|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 14, December 1997. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.|
by Andy Aliffe
William Stewart's book Jack the Ripper - A New Theory is a scarce, and much sought after, early Ripper work. Published in 1939, it is the third English language book on the subject in the 20th Century, following Leonard Matter's first published title The Mystery of Jack the Ripper (1929) and Edwin T Woodhall's Jack the Ripper: or When London Walked in Terror (1935).
Stewart's "...New Theory" explores the then controversial theme that 'Jack' could have been 'Jill'. An idea suggested by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at an earlier date.
Stewart asked these questions:
What sort of person could be out at night without exciting the suspicion of household or neighbours, who were keyed up with suspicion on account of the mysterious crimes ?
What sort of person could pass through the streets without exciting suspicion ?
What sort of person could have the elementary anatomical knowledge which was evidenced by the mutilations, and the skill to perform them in a way as to make some people think a doctor was responsible?
What sort of person could have risked being found by the dead body, yet have a perfect alibi ?
Stewart concluded that it was a woman who was or who had been a midwife.
The JTR A-Z says the book is easily under rated, but Stewart's theory, that an abortionist midwife, who killed Kelly while she was pregnant, "has fallen with the discovery of Dr. Bond's report.... which shows that she was NOT pregnant" After many months of research and dead ends, including finding the wrong William Stewart (with East End and Ripper connections!), I finally tracked down the right one and spent a delightful day in West Sussex, with his daughter Jean Coram and grandson Breck. Jean, now in her eighties, Is a sprightly minded lady, living in Bohemian splendour in the family home of many years.
She followed in her father, 'Doogie's', footsteps, studying art design and sculpture at the same Lambeth art college attended by William in the early 1900's. Indeed it was Jean that designed and drew the now familiar picture on the Quality Street chocolate boxes and tins. Jean's son Breck is also a portrait artist and makes financial success painting and selling pictures of classic American cars.
William Douglas Stewart was born in Greenwich in July 1883, son of Douglas Stewart, author and playwright and grandson of Alexander Stewart, the celebrated Arabic scholar.
At the age of 20 William was Advertising Director of the London Press Exchange, commissioning pen and ink art-work for the many Fleet Street illustrated papers. William himself was also drawing satirical cartoons for Punch during this period As a jobbing author and artist, when times were hard, he was a freelance illustrator and spent a couple of years writing a different short story every day for the Evening Standard.
He was proud of his Scottish heritage and a follower of the emerging Suffragette Movement, leading a Pipe Band to the gates of Holloway Prison in May 1921 when Sylvia Pankhurst was released. It was during this time he developed his great interest and life long passion that would eventually become a full time occupation:- Theatrical scenic design.
In the First World War he was based in Wales as an official war artist, representing the Illustrated London News. He was made a member of the British Water-Colour Society in 1918 and of the RBA in 1924. On two occasions, he had a painting on the line at the Royal Academy.
At the end of WWI he became a full time scenic designer for the Stoll Variety Theatre chain. Jean remembers with youthful enthusiasm her early school days, travelling to the many theatres around the country, spending years at a time in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Liverpool, living in theatrical digs with all the associated stories and characters. The family eventually headed back south when Doogle's scenic work brought him to the Elephant and Castle Theatre, run by the ever popular Tod Slaughter (see Ross Strachan's article issue #13, pg 14).
Tod and William's association and, friendship grew over the years they were together at the 'Elephant'. The highlights of William's work were for Tod Slaughter's Christmas pantomimes, which caused gasps of delight and applause from the audiences and Slaughter often persuaded William on stage to take a bow in recognition of his work.
Jean remembered 'Old Slaughter' paying local characters a couple of pounds a night to be extras in some of the big pantomime scenes, all of whom were given an air of star quality by hoots and cheers from friends and family in the audience. She also remembered that the audiences could be over enthusiastic. One time she and her mother were in the theatre on an opening night to see one of her father's great transformation scenes, but just as the curtain was rising, her mother was hit on the head by a sweet thrown from the upper-circle `gods'. She passed out and had to be carried from the theatre, with the tragedy' making the local paper a few days later under the headline "Lady hit on head by Pear Drop" !
William had for several years during this period formed a friendship with Sir Frank Brangwyn, the noted decorative painter and sculptor. They shared an interest in the legends, buildings, folklore, and characters of the East End, and spent many months between them, sketching and photo-graphing the Cockney community, laying the foundations for two of Stewart's future books.
A new type of theatre was beginning to emerge and Stewart's scenic work was becoming seasonal, so he returned to advertising as production manager with the British Commercial Gas ' Association.
Indeed, Jean wrote and illustrated a children's book for the company, based on "M r. Therm", as suggested by another artist and friend, Eric Gill.
By now the idea of the Jack the Ripper book was beginning to take shape. William had already painted a series of East End scenes and had shown the collection as a one-man show, but now he returned to photograph what then remained of the Ripper sites.
Jean would often accompany her father on his East End sorties, posing for the out-lines of the victims bodies for William's photographic reconstructions and she also unknowingly contributed to the model sets. On one occasion her father needed a scaled paisley shawl for a model of one of the victims and Jean was horrified to find that he had, during the night, cut the end off her boyfriend's favourite paisley tie !
As a keen amateur photographer (he wrote a book called Profitable Amateur Photography!) Doogie developed his own films and was rather shaken one time when in 1938 a developing picture of a front window of 29 Hanbury Street produced an image of a woman in working class Victorian clothes. This caused a certain amount of excitement when he sent it to the Psychical Research Society, but no satisfactory answer was ever given as to it's origin. Stewart spent many months researching the facts then known concerning the Whitechapel Murders, consulting several officers who were engaged on the killings at the time.
His set designing abilities were used to great effect throughout his book providing reconstructions of some of the murder sites. Early in 1938 the Evening News began running a series of articles on "Murder Street", identified as Duval Street (Dorset St.) and Millers Court. William sent the editor a photograph of his model reconstruction of Mary Kelly's room, and as luck would have it, a senior Scotland Yard official was there when it arrived. So convincing was its likeness that the inspector wanted to know how "Mr. Stewart was able to obtain details which as far as he knew were only available at the Yard?". Obviously William's contacts had given and shown him privileged information.
Jack the Ripper was published in March 1939 amid the usual reviews, several picking up on the "New Theory" - that of a woman killer - was similar to Mrs. Pearcy, the Camden Town murder of 1890. The book even attracted comment from the Times Lherary Supplement of April 1939 challenging his use of English grammar saying "The. verb. `to peeve' and 'to contact' do not exist in reputable English and the split infinitives on page 213 require at least an apology."! It also goes on to congratulate Stewart for his "experiments in reconstructing the crimes free from the terror and disarray which they provoked among contemporary commentators".
Stewart had re-staged the murder of Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square to prove that the Night Porter, who said he heard nothing, must have been wrong. Stewart tore a piece of apron cloth which echoed around the Mitre Square buildings.
The Times Literary Supplement also makes mention on the cynical reflections, quoted in the book, of Mr. George Bernard Shaw. William Stewart took the trouble of sending GBS his proof copy for comment. Shaw returned the manuscript, annotated in his own handwriting, but none too pleased! His reactions are shown in a facsimile from the pages of the proof copy opposite.
There were plans to turn the book into a film but with the outbreak of the Second World War these plans were shelved. After the war, William's easel works of the theatre, a record of his life's work; were exhibited around the country under the title of "Fifty Years Back Stage" and were the subject of a four page feature by the Illustrated London News.
An introduction to this exhibition says "The theatre, in its widest sense, has stimulated many famous artists to produce some of their finest works, the names of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec springing readily to mind. Today the photographer finds ballet and the theatre attractive and challenging subjects for the employment of his skills. There can have been very few artists, however, who have attempted to record the more intimate life of the theatre, the scenes behind the scenes, the people who make the theatre function and the techniques used by the producer and stage manager. William Stewart has found a wealth of fascinating subjects for the sketches which he enjoyed doing - the property man, stage hands, the effects equipment, the trials and tribulations of the touring company - and for half a century he used his skills to record aspects of the theatre, many of which have completely disappeared."
I am happy to say that I'm helping John find a permanent home for this collection at Covent Garden's Theatre Museum.
William Stewart's last book, Characters of Bygone London, published in 1960, was a collection of sketches of Victorian and Edwardian ordinary people and long forgotten East End trades and occupations, all taken from photographs and drawings from his earlier wanderings, when he actually met, knew, and became friends with these folk.
William Douglas Stewart died in 1965, aged 82.
All Illustrations In this article are used with the express permission of Jean Coram, the daughter of William Dough Stewart .