Whitechapel, also known as Whitechapel St. Mary or St. Mary Matfelon, was historically part of the parish of Stepney, but became a parish in its own right in 1323.
In 1889 it was transferred from Middlesex to the newly-created County of London and in 1900 became part of Stepney Metropolitan Borough. Stepney Metropolitan Borough was abolished in 1965 and became part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in Greater London.
It is located 3.4 miles (5.5 km) east of east of Charing Cross (a point considered to be the centre of London from which distances are measured) and roughly bounded by the Bishopsgate thoroughfare on the west, Fashion Street on the north, Brady Street and Cavell Street on the east and The Highway on the south.
It has been for a long time a poor and working-class neighbourhood perhaps best known for being the location of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders in the late 1880s. The murderer was never identified, although rumours suggest over 100 names.
Today its residents are of varied ethnicity, primarily of Bangladeshi origin.
Whitechapel's heart is Whitechapel High Street, extending further east as Whitechapel Road, named after a small chapel of ease dedicated to St Mary. The church's earliest known rector was Hugh de Fulbourne in 1329. Around 1338, it became the parish church of Whitechapel, called, for unknown reasons, St Mary Matfelon. The church was destroyed through enemy action in World War II and its location and graveyard is now a public garden on the south side of the road.
Whitechapel High Street and Whitechapel Road are now part of the A11 road, anciently the initial part of the Roman road between the City of London and Colchester, exiting the city at Aldgate. In later times, travellers to and from London on this route were accommodated at the many coaching inns which lined Whitechapel High Street.
By the late 16th century, the suburb of Whitechapel and the surrounding area had started becoming 'the other half' of London. Located east of Aldgate, outside the City Walls and beyond official controls, it attracted the less fragrant activities of the city, particularly tanneries, breweries, foundries (including the Whitechapel Bell Foundry which later cast Philadelphia's Liberty Bell and London's Big Ben) and slaughterhouses.
In 1680, the Rector of Whitechapel, the Rev. Ralph Davenant, of the parish of St. Mary Matfellon, bequeathed a legacy for the education of forty boys and thirty girls of the parish – the Davenant Centre is still in existence although the Davenant Foundation School moved from Whitechapel to Loughton in 1966.
Population shifts from rural areas to London from the 17th century to the mid-19th century resulted in great numbers of more or less destitute people taking up residence amidst the industries and mercantile interests that had attracted them.
In 1797, the body of the sailor Richard Parker, hanged for his leading role in the Nore mutiny, was given a Christian burial at Whitechapel after his wife exhumed it from the unconsecrated burial ground to which it was originally consigned. Crowds gathered to see the body before it was buried.
By the 1840s, Whitechapel, along with the enclaves of Wapping, Aldgate, Bethnal Green, Mile End, Limehouse, Bow, Bromley-by-Bow, Poplar, Shadwell and Stepney (collectively known today as "the East End"), had evolved, or devolved, into classic "Dickensian" London, with problems of poverty and overcrowding. Whitechapel Road itself was not particularly squalid through most of this period—it was the warrens of small dark streets branching from it that contained the greatest suffering, filth and danger, such as Dorset Street (now a private alley but once described as "the worst street in London"), Thrawl Street, Berners Street (renamed Henriques Street), Wentworth Street and others.
William Booth began his Christian Revival Society, preaching the gospel in a tent, erected in the Friends Burial Ground, Thomas Street, Whitechapel, in 1865. Others joined his Christian Mission, and on 7 August 1878 the Salvation Army was formed at a meeting held at 272 Whitechapel Road. A statue commemorates both his mission and his work in helping the poor.
In the Victorian era the basal population of poor English country stock was swelled by immigrants from all over, particularly Irish and Jewish. Writing of the period 1883–1884, Yiddish theatre actor Jacob Adler wrote, "The further we penetrated into this Whitechapel, the more our hearts sank. Was this London? Never in Russia, never later in the worst slums of New York, were we to see such poverty as in the London of the 1880s." This endemic poverty drove many women to prostitution. In October 1888 the Metropolitan Police estimated that there were 1,200 prostitutes "of very low class" resident in Whitechapel and about 62 brothels. Reference is specifically made to them in Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London, specially to dwellings called Blackwall Buildings belonging to Blackwall Railway. Such prostitutes were numbered amongst the 11 Whitechapel murders (1888–91), some of which were committed by the legendary serial killer known as 'Jack the Ripper'. These attacks caused widespread terror in the district and throughout the country and drew the attention of social reformers to the squalor and vice of the area, even though these crimes remain unsolved today.
In 1902, American author Jack London, looking to write a counterpart to Jacob Riis's seminal book How the Other Half Lives, donned ragged clothes and boarded in Whitechapel, detailing his experiences in The People of the Abyss. Riis had recently documented the astoundingly bad conditions in large swaths of the leading city of the United States. London, a socialist, thought it worthwhile to explore conditions in the leading city of the nation that had invented modern capitalism. He concluded that English poverty was far rougher than the American variety. The juxtaposition of the poverty, homelessness, exploitive work conditions, prostitution, and infant mortality of Whitechapel and other East End locales with some of the greatest personal wealth the world has ever seen made it a focal point for leftist reformers and revolutionaries of all kinds, from George Bernard Shaw, whose Fabian Society met regularly in Whitechapel, to Vladimir Lenin, who boarded and led rallies in Whitechapel during his exile from Russia. The area is still home to Freedom Press, the anarchist publishing house founded by Charlotte Wilson.
Whitechapel remained poor (and colourful) through the first half of the 20th century, though somewhat less desperately so. It suffered great damage in the Blitz and from the German V-weapon attacks of World War II. Since then, Whitechapel has lost most of its notoriety.