Orsam Books


According to a review in the Times of 16 February 2019 of 'The Five' by Haillie Rubenhold:

'Edward Fairfield, a civil servant in the Colonial Office, described the Ripper in a letter to The Times in October 1888 as an "unknown surgical genius" who was performing a valuable service by "clearing" the East End of its "vicious inhabitants".  Was Fairfield outrageous, or was he honestly expressing a widely held sentiment?'

The answer to the question posed by the Times is: neither.  But one can only understand Fairfield's letter by placing it in the context of previous correspondence published in the Times to which Fairfield was responding.

Fairfield was replying directly to a letter from 'One Who Knows' which had been published in the Times of 29 September 1888.  Before looking at that letter, we need to start with the very first letter in the sequence which was from the Reverend Samuel A. Barnett of St Jude's Vicarage, Whitechapel, published in the Times of 19 September 1888.  It read as follows:

Sir, - The Whitechapel horrors will not be in vain if "at last" the public conscience awakes to consider the life which these horrors reveal.  The murders were, it may almost be said, bound to come; generation could not follow generation in lawless intercourse, children could not be familiarized with scenes of degradation, community in crime could not be the bond of society and the end of all be peace.

Some of us who, during many years, have known the life of our neighbours do not think the murders to be the worst facts in our experience, and published evidence now gives material for forming a picture of daily or nightly life such as no one has imagined.

It is for those who, like ourselves, have for years known these things to be ready with practical suggestions, and I would now put some forward as the best outcome of the thought of my wife and myself. Before doing so it is necessary to remind the public that these criminal haunts are of limited extent. The greater part of Whitechapel is as orderly as any part of London, and the life of most of its inhabitants is more moral than of many whose vices are hidden by greater wealth. Within the area of a quarter of a mile most of the evil may be found concentrated, and it ought not to be impossible to deal with it strongly and adequately.  We would submit four practical suggestions:-

1.       Efficient police supervision.  In criminal haunts a licence has been allowed which would not be endured in other quarters. Rows, fights, and thefts have been permitted, while the police have only been able to keep the main thoroughfares quiet for the passage of respectable people. The Home Office has never authorized the employment of a sufficient force to keep decent order inside the criminal quarters.

2.       Adequate lighting and cleaning.  It is no blame to our local authority that the back streets are gloomy and ill-cleaned.  A penny rate here produces but a small sum, and the ratepayers are often poor. Without doubt, though, dark passages lend themselves to evil deeds. It would not be unwise, and it would certainly be a humane outlay, if some of the unproductive expenditure of the rich were used to make the streets of the poor as light and as clean as the streets of the City.

3.       The removal of the slaughter houses.  At present animals are daily slaughtered in the midst of Whitechapel, the butchers with their blood stains are common which tend to brutalize ignorant natures.  For the sake of both health and morals the slaughtering should be done outside the town.

4.       The control of tenement houses by responsible landlords.  At present there is lease under lease, and the acting landlord is probably one who encourages vice to pay his rent. Vice can afford to pay more than honesty, but its profits at last go to landlords. If rich men would come forward and buy up this bad property they might not secure great interest, but they would clear away evil not again to be suffered to accumulate. Such properties have been bought with results morally most satisfactory and economically not unsatisfactory. Some of which remains might now be bought, some of the worst at present in the market, and I should be glad, indeed, to hear of purchasers.

5.       Far be it from any one to say that even such radical changes as these would do away with evil. When, however, such changes have been effected it will be more possible to develop character, and one by one lead the people to face their highest. Only personal service, the care of individual by individual, can be powerful to keep down evil, and only the knowledge of God is sufficient to give the individual faith to work and see little result of his work. For men and women who will give such service there is a crying demand.  

The key passage for our purposes is point 4 of Barnett's letter, in which he urges rich men to purchase East End properties in order to replace landlords who allowed those properties to be used for prostitution.  It was this suggestion which sparked off a debate amongst readers of the Times.  On 19 September, a correspondent from the International Club, signing as 'Gamma', wrote a letter in response (as published in the Times of 22 September), building on Barnett's suggestion as follows:

Sir – Referring to the fourth paragraph of Mr Barnett's letter, published in The Times of to-day, and the comments thereon in your leading article, allow me to suggest that a practical solution of the control of tenement houses, at present dedicated to vice and crime, by a responsible landlord, would be found were a limited liability company were formed for the purpose of buying up and improving such property as Mr. Barnett describes.

This need not be a matter of much difficulty if men of means who take an interest in the welfare of this great city could be induced to co-operate to form such a company, and my individual opinion is that from the improvement that would be wrought in the neighbourhood where such property was bought up, and its character transformed, a very good pecuniary result might be looked for.

Let a number of rich philanthropic gentlemen decide to underwrite the necessary capital, and then float such a company, taking up the shares not subscribed for by the public, and giving their services as directors gratuitously until a 5 percent dividend could be paid. The operations of such a company might be extended to any extent by obtaining mortgages on the property acquired, or issuing debentures against it.

There are doubtless many men in London who would subscribe largely, by the actual gift of money, were any well considered scheme set on foot to abolish these rookeries of vice. I am not asking so much of them; let them simply invest the money in a company that would have every prospect of being self-supporting, but of paying a good dividend. 

One might be struck, as Edward Fairfield probably was, with the notion of these wealthy men receiving a 'good dividend' for their supposedly philanthropic behaviour in acquiring these East End properties.

On 21 September, a correspondent from Edinburgh called John Henry also wrote a letter in response to Barnett (as published in the Times of 26 September), the key passage of which is as follows:

'Sir, I have read in your publication of the 19th inst., the letter by the Rev. S.A. Barnett, of St Jude's, making various suggestions for the amelioration of the occupants of this locality and their more efficient control.  But I own that none of the suggestions go to the root of the enormous evil.  The population in such localities being of the very worst character.  The population in such localities being of the very worst character, surely the first duty of the State is to prevent the increase of it. And this can only be done by withdrawing from such a criminal and vitiated atmosphere the children, of whom there are hundreds in every such locality. Those children are subjected from their very birth to the worst possible influences of drunken, profligate or criminal parents, and what training can they possibly receive from convicts or prostitutes?  Or what can children so exposed grow up to be but a faithful illustration of the teaching and examples they have received? And it is grievous to think that so great a city as London, with so much of wealth and so much of misery, should, for so long have looked with so much apathy upon so great a waste of human life, so much juvenile misery, and of necessity so much crime. The system, in fact, may be characterized as one for breeding criminals.  The vitiated child of to-day at the age of eight or 10 is the expert thief, and at the age of 15 is a not less expert burglar.' 

Henry went on to say in his letter that he wanted such children taken off the streets and into care.

So we now have two suggestions on the table.  The purchasing of East End properties by wealthy businessmen and the removal from the East End of poor children.

A correspondent wrote to the Times on 26 September (published in the newspaper on 29 September) to say that a company such as that suggested by Gamma already existed and was called the Tenement Dwellings Company (Limited). Barnett himself also wrote in again, with a letter also published on 29 September, in which he repeated his desire to form a new company to buy up properties in the 'criminal districts' of the East End so that landlords could 'enforce decency' and he asked to receive 'the names of those who have money, which they are able to invest at low interest, and who are concerned to prevent the present scandal.' But the letter which really prompted Edward Fairfield to put pen to paper was one which was also published in the Times of 29 September 1888 from 'One Who Knows'.  This is the full text of that letter with two key passages underlined by me:

Sir, Your correspondent "Gamma" proposes a number of philanthropic gentlemen should float a company for the purpose of buying up and improving the houses at present dedicated to vice and crime, and suggests that such a company would have every prospect of paying a good dividend.

Permit one who is well acquainted with the East-end slums to point out that the first step needful is the prosecution of the landlords of these rookeries of crime for keeping disorderly houses.

When the houses shall have been closed in consequence of such prosecutions, they will be purchasable at a fair price that would, after improvement and reletting under conditions compatible with decency, yield a fair return to the philanthropic investor. If bought as "going concerns," the price would be simply prohibitive; for vice pays a higher rent than virtue, and the purchase money would be proportionate to the rental; while the large figure that would be paid by the philanthropist would only encourage the formation of new rookeries of vice to take the place of those suppressed.

The fact remains that the police must act before the philanthropist can step in.

Let an experiment be made in Dorset-street, Flower and Dean-street and Thrawl-street, places notorious in connexion with the recent Whitechapel murders. In these street, literally within a stone's throw of Tonybee-hall and the Rev S.A. Barnett's Vicarage, are whole rows of so-called "registered" lodging houses, each of which is practically a brothel and a focus of crime. The police authorities uniformly refuse to prosecute the owners of such places as keepers of disorderly houses, although the fullest evidence is in their possession to insure conviction, and they always throw the odious duty of prosecution on the neighbours who may feel aggrieved. These cannot prosecute in the case of the Whitechapel rookeries without risking their lives; for such is the lawless nature of the denizens of these places that they would certainly, and probably with impunity, wreak their vengeance on any private individual who would dare to disturb them.

If the Home Secretary would give instructions for the simultaneous prosecution of the keepers of these nests of crime, the houses would be closed within a few weeks, and the owners would then gladly part with their bad bargains at a fair price to the philanthropic investor.

The suppression of these haunts of crime and the dispersion of their lawless population should be the watchword and cry – the Carthago delenda est of every social reformer.  That such a seething mass of moral filth and corruption should exist in our midst is a disgrace to our much-vaunted civilization and a danger to the State.

For obvious reasons I suppress my name and prefer to subscribe myself 


There is one fairly obvious and cynical way of reading this letter which is that, while ostensibly trying to prevent further murders of poor women, 'One Who Knows' is suggesting that the state, with the assistance of the police, takes action against prostitution and brothels in the East End in order to drive down property prices in that area which would allow certain rich men, calling themselves philanthropists, to purchase properties on the cheap in order to make a nice profit for themselves while, at the same time, engaging in social cleansing of the area to boot out poor people and disperse them to heaven knows where, thus no doubt ensuring an even greater profit for those now owning lodging houses in the district.  I think this is how Fairfield read the letter.  For this is the full text of what he wrote to the Times on 29 September (prior to the double event, so that the four murders he speaks of in the letter are of Smith, Tabram, Nichols and Chapman):

Sir, - Will you allow me to ask a question of your correspondents who want to disperse the vicious inhabitants of Dorset-street and Flower and Dean-street?  There are no lower streets in London, and, if they are driven out of these, to what streets are they to go?  The horror and excitement caused by the murder of the four Whitechapel outcasts imply a universal belief that they had a right to life. If they had, then they had the further right to hire shelter from the bitterness of the English night.  If they had no such right, then it was, on the whole, a good thing that they fell in with unknown surgical genius. He, at all events, has made his contribution towards solving "the problem of clearing the East-end of its vicious inhabitants".  The typical "Annie Chapman" will always find some one in London town to let her have a "doss" for a consideration. If she is systematically "dispersed," two results will follow. She will carry her taint to streets hitherto untainted, and she herself will be mulcted in larger sums than before for the accommodation.  The price of a doss will rise from 8d to 10d or a shilling, the extra pennies representing an insurance against prosecution and disturbance. Are these the sorts of results that the Rev. Samuel Barnett is working for?

If vestries seem apathetic in the matter of systematic dispersal, it often is because they know that the demand for action is nothing but an astute manoeuvre on the part of a house monger, who is anxious (to use the words of one of your correspondents) that the property should become "purchasable at a fair price".

As we can see, Fairfield has picked up, in his second paragraph, on the expression, 'purchasable at a fair price', noting that the motive of those who want to take action for systematic dispersal might not be the benevolent one that Reverend Barnett probably intended.  However, it is the first paragraph on which we need to focus because that is the one containing the expression 'unknown surgical genius'.

What Fairfield is quite clearly doing is challenging those who wanted to disperse the residents of the East End to other unspecified parts of the country in order to clear the way for the wealthy 'philanthropists' to come in and make a profit.  As we can see, his first question is 'where will they go?'.  His following remarks are directed at those people who want the dispersal to proceed.  He can't assume that such people believe that the lower (criminal) classes have a certain rights but he makes the point that if they do believe such a thing - and one would assume that someone like the Reverend Barnett does believe it - then those people dispersed must have a right to a roof over their heads but he, quite reasonably, asks where such a roof will come from if the they are booted out of the East End. As he says, the East End is the lowest area and there is nowhere else for them to go.  In other words, he is exposing the hypocrisy (or at least the muddled thinking) of people who express sympathy for the victims of the Ripper yet, at the same time, want to make them homeless.

On the other hand, as far as Fairfield is concerned, it's quite possible that the people making the suggestion about dispersing the criminal classes to other areas don't believe that they have any rights at all.  If that is that case, Fairfield is making the point that they must, therefore, be very happy that someone is going around murdering them.  It's not Fairfield, in other words, who is believes that the Ripper is a surgical genius.  What he is saying is that his opponents in the debate must think this, if they don't believe the murdered women had a right to life. Of course, Fairfield knows that his opponents in the debate, i.e. those who want the criminal classes dispersed from the East End and the properties in which they lived made available to be purchased at bargain prices, have been expressing horror at the murders.  He knows that someone like Rev. Barnett doesn't support the Ripper or view him as a genius.  But he is pointing out to them the logical conclusion of their argument in support of clearing the East End from the supposed 'vicious' inhabitants.  As we can also see, Fairfield makes the practical point that all that will happen is that women like Nichols and Chapman will be charged higher prices for their lodgings, thus driving them into a greater state of poverty.

Fairfield was, in other words, arguing from a liberal point of view against other liberals who thought they had come up with a fantastic idea for improving the East End.  There is no way that he was expressing 'a widely held sentiment' as the Times suggested as one possibility.  He also wasn't being 'outrageous' as such, certainly not for its own sake, although he was certainly making an extreme, flippant and somewhat outrageous comment to draw attention to the problems of the suggestion by 'One Who Knows'. But, despite its flippancy, he was really trying to make a serious point in the debate to highlight the flaw in what his opponents were saying, in circumstances where he couldn't just assume that those who wanted to disperse the criminal classes believed that they had any rights to either life or shelter.

We may note that Fairfield himself was by no means a stereotypical conservative Victorian member of the establishment, which some might assume from his bare description in the Times as 'civil servant in the Colonial Office'.  Fairfield had been born in Ireland, the son of Major Charles George Fairfield of the Kerry Milita, a man said to have been a gambler who squandered two fortunes, who died while he was a young boy.  Fairfield is, I think accurately, described in the Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol 3 (1959) as,'charming, popular, human, slightly flippant, slightly dissipated'. He eventually made his way up the ranks through merit from clerk to Permanent Under-Secretary, although in 1888 he was still a clerk.

We can actually put together a reasonably accurate picture of Fairfield's personality because the writer Sir Harry Johnston closely based on Fairfield a character in his book, who he named Arthur Broadmead, in his 1919 novel, 'The Gay-Gombeys', published 22 years after Fairfield's death.  In that novel, Broadmead, a civil servant in the Colonial Office, is said to have died at a relatively young age from heart failure and overwork, just like Fairfield.  Apart from presenting the character of Broadmead as a friendly person, nothing like a repressed and uptight Victorian civil servant of popular imagination, we find a possible explanation for the fact that Fairfield remained single all his life.  It wasn't, as might be speculated, that he hated women (and thus believed that the Ripper was a surgical genius). The character of Broadmead was said to have had a affairs with at least eight women, all or most of whom appear to have been married. At the age of 20, Broadmead is said to have run away with the Honourable Mrs Bellamy but she returned to her husband to spare him the pain of being abandoned.    Broadmead says of this: 'I've been madly in love with a woman, and I've ruined her reputation . . . privately if not publicly. The husband found out, and for her sake and the children he patched it up so that there's going to be no divorce court.'  At one point in the story, Broadmead gives advice to his friend to marry some decent girl and settle down and asks rhetorically, 'Why don't I do the same?  Ah! Why don't I.'  The impression is that Broadmead had his heart broken and thus remained a bachelor until his relatively young death.

Everything known about Fairfield is consistent with him having taken the side of the underdog in his letter to the Times.  He wasn't even, I don't think, calling the inhabitants of Whitechapel 'vicious' himself in the first sentence of his letter because he puts the expression 'the problem of clearing the East-end of its vicious inhabitants' in quotation marks in the fourth sentence (albeit that this doesn't seem to come from any earlier correspondence in the Times that I have been able to locate) but even if he was calling them 'vicious', it was no more than descriptive of the suggestion made by others that such people should be dispersed.  It would, I think, just have been another way of saying 'criminal inhabitants'.

But above all, Fairfield most certainly was not saying it was a good thing that the victims of the Ripper were murdered nor that the Ripper was a surgical genius.  To think he was saying that is to misread, misunderstand and misinterpret his letter.

David Barrat
5 May 2019