Eastenders turn on the tourists who follow footsteps of Jack the Ripper

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The Independent Online

We were barely 300 yards from the spot where Polly Nichols had been found, her throat slit, her belly cut open and her womb slashed, when, out of the darkness another assailant struck.

This time, it wasn't Jack the Ripper, who dispatched the unfortunate Polly in August 1888. There was no knife-wielding maniac, no caped apparition who vanished into thick London fog. Instead, in the gloom of a cold East End night, our attacker was an unseen miscreant armed with nothing more deadly than an egg.

For Gloria Leishman, however, it was a painful end to her Jack the Ripper tour, the sort of outing that is attracting increasing hostility from residents along the route of the world's most famous serial killings.

Put simply, the tours have grown too big for some locals to bear – and they fear that the imminent arrival of From Hell, the US box office smash hit, starring Johnny Depp, will only make matters worse.

Two weeks ago, a 53-year-old woman was shot in the ear with an air rifle and her tour group was stoned by local youths.

"I had no idea or I wouldn't have come," Mrs Leishman said. She was visiting London from Alloa in Scotland with her husband, Allan, and daughter, Gill, to celebrate her 55th birthday. When the egg struck, she had to be led away in tears. "I think it must have been thrown from a tall building because it felt to me like a brick," she said. "If people don't want us coming here, then we should be told beforehand so we can stay away."

That, however, is what the tour companies want to avoid. Jack the Ripper tours of London's Whitechapel and Spitalfields are big business. For £5 a head, walkers, mostly tourists, are shown where Polly, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catharine Eddowes and Mary Kelly were butchered. And it is not unusual for the number in some groups to top 100.

The walks meander along Durward Street, (formerly Bucks Row), Hanbury Street, Wilkes Street, Fournier Street, Middlesex Street and into the City of London. Spitalfields, where large parties sometimes cross paths, was semi-derelict 10 years ago but today its restored houses can fetch anything up to £1m.

"There are about five tours a night, seven nights a week and they are chaotic and ill-planned," said Gareth Harris, who has lived in Princelet Street, where the woman was shot, for 27 years. He is a member of the Spitalfields Trust and a qualified blue badge guide registered with the London Tourist Board.

"The customers are sold a story and often they are short-changed with some very inaccurate information. And the groups are much too large; the London Tourist Board advises that you cannot properly control a group of more than 25 people, but sometimes you see up to 200 to a guide."

Other residents complained of tourists prising open their blinds to look into their homes and, in some cases, of Ripper walkers going into their houses if they find a door open.

For John Muffty, also an official London Tourist Board blue badge guide, the arrival of "cowboy operators" and big business tours is something of an annoyance. He was dismayed when Mrs Leishman was hit with the egg.

"It's something new that I've never encountered before," he said. Mr Muffty keeps his Historical Walks of London parties small, informative and intimate and makes every effort to avoid annoying residents. "There are some unqualified guides and you see them with people who you know are not being given the best information. That's sad, but it's a commercial thing – you pay your money and take your choice.

"Some groups do seem to be getting too large. That's a shame because, if nothing else, they take too long. There are too many stragglers and some people can't hear what's being said."

On Tuesday night, Donald Rumbelow, another blue badge guide and author of The Complete Jack the Ripper, was leading a party of more than 100 people on an Original London Walks tour. It should have been half that, he said, but another guide failed to turn up.

"The numbers can sometimes be high, but we stay away from the residential streets – at least half our walk is through the City where nobody lives," he said.

"The real problem is with the cowboy operators. You can always tell them because they get crowds around them and start waving photographs around for effect. They're usually copies of the crime scenes that no responsible guide would use; they're just far too gruesome."

For the time being, at least, it seems the residents of Jack's stamping ground will have to put up with the tourists. Tower Hamlets council and the London Tourist Board both said the Ripper tours were out of their control and neither said they would advocate licensing them.

Little, then, has changed since the days of Jack the Ripper. If you are so inclined, you can walk the streets of Whitechapel and still make a killing.

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