Henry Tomkins, James Mumford and Charles Brittain were all horse slaughterers, working at Barber's knacker's yard, Winthrop Street. This was approximately 150 yards from Brown's stable yard, where Polly Nichols' body was found. Paul Daniel notes that "Harrison, Barber & Co Ltd had their horse-slaughtering premises on the south side at Nos 19, 21 and 23 [Winthrop-street]."
At around 4.15am on the morning of 31 August 1888, Constable Thain stopped by the yard to pick up his cape. Thain had just seen Nichols body and was on his way to fetch Dr. Llewellyn. At this time, according to Tomkins, P.C. Thain told them about the murder. Tomkins and Mumford rushed to view the body, with Charles Brittain following them soon after.
Tomkins was the only one of the three who testified at the Nichols inquest on 3 September:
Henry Tomkins, a rough looking man, was next called. He was a horse slaughterer, he said, and lived at 12, Coventry-street, Bethnal Green. He was in the employ of Mr. Barber, and was working in the slaughter house, Winthorpe-street, from between eight and nine o'clock on Thursday night till twenty minutes past four o'clock on Friday morning. He and his fellow workmen generally went home after ceasing work, but that morning they did not do so. They went to see the dead woman because Police-constable Thain had passed the slaughter-house about a quarter-past four and told them that a woman had been murdered in Buck's-row. Two other men besides the witness had been working in the slaughter-house. They were James Mumford and Charles Britten. He and Britten had been out of the slaughter-house previously that night - namely, from twenty minutes past twelve till one o'clock, but not afterwards till they went to see the body. The distance from the slaughter-house to the spot where the deceased was found was not great, Buck's-row being behind Winthorpe-street, and both running in the same direction.
The Coroner: Is yours noisy work?
The Witness: No, sir: very quiet.
The Coroner: Was it all quiet on Friday morning? - say after two o'clock?
The Witness: Yes, sir: quite quiet. The gates were open, and we heard no cry.
The Coroner: Did any one come to the slaughter-house that night?
The witness replied that nobody passed except the policeman.
The Coroner: Are there any women about there?
The Witness: Oh, I know nothing about them. I don't like them.
The Coroner: I don't ask whether you like them. I ask whether there were any about that night?
The Witness: I did not see any.
The Coroner: Not in Whitechapel-road?
The Witness: Oh yes, there, all sorts and sizes. It's a rough neighbourhood, I can tell you.
The Coroner: If anybody had called for assistance from the spot where the deceased was found would you have heard it in the slaughter-house?
The witness replied that it was too far away. When he arrived in Buck's-row with the intention of seeing the deceased, the doctor and three or four policemen were there. He believed that two other men that he did not know were there also. He waited till the body was taken away, but that was not long. Ten or a dozen people came up before it was done. He heard no statement as to how the deceased came into Buck's-row.
The Coroner: Have you read any statement in the newspaper that there were two people besides the police and the doctor in Buck's-row when you arrived?
The Witness: I can't read, sir.
The Coroner: Then you did not see a soul from one o'clock on Friday morning till a quarter past four, when the policeman passed your slaughter-house? - No, sir.
A Juryman: Did you hear any vehicle pass the slaughter-house?
The Witness: No.
Would you have heard it if there had been one? - Yes, sir.
Where did you go between twenty minutes past twelve and one o'clock? - Me and my mate went to the front of the road.
Is not your usual time of leaving off work six o'clock in the morning, and not four? - No, it is according to what we have to do. Sometimes we finish at one time; sometimes at another.
What made the constable call to tell you about the murder? - He called for his cape. (East London Observer - 8 September 1888)
The Star published a slightly more descriptive account of Tomkins' time on the witness stand, making it clear that both the coroner and jury held some suspicions about the horse-slaughterer's actions on the night of the murder:
Henry Tompkins said he lived at 12, Coventry-street, Bethnal-green. He was a horse slaughterer in the employment of Mr. Barber. He spent Thursday night and Friday morning in the slaughterhouse in Winthrop-street. He started at between eight and nine p.m., his usual time. His time for leaving was four in the morning. He left off work at twenty minutes past four on Friday morning. He went for a walk. They generally went home when they left work, but didn't that morning. He went to see "that woman what was murdered." Police-constable Pain was passing, at a quarter-past four, the slaughter-house, and told them a woman had been murdered in Buck's-row. There were three men at work in the slaughter-house - himself, James Mumford, and Charles Britten. At twenty minutes past twelve witness and Britten left the slaughter-house and went back at one. "We didn't go far away, only down the court there."
It was explained that this was Wood's-buildings.
"It was as near four as anything when we was done work." Witness went on. Their work was "wery quiet," but they heard nothing. "The gates was all open; any one could come in."
"No, no," said the Coroner; "I want to know whether you could hear any sound."
"No sir, we heard no sound - no cry. No one passed the slaughter-house except the policeman at a quarter past four."
"Where there any women about?"
"Oh, I don't know anything about them," witness answered, with a shrug of the shoulders.
"Did you see any in your walk?"
"Oh, no; I don't know about that. I don't like them."
Pressed by the Coroner, he said there were men and women of all sorts and sizes in the Whitechapel-road. He volunteered the information that it was "a very rough neighborhood."
If anybody had called for help in Buck's-row he didn't think he should have heard it - it was too far away. When told that a woman had been murdered in Buck's-row they all went there. Witness and Mumford went first, and Britten followed after. The doctor and three or four policemen were there. "I don't know whether there was two other men there. I think there was." He didn't know who they were. Witness stopped there till the woman was taken away. Lots of people came in the interval - 10 or a dozen. He didn't hear anything said as to how the woman came there or where she came from.
"Are you sure there were not three people there?" asked the Coroner.
"I believe there was two there," answered witness.
"What do you mean by 'believe'?"
"Well, I saw two people there then," said the witness, getting provoked. He had not read the papers, he couldn't read. Standing with his hands in his pockets the witness, a roughly dressed young fellow of low stature, was badgered by several jurymen about his midnight ramble. They generally, he said, went out to have a drink. He would swear his usual time of knocking off work was not six o'clock. What time they went home depended on what time they got their work done. The policeman called at the slaughter house at a quarter past four for his cape. Then it was he told them of the murder. He did not call to tell them of the murder, but to get his cape.
"That's all," said the Coroner.
"Thank you, sir," said witness, and he went away rather angry and somewhat relieved. (Star - 3 September 1888)
The Illustrated Police News noted that several of Tomkins' answers evoked laughter from the audience.
P.C. Thain later testified that he told no one at the slaughter-yard about the murder, though he did admit that he stopped there to pick up his cape. According to Thain, he had noticed two workmen (possibly Tomkins and Mumford) standing near P.C. Neil about ten minutes after he'd fetched Dr. Llewellyn to the scene. Thain stated at the inquest that he did not know who they were.
This slight discrepancy between the stories of Thain and Tomkins, as well as the presence of two unknown men at the crime scene, created some suspicion that perhaps one or more of the slaughtermen were involved in the murder. A report dated 19 October 1888, written by Chief Inspector Swanson, reads:
... enquiries were made into the history and accounts given of themselves of persons, respecting whose character & surroundings suspicion was cast in statements made to police.
Amongst such are the three slaughtermen, named Tomkins, Britton and Mumford employed by night at Messrs. Harrison Barber & Coy. premises Winthrop Street. Their statements were taken separately, and without any means of communicating with each other, and they satisfactorily accounted for their time, being corroborated in some portions by the Police on night duty near the premises. (HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 129-134)
A similar report made by Inspector Abberline on 19 September confirmed that the three slaughtermen sufficiently accounted for their movements on the night of the murder, and that no suspicion remained on either of their accounts.Official Sources
HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 129-134
MEPO 3/140 ff. 249
Star - 3 September 1888
East London Observer - 8 September 1888
Illustrated Police News - 8 September 1888
The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook (Evans and Skinner)
The Jack the Ripper A-Z (Begg, Fido and Skinner)