Drew Gray, Returning to Ripper Street (Part One): A Historian’s Perspective

Drew Gray, University of Northampton.

Drew Gray teaches at the University of Northampton. He’s a social historian who specializes in the history of crime. You can follow his Twitter updates @HistoryatNmpton.

The third series of Ripper Street had a delayed passage to terrestrial TV. Apparently axed by the BBC after series two’s dramatic finale it finally resurfaced on Amazon Prime after a vociferous campaign by the show’s many fans. I will admit to being one of those who struggled to see why the BBC would choose to dispense with the exploits of Reid, Jackson and Drake only to serve up the historical mess that was Banished. Having waited so long I was curious to see how Richard Warlow would develop the relationship between characters that had seemingly been sundered in the previous series.

The original series was set in Whitechapel in 1889, the year after the Ripper murders are commonly believed to have ended. DI Reid and sergeant Drake are crusaders in a wilderness of degradation, immorality and crime. The East End is represented, as it invariably is, as a place of danger and excitement; an ‘otherworld’ that exists outside the bounds of conventional ‘civilization’. Our fascination with it has deep roots and it is almost impossible for any filmmaker to ignore the vast back catalogue of imagery surrounding the place; like Albert Square it is familiar territory and we know what to expect.

Ripper Street

This series (set in 1894) starts with a disaster – the wrecking of a passenger train bringing Sergeant (now inspector) Drake back to the Leman Street. The crash was a by-product of a crime – one that unfolds across the series. This elaborate crime involves the one-time madam turned philanthropist, Susan Hart (the estranged wife of Captain Jackson) and her father, the sinister Theodore Swift who is bent on cornering the market in illegal arms trading.

Jackson, a hard-drinking American who starts this series at odds with the puritan Reid is an ex-Pinkerton turned forensic scientist/surgeon and he has always been the character I find hardest to believe in a historical context. Throughout the three series Jackson acts as a sort of amateur non-official forensic surgeon. In 1889 Reid sets aside a room in Leman Street and equips with all sorts of medical facilities (sink, Bunsen burner, mortuary slab, etc) so that the captain can perform the duties we are more familiar with on Silent Witness.

Ripper Street

Given that Whitechapel didn’t have a mortuary in 1888 (the ‘Ripper’ victims were taken to the workhouse on what is now Valance Road), it seems pretty incredulous that Leman Street ‘nick’ would be able to kit out a forensic laboratory for an American military surgeon to practice his part-time theoretical crime sleuthing.

The rail disaster claims the lives of over 50 people and this brings the three former colleagues back together. The melodrama villain of the series is Hart’s lawyer, a Dickensian character named Capshaw. When confronted with the horror of the train crash which his scheming has caused (‘People have died, God damn you’ says ‘Long’ Susan), he coldly retorts, ‘it’s Whitechapel. They die everyday’. I found this a fitting expression of contemporary attitudes towards the East End.

The Whitechapel murders were often seen as a product of the area; Reid refers to Whitechapel as the ‘Abyss’, and the underlying theme of the series is one of good struggling to rise to the surface in an area that chokes the life out of everyone that inhabits it. ‘Whitechapel is a place where good and precious things are broken, and hope is made phantom’, Bennett Drake tells Rose in a particularly dark moment.

There are little glimmers of hope of course – the rediscovery of Reid’s missing daughter, Matilda or the rekindling of love between Drake and Rose – but mostly the writers want us to know how awful Whitechapel was. Most of the contemporary descriptions of the East End emphasize its squalor, overcrowding and criminality; very few seem prepared to offer any balance. Ripper Street perpetuates the myths surrounding the east and tends to offer up middle-class ‘heroes’ as its saviors (the female politician Jane Cobden springs to mind, and of course DI Reid himself).

What distinguishes this series from the others that preceded it is the attempt to embrace contemporary breakthroughs in forensic science. Setting it in 1894 gives the writers greater scope to look at the development of policing. Arguably the Police learned a lot from the failure to catch ‘Jack the Ripper’; they experimented with blood hounds, they responded to interventions from outsiders (such as spiritualists) and they adapted their day-to-day patrols and routines. ‘Jack’ might have evaded them but with the resignation of Sir Charles Warren as head of the force the last resistance to the idea of ‘detection’ crumbled away. I think it is reasonable to say that 1888 was a landmark in policing – it begins to be a lot more ‘modern’ after that.

Ripper Street

Inspector Reid has turned in on himself after the loss of his wife in the five years since we last saw him in series two, and has created an archive at Leman Street. This is full of files on local criminals – with descriptions and cuttings, depositions and case notes. Chief Inspector Fred Abberline (once Reid’s boss in the ‘Ripper’ enquiry and now removed to Scotland Yard) is sneering about his prodigy’s paperwork and this perhaps reflects contemporary views within the force. Now we understand the value of intelligence but for Abberline this is not ‘coppering’ as he understands it. Reid (and Jackson) are the future, Fred is the past.

In the first episode Reid measures the head and body of a suspect he has in the cells and triumphantly discovers him to be someone he has on file, someone who has given the desk sergeant a false name. Reid uses this as a lever to turn this villain into a valuable informer.

Reid is using Alphonse Bertillon’s system of ‘minute bodily measurement’ to identify criminals. The Victorian Police and Prison service kept records of habitual offenders and used photography but Bertillon’s system was not deployed at this time. However, as with another breakthrough – fingerprinting – the producers of Ripper Street have suggested that this sort of experimentation might have been going on at ground level in the Met. How realistic is this?

Finger Prints

In 1894 The Standard newspaper (amongst others) reported the findings of a parliamentary committee investigating ‘the best means available for identifying habitual criminals’. The committee found that the current system was flawed and in need of improvement. It recommended the gradual introduction a system of measurements similar to Bertillon’s and to consider the use of Francis Galton’s ‘curious method of fingerprint identification’. [1] Galton is credited with the ‘discovery’ of fingerprint technology but Henry Faulds had reported his findings in Nature in 1880, and suggested they might be a useful tool for apprehending criminals, offering his services to Scotland Yard in 1886, only to meet the same rebuff that characterized Abberline’s opinion of Reid’s archive.

William Herschel had also used fingerprints on contracts in colonial India in the 1850s. Clearly, the idea of fingerprints were in the public domain and Galton’s treatise was published in 1892 and so Reid might have read it (as he is shown doing so). Reid is an educated man and this is partly why Abberline wishes to remove him to the Yard to leave ‘proper coppering’ to the likes of Bennett Drake, so it’s possible.

But what about Captain Jackson, for it is the American surgeon that notices a fingerprint on the stock of the pistol used to shoot Reid and it is he who eventually works out how this might be used to find out exactly who fired the gun; would Jackson have read Galton? This I find much harder to credit but perhaps it’s not impossible.

Would Reid have been allowed to ‘disappear’ after the killing of Horace Buckley? I found the references to the ‘Ripper’ case in this series were a bit crude and unnecessary; the notion that Reid’s daughter would have looked though his case notes is fanciful at best. The photo of Catherine Eddowes revealed on his map of the killings is actually Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia) who died in 1947 in the USA. Moreover, if electric train sets were available in 1894 (which I doubt) how likely is it that a crippled signalman who was refused compensation for his injury and is presumably unable to work, could have a deluxe Hornby-esque model railway in his attic?

So as ‘history’ I don’t think Ripper Street works but that hardly matters. It draws on history and on the mythology surrounding the East End and its dark past. It looks good and in the exploration of forensic science I think they’ve raised an interesting set of questions about how these things develop. A fourth series has been commission and so will hopefully appear in 2016. Given Reid’s retirement its hard to know where they will take the story but there are plenty of plots to be written in the mean streets of 1890s Whitechapel – who knows, they might even solve the Ripper mystery!

[1] Manchester Courier & Lancastrian General Advertiser, 17/3/1894; The Standard, 22/3/1894.


One comment

  1. I’m the cultural historian for Ripper Street, and while I can’t speak for the forensics (we have a specific consultant for that), I can speak for the social/cultural history – ie: toy trains were running on tracks in the 1890s, from clockwork at the start of the period, to electric by the later half.

    I’ve never worked with a team so committed to historical authenticity as the guys at Tiger Aspect. They are determined to showcase unknown history, and bring the period to life in ways that surprise and shock you, even down to the smallest details. In series 2 they brought in the Cleveland Street Scandal, series 3 showcases not only new technology, but also issues surrounding contraception, transgender history, eugenics etc. And the coming series 4 is just as exciting.

    Also, don’t forget that glaring ‘mistakes’ to a historian – like the Black Dahlia – might actually be Easter Eggs – Not just for fans, but also for those who work on the show!

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