Tag Archives: Charnowalks


I went on David Charnick’s excellent The Ripper Enigma for the second time recently.  In this walk, David does not set out to sensationalise the Jack the Ripper murders (the newspapers of the time did enough of that).  What he does is to set the scene of life in that part of Victorian London, and explains why the victims were vulnerable.  It is an excellent tour and I recommend it to anyone who has any interest in social history, or just an interest in history, in fact.  Check out David’s website for more details:


It is no secret that the police of the day were baffled.  Yes, there were a lot of arrests but all of the suspects were released without charge.  To this day, there are numerous theories abounding, but no-one knows who Jack the Ripper was, nor why s/he stopped so suddenly.  And we probably never will.

All this got me wondering though, what would happen if there were to be another Jack the Ripper phenomenon today.  Would the police fare any better?  Let’s look at the facts.

Definition of a Serial Killer

Or, probably, more correctly, a serial murderer.  According to the FBI, serial killings are not new, and have been documented since the nineteenth century, although they are known to have occurred way before then.  They are estimated to make up only 1% of all murders.  (A not-very comforting thought that we might all want to remember is that most murders are committed by someone the victim knows…)

The FBI defines a serial murderer as someone who kills two or more victims, and the events in which those killings take place are separated by time.  It also says that there may be more than one offender.

Although there is some dispute as to whether there were five, seven or even only four victims, I think we can agree that whoever s/he was, the Ripper was a serial killer, and, in all probability, acted alone.  I say this because, from witness sightings, the victims were only seen with one person, a man.  Not definitive proof, I know, and in those cases, where there was a time lag between the last sighting of the victim and the body being found, who knows what might have happened?  However, on the balance of probability, it is likely to have been only one person.  (I also know that the burden on proof in criminal cases is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ but since this is not a trial, I’ll go with the lower standard.)

The Ripper’s “Dear Boss” letter

Why do I suggest that the Ripper might have been female?  There are a couple of theories out there that suggest that Jack was actually Jill.  One, that I read about many years ago, was that the killer was an abortionist whose work had gone wrong, so she made it look like murder so that they could stay in business.  Personally, I don’t buy that.  All but one of the Ripper killings took place outside and why would anyone have been performing abortions outside?  Doesn’t make sense to me.

Another theory that David referred to was that the murderer was a woman who couldn’t have children.  Most of the victims were professional prostitutes (as opposed to women who used prostitution as a casual means of supplementing their incomes).  They would not have wanted children.  A woman whose mind had become deranged because she was unable to give birth might have felt that these women deserved to die.  To be honest, I don’t buy this theory either.  Not because it isn’t possible, I just think that’s it unlikely a deranged woman would have been more chaotic in her behaviour.

Forensic Evidence

Whether the Ripper left any DNA is anybody’s guess, but it is irrelevant, since the police in the 1800s did not have the benefit of DNA analysis.  It was used for the first time in the UK in 1986, almost 100 years after the Ripper.  If it were to happen today, the forensics team would check the victim’s body for fibres and hair (although hair is only of use if the root is still attached).  They’d also check for semen and saliva.  These would be useful if the police had a suspect, but they wouldn’t actually help catch the killer, unless the killer was already on the DNA database, in which case, happy days.

Fingerprints were around at the time, but they weren’t used by police until later.  Nowadays, a crime scene would be routinely dusted for prints, but remember, all but one of these murders was committed outside.  It depends on the actual materials from which the areas where the bodies were found, but t might be possible to obtain fingerprints from brick etc.  Not so in the 1880s when techniques were still in their infancy.

The scene would also be check for footprints nowadays, which might be of use, depending on the type of shoe the killer wore – trainers are good for sole prints.  However, the man with whom the victims were seen didn’t look as though he’d have been wearing trainers.

Crime Scene Contamination

If you watch any TV cop shows at all, particularly those made in the UK, you will see that the police and all the forensic staff all wear paper suits over their day clothes.  They cordon off the area as soon as possible.  They do this for the simple reason that they don’t want to contaminate the crime scene.  The mantra in forensic investigation is Locard’s Exchange Principle – “Every contact leaves a trace.”  What this means is that when two objects come into contact with each other, each will take something from the other, or leave something behind.  Thus the paper suits, which are uncontaminated when they are first put in and will prevent fibres, pet hairs, and so on, from being left at the crime scene.

In the case of the Ripper murders, all the crime scenes were contaminated in some way.  In the case of the first murder, when the first people on scene pulled down the skirt of Polly Nichols, they contaminated the scene.  We don’t know how long the bodies were in situ prior to being found – plenty of time for scene contamination from any animals that might have been around.  The point is, even today, this wouldn’t have been a great start for the police investigation.


Mitre Square, the scene of one of the Ripper Murders

The FBI now agrees that there is no generic profile for a serial murderer, which makes sense when you think that there is no generic profile of a human being.  However, most serial killers are not social misfits who hide themselves away.  They often have families, jobs and seem, to all intents and purposes, to be just like you and me.  And often overlooked by the police for this reason.

Why did the killings stop?

Something else we will never know, maybe Jack himself was murdered?  The FBI says that some serial killers stop killing before they are caught, and may never be caught.  There are lots of reasons for this, including greater participation in family activities, but also maybe even just moving away.


Of course, if these killings took place today, the police would do the usual thing, set up a team, conduct house to house enquiries, and maybe, just maybe, there would have been more people around to have witnessed the crime, and possibly CCTV.  They would learn early on that some of the victims knew each other and they’d do the usual background checks and they would interview everyone who had seen the women on the night in question.  They would have create an e-fit of the suspect and it would be publicised in the press, television and probably social media.  Crimewatch would be a great medium.  They’d rely on someone coming forward with some information.  They might get lucky.  Or they might not.  There are no guarantees.


© Susan Shirley 2017


Before I start on this blog post, I just want to extend my condolences, and best wishes to the people of France after the recent atrocities in Paris.

Nous sommes unis, nous sommes Paris.


I recently went on a walk lead by David Charnick  (http://charnowalks.co.uk) called Death and the City.  David is a registered City of London tour guide, so I knew that this was going to be a good one, full of blood and gore – it was about some gruesome deaths that had some relationship with the City: deaths that occurred in the City or bodies buried here.

I’m not going to try to replicate David’s tour in this post.  For a start, I couldn’t do it justice, and for a second, I really think, if you can, that you you would enjoy going on these tours.  There is nothing like being there in person, you meet some nice people and get a bit of exercise as well as learning a lot.

We started our tour at St Paul’s underground station, right in the heart of the City.  We were a small but select bunch, which I always prefer (although I understand that it’s better for the tour guide to have a bigger crew!)

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Our first stop was Chris Church Greyfriars, close to St Paul’s.  The original Gothic church was established as part of the monastery in the thirteenth century. It was largely destroyed by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Wren at a cost of £11,778 9s. shillings 7¼d, some of which was raised by the local parishioners.  I believe this was one of Wren’s more expensive rebuilds even though it was smaller than the original church. It went on to become a parish church after the Reformation.  Sadly, not much remains.  The church was subject to severe bomb damage during the Blitz in World War II and was never rebuilt.  The remains are open to the public as garden space, but there are a number of notable people buried in the grounds.

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For me, the most notable of all is Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur, but the Mad Maid of Kent aka Elizabeth Barton and, amongst others, the star of this part of the tour Agnes Hungerford, alleged murderess, are also buried there.  The Mad Maid of Kent was a Catholic nun who was executed because she prophesied that if Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn he would die soon after.  She was executed at Tyburn and buried here but her head was put on a spike on London Bridge, apparently the only woman in history to whom that happened.

Next stop, St Paul’s Churchyard.  Nowadays, this is a largely a fairly large paved area but back in the day it was a bit more of a meeting place.  Regular readers will know that I wrote about Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters a couple of weeks ago.  What I didn’t say then was that four of his colleagues, instead of being executed at Tyburn, the usual execution ground, Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Thomas Bates were all hanged, drawn and quartered in here.  I’m not sure why, it was unusual, I suppose it was about making an example of them.

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We moved on from here to the Old Bailey, which stands on the site where Newgate Prison once stood.  The clue is in the title here – Newgate was one of the old City gates, and the original gaol was situated within the gatehouse, presumably to stop the miscreants from entering the City.  The first prison was built here in 1188 under instruction from Henry II.  It underwent a couple of renovations and was then destroyed in the Great Fire.  It will come as no surprise for you to learn that it was enlarged when it was rebuilt.

Newgate Prison was a pretty grim place all round.  As a cost saving exercise, when it had been rebuilt, the authorities started to hold the executions here, rather than going to the expense of transporting the prisoners to Tyburn. (Nothing changes, does it?)  The cells were small and let in very little light; and there was none of this single or two to a cell business, it was cram as many as you could in.  No doubt there were rats and other things that seem to like dark, dank places that I’d really rather not think about…

In the early nineteenth century, the social reformer, Elizabeth Fry, became interested in the conditions there, particularly because of the female prisoners and their children.  In those days, unless the woman had someone who could look after her bairns for her, they went with her to prison.  They didn’t have social services and fostering.  Imagine that: your Mum goes to prison so you do too.  Grim.  Very grim.  Elizabeth’s pleas did not fall on stoney ground.  Improvements were made, but I still rather think it wouldn’t have passed muster in today’s world.

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From here we moved onto Cock Lane for the tale of the Cock Lane Ghost.  The alleged haunting took place at 33 Cock Lane, which is now a very plain looking red brick building, so instead of taking photographs of that, I took the photo above instead: John Royle was the inventor of the world’s first self-pouring teapot in 1886.

Back in mediaeval times, Cock Lane was known as Cokkes Lane, probably because it was full of legal brothels (running a brothel did not become illegal until the Disorderly Houses Act became law in 1751).  Number 25 Cock Lane is said to be the place where the author John Bunyan died in 1688.

Next we moved on a little further to Hosier Lane.  There is nothing particularly remarkable to look at here, but it was interesting in that David told us about the dissections carried out her on behalf of the Royal College of Surgeons.  They rented a house here because rising rents had forced them to move from two other addresses.

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Further along is Smithfield, just by St Bartholomew’s Hospital.  There is a big plaque on the outside of the hospital that marks the site of the execution of William Wallace (aka Mel Gibson.)  The real Wallace was a Scottish knight who was one of the leaders in the Scottish War of Independence.  Amongst others, he defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.  Although he escaped, he was later defeated at the Battle of Falkirk.  He managed to evade capture until 5 August 1305, when he was turned over the English by another Scottish Knight.  He was taken to London, tried for treason and found guilty.  He was taken from Westminster to the Tower.  He was stripped naked and was tied to a horse and dragged through the City to Smithfield, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Smithfield Market was on the way to our next stop, the largest wholesale meat market in the UK.  It’s possible to take a tour of the market, starting at 7am, so you need to be up early!  I have a contact there is anyone is interested in getting really good meat.

Next stop, Charterhouse Square, site of a Carthusian monastery, built near a 14th century plague pit, the largest mass grave from the Black Death.  The Charterhouse itself was dissolved as a monastery in 1537 and some time later was transformed into a mansion house.  Later still, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, was imprisoned here.  He’d been trying to marry Mary, Queen of Scots.  Later, after his release, he was involved in the Ridolfi plot, an attempt to assassinate Elizabeth I and have Mary take the throne. Elizabeth obviously got fed up with his nonsense because he was executed for treason in 1572.

So that is my whistle-stop tour of the Death and the City.

You can also find David’s tours at Footprints of London  http://footprintsoflondon.com


© Susan Shirley 2015


Sheena and I met up today, the first time this year. We went on David Charnick’s Jack the Ripper walk and then down to Brick Lane for a curry.

David’s walk was not a big- standard Ripper walk, I think it is reasonable to say it included, and perhaps, focussed on, a social commentary on life at the time. Particularly life for poorer women.

Life was hard for women of all classes back in the nineteenth century, I’ve written about this before:


Life was particularly hard for the poor and ill – educated.  It was often a hand-to-mouth existence and prostitution was a common means of making enough money to survive. (I not sure that this doesn’t still happen but it was certainly prevalent back then.) Apparently, there were professional prostitutes and casual prostitutes. Again, I’m not sure much has changed. I’ve known a few working girls over the years, and, if I’m honest, can’t say I haven’t thought about it myself, when times have been hard. I didn’t do it, because I’ve been lucky enough to have other ways of earning money, but I can understand why women would do this. I need to remember that next time I’m having a bad day.

David didn’t try to take us to the same places that some Ripper tours do, although that is no criticism of other tours – as he rightly said, most of the actual murder sites are gone now, through redevelopment.  I was pleased that we didn’t go to them all, because although you can get close to some of the murder sites, I think there is only one where you can really get a feel for what it was like to live in those days.

We started at Whitechapel station, where David made it clear to us that it would not be a gore-fest, nor one that suggested a number of possible suspects. David made it clear that he would not propose a theory as to who had committed the crimes, which is a really interesting take on these walks. I have done a couple before, where they do, and find it frustrating because none of us can prove or disprove the theories, and there are many of them. David was true to his word, this was no gore-fest, but a tour of historical interest.

This was originally a hostel, now student accommodation.
This was originally a hostel, now student accommodation.

So how many victims were there? It is generally accepted that there were five victims, although back in the day, the scandal rags newspapers tried to increase that number to eight. Personally, I’m not sold on the fifth, although I do understand how serial killers can escalate in their violence.

The generally accepted victims are:

Mary Ann Nichols, died 31 August 1888

Annie Chapman, died 8 September 1888

Elizabeth Stride (Long Liz), died 30 September 1888

Catherine Eddowes, died 30 September 1888

Mary Jane Kelly, died 9 November 1888

The reason I’m not sold on Mary Jane Kelly being a victim is because she was found in her home, not out on the streets like the others. As I’ve said, I know serial killers escalate, I’ve watched Criminal Minds, and I’ve also been to a couple of lectures by FBI analysts, so maybe I’m wrong, maybe she is a true victim. I think London back in those days was pretty violent, so I think it’s important not to get hooked into the general violence of the day.

The fact is that whoever tries to reconstruct the crime now, we will never know the exact number if his victims (four, five or eight or more) and we will never know for sure who committed the crimes.


This restaurant was the site of Ye Frying Pan, one of the pubs known to have been frequented by some of the Ripper victims.
This restaurant was the site of Ye Frying Pan, one of the pubs known to have been frequented by some of the Ripper victims.

When the walk finished, we went for an early dinner at “our” Aladin  in Brick Lane.  We had the regulatory papadoms to start, then Sheena had chicken naga with garlic rice and I have chicken balti vindaloo with peas rice.  We had onion bhaji as a side. I’ve never had the balti vindaloo before and honestly, didn’t notice much of a difference between that and the usual, but it was still very good. I think I’ve said before that the Aladin is not licensed so we Prosecco in Tesco after the walk. As usual, if was a good meal, freshly cooked and very tasty.


Our feast at the Aladin
Our feast at the Aladin

I was pleased that Sheena enjoyed this walk as it was her first with David. I doubt it will be her last, and I’m glad that we had a good meal. They are so sweet in that restaurant. We were nursing our wine and they had to ask us to leave because they needed the table. If it was in a restaurant where I was paying for the wine, I would not have been crazy about leaving, but in the circumstances, we couldn’t really complain. We will be going back there again before too much longer, I have no doubt.


© Susan Shirley 2015