A CAST OF THOUSANDS
BY CHRISTOPHER SCOTT
Elizabeth Prater was a witness at Mary Jane Kelly's inquest and lived in the room above Kelly in Miller's Court at the time of the murder. Prater's story is a complex one in that she had had children by at least two different men and lived intermittently with her husband, William Prater. It also appears that her birth name was Eliza and not Elizabeth.
The A-Z gives the scant background of Prater's marital condition as follows:
"Wife of boot machinist William Prater who had deserted her five years previously." (i.e. in 1883)
Prater's own testimony at Kelly's inquest confirmed this when she deposed "I am the wife of William Prater a Boot Machinist, he has deserted me for 5 years. " She also added, which is pertinent to the present inquiry, that she stood at the corner by McCarthy's shop from 1am to 1.20 am and added "I was waiting for a man I lived with, he did not come." This important sentence can be construed in two ways.
Either Prater was waiting for a man she had previously been living with elsewhere, or she was waiting for a man who shared her room with at 20 Miller's Court. The former interpretation would seem to make more sense in that she was waiting for him out on the street, which would make little sense if they were sharing a room. This male companion of Prater's remains elusive but may yet prove to be important.
I have searched extensively both in census data from 1871 to 1901 and also in BMD (Birth, marriages and Deaths) and the result of this is that there is only one couple who can conceivably be identified as Prater and her husband. Theirs is a chequered and complex marital history in that both had previous spouses and children by their former partners.
Throughout the 1871 to 1901 period, William Prater, variously described as a cordwainer, a boot closer and a boot machinist, lived at 8 Blossom Place, Norton Folgate. The Liberty of Norton Folgate was a small area in Whitechapel around and including Spital Square. This lay a short distance to the north west of Dorset Street. William was born in Crantock in Cornwall some time between 1829 and 1831.
In 1871 William Prater is listed at Blossom Place with a spouse named Sarah Prater and one child. Their details are listed as follows:
William Prater aged 40 born Crantock, Cornwall - Cordwainer
Sarah Prater aged 30 born City of London.
William Prater aged 10 born City of London.
By the time of the 1881 census, William's spouse Sarah has disappeared from his household and has been replaced by his second wife, Eliza Prater. The household in 1881 at Blossom Place is a complex one in that the offspring listed include William, the son of William and Sarah mentioned in 1871, two children of Eliza's by a different father, whose surname is given as Elder, and another daughter named Elizabeth, born in or about 1872 whose mother is uncertain.
The available data suggests two possible reasons for the change of spouse. The young Elizabeth may have been the daughter of William and Sarah born the year after the 1871 census. It is even possible that Sarah died in childbirth and William thus married Eliza in 1873. The other logical possibility is that Elizabeth was the daughter of William and Eliza (and the similarity of forenames may support this) who was born out of wedlock as a result of an affair between William and Eliza, which led to the breakdown of his marriage to Sarah.
In either event William Prater and Eliza were married in the 3rd quarter of 1873 in Shoreditch. In the marriage entry her name is given as Eliza Wickes. In the 1881 census Eliza's age is given as 38, which means she was born in 1843, or the latter part of 1842. This allows us to trace her birth record to the last quarter of 1842 when her birth was registered in Holborn under the full name of Eliza Sophia Wickes. The full household listing for 8 Blossom Place in the 1881 census is as follows:
Address 8 Blossom Place
William Prater aged 52 born Truro, Cornwall - Boot closer
Eliza Prater aged 38 born St George's East
Elizabeth Prater aged 9 born Norton Folgate
William Prater aged 20 born Aldgate - Boot closer
Children by former husband:
Charles Elder aged 13 born Bishopsgate
Kate Elder aged 12 born Bishopsgate
David Jones aged 54 born Cripplegate - Commission Agent
Henry Judge aged 50 born Spitalfields - Porter in Infirmary
I have yet to trace the marriage of Eliza to a man named Elder by whom she had a son and daughter. I am also unable to trace a birth record for either child under the name as given in the census. One surmise - and it is only that - is that Eliza's former husband (if indeed they were married) was not named Elder and the children were given the name for social convenience. It may be of significance that the road in Norton Folgate that ran next to Blossom Street (off which ran Blossom Place) was called Elder Street. But this is the realm of guesswork, not fact.
Elizabeth Prater's testimony claims that her husband deserted her in 1883. However, in the census listing for 1891 the couple are again listed as living together in Blossom Place. There is now another son listed, Thomas Prater, aged 7 in 1891, therefore born in or around 1884. How this fits in with her claim that the couple parted in 1883 can only be guessed at. But the available evidence, including the fact that the couple were still listed as living together in 1901, yet Elizabeth was living back in Miller's Court in 1902, suggests that the parting of 1883 may have been the first of a number of such incidents. The listing for 1891 is as follows:
William Prater aged 62 born Crantock, Cornwall - Boot closer
Eliza Prater aged 48 born St George's East
Charles Elder aged 22 born London City - Boot closer
Kate Elder aged 21 born London City - Shirt machinist
Thomas Prater aged 7 born Norton Folgate
James Monk aged 34 born Shoreditch - Railway porter
Frederick Staplehurst aged 17 born Shoreditch - Ostler
The family is still listed at Blossom Place in 1901. Two changes should be noted. Eliza's son by a previous liaison, previously listed as Charles Elder, has now adopted his stepfather's name and is listed as Charles Prater. Also the previously listed Kate Elder, Eliza's daughter, has now married and left home. Her marriage was listed as taking place in September 1895. The full listing for 1901 is as follows:
William Prater aged 72 born Crantock, Cornwall - Boot machinist
Eliza Prater aged 58 born St George's East
Charles Prater aged 32 born Norton Folgate - Boot machinist
Thomas Prater aged 17 born Norton Folgate - Stationer's assistant
Thomas Winter aged 23 born Bermondsey - Butcher