Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Do You Know Jack?

Today was the trip to the Museum in the Docklands and the Ripper exhibit, one of the main reasons I'm here. Before we dive into old Jack, a bit about the Docklands. London is a port city with a tidal river. Since about the dawn of time they've been ferrying goods up and down the Thames. As Britain became a naval power and arguably the most powerful nation on the planet at one time, they needed somewhere to offload all those goods. (see image left)

They brought all sorts of unimaginable riches into London from such far flung places as India, Singapore, East Africa. Silk, tobacco, rum, hardwoods, ostrich feathers, spices, sugar, even frozen lamb from New Zealand (!) long before they had refrigeration. Over the centuries they built the docks to handle all these imported goods. Canada Water, Canary Wharf, the Royal Docklands, St. Katherine Docks, etc. Ships would come up the Thames, their cargo would be offloaded and away they'd go. For most of England's history, these were multi-masted sailing ships so the journeys took a very long time. Once the goods were in the docks the customs folks would charge the appropriate duties, the items would be sorted, weighed and repackaged for sale. For those of you who would like to do more research I can recommend this site.

To accommodate all these goodies, a series of docks were built, each with particular specialties. The West India Dock, where the museum is now located, handled sugar, rum, hardwood, fruit, coffee and grain. As the ships grew bigger the docks moved further out of the city. With the advent of container ships, London's docks went into permanent decline.

After a lot of work, the Docklands have been rebuilt into a commercial center housing some of the world's biggest corporations. It's all yuppy for the most part, but they have retained many of the old warehouses which are now luxury flats (apartments). The Museum in the Docklands is in a block of warehouses built in 1802. Inside you can see the original timbers. The museum has a wonderful exhibit on dockland life and the connection between slavery and the growth of the British Empire. The Jack the Ripper Exhibit is a special presentation to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the Whitechapel Murders.

And now to Old Jack. I liked the exhibit. Certainly it didn't present incredible detail about the murders, but I got to see the original police reports (they had amazingly tidy handwriting), photos of the time period (though some of them were later than 1888) and modern critiques of how the newspapers and the police handled the crimes. Little details pop out at you: if you made a gross of matchboxes (a home industry) you earned you 2 1/2 pence for the work. There were 45 pubs/gin palaces on Whitechapel Road alone (the water was hardly sanitary so folks stuck to gin and beer). There were over 600 beds (in common lodging houses) on Dorset Street alone.

The exhibit clearly gives you a sense of what it was like to live in the East End in 1888. The photos were grim. So was life at that time. For those who hadn't studied the crimes it helped put it all in perspective. For me, I enjoyed studying the official police reports, some of the letters written to the coppers offering assistance or claiming to be Jack the Ripper. For the more dedicated Ripperologists, they probably would want more detail. For the average person, the exhibit did a good job.

One part of the exhibit that did bug me was the interviews with those residents who live near the areas where the Ripper tours are held. There are a lot of Ripper tours. Some are excellent, some complete crap. They go on seven days a week and many involve more than a hundred people at a time. I can imagine it gets old having to deal with someone on your doorstep shouting out at a crowd about the dismemberment of some woman six score years ago. One resident complained about that the fact that the women who'd died were never shown any respect, that all the focus was on Jack. She is wrong, actually. The Ripperologists may have black humor, but they show considerable respect for the victims. Research is being conducted into their lives, what led them each of them to that meeting with Jack and his knife. The last Ripper conference in the UK was dedicated to Kate Eddowes, one of the victims from the Double Event. So I gritted my teeth when this lady was grumbling about the lack of respect and how she'd never go on one of those tours. Pity. She might learn something about the ladies and what brought them to their end.

One hundred and twenty years later we still don't know who Jack was. Was he a Jill? A surgeon, butcher, horse slaughterer, a member of royalty, a complete nutter or a painter? Theories have come and gone and Jack is still an unknown. That's what appeals to us. The Great Victorian Mystery. In some ways I'd prefer it not be solved.

After the exhibit I met a friend for lunch at a restaurant just down from the museum. Helen McCarthy is a unique person. She is an expert in Japanese animation of which I know diddle. I first met her at A-Kon in Dallas a few years back. She's witty, smart and a damned fine person. We talked about the writing industry, about politics, about ugly buildings and just about everything else over our three-hour lunch. I can't wait to meet up with her again.

Tomorrow I'm off to Greenwich (gren-ich) to visit the Maritime Museum and see what I can learn about Prison Hulks. Yes, I'm odd. But when you're good at something, it's best to stick with it.


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