‘If the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’: an East End train disaster narrowly avoided

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In mid June 1888, in what was to become a dreadful late summer and autumn of terror in the East End, a young man appeared at the West Ham Police court accused of an act of willful damage that might have caused a localized tragedy.  Henry William Fox (19, and a described as a labourer) was put in the dock to answer a charge that he, and some persons unknown, had placed a large piece of wood on tracks of the railway that served the Victoria Docks.

Robert Clayden, a signalman on the London and St Katherine’s Dock Company railway, testified that at 4 o’clock on Friday 15 June he had been in his box when he noticed Fox and three other men ‘playing around’ on the tracks. They had a large section of wood made up of two scaffold planks bolted together to make about a foot square. They had eased this onto the tracks, just after a bend and before a sharp decline. Claydon stated that, in his opinion, the driver of the next train (due in 30 minutes) would not have seen the obstruction in time to apply the brake.

The signalman immediately left his box and ran off to apprehend the trespassers, shouting ‘do you want any help there?’ The quartet scattered but deciding that Fox was the most responsible Clayden pursued and captured him with the help of a dock constable, Henry Kimpton. Inspector Hamilton was shown the obstruction before it was removed and Fox was taken away to be charged.

In court Fox’s defense – conducted by a Mr Willis (jun) – the bench was told that it was a case of mistaken identity; Fox was one of four others and he wasn’t the person responsible for blocking the railway. His solicitor applied for bail, which was refused, as the case ‘too serious’.

On 22 July Fox appeared at the Old Bailey where the case against him was heard before a jury. Claydon was the first witness and explained that his job was to control the swing bridge that served Bridge Docks. The planks used to block the line were those deployed in the painting of ships at dock. When not in use, as this one wasn’t, they ‘lie about in the dock and are washed about by the water’ he told the court.

He said that when he asked Fox and his friend s if they wanted ‘any help’, the accused told him to ‘Go and f— yourself’. At this Claydon blew his whistle (to frighten them off) and clambered down from his box. A chase then ensued and Fox was arrested, question by the dock inspector (George Hamilton) before being handed over to PC William Richardson (280K) of the Met. Fox’s maintained his defense that it wasn’t him but someone else and said he’d been in the area because he was looking for bird’s nests.

One of the company’s drivers, John Sherlock, took the stand to tell the court that 10-15 trains used that line every day and agreed that the position of the timber would have made it impossible for any driver to stop in time.

‘The curve is sharp’ he explained, ‘if the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’.

Fortunately the quick action of the signalman had averted a disaster and almost certain loss of life. Fox was young and was given a good character. As a result the judge went easy on him: he was sentenced to six months at hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 17 June, 1888]

A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

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Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

‘What would become of the little children?’: charity and kindness make a rare appearance in a Police Court

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

Tomorrow is the last day of February meaning that (as we do every four years) we get a 29thday of this month. Did you know that 1888 was a leap year? Making a very tenuous link today is also the artist John Tenniel’s birthday. Had he lived he would be 200 years old today.

On 29 September 1888 the magazine Punch published a cartoon by Tenniel alongside an article on slum living in the East End of London. Tenniel’s iconic image of the Nemesis of Neglect (above), was published at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, while London reeled from the terror created by a serial killer the police seemed unable to catch.

Tenniel’s drawing and the text that accompanied it suggested that the murderer was a product of the degraded environment in which all the victims had lived, and died. It also warned polite society of the dangers of not doing ‘something’ about the abject poverty of the East End, which risked the ‘contagion’ spreading to reach the wealthier parts of the metropolis.

In February Whitechapel was relatively quiet; the series lodged in the National Archives at Kew as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ had not yet started, but poverty was very much in evidence.

At Westminster Police court a 76 year-old man appeared to ask Mr D’Eyncourt for a summons. He wanted to bring a charge against the one of the officers at St Luke’s workhouse in Chelsea. The elderly man moved slowly and spoke with difficulty, clearly suffering as he was from fresh injuries. He told the magistrate that he’d sustained these when he was turfed out of his bed at 6.45 in the morning by a workhouse attendant.

He was, he said in response to the justice’s questioning, 15 minutes late in getting up after the bell rang at 6.30. But he had only just got to sleep having been kept awake by others’ coughing and cramp in his legs.

‘I am so badly bruised that I have not been able to walk upright since’ he complained.

The poor man had no family or friends and had been an inmate of the workhouse for six years. Mr D’Eyncourt granted his summons and said he would not have to pay for it. He would hear what other inmates said and call the accused party before him.

At Southwark Sarah Ann Davis stood in the dock with a baby in her arms. She was accused of begging in London Road, having been arrested by a police sergeant. Sarah denied the charge, she ‘was selling some pins to get some food for her children’ she explained.

Sergeant Ireland told Mr Slade that the prisoner’s husband was currently serving a prison sentence for begging. As if that compounded the woman’s crime and demonstrated she was guilty.

The magistrate asked her why she didn’t turn to the workhouse.

‘I don’t want to break up the home while my husband is away’, she replied.

Mr Davis was, she said, and out of work carpenter who’d do any job if he could get one. 1888 was not a good year for work: this was the year that the word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and for the past few years large numbers of unemployed men and women had gathered in Trafalgar Square to listen to socialists and free traders bemoan the state of the economy and the capitalist system that had seemingly failed so many.

Slade called her landlord to the stand and asked him about the family’s character. He was told that the Davis’ were good, respectable and quiet tenants, but were two weeks behind with their rent.

‘You are not going to turn them out?’ The magistrate asked.

‘On no, sir, certainly not. What would become of the little children?’ the landlord replied.

‘Very well, I will discharge her now. You can go know, Mrs. Davis. You will receive some coal and bread tickets from the Poor-box Fund, and you had better apply to the Relieving Officer for some out-door relief’.

Then he warned her against begging in future, and she left, with applause for the magistrate ringing out in court.

Individual acts of decency by men like Mr Slade and Sarah’s landlord were not enough of course to mitigate the realities of abject poverty in late nineteenth century London. On another day Sarah might have gone to gaol and had her children taken away.  Another magistrate might have told her it was the ‘house or nothing, and she would have again lost her children.

Tenniel’s image of the ghoul raising from the ‘slum’s foul air’ was so powerful because it reflected a sort of stark reality, even if it was as fantastical as his more famous illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

[from The Standard, 28 February 1888]

‘We didn’t live – we starved’: Poverty and ‘foreign markets’ in 19th Century Whitechapel

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In my last post I started walking the streets of East London with Charles Booth’s poverty survey as my guide. Moving on from Gunthorpe and Flower and Dean Walk (which in the 1880s was George Street and Flower and Dean Street respectively) in this post I’ve arrived at Wentworth Street.

In the late nineteenth century Wentworth Street was extremely poor. In Booth’s original map (above) it is a mixture of colours from red to pink to blue but since it abuts George Yard, Thrawl Street and other courts and alleys associated with the ‘Abyss’ we can confidently assume that most people living here were living close or below what Seebohm Rowntree was later to define as the ‘poverty line.

This story, reported in the Manchester press, gives us some idea of exactly what conditions were like in and around Wentworth Street in the last decade of the 1800s.

In early November 1893 Mr Wynne Baxter, the local coroner (and the man that had presided over the inquests into most of the Whitechapel murder victims in 1888), convened an inquest on the death of Elizabeth Newton.

Elizabeth was only four months old; she was the illegitimate daughter of Martha Newton who lived at 75 Wentworth Street. The paper described Martha as a ‘poor, miserable-looking girl’ who lived with her mother.

At the time little Elizabeth had been born Martha was living in a local lodging house, and went to the infirmary to give birth. Once the child and mother left hospital they went to live with Martha’s mother Margaret but the conditions were awful.

‘Her mother only occupied one room’, the inquest was told. So Martha and her baby joined her ‘sister, aged eight years […] and her other illegitimate child, aged two’, in the room.

Margaret Newton was desperately poor and the augmented family struggled to feed itself. Margaret told Mr Baxter that Marth fed her newborn on ‘cornflour, arrowroot, or anything the mother could get for it’. She herself only earned 1s3d to 1s 6da day.

How much was the rent, the coroner asked her. ‘Five shillings’, was the reply.

‘How do you live’?

‘We didn’t live – we starved’, Margaret Newton told him.

The final witness was the doctor who declared Elizabeth dead. She weighed only 3lb 12oz when he examined her. He told a stunned court that she should have weighed at least 11b by then. The coroners’ jury delivered a verdict of ‘death by malnutrition’.

Sadly Elizabeth’s death was not uncommon in late nineteenth-century London. Without an effective system of state benefits or health service that was free at the point of need, many children succumbed to poverty and lack of nutrition in Victoria’s Britain.

In the 1880s and 1890s Wentworth Street was busy during the day and early evening. As Charles Booth observed it was:

 ‘thronged every day by stalls, both buyers and sellers nearly all but not altogether Jews, women bareheaded, bewigged, coarse woolen shawls over shoulders, more like a foreign market scene than anything English’.

The red on the map probably refereed to ‘the small shops and houses on the North side’, the poor were absent except in the nearby courts.

Today, as I found out on my walk, there is very little remaining of nineteenth-century Wentworth Street. This is hardly surprising when you consider that this area was very heavily bombed during the Second World War (see map from www.bombsight.org) and post war council rebuilding and slum clearance.

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There was still a strong Jewish community in and around Wentworth Street during and after WW2. Helen Shaw (Schevitch) remembered life back then:

We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up.

Now, as my walk confirmed, there is hardly any sign of the Jewish presence in Wentworth Street. Instead this area is home to a new set of immigrants and their British born descendants. The larget and most visible migrant group (akin to the Jewish residents in the 1880s that Booth remarked upon) are the Bangladeshis, most of whom trace their roots to Sylheti in the northeast of the country. They are Muslim and established their first roots in the area as early as 1910 and it took them until the early 1980s to win permission to build a mosque.

If you want to have any sense of the Wentworth Street that Booth described as ‘a foreign market’ in the 1890s then take the underground to Whitechapel and wander along the market stalls that throng beside Whitechapel High Street opposite the London Hospital. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself transported back in time.

Murder or suicide? The death of John Broome Tower in Stoke Newington (part 2)

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For the first part of this story follow this link

Ernest Cogdon saw John Broome Tower several times on 31 December 1884. The two men were friends and Cogden said they met at Haycroft and Gilfillon’s offices   in Great Winchester Street where Broome Tower worked as an underwriter’s clerk.

The course of his work meant that Cogden, a fellow clerk, ran into Tower three more times that day before the pair took a train back to Finsbury Park (where Cogden lodged) at 6.30 that evening. They dined with a Mrs Earl and her daughters (one of whom was sweet on John) before going to a service at St John’s Church in Highbury Vale. It was well past midnight when they parted company on Green Lanes, Cogden going back to Finsbury park and Tower to his digs at 109 Dynevor Road in Stoke Newington.

That was the last time anyone saw John Broome Tower alive but Cogdon was sure he left his chum in good health, sober and with money in his pockets. They’d agreed to meet the following day for lunch. Cogdon was also puzzled that Tower’s body had been found where it was, as he was not on his normal route home; what had caused him to change his habits that night and did he take his own life, or was he murdered?

The police were pursuing the second option: when Tower’s body had been recovered it seemed as if he’d been attacked. His hat was battered (and it wasn’t an old hat), he collar looked as if it had been wrenched from his neck, and the state of his coat suggested the wearer had been involved in a struggle. More than one set of footprints were discovered near the bank of the reservoir where the body was found, and only one matched the boots Tower was wearing. A scarf or large handkerchief was around his neck, spotted with blood, and the press and police speculated that he had been strangled with it.  However, there were no other wounds that might have accounted for his death.

It was a proper Victorian ‘murder mystery’ in ‘the rapidly growing northern suburb’ as the Penny Illustrated Paper described Stoke Newington. It provided its readers with a sketch of the locality and an artist’s impression of the finding of the body at the reservoir (above). No one had heard a sound that night despite there being several potential witnesses including a cab driver, two carriages, and two young lads being close to the scene of the supposed attack at the time.

The police had employed divers to search the reservoir, men working for Doewra and Co., but they had not uncovered anything that might help explain the circumstances of the death. The police, under the direction of N Division’s Superintendent Green, remained baffled and were offering a reward of £100 for information.

Several days later the police investigation had still not resulted in an arrest. Enquiries at Tower’s workplace had now revealed that ‘discrepancies’ in his accounting which hinted at workplace theft. The amounts were significant but not huge – £60-80 – and no cheques were missing. Had Tower killed himself to avoid disgrace? It seemed unlikely, especially as Dr Bond (who examined his body) found no sign that he’d drowned in the reservoir. This suggested to him that he’d been killed first and then thrown into the water. Bond (who was later to be involved in the Whitechapel Murder case of 1888-9) was ‘clearly of opinion that death resulted from homicidal strangulation, and that two or more persons had been engaged in the matter’.

Two years later the case remained unsolved. A man did confess to killing Tower and robbing him with an accomplice but his evidence contradicted much of what the police already new and little credibility was given to it. In 1886 the papers reported that Chief Inspector Donald Swanson was convinced that the poor man had committed suicide. Another theory was that he had been decoyed into the area of scrub near the reservoir by a woman, and then attacked and killed. Swanson may have been content to put the mystery to bed as suicide because it relieved the police of responsibility for finding the killer/s, however unlikely it seems from the evidence presented to the coroner.

The mystery certainly caught the attention of people at the time and the 1886 confession (by a man named Thackery) was not the only one. In January 1887 George Charles Wilson also said he’d killed the underwriter’s clerk but he was dismissed as being unfit to do so suffering as he was, from ‘a disturbed mind’ and being found wandering as ‘a lunatic’.

In the end the crime was and remains unsolved. Somebody killed John Broome Tower or else he made it look that way. It had briefly propelled the outlying suburb of Stoke Newington to national attention, something I’m not sure its inhabitants would have welcomed.

[The Penny Illustrated Paper, 12 January, 1884]

William Booth in court, for doing something about homelessness

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The Salvation Army is a well-established charity doing good work with the poor and homeless for well over a century. It was set up in London by William Booth in 1865, adopting the name Salvation Army (formally the Christian Mission) in 1878. Booth was an evangelist Christian who took his religious beliefs seriously, believing that the teachings of Jesus Christ impelled the better off to look after the poor.

As several articles in this blog series have shown the ‘Army’ wasn’t always well received. Their military structure and marching bands drew opprobrium and ridicule from all levels of society but by the turn of the century they were clearly established as a fixture in both British and American society.

In 1888 Booth, who started his mission in the East End of London, preaching in rooms above what is now the Blind Beggar pub on Whitechapel Road, set up a temporary night shelter in Hanbury Street, for the homeless female poor. He was prompted by the murders of Jack the Ripper, who preyed on vulnerable and often homeless prostitutes in the area.

The shelter was basic, and cost users 3d a night (2for children, and just a penny for infants in arms). In December 1889 Booth himself was summoned to the Worship Street Police court to answer a summons brought against him by the police, for running a shelter that wasn’t registered as a ‘common lodging house’, and therefore fell foul of the regulations.

This was the police’s report of their visit to the shelter, delivered by a sergeant (32H) and Inspector Ferrett:

‘The sergeant said that each sleeper had a “box like an egg-chest.” minus the bottom. A mattress made of American cloth and seaweed was in this, and the coverlet was sheepskin the size of the mattress, the sleeper putting their head through a hole at one end’.

The property, an old bath house, was well ventilated and quite warm, served as it was by hot water pipes. It had space for 192 women and for their three pence they got a light supper as well. The mattresses were cleaned regularly and the place was orderly, so what was the problem?

Well the summons seemed mostly concerned with it not being registered and that this ‘temporary’ solution to a crisis becoming permanent by default. The police did bring along some witnesses that to argue that the Salvation Army were operating not merely as a refuge but as a de facto lodging house but Mr Bushby wasn’t convinced by their line of argument.

He dismissed the summons and let Booth go back to his charity work.

We are once again in a period where homelessness and poverty are in focus. Winter is here and people are dying on the streets of British cities. Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, despite us being in the top 10 richest nations on earth.

Changes to the benefits system (the introduction of Universal Credit and the bedroom tax) by the Conservative government (and before them the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition), and a decade of austerity economic policies driven by a succession of Conservative chancellors from George Osborne to Sajid Javid have directly impacted the lives of the poorest.  726 people are known to have died on the streets in 2018, the highest number since recording began in 2013.

Something to think about when we cast our votes on December 12.

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 07, 1889]

‘Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!’

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In the years following the murders of several women in Whitechapel in 1888, rumours of ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued to haunt the capital. The police investigation remained open because no one was conclusively proven to be the killer and he was assumed to have remained at large, if dormant. The discovery of a human torso in Pinchin Street in 1889 and then the murder of Frances Coles (in February 1891) fuelled popular fears that the murderer was still active in the East End.

In March 1890 a man presented himself at Buckingham Palace and demanded to see the Queen. A policeman on duty (constable 64A) told the Westminster Police Court that at 4 o’clock on the 18 March Charles Cooper , a ‘well-dressed’ railway sub-contractor, had walked up to the gates of the palace asking to be admitted.

He told the officer that his ‘particular business with her majesty was to inform her where “Jack the Ripper” was to be found, and where he had had his photograph taken’.

When he was refused entry he tried to force his way past the guards and was arrested. At Westminster he was charged with being a ‘lunatic at large’.

In court his wife told Mr D’Eyncourt (the magistrate) that her husband ‘had been drinking to excess lately’, and three weeks ago, when ‘quite out of his mind’, he was taken to the workhouse at Edmonton. Clearly Cooper was suffering from some form of mental illness and perhaps the ‘Ripper’ panic had exacerbated this.

He repeated his desire to talk to Queen Victoria but Mr D’Eyncourt ignored him and instead remanded him in custody for a week.

I’ve looked forward to see if Cooper reappeared in the pages of the London press but he doesn’t. The  provincial papers carried the same story – lifted word for word from The Standard – but I can see no record of him resurfacing at Westminster (which he must have done).

Sadly, the most likely outcome for Charles was that he was either readmitted to the workhouse or sent to one of London’s ‘lunatic’ asylums, such as the one near me at Colney Hatch. If he was sent to Colney Hatch then he may even have met one of those suspected of being the elusive serial killer – David Cohen, a ‘homicidal lunatic’ identified by Dr Scott Bonn in 2014.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 20, 1890]

This post first appeared in March 2017

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon

Jack the Ripper appears in court at last

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In late October 1888 a man appeared in court at the Guildhall after admitting to multiple murders. The fact that the magistrate let him go probably tells us quite a bit about the furor that surrounded the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings that autumn.

By the time Benjamin Graham was brought up before the alderman justice for the second time the unknown killer had struck at least four times and maybe more. Graham had admitted to the crimes and had been escorted to Snow Hill police station by a concerned member of the public. His confessor reported that he’d declared that:

‘he was the murderer of the women in Whitechapel, and that he supposed he must suffer for it with a bit of rope’.

At his first summary hearing he was remanded in custody so enquiries could be made into his mental health. Graham had been examined and the chief clerk at the Guildhall, Mr Saville, now furnished the magistrate with his report. According to the medical man there was nothing wrong with Graham’s mind except that he ‘suffered from excessive drinking’. He was hardly alone in that in late nineteenth-century London, but not all of the capitals inebriates were running off their mouths claiming to be Jack the Ripper.

The alderman was furious, even more so because he really couldn’t see what crime Graham had committed. He told him he would gladly give ‘some punishment for his behaviour, which gave the police no end of trouble’. But since he could not (perhaps at this time there was no such offence as ‘wasting police time”) he simply discharged him with a flea in his ear.

With all the false leads and spurious letters and notes that the police had to take seriously, the last thing they needed was an idiot like Benjamin Graham.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 26, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon

 

A very ordinary homicide in the extraordinary ‘autumn of terror’

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We have spent the past few days in Whitechapel, looking at the cases selected for reporting at Worship Street Police court before Mr Montagu Williams. On Tuesday there was an illegal boxing match, yesterday an example of an over officious vestryman being brought to book. Today’s case received far fewer column inches but was much more serious than either, because it involved a homicide.

In the autumn of 1888 murder was on everybody’s mind; an unknown assassin had already struck several times in the district and the police were no nearer to catching him. ‘Jack the Ripper’ would kill again that year but for the time being the streets of Whitechapel were relatively quiet.

Serial and stranger murder – the sort the ‘Ripper’ indulged in was (and is) relatively rare. It was (and is) much more common for homicide victims to know their killer. This was the case with Mrs Roberts (we don’t know her first name) who died on the 18 October 1888.

She lived were her husband Joseph, a boot fitter, at Essex Place on the Hackney Road and the pair had a tempestuous relationship. On the 8 October she was drunk and so was Joe and the couple had a furious row in front of one of their children. The little girl told Mr Williams that she’d seen her mother aim a blow at her father as they quarreled in the street. Joe had fallen backwards but regained his feet and retaliated.

The boot fitter, much stronger and heavier than his wife, struck her hard on the head. She fell down senseless and never made a full recovery, dying ten days later. Other witnesses testified that there ‘was an utter absence of intentional violence’. Moreover, the medical evidence suggested that she had died from peritonitis, so not something directly related to the fight that the victim had started herself.

Joseph Roberts was discharged but told he would have to face trial on the coroner’s warrant. On 22 October Joe stood trial at the Old Bailey but since the prosecution offered no evidence against him he walked away a free man. He’d not meant to kill his wife and quite probably he regretted it but his actions would now mean his daughter and her siblings would be without a mother. Sadly, this was an all too familiar story in the Victorian capital.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 24, 1888]