UNIVERSITY of Huddersfield researcher Charlotte Mallinson is turning Ripperology on its head.
She is barely concerned with the identity of the man who slew and mutilated a sequence of Whitechapel women in 1888. Instead, she wants to reclaim the victims, turn a spotlight on the social conditions that led to their plight and restore to them some dignity amidst the endless procession of grisly Ripper tours that draw tourists to the East End.
Meanwhile, as a frequent and fascinated visitor to London and a witness to its dark tourism, she provides a Yorkshirewoman’s eye view of the capital.
“With Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd and attractions such as the London Dungeon it seems to be a city that thrives on the macabre and tales of murders and executions. It is all is highly profitable and entertaining but an anomaly that these topics should provide the subject matter for tourism,” says Charlotte.
“I think that being a Northerner I can look at London objectively and when I am discussing my research with locals in Whitechapel they say, yes you’re right, it is weird, but they have been spoon fed all this from birth. It is just part of their normality. But Whitechapel is an amazing place and I would happily live there. It is such a vibrant community,” said Charlotte, whose current researches have led her to meet and befriend many of the sex workers who today ply the streets once trod by Jack the Ripper.
Charlotte – a single mother of four children – was forced to quit schooling early when she became a teenage mum, holding down a succession of jobs such as bar work and cleaning. But eventually she decided she wanted more out of life and enrolled at the University of Huddersfield for a BA course covering English Literature plus heritage.
She rapidly showed an aptitude for academic work and scored First Class Honours. Then came a Master’s degree which enabled her to explore further her fascination for the heritage industry, especially its darker, more troubling dimensions, such as museums that display human remains.
Her MA dissertation argued that popular representations of Whitechapel’s infamous history amounted to a dehumanisation of the women who were brutally murdered in 1888. She claimed that this was due to discrimination, based on the victims’ gender, their ‘overt sexuality’ and their socio-economic status. Meanwhile Jack the Ripper – because he managed to evade detection – was mythologised and celebrated.
Charlotte has now developed this theme for doctoral research, for which she was awarded a bursary by the University of Huddersfield. The project means that she has become immersed in the saga and cult of Jack the Ripper – without feeling any interest in whom he actually was.
“My focus is on the women. Of all the ‘Ripperology’ books I have read, I have not once finished a last chapter in which the author reveals their theory about the killer’s identity. I cannot get drawn into that. I don’t even think it is relevant, although it is interesting that Jack the Ripper is constantly given an elite identity and the females involved are more and more dehumanised, so that you don’t even hear their names.”
Charlotte’s PhD project – supervised by historian Dr Rob Ellis – is entitled “Our History, Our Streets, Our Voice, Our Future: Reclaiming the Historiography of the Whitechapel Murders”. It will result in both a written thesis and an exhibition that will be a mixture of oral and photographic material, including evidence from current Whitechapel sex workers who will describe their lives and how they exist alongside Ripper tourism.
Charlotte has attended many Ripper tours, of which there are 17 currently in operation.
“You will be walking down Whitechapel and its tiny alleyways and have to wait in one spot while another group passes you by. The area is saturated with tourists. But there is a difference of tone,” she said.
“There are some tours that emphasises the poverty of the area and that the women were forced into prostitution. But the worst tour I went on, I had to leave early because I was grossly offended. They projected huge images of the murder victims on to the spot where they died and they ridiculed the appearance of these women – the fact that they were toothless or fat or had bad skin.
“However, the starkest tension for me – and the reason I went down the PhD route – is that tourists would sigh at the plight of the victims and poverty in the 1880s and then go round the corner and step over a group of homeless women.”