A CAST OF THOUSANDS
BY CHRISTOPHER SCOTT
On October 5th, 1888, the police authorities in Rotherham contacted Scotland Yard to report that a discharged soldier named James Oliver had given them the name of a man he suspected of being the Whitechapel murderer. The name of this individual was **** Austin. Oliver reported that Austin had allegedly threatened to kill every whore and rip their insides out. Austin had a deep hatred of women.
All army divisions were contacted on the orders of Inspector Frederick Abberline for information, but no result was forthcoming. James Oliver was again interviewed on or about the 19th October 1888. On the 24th October, Oliver was shown copies of both the "Dear Boss" letter and the "Saucy Jacky" postcard. Oliver claimed that the writing in the "Dear Boss" letter closely resembled that of Dick Austin.
For Oliver to have known Austin well enough to know what his handwriting was like, for them to have discussed women sufficiently for Austin to have revealed his inner thoughts to Oliver (or in company with Oliver present) it was a reasonable assumption that they had been serving soldiers together. We are told that by the time of 1888 Oliver was a discharged soldier. This term suggests to me that his discharge had not been too long a time previously. Any former soldier who had left the Army many years before would be more likely to describe himself by his civilian occupation, or if wanting to emphasise his military experience, as an "army pensioner" or "old soldier." The census data most immediately prior to the murders is, of course, the return for 1881, so I searched there to see if I could find Oliver and Austin.
In fact there was only one serving soldier in the 1881 census under the name of James Oliver. He was in that year stationed at the Infantry Camp, St. Botolph, Colchester, Essex. The data tells us that he was 20 years old (i.e. born in or near 1861), was born in London and was, at the time of the census, unmarried. Similarly, there was only one serving soldier listed in 1881 under the name of Richard Austin (**** Austin's presumed real name.) He was at the time stationed at the Cavalry Barracks, Barrack Street, Norwich St. James, Pockthorpe, Norfolk. His rank and regiment is given - he was a Private in the 3rd Hussars. He was born in 1849 in Bexley, Kent, making his aged at the time of the census 32 years old.
We cannot ignore the facts that there is more than a ten-year gap in their ages, that they were not, in 1881, stationed together, and that Oliver is listed as an infantry soldier and Austin as a serving in a cavalry unit. Of course, as they were both of low rank, it is possible that at some time post 1881 they were stationed together or that they became acquainted under other circumstances, but that is firmly in the realm of speculation and cannot presently be proven one way or the other.
We must now follow both these individuals through to the 1891 census to see what became of them. From the 1881 data we knew, in the case of James Oliver, we were looking for a person of that name who was born in London and would be 30 years old (or thereabouts, allowing for a certain "fluidity" in the age data, as previously mentioned.) As in the 1881 return, there was only one person listed who fitted these criteria. From the description of him in 1888 as a "discharged solider" we would expect him by 1891 to be listed as having a civilian occupation. James Oliver, aged 30, was living at 17 Swanscombe Terrace, Swanscombe, Kent, and is described as a carpenter's labourer. Interestingly, the place of birth is more specific than the information given in 1881. We are old that he was born in Bethnal Green, London.
To continue our pursuit, we must look in 1891 for a Richard Austin, aged 32 (or thereabouts), born in Bexley in Kent. At first there appeared to be no one who fitted the bill. There was a Richard Austin of the right age who, in the index, was listed as being born in "Beeby" in Kent. As a Kent man myself I knew there was no such place, then or now! So I consulted the original enumerator's sheet, and, sure enough, the place of birth was written as Bexley. Richard Austin in 1891 was living at 18 Chapel Place, Dover, Kent and was described as a journeyman shoemaker. His marital status was given as married. His wife was named Marie, aged 40, and she was born in Ware, Hertfordshire.
When we come forward to 1901, James Oliver had moved to 47 Railway Street, Northfleet, Kent. He was listed as a timberman at a cement works. His wife, aged 39, was Rebecca Oliver, born in Southend. They are listed as having produced 6 children - James obviously did not share **** Austin's alleged hatred of women! Sadly, there is no sign of either Richard Austin or his wife Marie in the 1901 data. I have looked for a record of the death of either between 1891 and 1901 but have been unable to trace any such record. They may have emigrated, of course, but what became of **** Austin, if he was the alleged woman hater, is, like so much in the Whitechapel case, simply unknown.