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Jack the Ripper and "The Coffee Connection"
by The Viper
Coffee is cool again! In London today, it seems impossible to walk the length of a main street without passing at least one coffee bar. The stainless steel and marble interiors with the tall, polished machines on the counter are as ubiquitous as fake Irish theme pubs were a decade ago. In that bastion of the champagne bar, the City, coffee shops seem to have sprung up on sites previously occupied by shops, pubs and even by the odd bank! Sharp-suited young traders enter them in droves and can be seen lounging across the window stools in animated conversation.
Coffee hasn't been so fashionable since the 1950s when Soho was the place to be seen, except in those days a quiff and a bomber jacket were standard accompaniment to the cappuccino.
Deals being struck in coffee houses are no new phenomenon. Those twenty-first century stirrers and shakers are following a long tradition. Coffee was first brought to Britain in 1610 by the East India Company. Initially the market for it proved slow to build, but by the time of the Restoration the habit was well established. The Pasqua Rosee was first coffee house in London, opening in St. Michael's Alley in 1652. Sixty years later, the capital contained five hundred similar establishments, many of them concentrated around the Royal Exchange in the City where they acted as business transacting places for merchants. The seeds of both Lloyds of London and the Stock Exchange were sown in coffee houses. Further west, coffee rooms were the foundation stone of gentlemen's clubs and they provided important meeting places for politicians. Indeed the Cocoa Tree in Pall Mall, where prominent Tories met, was denounced as the headquarters of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745! The aroma of coffee in the mid-eighteenth century was synonymous with the whiff of rebellion (as it was two hundred years later).
There was a period of decline in the eighteenth century. The East India Company began to import more tea and helped to create a fashion for it. High taxes were levied on both tea and coffee by governments, a serious mistake, because in a newly class conscious London it reinforced the social divide. For the higher classes, coffee was served in the clubs. Though coffee houses were also still patronised by the well-to-do, the working class was in the grip of a gin epidemic and was also drinking vast quantities of beer.
However, with the lessening of duties and later, with the arrival of Victorian prosperity and sobriety, the popularity of beverage drinking underwent a renaissance. Even by 1841 there were 1,600 coffee shops in the capital, charging 1d or 2d a cup and selling buns, pastries and cheap snacks. Though the habit would never be so well documented or carry the same exclusive image as it had in the days of Dr. Johnson during the previous century, Londoners were drinking more coffee than they had ever done before.
By the late nineteenth century, coffee shops in east London were of a number of different types. Jack London was very uncomplimentary about some of those he found in 1902. Many were doubling as cheap restaurants selling inferior breakfasts to workmen and poor quality hot meals at sixpence each. Some weren't even selling coffee at all, their standard beverage being a pint of tea. This portrait may be misleadingly unrepresentative however. To begin with, not all these premises sold hot meals as can be seen from Kelly's London Post Office Directory which began to make a distinction between those that did and did not in its Trades Directory. Also, if we take Commercial Street, Spitalfields, in 1888, it contained both a branch of Lockhart's and a coffee tavern. Lockhart's operated a chain of some fifty outlets across London in the 1890s, serving a consistent menu of drinks and snacks. The Railway Arms Coffee Palace was an example of the attempt by the temperance movement to create a substitute for the public houses in the 1880s. Modeled on a contemporary pub with light, mahogany decor, the coffee taverns laid out newspapers and games for the use of their patrons, who were actively encouraged to bring their own food with them for cooking free of charge. Few of these establishments survived long!
Enough about the lasting allure of the coffee bean and of the outlets for it though. Where exactly does this fit into the Ripper story, you are asking?
Well, the answer lies with one of the canonical victims, Elizabeth Stride. Readers of Ripper Notes will be aware of the main details concerning the tragic death of Swedish-born Long Liz, who was murdered in Berner Street shortly before 1 a.m. on the morning of 30 September 1888, either by Jack The Ripper or by some other person unknown. What some will be unaware of is that hidden away in her past, Liz claimed to have kept a coffee shop in Chrisp Street, Poplar. This we know because at her inquest both her paramour, Michael Kidney and a fellow lodger of the doss house at 32 Flower & Dean Street called Charles Preston testified that she told them of it. To add a further twist to this theme, Liz's inquest was famous for the initial misidentification of her by Mary Malcolm, who claimed that the body was that of her sister, Elizabeth Watts. In answer to the coroner, Mrs. Malcolm made a series of revelations about her sister that bore an uncanny resemblance to events in the life of Liz Stride. Among these was the fact that Mrs. Watts had lived with a man who kept a coffee house in Poplar, whom she believed to be called Dent.
Liz's comments about her shop keeping past have been well reported in Ripper books over the years, but it has been noticeable that different authors have failed to agree on the addresses. A new investigation was required, which would also take in an effort to track down the mysterious Mr. Dent.
The marriage of Elizabeth Gustafsdotter to John Thomas Stride, a carpenter, took place on 7th March 1869. Liz was twenty-five years old, her husband markedly older at around forty-eight. Neither was living in the East End at the time of the marriage but this must have changed shortly afterwards. At the inquest PC Walter Stride, described as John's nephew, identified Liz from a photograph. He said he hadn't seen her for many years, not in fact since soon after her marriage to his uncle in 1872 or '73. PC Stride went on to say that he remembered them living in East India Dock Road at that time. From this it can be seen that he was a few years out on the marriage date, so he might easily have been slightly wrong with the location too.
The 1869 edition of Kelly's does not list a J. T. Stride, but the 1870 one does. Upper North Street has an entry of 'J. T. Stride, Coffee house', though unfortunately there is no number. It was at about this time that the Post Office moved to number or renumber a lot of streets in the East End as the volume of mail increased. The best location that can be fixed for Stride's premises is that the shop lay between East India Dock Road and Grundy Street on the west side, near to the Trinity Chapel & School. In order to have an entry in Kelly's for 1870, Stride must have been in business by the latter part of 1869, therefore within a few months of the marriage. The proximity of the location to Walter Stride's description should be noted.
Chrisp Street at that time contained two coffee shops-a John Phillips at number 7 and a William Green trading from number 106. No Strides were listed in the street.
Kelly's lists the Upper North Street shop again in the 1871 edition, but in 1872 it shows that the Strides had moved to 178 High Street, Poplar. Their new coffee house was located on the south side, between Simpsons Road and Harrow Lane. This information is slightly misleading. The couple had already moved there by the time of the 1871 Census, taken on 2 April. A third person also stayed at the address that night; a fifteen-year-old visitor called Charles Thew, born in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Significantly, no children are listed for the couple. Though Liz made claims about having nine children, and described how she lost two of them and her husband when the Princess Alice sank in the Thames in 1878, no hard evidence has emerged to name any children born to the couple. Researchers have dismissed most of Long Liz's claims, labeling her a mythomaniac and siting the fact that John Stride died a pauper in the Sick Asylum at Bromley in 1884 as evidence of their beliefs. Perhaps nobody has ever traced any children to the couple for the very good reason that they didn't have any.
A few other interesting little details emerge from the 1871 Census entry. Firstly, John Stride still described himself as a carpenter and not as a shopkeeper. That being so, there must be every chance that it was Liz who was in day-to-day charge of the shop. If that's a correct assumption, then at that time she is unlikely to have been the habitual drunk who was charged eight times at the Thames Police Court between the beginning of 1887 and the time of her death.
Additionally, there is a possibility that the teenaged visitor, Charles Thew was a friend or relative, though the reasons for thinking so are very tenuous. John was not the only Stride who kept a coffee house in the East End around this time. The 1881 Census return lists a Samuel Stride running just such a shop from 278 High Street, Poplar. He had previously traded from 4 St. Leonard's Road. Aged 29, Samuel had been born in Southampton in Hampshire, as was his young sister Mary. His wife, Isabella was also from the south coast. Hence we have two links to ports in Hampshire, namely Portsmouth (Thew) and Southampton. Intriguingly, Liz had also told Kidney that her husband had been a ship's carpenter, and there may have been some truth in this story. John Stride was born in Sheerness - a port on the Medway estuary, Isle of Sheppey, Kent and we know he still had relatives there. An examination of birth records and Census returns in the period 1867-81 shows that families called Stride were prominent in three areas of England, namely the London docks area (Poplar and Rotherhithe); in east Kent and in Hampshire. All three are areas with maritime links. At present, the efforts of the author to ascertain the relationship between John and Samuel Stride have born no fruit. The coincidence of name, place and occupation is suggestive of a link somewhere, though it could be a distant one.
The coffee shop in Poplar High Street continued to be the way of life for Liz and John until some time in 1874. The 1875 edition of Kelly's shows that they moved on, the shop having been taken over by one John Dale. We can only speculate at the reasons for this.
In March 1877, Liz spent some time in the Poplar Workhouse. A year later she attempted to gain hand-outs from the Swedish Church and claimed that her husband was dead. The last statement certainly wasn't true because the 1881 Census shows that the pair living at 69 Usher Road, Bow. It was not until the following year that Liz was first seen lodging at 32 Flower & Dean Street in Spitalfields.
In conclusion, it can be stated that beyond any shadow of a doubt the J. T. Stride who owned coffee shops in Poplar was Liz's husband. He continued to work as a carpenter, so Liz must have played an active role in the enterprise that occupied her for at least five years. Evidence exists of shops in Upper North Street and High Street, both in Poplar, but there is none that points to them having premises in Chrisp Street. Several possible explanations exist for Liz's Chrisp Street story, the simplest being that she simply told Kidney and Preston a wrong location. On the other hand, it is possible that on marrying, the pair first worked for one of the coffee house owners in Chrisp Street before getting their own shop. A third feasible reason is that since Chrisp Street had a thriving street market, the Strides could have graduated from running a market stall to their own shop, which would explain why nobody has traced the address. Of these, the first explanation is the most likely, given the couple's known residence in Upper North Street within a few months of their marriage. If there ever was a business in Chrisp Street, it must have been a very short lived affair.
Finally, a quick comment on the coffee connection involving Mrs. Watts. Mary Malcolm stated that her sister lived with a man from Poplar who kept a coffee shop, that his name may have been Dent and she estimated that these events happened about three and a half years previously. It can now be revealed that Mrs. Malcolm was correct.
From 1881, a Mary Ann Dent did own a coffee shop at 246 High Street, Poplar plus another one at the far more up-market 76 Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. By the end of 1884 she had moved premises to 243 Bow Road, Poplar whilst the shop in the High Street had passed to a John Henry Robert Dent. The 1888 edition of Kelly's listed a John Dent (without all the extra initials but presumably the same man) with a coffee shop at the Brompton Road address. It must remain pure speculation that the merry-go-round in the ownership of these shops was caused by Elizabeth Watts having a fling with John Dent, when it could equally be the result of quite unconnected family circumstances, but stranger things have been known.
The coincidences in the Malcolm/Watts/Stride story really are remarkable. So are the continuing references to coffee shops in the Stride family history.
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