We’ll never know who Jack the Ripper was, Royal College’s Sir Christopher Freyling says

PUBLISHED: 17:56 11 November 2013 | UPDATED: 17:56 11 November 2013

BBC's centenery 'Shadow of the Ripper' 1988 documentary that broke new ground

BBC's centenery 'Shadow of the Ripper' 1988 documentary that broke new ground


We will never ever know who Jack the Ripper was—but his spate of killings known as the Whitechapel Murders sparked mass social reform to rid London’s East End of its Victorian slums and deprivation.

"If the police had known who Jack the Ripper was, they would have caught him—dealing with evidence of 125 years later will never identify the Ripper"

Sir Christopher Freyling

The evidence against any suspect is too long in the past to be of any real forensic value, the man behind the BBC’s groundbreaking ‘Shadow of the Ripper’ made 25 years ago told a weekend Ripperology convention.

Sir Christopher Freyling, writer and broadcaster who created the definitive documentary on the 1988 centenary of the Whitechapel Murders, believes research into the Ripper’s identity was tainted by prejudice at the time which lasted up to the 1970s.

“If the police had known who Jack the Ripper was, they would have caught him,” he told delegates to the 2013 Jack the Ripper conference.

“There’s no evidence about the murderer. Dealing with evidence 125 years later will never identify the Ripper.

Sir Christopher FreylingSir Christopher Freyling

“But it has become an interesting historical phenomenon, a social and cultural history and litmus test of the Whitechapel of 1888.”

Delegates at yesterday’s session at Mile End’s Genesis Cinema were shown the BBC film narrated by a younger Nick Freyling which blew holes in the dubious theories of “whodunit”. It was the second full day of the conference opened at the old Shoreditch Town Hall the day before.

The Royal College cultural history professor, who lived in Whitechapel for 10 years, was interested in why people thought the Ripper might be someone from the Royal family, or a decadent aristocrat, a foreigner, a mad doctor, an immigrant, anarchist or a socialist revolutionary.

“The books on the Ripper in the 1970s were telling me less about the Whitechapel Murders than about the prejudices of the people writing them,” he said.

A younger Chris Freyling presenting BBC's groundbreaking 'Shadow of the Ripper' in 1988A younger Chris Freyling presenting BBC's groundbreaking 'Shadow of the Ripper' in 1988

“I traced all this prejudice back to the newspapers of 1888, which were saying the same thing.

“They needed to sell papers and wanted headlines—the Metropolitan Police weren’t releasing much information.”

Instead, his centenary documentary which has been the benchmark for countless programmes over the past 25 years looked at the lives of the victims, their backgrounds and origins.

It created a new attitude into Ripperology research and looked at the impact the Whitechapel Murders had on social reform.

1980s E-fit of what police thought Jack the Ripper may have looked like1980s E-fit of what police thought Jack the Ripper may have looked like

“There was enormous attention suddenly switched to the East End in 1888,” Sir Nicholas added.

“George Bernard Shaw wrote that the importance of the murders was a spotlight on the East End’s appalling social conditions, part-time prostitutes ploughing their trade in the streets, gutters incredibly insanitary and breeding ground for disease.

“Shaw hated seeing something ‘positive’ in the murders, but if it meant people doing something about the poverty and deprivation then they had a desired effect.”

The reformer William Morris had lectured at the International Socialist Club in Berner Street two nights before the murder of Lizzie Stride, whose mutilated body was found in the yard at the back. The real murderer, Morris had said, wasn’t Jack the Ripper—but “the capitalist system that enables it all to happen”.

Yet Sir Nicholas insists the emphasis is still on the victims.

“Jack the Ripper had the effect of a reformer,” he admits. “But you mustn’t ever forget the victims, that five innocent women who drifted into part-time prostitution through sheer poverty and hunger were massacred.”

Most research in the past 20 years has switched to the victims since his groundbreaking documentary, turning mere victims of Jack the Ripper into real people with real lives.

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