University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Personal Sources: Lost London; the memoirs of an East End detective

Emily Burgess, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on the memoirs of an East End detective, Sergeant B. Leeson, for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Emily discusses how we can use personal sources such as this to understand more about social anxieties at the time of their writing. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

Crime in the Victorian period has become significant through such cases as the Whitechapel murders. With the use of personal sources, those involved in the investigations into these murders can provide historians with an individual and somewhat hidden insight into the criminality of late nineteenth century Britain. This blog will focus on the memoirs of Detective Sergeant B. Leeson and his recollection of the East End of London between 1890 and 1891. [1]

Leeson’s memoir was interestingly written and published 43 years after the horrific murder of Frances Coles. Her murder was bound up with further concerns over the return of Jack the Ripper whose last recorded victim was found two years prior. When analysing this personal source, it is important to recognise the space between the recorded event and the source’s creation as it can present issues for historians over the accuracy of the document. It has been identified that the memory of a single event can change dramatically with age, and even though Leeson was a witness to the event and a notable one due to his position as a police officer, his depiction of the murder 43 years later could be significantly faulty due to his own memory. [2] Equally, any distortions to his interpretation could be a result of outside influences. An example from the late Victorian period would be the press who were quick to perpetuate any murders associated with Jack the Ripper to a public audience. This is supported by Alistair Thompson who emphasises the importance of identifying different factors that shape a source, and that these factors can be a result of wider social aspects. [3] Therefore, it is important to be careful when analysing personal sources as although they may seem personal, they could have been influenced by outside elements.

When looking at the historiography surrounding this time period (1890-91), there is heavy emphasis placed on rising social panic due to high crime rates; and particularly the fear of serial killer Jack the Ripper who was never caught. This is evident with the mounting public panic within the period, and is reflected within the source as “hundreds of police and civilians took part in the search” for the murderer. [4] It can be identified from this statement that the investigation was vast and was aided by many different people from the area, proving it to be a joint effort from a mainly working-class community that had been affected by the Whitechapel murders. In correlation to this, the time of publishing, 1934, was also a period of increasing social unrest due to high unemployment rates. These increasing rates of unemployment led to significant anxiety during the ‘hungry 30s’ due to the fear of crime and social conflict. [5] Subsequently, historians can benefit from personal documents such as this one as they allow an “understanding of social and cultural conditions.” [6] Personal sources such as Leeson’s can even reflect social issues surrounding the time of publishing, evident with the correlating social crisis surrounding the working class. They can also provide information that was not necessarily intended. Within this text, Leeson speaks of the belief that the “Ripper crimes were not the work of any human agency.” [7] Due to this statement, topics such as belief in the supernatural are brought up. Even though this was not the intention of the source, it can be useful in analysing Victorian superstition which is known to be prevalent within British culture at this time. This is supported by J. Jeffrey Franklin who identified the widespread emergence of spirituality and occultism within the Victorian period. [8]

Recognising the purpose of this source is also essential in understanding why the material, that being the murder, is presented in a certain way. Even though it is considered a personal document, the intended audience of this text is vast. The source was made for public consumption and as a result need to be addressed with caution. It is therefore important to recognise the motive of the publisher. The publisher of this specific source, Stanley Paul and Co is also of interest as they were a London based company and published this memoir which heavily focused on the East End of London. This suggests that they wanted to perpetuate the history of this specific area. Questions have to be asked such as whether the source has been exaggerated or dramatized to entice further public interest. This is evident as the crime scene is graphically detailed and speaks of how the “woman laid with her head nearly severed from her body.” [9] Kaspar von Greyerz addresses how authors consciously alter their reminiscence in a certain direction for the benefit of themselves or the audience. [10] In light of this, the account provided by Leeson is still valuable as he saw it happen even if the motivation of the piece was to sell to the public. Historians also need to be cautious when dealing with personal sources concerning disturbing events as the perception of the author could have been altered due to trauma. Leeson himself states his “inexperience” and how he witnessed the body when he was only a young police constable, bringing into question his mental state and whether the shock could have affected his recollection of the murder. [11] As a result, it is important to compare and contrast different documents in order to gain a clearer picture of the circumstance in question.

This blog focused on Detective Sergeant B. Leeson’s recollection of the murder of Frances Coles as well as historical debates surrounding personal sources. The intended purpose of this source was to document and present this murder to a public audience. In recognising this, ideas surrounding the publisher and author’s motives had to be considered. This source also reflected themes such as social anxiety, which linked both the time of publishing and the event itself proving to be a valuable tool for historians in understanding contemporary issues. In addition to this, the text brought up various limitations surrounding personal sources. These limitations were highlighted within Leeson’s memoir due to time, trauma, and his own memory which could affect the accuracy of his depiction.


[1] Benjamin Leeson. “Lost London; the memoirs of an East End detective” (Stanley Paul and Co. LTD. 1934) 41-42.

[2] Michael Roper. “Re-remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War” History Workshop Journal, 2000, no. 50, 1 (2000) 199.

[3] Alistair Thompson. “Life stories and historical analysis” in Research Methods for History ed. Simon Gunn, Lucy Faire. (Edinburgh University Press, 2011) 102.

[4] L. Curtis. Jack the Ripper and the London Press (Yale University Press, 2002) 245; Leeson. “Lost London”.

[5] John Stevenson and Chris Cook. The Slump: Britain in the Great Depression (Routledge, 2009) 99.

[6] David Carlson. “Autobiography” in Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History ed. Miriam Dobson, and Benjamin Ziemann. (Routledge, 2008) 177.

[7] Leeson. “Lost London”.

[8] J. Jeffrey Franklin. Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain (Cornell University Press, 2018) 185.

[9] Leeson. “Lost London”.

[10] Kaspar von Greyerz. “Ego-Documents: The Last Word?” German History 28, no. 3 (2010) 281.

[11] Leeson. “Lost London”.

, , , , , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply