Students can now view original letters from the Whitechapel murder investigation of 1888. Jerome Monahan visits the National Archives and sees some grisly documents
On October 17, 1888, Metropolitan Police commissioner Charles Warren admitted his bafflement in the case of the Whitechapel killings. He told the Home Office: "I look upon this series of murders as unique in the history of our country." Exploring the context of these crimes and the reasons the police faced such an uphill struggle in their investigations is a popular Edexcel GCSE history coursework option.
In their pursuit of the truth, Year 10 students from Diss High School in Norfolk travelled to the National Archives in Kew to inspect key documents in the case. "This is among the most popular workshops we run," says former teacher Catherine Hammond of the Archives' education department - not surprising, as each two-hour session ends with an opportunity to inspect more than 200 original letters received by the police from people claiming to be Jack the Ripper. Usually, researchers only see copies.
The workshop also provides an opportunity to uncover some of the realities of late 19th-century Whitechapel and scour official correspondence for evidence of the challenges facing Scotland Yard at a time when the CID was barely a decade old. It was also a chance to get a taste of document-based historical research in the modern fountain-surrounded setting of the Archives.
The Diss group had already been creating a mock guidebook to late-Victorian Whitechapel. Their learning was instantly tested when they were asked to interpret a photograph from the 1880s of one of the area's high streets, suggesting there was more to the area than back alleys and crumbling tenements.
Students then examined pages from the 1881 census. The exercise underlined how historians need to remain sceptical, even of purportedly official documents. Diss students were quick to spot the moral judgments that designated many of the women as "fallen", and the unreliability of those defining themselves as "gentleman" or "jack of all trades" - hints of the ingrained dislike for officialdom likely to dog police enquiries later in the decade.
The correspondence between Home Secretary Henry Matthews, his principal private secretary, Evelyn John Ruggles-Brise, and Charles Warren was the next treasure trove the pupils were asked to assess. They pored over individual documents, evaluating them for evidence of police failings and judging their value as sources of reliable evidence.
In a plenary session, a range of contemporary pressures emerged, including the need for more police on patrol, jurisdiction tussles between the City and Metropolitan police forces, and even resistance from constables when asked to wear rubber-soled boots. Then, the highlight - a chance to study the "Jack the Ripper" letters - an eerie, taunting collection, many of them written in red ink and decorated with an assortment of crude illustrations.
Sensational stuff, but, explains Catherine Hammond, historically valuable for revealing late 19th-century social prejudices about the likely identity of the murderer.
"I enjoyed the visit," said 14-year-old Tom Rouse. "Reading parts of the police reports helped me understand some of the assumptions that were made and the problems of an investigation at a time when murder scenes still had to be recorded using artist's impressions."
Laura Cole emerged with a far stronger sense of the period and the environment. "But," she said, "seeing the letters really brought the subject alive."
* Jack the Ripper sessions (suitable for Years 10 11) are free. They are held 10 to 15 times a year and are often booked up a term in advance. If time allows, there is also a brief tour of the Archives
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The National Archives Kew, Richmond Surrey TW9 4DU Tel: 020 8392 5365 www.nationalarchives.gov.ukvisitplan.htm