The other night I fulfilled one of my long-term travel goals: to take a Ripper tour around Whitechapel and see where the gruesome murders of 1888 took place. I’m actually not much of a fan of horror in the classic sense (stick me in front of a slasher film and I will develop psychosomatic symptoms of distress within a few minutes), but the case of Jack the Ripper fascinates me. Maybe it’s because he was never caught, or maybe because there are so many theories surrounding his true identity, but there’s plenty to hold my attention.
Spotting a half price ticket offer from TimeOut for the Celebrity Planet tour, I jumped at the chance to finally see the places I’d read so much about, albeit knowing that many of them would have changed beyond recognition due to bomb damage from WWII or redevelopment of East London, not to mention the possibility of irritating hipsters having converted former crime scenes to gritty nightclubs. Luckily the latter didn’t come true.
Into the Night
We met our guide outside St. Botolph’s church in Aldgate and, after some initial faffing with group numbers, we were soon making our way around the murder sites and related locations. There were a few discrepancies about the theories given and the likelihood of certain associated victims actually being part of the Ripper’s crimes, but generally the guide knew his stuff and was also able to pass on plenty of added extra facts to the group, as well as his own views.
We were all told how locals had outwitted the police in Mitre Square and managed to see the crime scene even though the officers thought they’d covered all the exits; we found out about the laws relating to prostitution and soliciting (if you’re moving then technically it’s fine to approach potential customers, but if you’re standing still and trying to attract them then you can be arrested). The tour was fairly light on theories, except for the ‘sailor with surgical skills’ theory, but heavy on anecdotes and little quirky facts that painted a picture. However, I would have liked at least a small mention of Walter Sickert, the person I think is the Ripper, thanks to Patricia Cornwell’s brilliant book on the subject, Portrait of a Killer.
Although I’ve seen many of the gory photos before, having read up a lot already, I was looking forward to browsing through related images along the way, as apparently this would be an element of the tour, where we would get to see ‘original photography of the period’ and newspaper articles relating to the case. At one point we accidentally met another group along the same street, just off Brick Lane, and they had some kind of projector showing images on a wall. Up popped poor old Annie Chapman, as she was seen in the mortuary. I assumed we’d get the school projector treatment next, but we didn’t.
It turned out that the ‘original photography’ was fixed on a glass notice board next to The White Hart pub, where a potential Ripper victim (but not counted among the main five) was killed. We looked at the board for a few seconds, as there were so many of us crowded around. I took a crappy photo, as I was rushed for time, as with many of the other stopping points.
I only realised afterwards that I hadn’t misread, and that a whole element of the tour was built on going past a small display. Yes, I had seen the ‘architecture, the mutilated corpses, and copies of contemporary press, letters and clues from the period’, as promised, but for all of five seconds as I jostled for space with people around me. Maybe some badly laminated photos wouldn’t have been too much to ask for, to be passed around the group?
After the photo disappointment, I was expecting things to be balanced out by the pub trip at the end. ‘Finish with a refreshment in an authentic East End pub where it’s said Jack used to drink’, said the website. This turned out to be The White Hart, the point where our tour ended, which was linked to an unlikely suspect and a murder that isn’t part of the canonical five, making it not so likely that Jack ever had a pint here.
We did, however, pass the Ten Bells, which is more obviously connected to the case because two of the victims (Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly) used to spend time there, either drinking or picking up clients. This would have been a logical place to stop or to end the tour, rather than with a more tenuous link. What’s more, the White Hart didn’t look that welcoming, whereas the Ten Bells had more of an atmosphere. Besides this, the whole experience was meant to last two hours, but we actually finished with 25 minutes to spare, some of which could have been spent covering other related sites for a more rounded evening.
Clearly the wording on the website had just been incredibly precise, making sure that the reader could interpret the text in a different way but could not accuse the company of not delivering on any point. As I work in the travel industry then I understand that it’s important to be able to sell your product and promote its best bits, but it’s also crucial not to over-promise or lead someone to expect a certain standard of facility or attraction when it’s not going to be quite what they anticipated.
If you’re just looking for light entertainment or a sort of urban theme park experience around murder sites then I’m sure you won’t even notice the parts that don’t quite live up to the promises, but I did notice because I’ve read so much related material and I also studied the itinerary before I booked (sadly, Trip Advisor wasn’t much help on this occasion). I’d recommend this tour for anyone who is looking to get a basic grounding of Ripper knowledge and see the real locations, which are fascinating, but I wouldn’t say it was half as comprehensive an experience as it seemed to be. For anyone who’s read around the subject and thinks of the Ripper as more than a ‘celebrity’, perhaps a Celebrity Planet tour isn’t for you.