top of page




A Letter to the Home Secretary: The State and the Ripper

A Letter to the Home Secretary: The State and the Ripper


Clive Bloom


© All rights reserved




The Whitechapel Murders coincided with the consolidation of the Victorian state, a wholly new organ of control consisting of the Home Office, the Colonial Office, Treasury and the Metropolitan Police, as well as local municipal government. It was a situation wholly undreamt of when Victoria came to the throne in 1837, but fifty years later was an established fact that bewildered those who had grown up in an age of individualism.


Indeed, the idea of a ’state’, in any real sense, as those organs of public control unattached and barely answerable to either government, parliament or even the monarchy would have been unthinkable in the eighteenth century. It was still anathema to the Georgians of the period 1789 to 1815 with its French republican implications, and was still unthinkable to those who tried with violence to hold back the tentacles of hated laws and non-regulated control and whose actions culminated in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820. Slowly the meaning of the ‘state’ evolved and the role of government changed, and with these changes so too changed the nature of the ‘private’ person and the sense of one’s own personal space. Social control seemed to threaten to extinguish the singularity of the self that was the cornerstone of Victorian sensibility.


There was no state of any modern type before mid- century because there was little industrialisation, no empire that needed centralised regulation and no population explosion which needed control; London was not yet the ‘world city’. Even in the mid-nineteenth century the idea of such over-arching control was still broadly opposed by intellectuals and metropolitan factory owners who had developed a strong sense of self-help and individualism (satirised by Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times), backed up by the professional military and police which had come slowly to replace agrarian patronage and county influence backed up by Tory mobs and amateur yeomanry. It was the strange merger of the traditional means of control with the new means of power that effectively created the state organs which had emerged by the 1880s.


Yet it was clear that something momentous had changed. Looking back from 1914, the jurist AV  Dicey concluded,


The current of opinion had for between thirty and forty years been gradually running with more and more force in the direction of collectivism with the natural consequence that by 1900 the doctrine of laissez faire, …, had more or less lost its hold upon the English[sic] people. The laws affecting elementary education, the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897, the Agricultural Holdings Acts, the Combination Act of 1875, the whole line of Factory Acts, the Conciliation Act, 1896, and other enactments …, though some of them might be defended on Benthamite principles, … looked at as a whole prove that the jealousy of interference by the State which had long prevailed in England had, to state the matter very moderately, lost much of its influence, and that with this willingness to extend the authority of the State the belief in the unlimited benefit to be obtained from freedom of contract had lost a good deal of its power.  1


These provisions of governmental interference had, to all intents and purposes, through the intensification of protectionism and the rise of socialism, broken the belief in free trade and free personal actions and greatly enlarged the role of the state in everyday affairs.


As the state emerged from its embryonic beginnings so too did those organs of working -class life that came to represent what was necessary to combat the new powers structures of big government. The emergence of the new unions of the late 1880s marked the high point of communal opposition before the emergence of the Labour Party and from the late 1880s onwards it was precisely through organisation rather than individualism that progress was thought to be made.


It seemed that endless reform was in the air by the late nineteenth century. In 1888, the Liberal MP Sir William Harcourt exclaimed that ‘we are all socialists now’, a comment somewhat more facetiously echoed by the Prince of Wales in 1895, and although the two actual socialist parties, the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, were tiny, everyone thought of themselves as a socialist, or, at least, ‘an unconscious socialist’ as Sidney Webb put it, as long as they supported the vague ideals of reform and its implication: collectivism.


Herbert Spencer, apostle of those liberal virtues so necessary to men of his individualist creed, saw in the Liberal Party those actions which were the very destruction of the principles which it stood for in the first place. These were the principles of that Manchester-style capitalism which put self-help, laissez-faire, low taxes, non-conformism and individualism as the greatest social virtues, and which were now being eroded by the dictatorship of ‘pathological’ collectivism. For Spencer, whose idea of society was that of a living organism, this amounted to a terminal illness.


Dictatorial measures, rapidly multiplied, have tended continually to narrow the liberties of individuals; and have done this in a double way. Regulations have been made in yearly growing numbers, restraining the citizen in directions where his actions were previously unchecked, and compelling actions which previously he might perform or not as he liked; and at the same time heavier public burdens, chiefly local, have further restricted his freedom, by lessening that portion of his earnings which he can spend as he pleases, and augmenting the portion taken from him to be spent as public agents please …. Thus, either directly or indirectly, and in most cases both at once, the citizen is at each further stage in the growth of this compulsory legislation, deprived of some liberty which he previously had. 2


Spencer was deeply perplexed. ‘How is it’, he asked, ‘that Liberalism, getting more and more into power, has grown more and more coercive in its legislation?’  


Nowhere was the move towards centralisation and consequent bureaucratisation more obvious than in central government departments, especially the Home Office, which turned from a small government office (albeit an important one) with very few officials, who were chosen because of their position in society, into one of the largest government departments, professionalised and bureaucratised in equal measure and served by a very large network of trained expert inspectors with a remit to pry into many aspects of life that were once thought of as private.


In the early 1850s, attitudes began to thaw at the edges as the work of controlling the country began to fray. In 1854, civil service reformers started  finally began work on a report into the permanent organisation of the Home Office  beginning from the principle that the growth of the country  and therefore the Home Office ‘could not be carried on without the aid of an efficient body of permanent officers … possessing sufficient independence, character, ability and experience to be able to advise, assist, and to some extent, influenced, those who are from time to time set over them’.3


Testing for this new breed of civil servant began in April 1856. Further internal re-organisation meant that in 1870 there were 33 officials working centrally. This was a small rise, but one that had the Treasury in a spin over costs. It would be the tension between efficiency and costs that would mark many of the Home Office’s future tussles with the Treasury. The Colonial Office also went through a continuous period of restructuring between 1868 and 1872. The necessary extra staff  both  departments accrued were not so busy as they might have expected and passed their time making bets on passing vehicles, playing corridor cricket, writing books or poems or kicking their heels. It would be another twenty to thirty years before staff were fully employed in the domestic, criminal or general divisions of the Home Office. In 1876, when there were still only 36 central staff in Whitehall.


‘Rationalisation, examination and competition’ really entered the Home Office in the period from 1876 to 1896 and it was to radically change the outlook and actions of its members. L N Guillamard recorded his own reminiscences of working at The Home Office during this period of change in memoirs written in 1937. He recalled ‘a ferment was at work owing to the introduction of the democratic system of entry by competitive examination, which paid no heed to family trees and recognized no aristocracy but that of brains’. It was, perhaps evolution rather than a revolution, from which a large expert cadre of professional bureaucrats would emerge, centralised, controlled and organised as an arm of the new idea of ‘big’ government, but one that rapidly increased in pace after 1896. By the time of the murders the East End was awash with social investigators, philanthropists, moral reformers, evangelical Christians and socialists of every hew. Such were the auxilleries of state reform and collectivism, more prominent still was the bobby on the beat.        


The Metropolitan Police were directly responsible to the Home Office.  Despite the police being a civilian force, and despite its Special Branch and detective department outgrowths, it was essentially a uniformed, military style organisation designed to maintain communal order and Metropolitan commissioners ran it as such, officers being recruited from the colonial army with colonial ideas about soldiering and ‘native’ populations.


The organisation was bureaucratic and hierarchic.4. It had an establishment of 13,000 men which had grown from 7,000 men in 1870. The uniformed police were there for surveillance as much as for actual presence and to create deterrence, clearing a path through ‘obstructions… drunks, vagrants, mischievous children, unlawful street traders and bookmakers’ and any other illegal practice which seemed unwholesome .5 The Times suggested ( 14 September 1883) that the British bobby was now a trusted member of the community,’ a friend of the people’ rather than regarded as an ‘enemy’.6


Yet in 1887, the police might still be dropped a sovereign, by the likes of Sherlock Holmes and his class (a perk, not a bribe for men who were still being paid the wages of unskilled workers by 1890). To those in the poorer areas that the police patrolled, the police were an affront to the traditional activities of street life, ‘blue locusts’ who interfered where not needed. To the working-classes they were trusted and despised in equal measure, for their allegiance was conservative and traditional. They owed their loyalty to that class and those superiors who led them, as was demonstrated to socialist intellectuals after the debacle of ‘Bloody Sunday’, 13 November 1887.


The Metropolitan Police District covered a radius of 15 miles around Charing Cross and was divided into 22 ‘divisions’, one of which patrolled the Thames. Each division was designated by a letter with H division responsible for Whitechapel based in four police stations: Leman Street; Commercial Street; Stepney; Shadwell. The area was flanked by K and J division.   One of the irksome issues which needed urgent attention was the relationship of the police service to the Home Office; a final vicious tug of war with the Commissioner Sir Charles Warren in 1886, established the direct control of the department over a force that believed itself an ‘independent’ arm of domestic imperial policy. The inability of the Met to catch a ‘simple’ murderer finally led Warren to resign in November 1888.


In May 1901, Maurice Maeterlinck published a little book on the life cycle of the honey bee. Called The Life of the Bee, it went through twenty five editions between its publication and 1935, and reportedly sold over one hundred thousand copies. Why did anyone queue to get a book that was purportedly a work on the nature of an insect?


Maeterlinck’s book seemed to contain a secret code: a commentary on the complex nature of bee behaviour and an essay on contemporary life. In studying bees, Maeterlinck seemed to find the perfect metaphor for the ‘loneliness’ and isolation of the individual when outside or excluded from the masses, but  he also found a means to explain the need for a controlling queen   and her return at regular intervals to ‘breathe [in] the crowd’ dwelling in ‘the city’; the queen may be the hub of the wheel of society, but the whole was animated by the selfless effort of the ‘workers’.


Such a society was, ironically, a microcosm of Spartan republicanism ‘where the individual is entirely merged in the republic, and the republic in its turn invariably sacrifices to the abstract and immortal city of the future’. Such sacrifices as are made by all the organs of the community are aimed at racial improvement and are at the ‘cost of the liberty, the rights and the happiness of the individual’, for ‘as a society organizes itself… so does a shrinkage enter the private life of each of its members’.  In order to enhance collective strength private life had to be diminished.


The fears and dreams of late Victorian society are here enumerated as the necessary conditions for the future: collectivism based on the effort of the workers; centralisation and the growing complexity of urban life; the subordination of the individual and individual freedom to race survival, all set against an unchangeable social hierarchy with a queen ensconced at the head of the ‘republic’, immobile, immured, secret, and magical.


Nevertheless, a new type of person started to emerge in the 1880s as a consequence and as a direct response to collectivisation. Such individualism was epitomised by the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886. The double in the book hints at the peculiar dual personality and the hidden and perverse depths of conformist man when he experiments in secret. It is hardly surprising that the period witnessed the creation of the ultra-rational Sherlock Holmes or that his creator was a convinced spiritualist from the beginning. Such dualisms may be seen in the political arena between the events of Bloody Sunday and the Greenwich Bomb Outrage of 15 February, 1894 where the rise of extreme socialist and anarchist protest was predicated on the idea that Victorian life was a feeble sham just waiting to be unmasked.


The more centralised the vision of the state, the more the press and intellectuals focussed on the irrational and chaotic: by the late 1880s the fictional detective existed, not to solve crime per se, but to solve crime as existential threat. Sherlock Holmes has little to do with the nature of real detection and much to do with making things right in a troubled world. Such anxieties  surfaced throughout the period and often came to focus on disaster scenarios which personified evil either in arch –villains such as Professor Moriarty,  psychotic anarchists such as Edward Douglas Fawcett’s Hartman the Anarchist of 1892, or  death –dealing aliens as feature in H G Well’s War of the Worlds(1898).7 Much of this suggests a shadow world of societal and psychological fears reflecting the normality of the actual world, but in which the abnormal and chaotic may suddenly emerge as reality.  8            


The expansion of both the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police alongside the emergence of a truly national press meant that for the first time individual aberration became national crises. Both the Home Office and Metropolitan Police were the focus for letters written by amateur sleuths, crackpots, journalists and anxious citizens. Henrietta Barnett organised a petition which was signed by 4000 people, the attached letter was printed in the papers and received by the Queen, she  left it to the Home Secretary to reply. Victoria, in her turn, took sufficient interest to harass the Home Secretary, forcing Lord Salisbury to hold a cabinet meeting on a Saturday, something unheard of, and all to discuss a reward. 9


The murders seemed to lead to a crime without clues. Robert Anderson reported to the Home Office on 23 October, 1888 that,


That a crime of this kind should have been committed without any clue being supplied by the criminal is unusual, but that five successive murders should have been committed without our having the slightest clue of any kind is extraordinary, if not unique in the annals of crime. 10


The police seemed left-footed and impotent. Warren had already experimented with using bloodhounds (to the derision of the press) and had got a dressing down from the Home Secretary when he ordered the famous graffiti referring to the ‘Juwes’ to be removed before a photograph was taken; 80,000 handbills had been circulated, 2,000 lodgers questioned; Greeks, gypsies, circus cowboys and even John Burns the union leader detained. Seventy six butchers and slaughterers and numerous suspects reported to the police by locals were questioned and released and all to no effect.  11 Were the police even looking in the right direction? To the press the police simply appeared bewildered. The East End News of 5 October, 1888, commented on the ‘marvellous inefficiency of the police’ whilst others noted the disregard for protective and preventative patrols in poorer areas of London. 12


All that was left was the speculation: the murderer was be everyone from an anarchist terrorist,  to a twisted social reformer, mad doctor, psychotic aristocrat or homicidal immigrant of Jewish or ‘Asiatic’ background as Robert Anderson speculated; even the name, Jack the Ripper was speculation. E W Hornung, alongside others, thought that Jack was a ‘really eminent public figure’, a speculation so potent as to have remained the dominant version of the killer in popular culture; the national loss of confidence in the police finally lead to major reforms in 1894. The police of the 1880s certainly were not the efficient and heroic Scotland Yard detectives that became to staple of literature and film in the 1920s.


The murders represented a type of national neurosis, a rent in the normality of a growingly conformist society. Mary Hughes, a West End school teacher recalled the pervasive and unsettling nature of the crimes, whose miasmic contagion took on gothic proportions.


How terrified and unbalanced we all were by the murders.  It seemed to be round the corner, although it all happened in the East End, and we were in the West; but even so, I was afraid to go out after dark, if only to post a letter.  Just as dusk came on we used to hear down our quiet and ultra-respectable Edith Road the cries of newspaper boys in tones made as alarming as they could: ‘Another ‘orrible murder … Whitechapel! Disgustin’ details … Murder!  13


Our fascination with Jack the Ripper may be understood as the first breath of a distinct type of individualistic perversity, informing popular culture, communal nostalgia and rebellious concepts of the self. It also explains our own perverse fascination with murder and detection: the secret histories of those who do not choose to be known. Jeremy Paxman in his book, The English comments on the English obsession with privacy, and Jack the Ripper surely is the most private person in history. 14 He (or she) may not have been English born, but the killer certainly appeal to a very ‘English’ sensibility, in the face of greater and greater aggregation.  It is ironic, given the ideology of collectivism and centralisation, that the state was never able to stabilise and control the identity of the person who eluded its control through the autumn of 1888.    




1. A V Dicey, Lectures on the Relation between Law &Public Opinion in England During the Nineteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1948) xxx -xxxi


2. Herbert Spencer quoted in Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1926) 32


3.  The information regarding the Home Office is reprinted from chapters 13 and 14 of Clive Bloom, Victoria’s Madmen: Revolution and Alienation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.


4. Louise A Jackson ‘Law, Order and Violence’ in Alex Werner, ed., Jack the Ripper and the East End (London: Chatto and Windus, 2008) 100


5. Ibid., 102


6. Jeremy Paxman, The English (Harmondsworth: Penguin,1999) 139


7. Edward Douglas Fawcett, Hartman the Anarchist (London: Bone,2009)


8. Individuality as essentially perversity was first explored by Edgar Allan Poe and later by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground (1864)


9. Judith Walkowitz, ’Narratives of Sexual Danger’ in Alexandra Warwick and Martin Willis eds., Jack the Ripper: Media, Culture, History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007) 188  


10.  Andrew Smith, ‘The Whitechapel Murders and the Medical Gaze’ in Warwick and Willis, 116


11. Report of Chief Inspector Swanson to the Home Office 19 October, 1888 in Robert F Haggard, ‘Jack the Ripper as the threat of Outcast London’ in Warwick and Willis, 205


12. William J Fishman, Crime and Punishment’ in Warwick and Willis, 232


13. Walkowitz, 189  


14. Paxman, 118



Arrow white small

Double click to insert body text here ...

Double click to insert body text here ...

bottom of page