It was the end of a long day for William West as he left the offices of the Worker’s Friend newspaper in Whitechapel, with the street lamps barely penetrating the unlit Dutfield’s Yard.
A normal day for the young immigrant. But In those early hours of 30 September 1888 he would unwittingly find himself caught up in the Whitechapel Murders. We’ll never know for sure whether he stumbled across the body of Elizabeth Stride, the third victim of the serial killer who would become notorious as ‘Jack the Ripper’, or simply passed on oblivious, but West would be called as the first witness in the inquest of the unfortunate ‘Long Liz’. For West, a passionate socialist who would run like a thread through the Jewish workers’ movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, this had a double terror. The 27-year-old had arrived in Whitechapel in the late 1870s, fleeing the anti-Jewish pogroms in Lithuania, and bearing his birth name, Woolf Wess. Stumbling upon the victim of a murder would be horrific enough, but Woolf would have been well aware that many in the press and public alike were already trying to associate the Whitechapel Murders with the large Jewish community in Whitechapel, with increasingly hysterical theories of religious ritual killings. West was ‘the most modest of men’ according to that leading light of East End socialism Rudolf Rocker, but like so many of his fellows, he had undergone an extraordinary journey to end up in Whitechapel. He was born in Vilkmerge in Russia (now Ulkomar in Lithuania) in 1861, the son of a master baker, and was apprenticed at 12 to a shoemaker. At 20, he was working as a factory machinist in the Russian town of Dvinsk (now Daugavpils in Latvia) but desperately looking for a way to escape. A choice of horrors awaited: death in one of the pogroms sweeping Eastern Europe or military services in the Tsar’s army. So, in 1881 he was smuggled onto a boat to London.
A skilled shoemaker, machinist and baker, he easily found work in Whitechapel, but was appalled by the conditions of work and the exploitation of his fellow immigrants. He was also a hard worker and a fast learner, quickly gaining fluent English, alongside Russian, German and Yiddish. He put his energies into organising and directing the men and women he worked among. In 1885, he co-founded the International Workingmen’s Educational Club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), just south of the Commercial Road, and helped start the Arbeter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend), translating news and radical views into the Yiddish that was the everyday language of Jewish Whitechapel. Questioning at the inquest focused heavily on West’s movements, and the comings and goings at the newspaper and club, but he gave no mention of seeing Stride let alone stumbling across the body. The coroner wanted to know how many members the club had (70 or 80, working men of any nationality could join). He asked about its politics (it was political, a socialist club). How did members get involved? (they were seconded by other members). Did ‘low women’ frequent the area? (he had seen them on occasion). And William Wess (as he was called at the inquest) was questioned in minute detail about the topography of the club, the yard and their surroundings and about his own journey home (the few minutes walk to his lodgings on Cannon Street Road). West had nothing to fear in the end, and neither — soberingly — did the murderer. The killer was never brought to justice and it’s highly improbable we’ll ever know his true identity. The young socialist, duty done, would go on to be a lynchpin of East End radicalism. In 1889 he served as secretary of the strike committee during the East End tailors strike, alongside Charles Mowbray and John Turner. And in 1891, the increasingly popular orator set out on a speaking tour of England, alongside stalwarts of London socialism Kropotkin, Malatesta and Yanovsky. He became a skilled typesetter, working on the new Freedom newspaper, and drew on another of his talents, learned at his master baker father’s side, to set up a co-operative bakery in Brushfield Street, Spitalfields.
During the 1890s, Wess founded and became secretary of the East London Workers Unions; then served as secretary of the International Tailors, Machinists and Pressers’ Trade Union, and the United Ladies and Mantle Makers’ Association. Then, in the early 1900s, he seems to have stepped back from union work, taking a job as a book-keeper in a tobacco factory and sharing a house in Leyton with his friend Tom Keell (the manager of Freedom) and his wife Lillian. It all fell apart when William and Lillian ran off together and by 1906 they were back in Whitechapel, setting up the Arbeiter Fraint club in Jubilee Street. Lillian even tried to set up an Anarchist Society school in the area, but with little success. And in June 1906, William served on the tailors’ strike committee alongside Rudolf Rocker. To the end of his life, West remained enmeshed in the politics of the Left, joining the Labour party in the 1930s, while running the London Freedom Group. He died in May 1946 at 84. But one strange postscript remains. Years later, a ‘friend of a friend of West’ later reported that on that long ago night in 1888, the spooked printer had discovered Stride’s body, but moved it further away from the offices of the newspaper and the club, lest members be implicated in the killing. Truth — or yet another fantasy in the ever-murkier world of ‘Ripperology’? We’ll never know.