Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Whitechapel is a neighbourhood in London, England in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It is roughly bounded by the Bishopsgate thoroughfare on the west, Hanbury Street on the north, Brady Street/Cavell Street on the east and Commercial Road on the south. Its heart is Whitechapel Road itself, named for a small chapel of ease dedicated to St. Mary: earliest known rector, Hugh de Fulbourne, 1329.

By the late 1500s Whitechapel and the surrounding area had started becoming 'the other half' of London. Located downwind of the genteel sections of west London which were to see the expansion of Westminster Abbey and construction of Buckingham Palace, it naturally attracted the more fragrant activities of the city, particularly tanneries, breweries, foundries (including the Whitechapel Bell Foundry which later cast Philadelphia's Liberty Bell and London's Big Ben), slaughterhouses and, close by to the south, the gigantic Billingsgate fish market, famous in its day for the ornately foul language of the extremely Cockney "fishwomen" who worked there.

Population shifts from rural areas to London from the 1600s to the mid 1800s resulted in great numbers of more or less destitute people taking up residence amidst the industries and mercantile interests that had attracted them. By the 1840s Whitechapel, along with the enclaves of Wapping, Aldgate, Bethnal Green, Mile End, Limehouse and Stepney (collectively known today as "the East End"), had evolved, or devolved, into classic "dickensian" London, rivaled in the western world for grinding poverty only by the Manhattan slum of Five Points and, later, Manhattan's Lower East Side. Whitechapel Rd. itself was not particularly squalid through most of this period- it was the warren of small dark streets branching from it that contained the greatest suffering, filth and danger, especially Dorset St. (now a private alley), Thrawl St., Berners St. (renamed Henriques St.), Wentworth St. and others.

In the Victorian era the basal population of poor English country stock was swelled by immigrants from all over, particularly Irish and Jewish. 1888 saw the depredations of the Whitechapel Murderer, later known as Jack the Ripper. In 1902, American author Jack London, looking to write a counterpart to Jacob Riis's seminal book How the Other Half Lives, donned ragged clothes and boarded in Whitechapel, detailing his experiences in People of the Abyss. Riis had recently documented the astoundingly bad conditions in the leading city of the United States. Jack London, a socialist, thought it worthwhile to explore conditions in the leading city of the nation that had created modern capitalism. He concluded that English poverty was far rougher than the American variety. Regardless of one's politics, it is difficult to read either How the Other Half Lives or People of the Abyss without wondering if such deep, large scale social ills (poverty, homelessness, exploitive work conditions, prostitution, infant mortality, etc.) are caused, or at least abetted, by something or somebody more culpable than fate. The juxtaposition of Whitechapel and other East End locales with some of the greatest personal wealth the world has ever seen made it a focal point for leftist reformers of all kinds, from George Bernard Shaw, whose Fabian Society met regularly in Whitechapel, to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who boarded and led rallies in Whitechapel during his exile from Russia.

Whitechapel remained poor (and colourful) through the first half of the 20th Century, though somewhat less desperately so. It suffered great damage in the V2 German rocket attacks and the Blitz of World War II which, however, provided a degree of instant slum clearance. Since then, Whitechapel has lost its notoriety, though it is still thoroughly "working class". The Bangladeshis are the most visible migrant group there today and it is home to many aspiring artists and shoestring entrepreneurs. Business interest is expected to escalate when the East London tube line is extended northwards to Dalston and southwards to West Croydon. The Royal London Hospital, home to Joseph Carey Merrick ("the Elephant Man") in his final years, is situated opposite Whitechapel tube station and is a prominent local landmark.

Nearest places:

Nearest Underground stations: Nearest railway stations: Further reading: