Ripper Street: The Historian’s Dilemma

Guy Woolnough (Keele University)

I have watched Ripper Street with interest. There is an unpleasant interest in ‘Ripperology’ which distorts the popular view of Victorian crime and policing, and I feared that a series with this title might be focussed too narrowly. There are stories far more worthy of investigation by historians and programme makers than the unsolved Whitechapel murders.

The first episode dispelled my fears, for although ‘The Ripper’ was the hook to catch the audience, the message to the viewers and to the protagonists was the necessity of moving on from the fixation with one particularly nasty murderer. The second episode has taken us further away from the Whitechapel murders.

Intelligent detail has been used to make the stories more credible. The language and speech patterns of the protagonists seemed to me effective in replicating Victorian England, and use of the correct contemporary vocabulary was commendable: snide notes, bullies and derbies, for example.

There were some interesting details that recognised that the Metropolitan Police were early adopters of new technologies, for example, the telegraph and electric lighting. The cultural context was also well presented: the bare knuckle fighting in a pub back room, the willing and casual use of violence by the police in ways they considered to be effective, and the fascination with photography all ring true. It was interesting that (in episode two) the belt buckle was used by the villain as a weapon. This was certainly the practice of the Manchester scuttlers. (Davies 2009)

Misogyny, presented with little nuance, is a disturbing element in the plots and has been criticised by Jan Moir in the Daily Mail. Although it was a reality of life in Victorian London, the problem is whether misogyny and gratuitous violence are suitable for modern audiences, not whether the story is at these points historically sound. ( D’Cruze 2000, D’Cruze 1998, Wiener 2006, Emsley 2005, Wood 2004)
Some details were directed to the knowing modern audience. The dissection of the body is a trope familiar to modern viewers; concern with pornography is a contemporary debate. However, these appear to be acceptable in the creation of entertainment that is accessible.

Some of the holes in the plot could also be tolerated with a little suspension of disbelief. Why did the photographer, who had developed his amazing moving image camera, stay in thrall to an aristocrat whom he clearly hated when he had a product that could make him a fortune? Why did the toff use snide notes to get a high class prostitute when the risk could have been significantly reduced by engaging a cheap tart with an untraceable sovereign? The risk of being caught was probably higher for a man passing bad money than for the murderer of a poor prostitute.

These are problems that can be easily ignored when a drama is good, but the second episode foundered because the central premise of the story was wrong. In 1889, there was no way in which a court would condemn a fourteen year old to death. Vic Gatrell’s excellent Hanging Tree (Gatrell 1994) recounts the details of the last young teenager to be hanged in England. It was, if my recollection is correct, something like 50 years earlier. By the 1880s many murderers, even adults, were not hanged, nor did execution follow within days of conviction, nor were hangings a regular occurrence. The murderer’s lawyer, who seemed able and committed to the defence of his client, would have been well aware of these facts. However, the idea that Victorian punishment was draconian is so pervasive that the modern viewer is easily convinced that a fourteen year old could be condemned to death, and that it would be easy to show him an execution.

To correct this central error would have completely undermined the plot, but the story seemed to have come from Hollywood, rather than the capital of the Empire. A popular theme from Wild West fiction was deployed: the police were besieged in a building while protecting their prisoner from a lawless gang operating with apparent impunity. There were places in London that were dangerous for solitary constables, but I am aware of only one similar incident of an organised attack on police guarding prisoners. It was the attack on Epsom police station in 1919 by 400 Canadian soldiers who were trying to release two comrades arrested earlier.

Whitechapel was very different from Epsom. News of such an attack in the East End would have been rapidly relayed to the nearest station by members of the public, many of whom had no wish to support a gang of thugs. With police around every corner, help would soon arrive.

This series panders to the American market, with a free-wheeling American, a Pinkerton man, in a key role, and detectives who had a very flexible approach to regulations. This has given us a plot in episode two from Wyoming rather than Whitechapel. Finally, the two detectives lose all rationality: they allow their convicted murderer to emigrate (to the USA, I guess) then arrest the woman who contracted for the victim to be killed; by the time she comes to trial the only possible witness who could secure the conviction will be in mid-Atlantic.

The dilemma for any programme maker is balancing historical fact with story lines that engage the modern audience. Historians must accept that they need to compromise if they wish to contribute to popular entertainment. But the second episode of Ripper Street was a sad disappointment; it pandered to popular misconceptions of Victorian justice, and embraced a Wild West story line. The reality of policing Victorian London offers many exciting and novel possibilities for story lines, but this programme settled for inappropriate clichés.

Guy Woolnough is just completing his PhD at Keele University. His PhD explores the policing of petty crime in Victorian Cumbria.

Twitter: @GuyWoolnough


DAVIES, A., 2009. The gangs of Manchester: the story of the Scuttlers, Britain’s first youth cult. Wrea Green, Preston: Milo.

D’CRUZE, S., 2000. Everyday violence in Britain, 1850-1950; gender and class. Harlow: Longman.

D’CRUZE, S., 1998. Crimes of outrage sex, violence and Victorian working women. London: UCL Press.

EMSLEY, C., 2005. Hard men; the English and violence since 1750. London: Hambledon and London.

GATRELL, V.A.C., 1994. The hanging tree : execution an

WIENER, M.J., 2006. Men of blood ; violence, manliness, and criminal justice in Victorian England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

WOOD, J.C., 2004. Violence and crime in nineteenth-century England; the shadow of our refinement. New York: Routledge.


  1. Excellent review which demonstrates the issues with drama presenting history. For many people this is their historical education, once something is presented in the glossy world of TV it becomes fact, it is too convenient to believe that our Victoria counterparts were immoral and lawless while in contrast modern society is fair. It is dangerous to massage modern consciousnesses this way as it navigates deeper questioning and a desire for reform, we like the Victorians still have huge amounts of social progression ahead of us.

  2. Good review, you articulated some of the unease I have with the series. I find the use of real names or near real for the more unpleasant characters it bit disturbing, George Lusk for instance. I’ve read enough of Whitechapel of the time to be questioning rather than being entertained. This week’s episode went down the CSI route, on knees digging out bullets, finding the void in the blood splatter, at a time before fingerprints. Still it’s Sunday night entertainment, perhaps we’re taking too seriously.

  3. Thank you, Simon and “Readitinbooks” for you generous comments. It’s good to know you share my concerns with the dilemma of entertainment vs history. You make a good point, Simon, about the importance of drama for informing people about their social and cultural history, which means that the programme makers have a responsibility not to mis-lead or ill-inform. But, as “read it” correctly observes, it is Sunday night entertainment and should be fun.
    I hadn’t picked up on the name ‘George Lusk.’ Thanks for pointing him out.

    I have reviewed episodes 3 and 4 in my own blogs ( and I found them to be much better than episode 2.

  4. I also appreciate your thoughtful review, but I would take exception to one point – that the character of Pinkteron and the reliance on “Wild west” storylines are an attempt to pander to American audiences. I would say instead that the pandering – to both Americans, and, I assume, Brits – lies in the Law and Order/CSI-like procedural format of the show and in the rather ghoulish attention paid to coercive sex and dismembered bodies. (I’m in the US, so I haven’t seen later episodes, but this was certainly my first impression,)

    In fact, I find the character of Pinkteron to be a rather hamfisted amalgam of tired stereotypes that are often trotted out in the form of the token American character in British shows. Another recent example would be Shirley Maclaine’s absurd and unrealistic character in Downton Abbey. Americans are crude, Americans are blunt, Americans are morally dubious but somehow endearing…add in smidgeon of cowboy and you have a character that is eminently recognizable to a British audience but that seems awkward and a bit cartoonish to American eyes. While US audiences are certainly interested in shows and films about the West and our pioneering past to some extent, I find that facination with and almost childlike mythologizing of that time period to be even greater in England.

  5. You are right, Jess, to correct me on the way I have used the word ‘pandering.’ Clearly the American draws upon British stereotypes of how an American is supposed to think and act. He seems to be a dramatic device to enable our detectives to interact with dubious sub-cultures at arms length, and to allow Inspector Reid (whose education, we may assume, was confined to the 3R’s) to engage with the latest scientific and technical expertise. The more one considers this character, the less plausible he seems; ‘ham-fisted,’ as you rightly say, but I do think he makes a valuable dramatic contribution.
    The plot of episode two is weak, I feel, in its depiction of two police men besieged as they try to defend their prisoner. The idea of such an event occurring in the crowded East End is absurd. It is a plot line that comes from Hollywood Westerns, rather than policing London. I find it difficult to accept this inaccuracy, because the series has been so meticulous in situating its narrative in time and place, with references to (for example) Muybridge and Scuttlers. We, the audience, are given constant reminders that this is precisely located and carefully researched, so we are encouraged to accept it as historically accurate. As Simon Mercer pointed out, it is programmes such as this which inform the viewing public. It is, for them, ‘history.’

  6. Just a little thing, the episode recently about a Russian ex-secret service person organising riots in London – the Russian ambassador directly mentioned the murder of the Tsar, that will not happen for forty years?

  7. Good review one thing I would say tho is that the boy murderer in episode 2 did not emigrate but joined the army. Not that it makes much differance.

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