For The Friendless: Reverend Thomas Jackson And The Whitechapel Mission

In the East End of London, the Whitechapel Mission tirelessly provides the invaluable service that has been its purpose since its earliest incarnation as the Working Lads’ Institute and Home. With the aim of offering shelter, food and rehabilitation to young men who often had few options but petty crime, the Institute gave them an opportunity to prove themselves to be diligent and constructive members of society by encouraging them to aid the city’s most unfortunate dwellers. As a reward for their service, they would leave with glowing references and the full endorsement of the Institute.

The Working Lads’ Institute and Home was founded by the merchant and philanthropist, Henry Hill, in 1876, with the original premises at The Mount, Whitechapel Road. In 1885, the Institute was moved to a new building with an address at 285 Whitechapel Road, which even had a library, swimming baths and a gymnasium. Lads were also allowed to put on musical shows and plays, to which members of the public were invited to attend.

Several years later, the Institute would become associated with Jack the Ripper case when the inquests for the murders, of Polly Nichols and Annie Chapman were held there. Following the inquest into the murder of Frances Coles (not thought to be a Ripper victim) was conducted there in 1891, it was reported that the governor of the Institute was so annoyed by the large and noisy crowds who turned up to hear the gruesome details, that he ordered the coroner, Wynne Baxter, to find an alternative site.

A lack of funding meant that by 1895, the Institute’s future looked bleak; however, it was saved by the Reverend Thomas Jackson, a Primitive Methodist minister, who had dedicated himself to improving conditions for the East End’s poor. The Institute became more commonly known as the Whitechapel Mission, and its doors opened every morning without fail, serving breakfast and giving practical assistance and kindness to those in need. Fulfilling the Reverend’s desire to create a ‘Home for friendless and orphan lads,’ no-one suffering from genuine hardship was ever turned away and those from all walks of life were equally welcomed.

During the early 1900s, the Mission secured several more buildings including Brunswick Hall in Wandsworth and a property on Marine Parade in Southend-on-Sea, to which  the Mission sent those in need of convalescence. After the outbreak of war in 1914, countless former residents of the Working Lads’ Institute and Home and those who had gratefully received help from the Mission, went off to fight, with some proudly posing for photographs in their uniforms, alongside the Reverend.

Jackson’s death in 1932 did not impede the Mission’s incessant and considerable charitable endeavours, and his remarkable legacy was upheld by his successor, James E. Thorp. Purchasing Windyridge, a farmhouse near Colchester, in the 1920s, the Mission turned it into a place to stay for boys between the ages of 17 to 21, who were under probation orders. In 1948, the mission bought a house in Tulse Hill, which was named Whitechapel House and was used as another probation facility before it became a hostel for the homeless a decade later, and eventually shut in 1973.

The building constructed in 1885 has now been converted into flats, and today, the Whitechapel Mission resides at 212 Whitechapel Road. Though the Mission serves as a testament to the genuine benevolence of those like the Reverend Jackson, its continued existence is nevertheless a stark reminder that poverty is still allowed to affect far too many lives. As Tony Miller, the Mission’s current proprietor rightly pointed out in an interview for, over a century after its foundation, ‘It’s a disgrace that this place is still here and it’s still needed, it should have been closed down years ago.’  

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