when she was found brutally murdered in Whitechapel on 9 November 1888. Mary Jane was a Catholic, and she is buried in St Patrick’s cemetery in Leytonstone.

Damaris Page: The real life Moll Flanders?

17thC cartoon showing a brothel keeper and a fashionably dressed sex worker with the caption "Launching a frigate" Damaris Page was one of the most notorious women of 17th century England. She was born into severe poverty and hardship but rose to fame and riches. She was the subject of several Grub Street pamphlets in 1660, characterised as 'The Wandring Whore' and the 'Crafty Bawd', she may have been one of the inspirations for Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders.

Page was born in Stepney around 1610, and worked as a prostitute throughout her teens. In 1653 she married James Dry in a Bermondsey church, and in 1655 she was brought to court for bigamy. She was charged with having been married to a William Baker of Stepney for the previous 15 years, though there is no mention of this marriage in the parish records so it may have been fabricated. Page was acquitted, and after the death of James Dry some years later she remained single.

Damaris Page appeared in court again, charged with the death of an Eleanor Pooley, who had died after Page had tried to perform an abortion with a two-pronged fork. She was convicted of manslaughter, and would have been hanged had she not been pregnant. Page was imprisoned in Newgate Gaol for three years.

Following her release Page became a brothel owner. She ran the Three Tuns in Stepney for seamen and another brothel in Rosemary Lane (now Royal Mint Street), near the Tower of London, for the wealthier naval officers. She agreed to press-gang her dock worker clientele for a fee, which made her very unpopular, and her house was targeted in the 'Bawdy House Riots' of 1668. At this time Samuel Pepys described Page as "the most Famous Bawd in the Towne."

By the middle of the century Page had moved into property speculation, investing the money she had made into building new houses on the Ratcliffe Highway, north of Wapping, and around in residential areas near the Tower of London. The income from these properties supported her for the rest of her life, and by her death in 1669 she had amassed a large fortune.

Source

Wikipedia - Damaris Page

Fed up with Jack the Ripper

465px-Wanted_poster-300x187.jpg

Post originally published in Sept 2013 on Bad Reputation. Jack the Ripper is kind of a big deal in East London. Whether it’s a plaque in a pub, a BBC film crew or yet another walking tour, he pops up all over the place with his spooky hat and cloak. And to be honest, it’s pretty tiresome.

Morbid stories

The Whitechapel murders of 1888 are grimly fascinating, and the question mark over the killer’s identity is a magnet for myths and stories. The study of the murders and their legacy illuminate the historical and the contemporary context in valuable ways. One example is Judith Walkowitz’s superb book, City of Dreadful Delight. And Madame Guillotine has a great post exploring her interest in Jack the Ripper as a feminist.

But there are other tales we could tell. There are plenty of morbid stories to choose from (our other major historical export is the Krays) and it might even be nice to talk about some East London history that doesn’t involve murder. Although we know nothing about him, Jack the Ripper overshadows a cast of amazing East End characters, and the Whitechapel murders draw far more attention than any number of incredible events.

How about the Matchwomen’s strike which launched the modern trade union movement? Thanks to the efforts of Louise Raw, on the 125th anniversary of the walk out there was a commemorative event at the Bishopsgate Institute and a bit of media coverage. But will we be tripping over Matchwomen walking tours in Bow?

Jack and his victims

It’s not just the extent of it but the tone. Jack the Ripper is everybody’s favourite mystery serial killer. There is endless speculation about his identity, his knowledge of anatomy and even admiration for his ability to evade capture. In contrast, the women he murdered are reduced to objects for study or criminal evidence for analysis.

For example: my local paper recently contained a special 12 page Jack the Ripper supplement including a page entitled “The victims: How women met their gory deaths”, featuring detailed descriptions of the last movements and mutilated bodies of five women who were murdered – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Lizzie Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly – complete with pictures of their faces taken after death.

Where is the respect for these women? Poring over details like how drunk they were and how deep the gash in their throat was or how their intestines were arranged may be one thing in a history book, but why is it being printed in the Newham Recorder, along with photographs of their corpses? I don’t want these intimate and gruesome details exhumed for my entertainment.

Missing the big picture

Like almost all media coverage of the subject the article fails to connect the Whitechapel murders to any kind of context about violence against women then or now. Another article highlights the fact that six other women were murdered in the same area in the same year, three also working in prostitution and killed by punters (Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Rose Mylett), three killed by their husbands (Hannah Potzdamer, Susan Barrell and Elizabeth Bartlett).

Sadly this article reads like a masterclass in how to subtly blame victims and excuse perpetrators:

“ordinary people driven to the ultimate crime by circumstance, a fit of anger or a desire for revenge” (this is a quote from author Peter Stubley, included in the article)

“her throat is slashed… in a jealous rage”

“Hannah had left him and moved in with a bootmaker”

“Robert, suffering from delirium tremens, also shoots himself”

“she refused to give him money for drink”

Over a century on it’s felt necessary to include details like this which serve to exonerate the killers. I wish I could afford to send every journalist a copy of this guide to responsible media reporting of violence against women (PDF).

Ripper chic

Whether blasé or breathlessly excited, the tone used to talk about Jack the Ripper almost everywhere makes me feel queasy. Have a look at this New York Times article about how All Saints clothing store makes use of “the romance of Jack the Ripper” and its location in “the Ripper’s hallowed stomping grounds”. Big stomper was he?

And did you know the Ten Bells pub in Spitalfields (where one of the victims had been drinking before she was killed) was at one point called ‘Jack The Ripper’? They used to sell T-shirts, and a blood-coloured cocktail called Ripper’s Tipple. Tasteful. Obviously there’s a difference between the crimes of one serial killer and the carnage of the First World War, but that has an anniversary coming up too – can you imagine a WWI-themed bar serving ham and mustard gas sandwiches? Although I guess we’re getting close with ‘Blitz parties’, but that’s a rant for another day.

Ripperology

Many people do seriously study the Whitechapel murders without celebrating ‘Jack’, but as this article explains, unintentional sexism abounds in many Ripperologist circles. The focus is firmly on the suspects and not the victims, whose suffering is silent or sensationalised. The LIFT campaign in Tower Hamlets have subverted this with an alternative Ripper tour which talks about the lives and the communities of the women who were killed. There are some interesting tweets from the walk in this Storify.

Here’s a classic response to criticism of Ripperology:

We do not celebrate, we commemorate. We do not idealise, but we condemn him. We examine the harsh realities of that world to allow us to understand where we came from, how society has changed and why we should be thankful for these changes, and recognise where it has not and strive to put this right.

While this may be the aim, and I fully admit I haven’t had time to research this post very thoroughly, I haven’t seen many campaigns by Ripperologists striving to end violence against women.

Violence against women

That is the issue at the heart of this, and the reason I can’t join in the fun: violence against women is epidemic, often lethal but frequently trivialised. The most uncomfortable parallel I found between Ripper fandom and damaging contemporary attitudes to violence against women was this, on the London Dungeon's profile page for Jack the Ripper:

DOs and DON’Ts

DO look over your shoulder.

DO dress conservatively.

DO go unnoticed.

DO NOT flirt.

DO NOT walk alone.

DO NOT accept his offer to buy you a drink.

This is advice that is seriously but unhelpfully issued to women today in the guise of rape prevention. It is also a classic example of the victim blaming which prevents many women reporting violence let alone seeing their attacker convicted. Repeated in this context it’s ghoulish, and not in a good way.

Now, as then, women working in prostitution are particularly vulnerable to violence – especially trans* women and migrant women. A woman working in prostitution is 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general population. While I don’t want to be a party pooper, I can’t get that figure out of my head. I’ll sign off with this quote on ‘Jack’, from feminist academic Deborah Cameron:

The question for society is not which individual man killed, but why so many men have done and still do.