Whitechapel shown within Greater London
|OS grid reference|
|London borough||Tower Hamlets|
|Ceremonial county||Greater London|
|Sovereign state||United Kingdom|
|London Assembly||City and East|
|List of places: UK • England • London|
Whitechapel is a built-up inner city district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, London, England. It is located 3.4 miles (5.5 km) east of Charing Cross and roughly bounded by the Bishopsgate thoroughfare on the west, Fashion Street on the north, Brady Street and Cavell Street on the east and Commercial Road on the south. Whitechapel is one of the diverse areas within the borough, those of ethnic backgrounds make up the majority with the largest being Bangladeshis representing 52 percent of the resident population.
Whitechapel's heart is Whitechapel High Street, extending further east as Whitechapel Road, named for a small chapel of ease dedicated to St Mary. Its earliest known rector was Hugh de Fulbourne in 1329. In about 1338 it became the parish church of Whitechapel, called, for unknown reasons, St Mary Matfelon. The church would be destroyed through enemy action in World War II and its location and graveyard is now a public garden on the south side of the road.
Whitechapel High Street and Whitechapel Road are now part of the A11 road, anciently the initial part of the Roman road between the City of London and Colchester, exiting the city at Aldgate. In later times travellers to and from London on this route were accommodated at the many coaching inns which lined Whitechapel High Street.
By the late 16th century the suburb of Whitechapel and the surrounding area had started becoming 'the other half' of London. Located east of Aldgate, outside the City Walls and beyond official controls, it attracted the less 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) and slaughterhouses.
In 1680, the Rector of Whitechapel, the Rev. Ralph Davenant, of the parish of St. Mary Matfellon, bequeathed a legacy for the education of forty boys and thirty girls of the parish - the Davenant Centre is still in existence although the Davenant Foundation School moved from Whitechapel to Loughton in 1966.
Population shifts from rural areas to London from the 17th century to the mid-19th century resulted in great numbers of more or less destitute people taking up residence amidst the industries and mercantile interests that had attracted them.
In 1797 the body of the sailor Richard Parker, hanged for his leading role in the Nore mutiny, was given a Christian burial at Whitechapel after his wife exhumed it from the unconsecrated burial ground to which it was originally consigned. Crowds gathered to see the body before it was buried.
By the 1840s Whitechapel, along with the enclaves of Wapping, Aldgate, Bethnal Green, Mile End, Limehouse, Bow, Bromley-by-Bow, Poplar, Shadwell and Stepney (collectively known today as "the East End"), had evolved, or devolved, into classic "Dickensian" London, with problems of poverty and overcrowding. Whitechapel Road itself was not particularly squalid through most of this period—it was the warrens of small dark streets branching from it that contained the greatest suffering, filth and danger, such as Dorset Street (now a private alley but once described as "the worst street in London"), Thrawl Street, Berners Street (renamed Henriques Street), Wentworth Street and others.
William Booth began his Christian Revival Society, preaching the gospel in a tent, erected in the Friends Burial Ground, Thomas Street, Whitechapel, in 1865. Others joined his Christian Mission, and on August 7, 1878 the Salvation Army was formed at a meeting held at 272 Whitechapel Road. A statue commemorates both his mission and his work in helping the poor.
In the Victorian era the basal population of poor English country stock was swelled by immigrants from all over, particularly Irish and Jewish. Writing of the period 1883–1884, Yiddish theatre actor Jacob Adler wrote, "The further we penetrated into this Whitechapel, the more our hearts sank. Was this London? Never in Russia, never later in the worst slums of New York, were we to see such poverty as in the London of the 1880s." This endemic poverty drove many women to prostitution. In October 1888 the Metropolitan Police estimated that there were 1,200 prostitutes "of very low class" resident in Whitechapel and about 62 brothels. Reference is specifically made to them in Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People of London, specially to dwellings called Blackwall Buildings belonging to Blackwall Railway. Such prostitutes were numbered amongst the eleven Whitechapel Murders (1888-91), some of which were committed by the legendary serial killer known as 'Jack the Ripper'. These attacks caused widespread terror in the district and throughout the country and drew the attention of social reformers to the squalor and vice of the area, even though these crimes remain unsolved today.
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 The People of the Abyss. Riis had recently documented the astoundingly bad conditions in large swaths of the leading city of the United States. London, a socialist, thought it worthwhile to explore conditions in the leading city of the nation that had invented modern capitalism. He concluded that English poverty was far rougher than the American variety. The juxtaposition of the poverty, homelessness, exploitive work conditions, prostitution, and infant mortality 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 and revolutionaries 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. The area is still home to Freedom Press, the anarchist publishing house founded by Charlotte Wilson.
The "Elephant Man", Joseph Carey Merrick (1862–1890) became well-known in Whitechapel - he was exhibited in a shop on the Whitechapel Road before being helped by Dr Frederick Treves (1853–1923) at the Royal London Hospital, opposite the actual shop. There is a museum in the hospital about his life.
Whitechapel remained poor (and colourful) through the first half of the 20th century, though somewhat less desperately so. It suffered great damage in the Blitz and the V-weapons German rocket attacks of World War II. Since then, Whitechapel has lost most of its notoriety, though it is still thoroughly working class. The Bangladeshis are the most visible migrant group today, and the East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road is a major symbol of the resident Islamic community. The mosque group was established as early as 1940, the demand for a mosque grew as the Sylheti community grew rapidly over the years. Until 1985 a large purpose built mosque with a dome and minaret was built in the heart of Whitechapel, attracting thousands of worshippers every week, until it was further expanded with the London Muslim Centre in 2004. Whitechapel is also home to many aspiring artists and shoestring entrepreneurs.
The East London line of the tube is being extended northwards to Dalston and southwards to West Croydon, planned for completion in 2010. A further extension is planned in phase 2, to provide a complete rail ring route around south London to Clapham Junction, this is unlikely to be completed before 2015. Whitechapel is also scheduled to be a stop on the Crossrail project, again, unlikely to be completed before 2015.
These changes are likely to lead to a radical redevelopment of the area, making it more attractive to businesses, but pricing existing residents out of the area.
Whitechapel Road was the location of two 19th century theatres: 'The Effingham' (1834–1897) and 'The Pavilion' (1828–1935; building demolished in 1962). Charles Dickens, Jr (eldest child of Charles Dickens), in his 1879 book Dickens's Dictionary of London, described the Pavilion this way: "A large East-end theatre capable of holding considerably over 3,000 persons. Melodrama of a rough type, farce, pantomime, &c." In the early 20th century it became the home of Yiddish theatre, catering to the large Jewish population of the area, and gave birth to the Anglo-Jewish 'Whitechapel Boys' avant-garde literary and artistic movement.
Since at least the 1970s, Whitechapel and other nearby parts of East London have figured prominently in London's art scene. Probably the area's most prominent art venue is the Whitechapel Art Gallery, founded in 1901 and long an outpost of high culture in a poor neighbourhood. As the neighbourhood has gentrified, it has gained citywide, and even international, visibility and support. As of 2005, the gallery is undergoing a major expansion, with the support of £3.26 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The expanded facility opened in 2009.
Whitechapel in the early 21st century has figured prominently in London's punk rock/skuzz rock scene, with the main focal point for this scene being Whitechapel Factory and Rhythm Factory bar/restaurant/nightclub. This scene includes the likes of The Libertines, Zap!, Nova, The Others, Razorlight, and The Rakes, all of whom have had some commercial success in the music charts.
Home to centres such as London Action Resource Centre and rampART, Whitechapel is seen by many as a cultural hub for community based political activism particularly of an anti-authoritarian, anti-war trend. The anarchist publishing house Freedom Press is nearby in Aldgate and the one of the london chapters of Food Not Bombs serves regular meals in Alta Ali park on Whitechapel high street. Whitechapel Anarchist Group has also recently been formed who have started circulating a local freesheet called W.A.G. In the past Whitechapel has been home to such individuals as Rudolf Rocker, anarcho-syndicalist writer, historian and prominent activist, active in the area 1895-1918, 1873–1958. Charles Lahr, anarchist bookseller/publisher and secretary of Whitechapel branch of the Industrial Union of Direct Actionists (IUDA), 1885-1971 was also a prominent figure resident in the area. Such individuals in history have helped form the culture of enthusiasm in political alternatives that is enjoyed in the community today.
Whitechapel features in Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers (chapter 22) as the location of the Bull Inn, where the Pickwickians take a coach to Ipswich. En route, driving along Whitechapel Road, Sam Weller opines that it is "not a wery nice neighbourhood" and notes the correlation between poverty and the abundance of oyster stalls here. One of Fagin's dens in Dickens's Oliver Twist was located in Whitechapel and Fagin, himself, was possibly based on a notorious local 'fence' named Ikey Solomon (1785–1850). Whitechapel is also the scene of Israel Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto and the novels of Simon Blumenfield. Several chapters of Sholem Aleichem's classic Yiddish novel "Adventures of Mottel the Cantor's Son" take place in early 20th Century Whitechapel, depicted from the point of view of an impoverished East European Jewish family fleeing the pogroms.
Whitechapel is used as a location in most Jack the Ripper fiction. One such example is the bizarre White Chappel Scarlet Tracings (1987) by Iain Sinclair. It also features as the setting for the science fiction Webcomic FreakAngels, written by popular comics writer Warren Ellis.
In addition to the prominent figures detailed in the article:
The nearest London Underground stations are Whitechapel and Aldgate East — on the Hammersmith & City and District Lines. Whitechapel station is also an interchange with the East London Line (opens June 2010) and is a proposed stop on Crossrail 1.