Cambridge IELTS

IELTS Reading Exercise 22

Choose ONE word or number from the reading passage for each answer.

Was Joseph Barnett Jack The Ripper?

In 1858, when Joseph Barnett was born there, the oddly named Hairbrain Court was situated 100 yards to the east of the Royal Mint. It was just north of the bustling London docks, in the shadow of the London and Blackwall Railway line, and just a short walk from the heart of Whitechapel, where the Jack the Ripper murders would take place thirty years later. Like most of the East End, it was a rundown area, a teeming labyrinth of narrow alleys, passageways, yards and courts, crammed with tenement buildings populated largely by labourers and their families. Not too long before, much of the East End had been farmland and pastures, but the advent of the Industrial Revolution saw numerous factories built in the area, which resulted in an influx of workers and their families, many of them Irish and Jewish, immigrants. So great was this migration that the East End quickly became overcrowded, with the result that there were far more workers than there were available jobs. At the docks, for example, 10,000 prospective labourers would show up daily for some 6,000 openings, and in some instances as many as 350 men might find themselves competing for fifteen or twenty positions, and violence often flared as a result.

Joseph was the fourth child, and third son, of John and Catherine Barnett who, like thousands of their kind, had fled the poverty and famine of their native Ireland to seek a better life in London. John, who was 41 years old when Joseph was born, found work at the docks and also toiled as a fish porter at Billingsgate Market, then located just to the west of the Tower of London. Come August, however, and the Barnetts would join thousands of other East End families in journeying down to Kent to pick hops for the season. The recent expansion of the railway system had facilitated the trip, and 'Hop Picker Specials' would bring hundreds of workers from London at a time. While the hours were long and living conditions were often inadequate, the work itself was relatively easy, with the added advantage that the entire family could participate, including the children. Families would also benefit from a few weeks in the fresh country air, away from the increasing smog and pollution of London. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, respiratory ailments, in the East End and in London as a whole, were the single commonest cause of death. John Barnett and three of his sons, including Joseph, would all eventually die of lung-related ailments. It was in Chalk, Kent, in 1849 that the Barnett's first child. Denis, was born. A second son, Daniel, followed in 1851 and a daughter, Catherine, was born two years later. After Joseph, a final son, John, was born in 1860. Except for Denis, all the Barnett children were born in Whitechapel.

Working-class families tended to move frequently in those days as their fortunes fluctuated, and by 1861 the Barnetts were living in Cartwright Street, a few dozen yards from Hairbrain Court. Their neighbours there were largely unskilled or semi-skilled labourers and their families, among them a tobacco stripper, a dressmaker, a dockworker, a shoe black, a charwoman and a smith. Many were first or second generation Irish immigrants. Three years later, the family was still in Cartwright Street (though in a different building) and John, then 47, was still working at Billingsgate Market when he contracted pleurisy. He died six days later, a not untypical victim of the backbreaking working life and harsh East End conditions that prematurely aged and broke even the strongest of men.

The death of John, the chief breadwinner, in July 1864 was no small crisis for the Barnett family. As Denis, not yet 15, was still too young to find suitable work, the task of providing for the family would have fallen on John's widow, Catherine, who was probably able to maintain a minimum income by bringing home piecework, one of the few job opportunities, as will be seen, available to a woman in her circumstances. The chief advantage of such labour, in which the work could be done at home and wages were determined exclusively by productivity, was that other members of the family could contribute. It's likely that Catherine, 10 at the time of John's death, contributed on a full-time basis, and helped look after young John who was then three years old, Denis, 14, Daniel, 12 or 13, and Joseph, who had recently turned six, all attended school but probably still did their share of work in their spare time.

If John's death created financial hardships for the Barnetts, then things were to get a lot worse with the widow Catherine's subsequent mysterious disappearance. She was no longer listed as part of the Barnett family in the 1871 census, the last official record of her is as the informant on her husband's death certificate in July 1864. What happened to her remains unexplained, but there are no indications of a remarriage or any record of her death as Catherine Barnett. The likelihood is that sometime after her husband's death she went off to live with another man, taking his name as her own, and abandoning her family in the process. Alternatively, she may have returned to her native Ireland where her death would not be included in the English records.

It is possible that Catherine's actions were influenced by heavy drinking, or that she found herself unable to cope with the responsibility of raising five children on her own. Whatever the reasons, her disappearance, coming as it did on the heels of John's death, must have had a profound psychological effect on the Barnett children. Joseph in particular developed a speech impediment and would later display symptoms of a little-known psychological disorder recognised today as echolalia, in which a person repeats, or echoes, certain words or phrases spoken by another. Common to autistics, echolalia may also be symptomatic of schizophrenia, and can occur as a personality mannerism or in anxious individuals.

It is now known that most serial killers come from dysfunctional families, marked by absentee fathers and cold, distant mothers. After personally interviewing hundreds of such killers, Robert Ressler, formerly the FBI's foremost psychological criminal profiler, concluded that "potential murderers became solidified in their loneliness first during the age period of eight to 12: such isolation is considered the single most important aspect of their psychological make up. Many factors go into fashioning this isolation. Among the most important is the absence of a father."

Source: Jack The Ripper: The Simple Truth (1995)


Parents and children.
Lived in area


Died of at the age of


Was originally from
Disappeared from records somewhere between and 1871.


Was years old when his father died.
Developed after death of his father.

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