The anniversary of the first Jack the Ripper murder – the crime scene revisited

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

Ah, yes, great moments in philosophy.

I’ve forgotten who the ancient Greek philosopher was who said it but there’s no forgetting what he said. It was a watershed moment in the history of thought, the history of philosophy. He said, “you can’t step in the same river twice.” The idea being the second time you step in it the river’s changed, it’s not the same river you stepped in the first time.

And then a couple of hundred years later another Greek philosopher took it one further. He said, “you can’t step in the same river once.” Meaning everything is always in flux, constantly in flux. There’s no stasis. That river is not a fixed entity. It’s changing even as you’re stepping into it.

And what does that have to do with today, August 31st? And in particular, this guide, moi, David, on August 31st?

Our Ripper guides tonight will be telling their walkers that this is the anniversary, it all started on this day, August 31st, 1888.

Well, yes and no. Polly Nichols, the first canonical victim – to use today’s parlance – was murdered on August 31st, 1888. To be precise, shortly before 4 am on August 31st, 1888. I’m writing this about 9.40 pm on August 30th, 2023. Go back exactly 135 years – to 1888 – Polly Nichols has about six more hours to live. Or to put that another way, when our walk starts the anniversary of that frenzied attack, those hideous few seconds in Bucks Row will have been and gone. Polly Nichols will have been dead for 135 years and sixteen hours.

Let’s review. Polly’s body was discovered at about 3.40 am by a carman named Charles Cross. He at first thought it was a tarpaulin lying in front of the gates to a stables. When he got closer he realised it was the body of a woman. Another passing cart driver on the way to work – a man named Robert Paul – saw Cross standing there. Cross called him over. The two of them inspected the body. Cross touched her face, which still warm. But her hands were cold. Cross told Paul he thought she was dead. Paul wasn’t sure. He said he thought she might be unconscious. They pulled her skirt down to cover her lower body and then went in search of a policeman. At the corner of Hanbury Street and Baker’s Row they encountered PC Jonas Mizen. They told him about the woman lying in the gutter in Bucks Row. Cross and Paul then went off to work. Mizen headed toward Buck’s Row. But Police Constable John Neil, walking his beat, got there first.

And so we come to the Greek philosophers. If a crime scene is a river, this was the moment I realised you can’t step into the same crime scene twice.

Revisiting it on August 30th, 2023 – looking at it anew, seeing things I hadn’t seen before – I realised it wasn’t the same crime scene when I guided the walk all those years ago.

I used to guide the Ripper walk regularly. At a pinch I could probably still guide it. I’m au fait with a lot of the literature, know the story pretty well.

But this time I decided to do something I hadn’t done all those years ago. And hadn’t done since. I left the books – the secondary sources – on the shelf and instead went back to the contemporary stuff, the primary documents. I wanted to find out whether the murder had registered at the time. Remember, Polly Nichols was the first canonical victim so by definition nobody will have known that a serial killer had come amongst them.

I looked at three newspapers. The Times, the Telegraph and the Sunday Times. All three of them were across the story. In considerable detail. Another woman had been savagely knifed to death – 39 stab wounds – in the same neighbourhood earlier in August so the press was blooded so to speak.

The authorities didn’t dawdle. Polly Nichols was murdered in the wee hours of Friday, August 31st. The inquest got underway on Saturday, September 1st. The Sunday Times story ran the next day. It covered the inquest.

The second witness was Police Constable Neil. And here, for me, it’s the details. Things I didn’t know. Reading that Sunday Times story was my you can’t step in the same river twice moment.

First of all, how dark it was. It was a couple of hours before sunrise and it was a waning moon.

Police Constable Neil remarked how dark it was, just the one street lamp down at the far end of the street. PC Neil said he was heading east on Bucks Row.

He said there wasn’t a soul about. He said he’d been round there half an hour earlier – that will have been about 3.15 am – and he saw no one then.

But at 3.45 am he wasn’t alone. Polly Nichols was there. Dead. She was lying on her back. PC Neil said her head was toward the east. Christians are buried with their head toward the east. Toward the light. Toward the resurrection. Her body was just outside stable gates. PC Neil said, ‘the deceased was lying lengthways along the street, her left hand touching the gate.

So, a stables on one side of the crime scene there on Bucks Row. And directly on the other side of the street, Essex Wharf. Essex Wharf was a slaughterhouse. Didn’t know that. And you can be sure, it stopped me in my tracks. Polly Nichols, Jack the Ripper’s first victim, was murdered across the street from a slaughterhouse.

Let’s hear some more from Police Constable Neil. “The first to arrive on the scene after I had discovered the body were two men who work at a slaughterhouse opposite. They said they knew nothing of the affair and that they had not heard any screams. I had previously seen the men at work. That would be about 3.15, or half an hour before I found the body.”

And so we come to that bonnet. PC Neil said, “her bonnet was off and lying at her side, close to her left hand.”

The bonnet isn’t quite what Alfred Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin – an insignificant object that’s a plot device – but it’s close to being so.

If nothing else, the camera would certainly pick it out and linger on it. If we track the last four hours or so of Polly Nichols’ life, that bonnet is almost a leitmotif. At about 11 pm she entered the Frying Pan public house in Brick Lane. She was there for an hour and a half. At 1.20 am she returned to the kitchen of her Flower and Dean Street doss House. At 2.10 am the deputy lodging housekeeper asked her for the four pence required for a bed. She didn’t have it. She was ordered to leave the premises. Going out the door, Polly pointed to her new black velvet bonnet and said, “I’ll soon get my doss money, see what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now.” The supposition is she went out to get a customer, get her doss money in return for sexual services. “See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now” – Yes, for sure, I see it, Polly. I can’t forget it. There it is, and always will be, for me, from now on, on the street, by your hand, by that gate to the stables, over the way from the slaughterhouse.

But before we get there. One last sighting. It’s about 2.30 am. Polly Nichols has another hour or so to live. A woman named Emily Holland sees Polly walking alone down Osborne Street. Polly’s in a bad way. Staggering. Lurching. Slumping against the wall of a grocer’s shop. Emily Holland tries to persuade her to go back to the doss house. Polly Nichols refuses. She says, “I have had my lodging money three times today and i have spent it.” Those are her last known words. Whatever she said to the man who was about to cut her throat and disembowel her, that utterance is gone with the wind. As is what he said to her. She was last seen walking toward Whitechapel Road. Walking into the lengthening midnight shadows of August 31st, 1888. Walking into the dark wood of the Autumn of Terror.

You’ve been listening to the London Calling podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for peanuts – for McDonald’s wages. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely –

to front our walks with distinguished


By way of example,

Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and

subsequently CEO) of Independent

Television News. And Lisa Honan

who had a distinguished career as

diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of

St Helena, the island where Napoleon

breathed his last and, some say, had

his penis amputated – Napoleon

didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot

juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa – both of them

CBEs – are just a couple of our

headline acts.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

Royal Shakespeare Company actors,

a bevy of MVPs,

Oscar winners (people who’ve won

the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)… well,

you get the idea. As that travel writer

famously put it, “if this were a golf

tournament, every name on the

Leader Board would be a London

Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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