[Deborah McDonald [email@example.com] has kindly shared these materials from her Collet website with the Victorian Web. Her biography of Collet was published by Woburn Press in November 2003]
Clara Collet was commissioned by Charles Booth to undertake an investigation into women's work in the East End during the autumn of 1888. In Booth's own words to the Royal Commission on Labour, he states that,
Miss Collet in connexion with that [work] took up her residence in the East End, and lived there for three months (she gave altogether four months to the work), and during that three months she was continually engaged in trying to come in contact with the girls, and those who were working amongst them.
Thus it was that Collet was living and working in the very area and at the very time that Jack the Ripper was plying his terrible trade.
In order to undertake her investigations Collet visited home workers in their homes and invited factory girls to visit her in her own home. During the course of her investigations Collet began to realise that it was because of the seasonal nature and poor pay of the work that many of these East End girls were forced to supplement their incomes by working as prostitutes. Many an hour must have been spent talking about Jack the Ripper during her discussions with these women.
For anyone interested in understanding the conditions under which women were living in the East End, Clara Collet's entry in Booth's Life and Labour of the People of London, gives a good insight. Collet's answer to the question of East End poverty at this time was to fix a minimum wage. This was something she was able to influence in her later life when sitting on various trade boards. Her statistics show that a huge number of women workers were working for wages on which it was impossible to survive. In households with other members in work she showed that it was often the case that they helped to supplement the wages of these women workers. Collet was very much against this, as she believed it just encouraged employers to continue paying atrocious money. She was all for women joining trade unions to fight for good rates of pay and was pleased to see that many women were beginning to join such unions.
However, she was of the opinion that it is often not the poorest women who became prostitutes. She believed that some of these girls, "imagine that her whole future depends on those appearances which must be kept up." And that,
the importance she attaches to outside things shows how much more keenly she is actuated by ideal than by material wants. She starves herself first, living on tea and bread and butter. . . .She too often sacrifices maidenhood itself. The substance is thrown away for the shadow. These girls do not sell themselves for bread; that they could easily earn. They sin for the externals which they have learnt to regard as essentials.
She goes on to say that the factory girls, "go to penny gaffs if nothing better is offered her; she revels in the thrilling performances at the Paragon or the music halls; and only too often she can be seen drinking in the public house with a young man with whom she may not have been previously acquainted."
Is it possible to see the Ripper's victims in this way? It is likely that this is how they began their own road to decline, but it seems that Jack's victims had progressed somewhat from Collet's starting point. Possibly the occasional trip to the public house was how they began their "fall' and once the drink had provided a way into oblivion, an escape from the dreadful reality of their sad lives, then prostitution provided the only means of survival. All five women had lost the support of their partners and were trying to provide for themselves. Presumably it was desperation plus the false courage provided by the alcohol that allowed them to be walking the streets late in the night of autumn 1888. Clara Collet, with the sense of one who was relatively financially secure and with her middle class upbringing would have been well tucked up in the bed of her accommodation as these women passed by her door, perhaps followed by Jack the Ripper himself -- who knows!
Last modified 2003