An area of the East End of London which has become synonymous with the Jack the Ripper murders of the late 1880s, the origins of the name Whitechapel actually lie much further back in history.
The name dates back to the 14th century when the church of St Mary Matfelon (or Matfelun) was built on what is now the corner of Whitechapel High Street and Adler Street. The church, which was known as the “white chapel” apparently thanks to the white stone used in the walls, was apparently first constructed the mid 13th century and is said to have been named after a prominent local family. It became the parish church of Whitechapel in the 14th century.
Rebuilt and extended several times over the ensuing centuries – including in 1673 and the 1870s, it was bombed during the Blitz in 1940 and ultimately finally removed in 1952. The site where it once stood is now the Altab Ali Park, named after a young Bangladeshi man who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in Adler Street in 1978.
Whitechapel originally stood along the road, which from Roman times ran from London to Colchester. The fact it stood outside the city walls meant it to became home to some of the city’s more undesirable businesses including slaughterhouses, tanneries and breweries.
Greater numbers of poor came into the area from Middle Ages onwards and by the mid-1800s it was one of London’s most crowded, poorest and disease ridden areas, known for its immigrant population and for its rising levels of crime.
This reputation was only solidified in 1888 when the killings of the so-called murderer Jack the Ripper garnered worldwide attention for the brutal slayings of at least five women (some believe the figure should be much higher). Speculation still surrounds the Ripper’s identity.
These days, Whitechapel – along with many inner city areas – is undergoing a gentrification process and is now known as something of a hub for art and music as well as home to a street market in Brick Lane.
Ripperology aside, other notable landmarks include The Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel Road (it was here gangster Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell in 1966; its sign is pictured above) and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (described in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, it was founded in 1570 and among the most famous bells cast there are the US Liberty Bell (1752) Big Ben (1858) – stay tuned for our upcoming ‘London’s Oldest’ entry).
The area is also home to the internationally renowned Whitechapel Gallery on the corner of Brick Lane and Whitechapel High Street and the East London Mosque, one of the largest in the UK.