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  • Gavin Whitehead

Toynbee Hall and Jack the Ripper (S1BE3)

In 1884, the Reverend Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta, founded Toynbee Hall, a charitable institution meant to improve the lives of Whitechapel residents. From its inception, Toynbee Hall offered arts education and programming. The Ripper’s victims died within walking distance of its doorstep, and Bruce Robinson believes that the Hall was essential to Michael Maybrick’s scheme to get away with murder. Show notes and full transcript below.

Above: Exterior of Toynbee Hall.



Photograph of Samuel and Henrietta Barnett. Date unspecified. Held by Toynbee Hall. Catalogue No. LMA_4683_IMG_01_01_04.

Toynbee Hall interior.

Illustration of an art exhibition held at St. Jude's School, Whitechapel, and sponsored by Toynbee Hall.

Open-air concert in Toynbee Hall's quadrangle. Included in volume I of Living London (1902), edited by journalist George R. Sims.



---Abel, Emily K. “Toynbee Hall: 1884-1914.” Social Service Review 53, no. 4 (1979): 606-32.

---Barnett, Henrietta. Canon Barnett: His Life, Work, and Friends. London: John Murray, 1921.

---Begg, Paul, Martin Fido, and Keith Skinner. The Jack the Ripper A-Z, Third Edition. London: Headline, 1996.

---Evans, Stewart P. and Keith Skinner. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.

---Robinson, Bruce. They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper. New York: Infinitum Nihil, Harper, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2015.

---Sugden, Philip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.



It was July 19, 1889, and a London correspondent for the New York Herald was virtually certain that Jack was back. Two days earlier, more than eight months after the murder of Mary Jane Kelly, the knifeman’s final canonical victim, police discovered the mutilated body of Alice McKenzie in Whitechapel. Much of the metropolis seized up with the news, gripped by a fear that the Ripper had resurfaced after a long hiatus. The Herald reporter visited the scene of McKenzie’s homicide as well as the George Yard Buildings, a stroll of one or two minutes away, where another non-canonical victim, Martha Tabram, had perished on August 7, 1888. Positioned in St. George’s Yard, which abutted the location of Tabram’s slaying, the Herald reporter took note of an incongruous sight. A nearby edifice was lit up inside, a beacon of light amid the shadows and bloodstained history of his surroundings: “As I stood in George Yard, looking up at the balcony where the poor woman [Tabram] was found with strips of her remains tied round her neck [sic], I turned and saw lights gleaming in a large building separated from the court by a high fence. On enquiry I found it was a hall where a much-talked-about black and white art exhibition was being held. It seemed incredible that an institution reflecting the light and genius of the nineteenth century could actually exist and be filled with cultivated men and women with its windows looking down into the very purlieus of London.”

The journalist was looking at Toynbee Hall. The name of this building came up over and over as I researched this season, usually in nothing more than a passing reference. Somewhere along the way, I took the time to look it up and was surprised by what I learned. It’s an institution of truly historical significance, one that gave life to a philanthropic movement that lasted forty years and reached from England to Australia as well as the United States. It was of particular interest to me because arts education played a crucial role in its agenda.

Despite its good intentions, Toynbee Hall has taken on a darker aspect in recent Ripper writing. According to Bruce Robinson, author of They All Love Jack, Toynbee Hall was instrumental to Michael Maybrick’s plan to commit the Ripper crimes. Today, we’ll hear how this benevolent institution started, how it endeavored to better the lives of Whitechapel residents, and how it became attached to the world’s most notorious serial killer. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to bonus episode 3 of The Unusual Suspects . . .

Toynbee Hall and Jack the Ripper

Whitechapel University

The reverend Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta, founded Toynbee Hall in 1884 with the aim of combatting urban poverty. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many Victorians believed that members of the working-class were forced to live hand to mouth because of their personal, “immoral” actions—sexual promiscuity, excessive drink, or gambling, for example. Simply put, they had brought it on themselves. While the Barnetts accepted that a life of unrelenting want could degrade the moral character of workingmen and -women, they had different ideas about the root cause of impoverishment. In their view, the poor suffered not on account of individual, ill-advised behavior but rather because of social and economic forces beyond their control. Wishing to alleviate the struggles of society’s lower strata, the Barnetts planned to establish a settlement at 28 Commercial Street in the heart of Whitechapel. More so than many Londoners, Samuel and Henrietta were alive to the need for reform in the district because they had lived there since shortly after their marriage in 1873, the year in which Samuel became vicar of a neighborhood church, St. Jude’s. The idea for their settlement went like this: members of the middle- and upper-middle classes would live there for an extended period of time, befriending the locals and uplifting the community through a variety of educational programs, part of which entailed the modeling of “proper,” bourgeois conduct. The Barnetts named their brainchild after their friend and fellow-reformer, Arnold Toynbee, who, following art critic John Ruskin’s lead, had lectured on culture for low-income audiences in Northern England as well as London. As will become evident, the married couple gave birth to a curious cross between an educational institution, an arts organization, and a middle-class manor house—an oasis in a wasteland of poverty and vice.

Think of Toynbee Hall as Whitechapel University. It certainly looked like an elite college campus because the Barnetts had its architecture based on that of Oxford and Cambridge. According to an American visitor, “Toynbee Hall was essentially a transplant of university life in Whitechapel. The quadrangle [that is, a courtyard behind the main building evocative of a university quad], the gables, the diamond-paned windows, the large general rooms, especially the dining room with its brilliant frieze of college shields, all made the place seem not so distant from the dreamy walks by the Isis [a river in Oxford] or the Cam [a river in Cambridge].” Toynbee Hall inhabitants were just as used to these architectural features as they were to undergraduates’ caps and gowns. The institution housed graduates of Oxford and Cambridge who had just earned their bachelor’s. The first cohort consisted of fourteen men, and future groups would grow in number as the Hall’s reputation mushroomed. As historian Emily K. Abel relates in her article, “Toynbee Hall: 1884-1914,” the average resident stuck around for about two years, albeit a small minority remained there for ten or more. After their tenure at Whitechapel U, most Toynbee denizens embarked on careers as clergymen, journalists, professors, politicians, or civil servants.

The Hall played host to a variety of educational activities. To begin with, it fostered independent study with its on-site library. Open every day, including Sunday, the only free slot on many workingmen and -women’s calendars, the library held more than 5,000 volumes by 1890 and burgeoned from there. The books were kept in the dining room at first, but they were soon moved to a separate location where users could read in peace and quiet, undisturbed by end-of-day chatter and the clatter of dishes and silverware at suppertime. In addition, Toynbee Hall residents taught courses in their areas of expertise, with subjects as diverse as inorganic chemistry, astronomy, advanced botany, physiology, constitutional history, economics, the writing of William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and Robert Browning as well as foreign language instruction, with classes on Latin, Greek, Italian, German, and French. These offerings alone would have made for a decent undergraduate bulletin. Beyond these courses, visiting scholars gave public lectures. Speakers included none other than Sir Charles Warren, chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police during the Ripper’s murderous spree and authority on all things Freemasonic. Warren spoke about his archaeological expedition to the Holy City to excavate Solomon’s Temple, an undertaking that earned him the affectionate nickname of “the mole” among Muslims native to the region. Some lectures boasted grade-A production values. With the permission of Henry Irving, for instance, Toynbee representatives raided the Lyceum Theatre’s property-shop and returned with a model guillotine, which they erected beneath one of the windows in the library to accompany a series of talks on the French revolution.

As part of its educational mission, Toynbee Hall offered access to art, especially painting and music in the early days. Once a year, the institution acted as an art gallery, exhibiting works by George Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, two of the Victorian period’s most admired painters. Check out the show notes for an illustration of one of these exhibits. When it came to musical performance, club rooms served as intimate concert venues in winter, the tunes supplied by professional players. In the summertime, Toynbee inhabitants and visitors attended open-air concerts in the quadrangle. A photograph of one on the Art of Crime website shows about a dozen musicians along with a conductor clustered around a large gas lantern lighting their sheet music as they play for an audience of fifty or sixty seated at the opposite end of the courtyard. Henrietta Barnett took pride in the quality of these performances, not least because the Hall had the honor of welcoming some of the era’s most celebrated maestros. Noted pianist Miss Fanny Davies “was among those who made ‘joyful noise’ in Whitechapel,” Henrietta records.

Finally, Toynbee Hall stood as a bastion of middle-class domesticity, a hearth to warm residents and guests alike. This went hand in hand with the settlement’s commitment to education and arts programming. In the words of Samuel Barnett, the settlement represented a “centre to diffuse warmth as well as light, love as well as culture.” Decorated with care by Henrietta, the drawing room embodied all these attributes. It combined the décor of an academic common room with the comfort of the bourgeois living room. On the one hand, the wood-paneled chamber featured mullioned, floor-to-ceiling Gothic windows along with Oxford and Cambridge insignia along the top of the walls. On the other hand, it contained tables, upholstered armchairs, and a magnificent fireplace. Tidy, orderly, tranquil, the drawing room served as an inner sanctuary at the Hall, a retreat from the hurly-burly of the outer world.

Response to the Ripper Panic

And from the horrors of 1888. Amid the Ripper panic, Toynbee Hall residents as well as Samuel and Henrietta Barnett joined the search for the killer and used the spree to throw attention on the harsh realities of living—and dying—in Whitechapel.

On August 7, Martha Tabram died a minute or two away from the settlement’s doorstep. In response to the slaying, Whitechapel locals teamed up with Toynbee Hall inhabitants to start the St. Jude’s Vigilance Association, the first of several vigilante groups to form throughout the autumn of terror. As you might recall from our episode on Lewis Carroll, the most highly publicized of these was the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, chaired by George Lusk, recipient of the infamous “From Hell” letter. With Toynbee Hall as a base of operations, the watchmen suited up and patrolled the streets from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. every night, keeping the peace as best they could. An article published in the Bristol Mercury on September 13, 1888, reports that the sentinels saw—and may have intervened in—a good deal of violence, drunken brawls in particular. Samuel Barnett confirmed as much when looking back on the committee’s efforts in a letter to The Times in mid-1889: “Their record tells of rows in which stabbing is common, but on which the police are able to get no charges; of fights between women stripped to the waist, of which boys and children are spectators; of protection afforded to thieves, and of such things as could only occur where opinion favours vice.” It was far from the last time that Toynbee denizens would get involved in issues facing the district. To give an example, they took part in the historic dock laborer strike of 1889, overseeing the distribution of relief funds and providing a platform for leaders of the initiative to air their grievances.

Though a hair older and perhaps less battle-ready than the Toynbee Hall crimefighters, Samuel and Henrietta did their part, too. Each undertook a letter-writing campaign to raise awareness of the socio-economic despair endemic to Whitechapel. Both drew a direct line of causation between the grinding poverty of the district and the available “stock” of victims for the Ripper. Like the overwhelming majority of contemporary and subsequent observers, the Barnetts assumed that the Whitechapel slasher was preying on prostitutes who never would have resorted to the sex trade in the first place if they had enjoyed greater opportunities and economic stability earlier in life. Samuel concentrated his efforts on the press. On September 19, he mailed a letter to The Times, in which he declared that the deaths of the victims “would not be in vain” if they led to social and moral reform in the East End. Barnett called for four improvements that would curtail crime rates: first, more effective police supervision; second, more extensive lighting and cleaning; third, the removal of slaughterhouses; and fourth, the purchase and refurbishment of common lodging houses by gentlemen without regard to profit. If you’re scratching your head over the recommended closure of slaughterhouses, it was Samuel’s view that the mass butchery of livestock and display of their carcasses in public spaces desensitized residents, especially children, to acts of extreme violence. Meanwhile, Henrietta trained her sights on the queen, pulling together a petition that demanded government intervention, with emphasis placed on shutting down tenements.

By the beginning of 1889, the Ripper appeared to have put aside his knife, and early that year the St. Jude’s Vigilance Association disbanded. According to Philip Sugden, author of The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, the body dissolved in February, “unable to bear the long hours and exposure involved in patrol work.” Nevertheless, as the letter from Samuel to The Times quoted above illustrates, Toynbee residents were still talking about the murders, the public response to them, and the ongoing need for change in Whitechapel.

A Gentleman’s Lair

According to Bruce Robinson, Toynbee Hall scholars were stalking a murderer who lived in their midst. Simply put, the charitable enterprise was the lair of a killer. Robinson’s argument depends in large part on the settlement’s close proximity to the murder scenes, particularly those of Martha Tabram and Alice McKenzie. It’s worth talking about the latter before addressing Robinson’s claims because more than a few commentators past and present believe McKenzie to have died by the Ripper’s blade.

McKenzie’s body lay more or less around the corner from Toynbee Hall. At approximately 12:50 a.m. on July 17, 1889, PC Walter Andrews entered Castle Alley, a narrow passageway running parallel to Goulston Street, where, as you might remember from the Maybrick episode, police discovered a graffito reading, “The Juwes are the Men that Will Not be Blamed for Nothing.” Castle Alley was not the place to walk alone after sundown. According to an article in The Times, “[P]eople generally enter from the Spitalfields end, especially at night on account of the dark and lonely nature of the alley as well as the evil reputation it has always borne among those respectable portions of the inhabitants.” As he strode down Castle Alley, Andrews spotted a woman’s body next to a lamp-post and before two wagons that were chained together, her head toward the curb and her feet to the wall. On inspection, the officer saw that blood was flowing from two gashes in her throat. Her killer had lifted her skirt above her stomach and mutilated her abdomen and lower body, including her genitalia. Revolting as they were, most of these injuries were superficial, as if the perpetrator were only getting started when he heard footfalls coming his way. A medical professional later stated that fingernails might have inflicted them.

McKenzie’s homicide bears obvious similarities to the Ripper’s handiwork, leading numerous contemporary observers to attribute the murder to the Whitechapel slasher. Eager as ever to whip up Ripper panic for the sake of sales, newspapermen lost no time in doing so. Yet the murder-mongering press was not alone in suspecting that the Whitechapel fiend had returned—some members of law enforcement thought so, too. In the words of police surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond, “I am of opinion that the murder was performed by the same person who committed the former series of Whitechapel Murders.” Nevertheless, many of Bond’s colleagues begged to differ. The bodily mutilation in McKenzie’s case was tame compared to the damage the Ripper did to most of his victims, Mary Jane Kelly in particular. Some considered it more likely that a copycat had killed McKenzie, imitating the Ripper so that blame would fall on him.

In naming Toynbee Hall as the Ripper’s home base, Robinson takes the locations of not just Tabram and McKenzie’s homicides into account, but also those of all five canonical killings as well as that of another unsolved murder. He backs up his argument by showing that it’s in line with the findings of David Canter, a a former psychology professor at the University of Liverpool. Canter won accolades in the 1990s for his groundbreaking work on the geographic profiling of criminals. Robinson does a bang-up job of explaining this research, so I’ll quote from him: “Be he a rapist or a serial killer, even the most cautious of criminals has got to hang his hat somewhere, and he’s got to walk out of his door. The moment he does he’s unconsciously making a map, putting down a personalised geography that Professor Canter is able to read.” Robinson continues, “Computers (as yet) are never better than the brain they serve, and Mr Canter is not short-changed in this department. By a process of sophisticated deduction, he’s able to find where ‘X’ marks the spot.” Based on the geographical location of a single perpetrator’s crimes, in other words, Canter can work out where the criminal makes his home, potentially leading to his capture. The professor has weighed in on the Ripper killings, and based on his analysis, he locates the menace's place of residence—or “finds[s] where ‘X’ marks the spot,” as Robinson puts it—a little to the north of where Commercial Street meets Whitechapel Road. Canter’s “X” is a hop, skip, and a jump away from Toynbee Hall.

Partly based on the psychologist’s analysis, Robinson posits that Toybee Hall acted as a haven for Maybrick after he killed his victims. He contends that Maybrick would have known about Toynbee Hall thanks to his friend and collaborator, Captain W.H. Thomas, who taught music to children there. He may have even visited as a guest before he went crazy and started slashing. The rich and famous singer-songwriter certainly belonged to “the better sort,” and he would have fit in among the Hall’s middle-class inhabitants. To Robinson’s mind, “Even the most constipated of intellects would have to concede that Toynbee Hall would make a most inspired ‘lair’ for a visiting gentleman psychopath. Above suspicion, you could snuff at will and hasten back—a wash and brush-up and pickle your kidney—and with chalk in your pocket and ‘Juwes’ [spelled J-U-W-E-S] on your mind, stick on a hat and take a stroll at your ease up Goulston Street.” Robinson’s claim isn’t unreasonable, but as he notes in passing near the end of his book, there’s no record of Maybrick’s ever setting foot at Toynbee Hall. Official logs which are easily accessible online record the comings-and-goings of visitors there, and Maybrick’s name is never mentioned. Robinson appears to imply that somebody removed any reference to the gentleman psychopath from these documents to conceal his ties to the settlement.

Pros, Cons, and Living On

Whether or not Jack ever crashed under its roof, Toynbee Hall is an institution of historical importance. Inspired by the Barnetts’ example, social reformers throughout the United Kingdom as well as on the far side of the Atlantic took up similar projects. By 1911, forty-nine settlements modeled after Toynbee Hall had cropped up across Great Britain, with more than 400 opening their doors in the United States by 1910. The most famous American example would be Chicago’s Hull House, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.

Toynbee Hall brought arts and ideas to a lot of people with limited access to them, and its inhabitants took steps to make Whitechapel safer, bundling up for freezing temperatures and pursuing a killer in the dead of night. For these reasons and others, it deserves kudos.

That being said, the settlement’s early methods were not without problems. If you ask historian Emily K. Abel, Toynbee Hall fell short of its goal of cultivating meaningful relationships with the poor in Whitechapel. Her research suggests that more middle-class visitors crossed its threshold than did workingmen and -women. The institution’s academic and bourgeois ethos itself may have alienated and intimidated them. Furthermore, it cost one shilling to enroll in a course at Toynbee Hall, a price that would have proven prohibitively expensive to the vast majority of workers in the area. Abel also demonstrates that at least one early resident recognized the flaws in Toynbee Hall’s methods, drawing attention to the experiences of C.R. Ashbee, a Cambridge graduate who was stirred to action by the socialist poet, Edward Carpenter. On paying his first visit to the Hall in 1886, Ashbee looked askance at the enterprise’s markedly bourgeois sensibility—he dismisses it as “top hatty philanthropy.” Still, he took up residence there for a brief time only to defect with four other residents, disenchanted.

Viewed from a modern standpoint, other blemishes stick out. Toynbee Hall was a product of Victorian London, after all, and its mission reflected several contemporary attitudes that haven’t aged well. In a society largely shaped by middle-class values, the settlement’s founders would seem to have taken for granted the cultural and moral superiority of the bourgeoisie to the working-classes. At the height of the British Empire, moreover, the act of settling in a poor part of town to better the lives of the locals also recalls the imperialist practice of colonizing territories to “civilize” their inhabitants.

Despite these strikes against the Barnetts’ vision, the sheer longevity of their project suggests that it played—and continues to play—a positive role in the lives of many Whitechapel residents. Today, Commercial Street looks nothing like it would have in the 1880s, disfigured and transfigured beyond recognition first by bombing in World War II and then by urban renewal initiatives. Yet Toynbee Hall is still standing, and you can visit if you want. Volunteers stopped living there in 2011, but it serves the neighborhood much as it did more than a century years ago. At present, however, it’s particularly geared toward the immigrant community. Some of the current programming harkens back to the Barnetts’ founding mission to enable engagement with art and culture. There are classes on the humanities, including workshops on history, drama, and more. Furthermore, the world-famous Whitechapel Art Gallery located nearby grew out of Toynbee Hall’s annual exhibitions. Other courses now on offer are newer and more practical, conceived to help students get by in the modern world. These cover topics like financial literacy—from personal budgeting to investment—and English as a second language. Almost 140 years after the founding of Toynbee Hall, the spirits of Samuel and Henrietta Barnett are still making a difference at Commercial Street.


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