Friday, 5 April 2013

London Walks – Jack the Ripper Walk

London Walks – Jack the Ripper Walk, David writes…

“There are things in it that are going to be very controversial.”

That’s Donald Rumbelow* – London Walks guide and Britain’s most distinguished crime historian – speaking about the revised and updated edition of his book, The Complete Jack the Ripper, which will be out in May.

Now why is this important – apart from that tantalizing “things in it that are going to be very controversial”? Well, to start with The Complete Jack the Ripper has always been regarded as the definitive book on the subject. It’s the only book on the Ripper that’s never been out of print – which is really saying something considering that it was first published nearly four decades ago (1975). In the words of Britain’s greatest living crime novelist, P.D. James, “it is difficult to believe that any future Ripperologists will provide a fuller account.”

Well, Donald Rumbelow is now, from the vantage point of 1975, “a future Ripperologist”. And “provide a fuller account” is exactly what he’s done. The fully revised edition of the classic work on Jack the Ripper is the fruit of decades of drilling down ever deeper into the greatest whodunit in history.

What’s in it that’s new – that’s “going to be very controversial”? Well, it’s not really for me to steal Don’s thunder. For that you need to hear it from the man himself – on his Jack the Ripper Walk* – on indeed between the covers of the new edition of The Complete Jack the Ripper.

But it’s surely all right to mention a couple of grace notes. The book – it’s being published by Virgin, part of the Random House group – is satisfyingly handsome. It’s a proper book. It’s got heft. It’s beautifully designed. Great visuals – all the way through. The cover does the high wire act of simultaneously managing to be coolly intelligent and authoritative – and of “grabbing you”.

And as for the illustrations and photographs, etc. on the inside, well, high-5 to Don. Major kudos or thoroughness, for the sheer intelligence of the selection, and for the new ones – the one’s that have never been seen before. There are 39 photographs and illustrations in total. So, all by itself that section is a superb “exhibition” of Ripperdom.

But what had my jaw hanging open was the “newbies”. For example, a wonderful contemporary photograph – complete with horse-drawn cabriolet – of the Providence Row Night Refuge (which is still standing, it’s an important “stop” on our Ripper walk). And, even more exciting, the probable photograph of Inspector Abberline. The which has been described as “Holy Grail of Ripperology”. It’s coming to light at all is a superb piece of detective work on Don’s part. It’s a detail from a group photo taken in front of the Leman Street police station. Abberline – so important to the story (he was played by Michael Caine and Johnny Depp in their respective Ripper films) – has heretofore been the “other mystery man” pictorially. There’s a sketch of him – but not a photograph. With his incomparable knowledge of the case Don has made “the connection” – has found the needle in the proverbial haystack. He’s published the line drawing next to the photograph, so you can see for yourself. As you’ll see when you look at the two images, surely Don’s right. It’s a shiver up the spine moment – here, 125 years later, we’re finally face to face with the Police Inspector who was at the white-hot centre of the investigation. 

Bottom line? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, Donald Rumbelow is the Inspector Abberline of our era!

Anything else? Most certes. Inspector Abberline – as the photograph attests – was part of a team. Donald Rumbelow is part of a team – a team made up of his London Walks colleagues who CSI – for scores of enthralled visitors (and, yes, Londoners) – night in and night out – the Ripper’s slashing grounds. The Ripper murders, by definition, are a mishmash of small pieces of a picture. Those pieces, in the hands of world class guides, come together and cohere. Guides of this caliber are able to close up time, able to make past and present run together, to take us into the world that was the East End of London in 1888.

Here’s the secret, here’s how they do it. Nothing to do with a clumsy, sophomoric, unimaginative recitation of “what happened here”. No, it’s drilling down a lot deeper than that. It’s being in command of the hard facts – and being able to make the connections. Making the pieces come together and cohere.

An example? Well, let’s go to the “model dwellings” in Wentworth Street – still there – that are so important in the case. To point out – crudely, unimaginatively – “this was where the message on the wall was scrawled” falls so short. Indeed, it all but misses the point.

In marked contrast, a great guide knows who was living there, what the rent was, why the rent in flop houses was twice as much, etc. In short, a great guide can set out, in just a few brush strokes, the particulars of the Whitechapel “poverty trap” – and the bearing that had on the “feel” of the neighbourhood, the sulphuric social tensions that were bubbling away in there in 1888 – and what that leads on to. In short, why the message on the wall said what it said, why it was scrawled there, what the police response was, etc.  

It’s having the mental muzzle-loading velocity to be able to make those connections. And then on top of that having the presentation skills – the great voice, audience awareness, perfect timing, etc. – to be able to “take your walkers there.” To be able to grip them, hold them, have them hanging on your every word…

And that, in a nutshell, is why “it all comes down to the guiding”.

*In the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z, “Donald Rumbelow is internationally recognized as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper”

The Jack the Ripper Walk takes place every night (except Dec. 24 and Dec. 25) at 7.30 pm.

Oh and on Saturdays we do it twice – at 3 pm as well as at 7.30 pm.

The meeting point for the walk is just outside the exit of Tower Hill Tube.

The charge for the walk is £9 for adults; or £7 for full-time students, over 65s, and people with the London Walks Loyalty Card.

A WORD OF WARNING: never part with your money until you’re certain it’s the bona fide London Walks guide you’re handing it to. Look for the white London Walks badge. Don’t let anyone pull a fast one on you.

Donald Rumbelow guides the Ripper Walk on Sunday nights and alternate Friday nights.

For further particulars about the Jack the Ripper Walk (including Donald Rumbelow’s schedule) and indeed about the full London Walks programme of over 100 different walks every week, see

Or if you’d like a copy of the distinctive, indeed famous! white London Walks leaflet, telephone 020 7624 3978 – or email

A London Walk costs £9 – £7 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at


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