The Real London of Ripper Street

The Real London of Ripper Street

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After the tragic and thrilling denouement of series four of Ripper Street and as we all eagerly await series five, Sean Patterson has been looking into quite how much of this superb drama is rooted in the real East End of the time.

Ripper Street series 4 cast © BBC

As a fan of the BBC drama Ripper Street I’ve always been impressed by the writers’ ability to weave real historical facts and incidents into the fictional narrative.  To name but a few:

Leman St police station is is still there and correctly pinpointed in the series (and it really was the home of ‘H’ Division); as is the Brown Bear pub; there really was a tragic and fatal train crash in the area; the ‘current wars’ between devotees of AC or DC electricity referenced in an earlier series actually happened; and the river boat accident that Reid thought had killed his daughter Mathilda was real too.

But it’s something else about Mathilda Reid, teasingly referred to in an early episode of series four, that really piqued my interest.

Late Victorian London streets were graded into socio-economic groupings by philanthropist Charles Booth to create his famous colour coded ‘poverty maps’ (which featured heavily in the last year’s BBC Two series The Secret History of our Streets).

Mathilda Reid © BBC

Mathilda Reid armed with her researcher’s clipboard!

Clearly unable to walk all of London’s streets by himself, Booth engaged a small army of researchers to help, most of them sourced via Toynbee Hall (which stands to this day fairly close to Leman St).

In episode two of series four, Mathilda informed her father that she was working as a researcher for ‘Mr Booth’, but strangely the great philanthropist wasn’t mentioned again in this series.

It seems unlikely the writers would have included such an esoteric (but accurate) detail unless it will pay off in a storyline later, so I guess we will have to wait for series five to see how this particular connection develops.

It is also accurate for the writers to have picked being a Booth researcher as Mathilda’s chosen employment, because a surprising number of Booth’s helpers were in fact women. It’s worth noting that female researches would probably have more success interviewing prostitutes or women working in “sweated labour”, so their input would have been invaluable to achieve the comprehensive mapping Booth was seeking.

Most famous among them was that great late Victorian liberal, Booth’s wife’s cousin Beatrice Potter (later Webb) who smashed firmly through the low glass ceiling that hemmed in women at the time (and incidentally bore a striking resemblance to Anna Burnett who plays Mathilda Reid).


Beatrice Webb


Clara Collet

Less well-known but no less impressive was Clara Collet, well-educated at North London Collegiate School For Girls, she went on to graduate from UCL before spending three months in the East End researching for Booth.

It was a time of very mixed fortunes for the female poor of the East End, what with the terrible Ripper Murders and the successful Match Girls Strike occurring in the same year, but Collet was delighted to note the formation of the largest union of women in England which came about as a direct result of the strike.

I run three walks that specifically follow the routes that Booth and his researchers walked to compile the maps; one in Deptford, one in Clerkenwell and one in Whitechapel

The latter covers much of the territory that features in the series including Tenter St where Long Susan’s brothel is set. Booth and his researchers were usually accompanied by local police officers and his host for much of his Whitechapel perambulations was one ‘Charles Horatio French of H division’.

Maybe French and Booth himself will make an appearance alongside Mathilda Reid in series five!

You can check Sean’s schedule on his walks page to see when he is next running his Charles Booth Poverty map walks.

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