|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 27, February 2000. 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 Bernie Brown
Nearly a century ago, on 9th February 1901 Police constable 240'H' Ernest William Thompson was laid to rest with full ceremonial honours within Mile End Cemetery (now Tower Hamlets Cemetery) having been stabbed in the neck during a disturbance in the Commercial Road on the first day of December 1900.
It is somewhat ironic that P.C Thompson should have been buried during February, as events that took place that very same month almost a decade earlier led to P.C. Thompson acquiring the unenviable title of 'The Man who nearly caught Jack-The-Ripper'.
On the ominous date of Friday 13th February 1891 (Valentines Day Eve) at about 2.15 am P.C. Thompson was patrolling his beat in a southerly direction down Leman Street turning right into Chamber Street which runs East to West parallel to the Great Eastern Railway (GER) arches. There were at that time three dismal passages running beneath the railway connecting Chamber Street with Royal Mint Street (formerly Rosemary Lane) and its continuance Cable Street, so called after the form of traction employed by the London and Blackwall Railway in 1840.
P.C. Thompson decided to enter one of these passages known as Swallow Gardens which was somewhat narrower than the other two and used by employees of the Great Northern Railway (GNR) and the GER who both had depots in Royal Mint Street and Goodmans Yard respectively. Although Swallow Gardens had a lamp at each end, the centre of the passage lay in virtual darkness. It was here that he observed what appeared to be a drunken woman lying in the roadway, not an uncommon sight in Whitechapel.
Upon shining his lamp towards the prostrate figure he realised it was the almost lifeless body of a young woman aged about 25 years bleeding profusely from terrible injuries to her throat but he thought he noticed one eye open and shut. Whilst patrolling Mansell Street Thompson had imagined he had heard footsteps, but had seen no one. A more experienced officer might have pursued the phantom footsteps, but alas this was P.C. Thompson's first night on duty on the beat alone so in accordance with standing instructions following the Whitechapel murders of 188811889 he stayed with the victim and blew three sharp blasts on his whistle to obtain assistance.
Within a few minutes he was joined by P.C. 161 'H' Frederick Hyde (variously given as Hart, Higham or Hinton). James Tully however adds that a P.C. Hart and a P.C. Hinton both arrived on the scene - an astonishing feat considering they were one in the same person i.e Hyde.
Plain-clothes P.C. 275 'H' George Elliott also arrived at the scene then raced off towards Leman Street Police Station (then under construction) while P.C. Hyde went to Dock Street to raise Dr. Frederick Oxley from his slumbers, who arrived within 10 minutes followed by Dr. Bagster Phillips the divisional surgeon, in a cab.
P.C. 355 'H' Ralph Scott and P.C. 327 'H' Thomas Williams also attended and noted that the victim still had a weak pulse despite her appalling injuries. According to Detective Sergeant Benjamin Leeson's memoirs, published as 'Lost London',he himself had only joined the force a month prior to Thompson as P.C. 282 'H' and was that night posted to a beat in the vicinity of the Royal Mint, allegedly
going to P.C. Thompson's assistance. However no mention of Leeson's part in the incident appears in the inquest report, albeit being credited with finding the corpse by author Donald McCormick. Leeson recalled that the railway arch in which the body was found ran under the GER goods yard and extended for about 50 yards into Royal Mint Street, coming out just opposite the Royal Mint Refinery. "Here a policeman was on duty all night, but he had neither seen or heard anything unusual until the blowing of the police-whistle". Just whom this particular constable was is not divulged but two 'H' division P.C.s were specially employed at the Royal Mint, corroborated by Charles Oliver's article written in 1902 entitled 'The Royal Mint where he observes that "There are several burly looking policeman on the spot, or if we judge them correctly are looking for suspicious characters'
The plain-clothes officer George Elliot had by his own admission been in the vicinity of the Royal Mint and a City detective had also passed this way, but neither had seen anything untoward. Why was P.C. Elliott employed in plainclothes when the extra plain-clothes patrols employed during the Whftechapel Murders had been withdrawn in April 1890, and just what was the unknown City detective doing on Metropolitan Police territory? Had both forces been tipped off about a possible attack? If so why were were two novice constables (Leeson and Thompson) given adjoining beats?
In his memoirs, 'Detective Days', Chief Constable Frederick Porter Wensley who had only joined as P.C 402W in January 1888 claims that while P.C. Thompson was patrolling Chamber Street he saw a man running out of Swallow Gardens towards him but ran off in the opposite direction upon seeing the constable. This is further complicated by ex-Detective Sergeant Edwin Woodhall who claims that "The (Bucks Row) constable was the only living person who saw and spoke to the ripper, but again the mystery deepens by the grim fact that this particular policeman some years later was murdered in the execution of his duty". Woodhall is clearly confusing the Polly Nichols murder (on J Division) of August 1888 with the Thompson murder (on 'H' Division) over a decade later. The latter did not join the force until two and a half years after the Bucks Row murder.
The JtR A-Z claims that P.C. Thompson heard footsteps retreating from Swallow Gardens towards Royal Mint Street upon discovering the body, however, at the subsequent inquest held by Coroner Wynne Baxter at the Working Lads Institute, Whitechapel, Thompson gives a different testimony in that he heard footsteps only when he was in Chamber Street about 80 Yards from Swallow Gardens arches coming from the direction of Mansell Street. While this rules out the murderer using Swallow Gardens as means of escape he may have availed himself of one of the two other passages.
Francis Coles' murder scene lay within the parish of St. George-in-the East but instead of being taken to the parish mortuary in Cable Street she was instead taken to Whitechapel Mortuary without any of the controversy over jurisdiction that occurred in the Mary Kelly case.
P.C. Hyde's beat had taken him along part of Royal Mint Street (past the entrance to Swallow Gardens), Cartwright Street and Upper East Smithfield. It was at the latter, the day after the murder, that the suspect James Sadler, a ship's fireman was arrested in 'The Phoenix' public-house by Detective Sergeant John Don and Detective Constable Gill for the murder of 'Carrotty Nell', an unfortunate who frequented the Tower Hill area and was well known to the local constabulary as 'Carrotty Annie'.
Constable Hyde's beat ended at the City Police boundary at Trinity Square, today defined by the aptly named 'Liberty Bounds' public-house opposite the Tower of London), the nearest City Police station being in Great Tower Street Mincing Lane. Hyde makes no mention of seeing a City detective (or 'Jack' as they were referred to) on his beat. Neither did his sergeant 7 'H' Wesley Edwards, who spoke to Sadler at about 2am the morning of the murder at Sparrow Corner (the junction of Minories/Royal Mint Street and (Little) Tower Hill) or P.C. 222 'H' William Bogan who saw Sadler at about 1.15am remonstrating with a docks constable at the main gate of the London Docks. As the murder had yet to be discovered there was no reason for any City officer to come to the aid of their Metropolitan colleagues. 'Carrotty Nell' alias Frances Hawkins or Coleman was laid to rest at the East London Cemetery, Plaistow, Essex on the afternoon of Wednesday 25th February 1891. Although due to depart at 2pm the funeral cortege left Whitechapel mortuary some 15 minutes late due to the vast crowd of some 2,000 people who waited in much eagerness to catch sight of the coffin which bore the simple legend:- 'Francis Coles - Died 13th Feburary 1891 - Aged 26 years'
The hearse traveled slowly along the Mile End Road, Burdett Road and East India Dock Road crossing the River Lea to enter the County of Essex, thence by way of the Barking Road and Hermit Road. Finally the coffin, laden with flowers was lowered into the grave, thus earning immortality as probably Jack the Ripper's final victim!
Frances however was not to be the only victim of the Swallow Gardens incident as, by a peculiar quirk of fate, on the evening of the funeral, a Mr Charles Guiver, aged 34 years, a principle witness at the inquest suddenly died at No 8 White's Row, Spitalfields. This was the common lodging-house where Frances and Sadler had stayed prior to the murder. Although Dr. Dukes of Brick Lane attended, he pronounced life extinct, believed from natural causes.
The only possible means for the murder to escape undetected would have been to have gained access via the nearby G.E.R., GNR or Midland Railway goods depots following the spur above Chamber Street and Mansell Street which led to the London and North Western Railway Goods depot at Haydon Square, almost opposite Aldgate Underground Station, completely invisible to the police below who were busy chasing shadows. A railwayman would, of course, know the intricacies of the railway system and several railway employees gave evidence at the inquest. As all the previous Whitechapel murders had taken place in the vicinity of the railway who better than a railway policeman could infiltrate police cordons and patrols with impunity.
It just so happens that one of the investigating officers, Detective Inspector Henry Moore, not only had a railway background but on his retirement took the Super-intendent ship of the Great Eastern Railway, beneath whose arches Frances Coles body was found. The finding of the torso beneath Pinchin Street arches two years earlier had led American journalist R Harding Davis to suspect Moore of being the perpetrator. The Blitz in December 1940 badly damaged the four railway yards. Meanwhile travelers on today's Docklands Light Railway are blissfully unaware that they are passing over the scene of perhaps the last Ripper murder, at least according to Inspector Edmund Reid, one of the investigating officers on the ground. Many locals believed the arches to be haunted. About 18 months after the murder on 21st August 1892 at about 11.15pm a London Tilbury and Southend Railway locomotive on its way back to Plaistow shed (after passing over Swallow Gardens) struck the Ilford to Fenchurch Street passenger train head on near Leman Street injuring 50 people. The name of this maverick locomotive was 'WHITECHAPEL'!
As for the officers on the ground at the time of the Coles murder, Sergeant 7 'H' Edwards was promoted to the elite reserve force as P.S. 3 'HR' for his part in identifying Sadler to the CID. In March 1891 P.C. 222 'H' Bogan, who had seen Sadler at the London Docks covered in blood from an affray but had let him go, was criticized for not arresting the seaman. Bogan, a fiery 30 year old Irishman did not accept criticism too well and had his wages reduced from 29 shillings a week to 26/- and was transferred to Lambeth as P.C 286 'L' for insubordination and using abusive and threatening language towards sergeant Edwards.
'L' Division just happened to cover the area of another Ripper suspect, namely Thomas Hayne Cutbush. P.C. Bogan did not last long in Lambeth and in November 1891 was dismissed for "Obtaining fried fish, refusing to pay for the same, being under the influence of drink, and assaulting the lady shop-keeper".
What PC 275'H' Elliott was doing in plain clothes was never divulged but he was subsequently put back in uniform and transferred as P.C. 343 'J' to the Bethnal Green division. While this may not seem too much of a move it must be remembered that in 1891 'J' division included such 'sleepy hollows' as Woodford, Claybury and Loughton, in Essex, to whence trouble-makers were sent to vegetate. As for the tormented P.C. Thompson, he carried on each day wondering if he could have prevented Frances' terrible death.
Members of the Cloak and Dagger Club who meet bi-monthly at "The City Darts' public house in Commercial Street may wish to raise their glasses to the memory of young Frances Coles, for it was here two days prior to the murder that Sadler met her in the bar of what was then known as 'The Princess Alice'Sources:
Police Review - 21 December 1900
The Identity of JtR by Donald McCormick
When London Walked in Terror by Edwin T Woodhall
JtR A-Z by Begg, Fido and Skinner
Living London 6/02 by Chas Oliver
The Secret of Prisoner 1167 by James Tully
The Times for 14/2/1891
Eastern Post and City Chronicle for 28/2/1891
Morning Advertiser for 2/4/1910
M.P. Orders 1891