A Fatal Fight In Whitechapel

Although major crimes, such as the Jack the Ripper murders, are the ones that tend to be remembered today, all sorts of, now forgotten, felonies plagued the citizens of the Victorian East End.

Violent crime, frequently resulting in murder, was commonplace.

Drunkenness was also common, and with it came the risk that an alcohol-fuelled argument could, at any time, blow up into a violent altercation in which blows were exchanged, and a punch or shove could lead to a fall that might result in the death of one, or sometimes both, of the combatants.

One such fatal brawl took place in Whitechapel in November, 1889.

Boys fihgting in the street watched by others.
A Street Fight In East London.


The Illustrated Police News outlined the facts of the case on Saturday 30th November 1889:-

“At the Thames Police Court, on Friday, James Donovan, fifty-eight, labourer, of 6, Upper Well Alley, Whitechapel, was charged with feloniously killing Edward Arthur Careless, a labourer, in a fight.

Sophia Careless, of 6, Pearl Street, who appeared deeply affected while giving her evidence, said that between three and four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, her husband came home with a cut on his forehead. He said it had been caused through falling down.

After he had washed the wound, he said that he had been fighting with a man, and he then went out again. He returned home soon afterwards, and he went to bed, which he did not again leave alive.

At ten minutes to seven on Thursday morning, she found her husband lying dead in bed.


On Tuesday she noticed a bruise on the face of the deceased, and it was now much more distinct. She did not think that the deceased knew that he was so near to death.

No doctor saw him alive.

The deceased told to her that he had been blinded with blood, but the witness did not notice if his clothes were dirty. He was not tipsy when he came home. Witness did not know the prisoner.


John Hooper, a labourer, of 28, New Gravel Lane, said that, shortly after two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, he was in the Ship and Dolphin beer shop, New Gravel Lane.

The prisoner came in, and at that time the deceased man was there.

Donovan started talking about work, when Careless told him to “hold his row.” Donovan refused, and calledCareless a bad name.

The deceased then struck Donovan a blow on the jaw with his fist.

The Prisoner told the deceased to go outside and he would fight him. They went out of the house and went to Coleman Street. They took off their coats and commenced fighting. They struck one another and wrestled, when both fell to the ground, the prisoner being underneath.

Careless struck his head on the ground, cutting it.

They got up and again fought. Donovan struck the deceased man a blow between the eyes, and they again struggled.

Careless said, “Let go of me and I’ll have another go.” They sparred up, when Careless said, “I’m blind.”

The Witness and some more men took him away and wiped the blood from his eyes. They afterwards bathed his head. Donovan then came up and wanted to fight the witness.

The prisoner was quite sober, but Careless had been drinking.


Detective-sergeant George Glenister, H Division, said that he arrested the prisoner on the previous night.

On telling him the charge he replied, “I didn’t have any row. I did have a go, but I did not hit him. My daughter cut my head open, where you see the plaister, the same night with a cup.”


The doctor said the cause of death was erysipelas, consequent on the wound.

Mr. Lushington remanded the accused.”


The inquest into the death of  Edward Careless was reported by Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper on Sunday, 1st December, 1889:-

“Mr. Baxter held an inquiry at the vestry hall, Cable Street, St. George’s-in-the-East, on Saturday, into the circumstances attending the death of Edward Arthur Careless, aged 49, a labourer, lately living at 6, Pearl Street, St. Georges-in-the-East, alleged to have been killed in a fight with James Donovan, also a labourer, on Tuesday afternoon.

Donovan, who has been arrested, now stands charged on remand from the Thames Police Court with feloniously killing the deceased.

Inspector Mason, H division, attended to watch the case for the Commissioners of Police.


Sophia Careless, the widow, deposed that, on Tuesday, the deceased left home at 7.30 in good health to look for work.

Between three and four, he returned and she could smell that he had been drinking, but he said that he had only had half-a-pint.

She noticed a wound on the forehead, and he said that he had been fighting. She asked him to have it attended to, but he refused and went out.

When he returned, she again questioned him and he said. “I was blinded with blood and I could not stand. I slipped down and cut my head on the kerb.”

He went straight up to bed without any tea, as  he felt too ill,

The Witness sent for some sticking plaster and strapped the wound up.

The next day he did not get up, and at midnight, as he was in such great pain, she sent for a doctor, but the messenger returned without one.

He said that he felt great pain in the head, and that if he was no better the next day he would go to the hospital.

At 7.30 the next morning witness woke and found him dead.


Evidence was given that the fight was with Donovan.

The deceased man struck the first blow, but under provocation.

Dr. George Arthur Rogers, of High-street, Shadwell, said that the cause of death was erysipelas, from the injury to the forehead.


The coroner, in summing up, said that it appeared to have been a fair fight, without any cowardly advantage being taken by either one or the other.

Under those circumstances, he thought that the jury would do well to say that the death was the result of a drunken row.

The jury returned a verdict of “Death by misadventure.”


Since the inquest jury had returned a verdict of “Death by misadventure,”  the case against James Donovan was, as a result, a non-starter and The Skegness Standard, reported on his next court appearance in its issue of Friday, 13th December, 1889

“James Donovan (68), a labourer, was charged on remand with causing the death of  Edward Careless in a fight which took place between them at Wapping.

Detective Sergeant Glenister informed the magistrate that an inquest had since been held and the jury had returned a verdict of accidental death.

Mr. Lushington ordered the accused to be discharged.”