A Ghastly Find At Middlesbrough

On Friday, 13th December, 1889, labourers unloading a barge of rubbish in Middlesbrough, discovered a a woman’s hand amongst the detritus.

Since the boat on which the hand was found had loaded its cargo of garbage in Millwall, London, some newspapers immediately linked it to the Whitechapel murders and questioned whether the hand made be from an unknown victim of Jack the Ripper.

The Daily Gazette For Middlesbrough immediately despatched a reported to the scene to glean any information he could, and his account was published by the newspaper on Saturday, 16th December, 1889:-


“While labourers there were working yesterday afternoon on board the barque Picton Castle, one of the gang discovered a woman’s right hand, perfect save for the absence of two joints of the little finger.

Another labourer, by the name of M’Aulay, then stated that some time before he came across a bag containing something which emitted a fearful odour. Supposing that the bag contained dead cats, he threw it into a lighter, Flora, where it was then buried beneath a great quantity of ballast.

Information was at once given by M’Aulay to the Chief-Constable of the Middlesbrough police, and, as the occurrence was not in his jurisdiction, the messenger was directed to go to the Durham side to report to the Durham police.


Instructions were also given to institute a search in the lighter for the bag and its contents, which were then under a considerable amount of ballast.

It may be mentioned that this ballast was taken on board at Millwall, which is near enough to the part of the East of London where the recent series of fiendish atrocities which have horrified the whole country have been committed, to give reasonable colour to the surmise that the remains are those of another victim, till now undiscovered, of the monster who is widely known as “Jack the Ripper,” thus concealed in shipping ballast, and brought to light at Middlesbrough.

The Picton Castle is a barque. She arrived here on the 21st inst., and her ballast was put into her about a week before that time.


The ghastly discovery in the ballast on board the barque Picton Castle in the Tees today continues to be the theme of much comment.

It was reported in one of the morning papers that the evil smelling bag referred to, which the stevedore’s men threw into the lighter uninvestigated, had been discovered, and that on being opened it was found to be filled with human remains in a very advanced state of decomposition. This report appears to have had its origin in some imaginative brain, since the bag has not been found, and has, in fact, scarcely been searched for as yet.

Our representative boarded the Picton Castle this forenoon in quest of further information, but there is not much to add at present to what is given above.


Captain William Chalk, the master, had just gone ashore, but the mate, Mr Henry Thomas, was on board, and very ready to throw any light he could upon the mystery.

In reply to questions, he said that a police officer had just been on board, and had taken away the hand.

“Have you found the bag yet that the men passed into the lighter?” asked our reporter.

” No,” replied the mate;” they have not been looking for it yet.”

“But one of the papers says that the bag was found last night, and that it was full of human remains greatly decomposed?”

“No, the bag is in the lighter under the ballast yet. But you had better see the stevedore; he can tell, you all about it.”


Mr McAulay, the stevedore, here joined us, and was equally obliging in imparting all he knew of the matter. His statement as to the passing of the malodorous bag unopened into the lighter appears above. The bag, he said, was just an ordinary sack, with the mouth tied tied round.

“What was the condition of the bag?”,  enquired the reporter, “could the hand have fallen out of it?”

“That I could not say,” replied Mr McAulay, “we did not examine the bag at the time.”

“Have not some other bones also been found?”

“Yes, one of the men told me, after we found the hand, that he had turned some bones over, and one of them, he believed, was a human arm bone. But anyhow it was only just a dry bone, and would have nothing to do with anything so recently dead as the hand.”


“What was the hand like?”

“It was a small hand, a good deal swollen. We all took it to be a woman’s hand ; but the officer who came on board said he thought it was a man’s hand. I think it was too small for that though. It was cut off clean at the wrist, and was in pretty good condition, but the two top joints of the little finger and the finger nails were gone.”

“What kind of ballast was the hand found in?”

“It was among ashes?”


The mate, in answer to questions, here informed our reporter that the ballast was taken on board from lighters in the Millwall Dock. The loading of the ballast commenced on the 5th November, and was continued up to the 12th. The ballast consisted of two or three sorts  – some dredged-up stuff from the river’s bed, and some “shore rubbish.”

“We left London,” said he, “last Tuesday three weeks (26th November), and we arrived here the next Thursday in tow. The rubbish,” he continued, “was shovelled out of the lighters into baskets and hoisted on board by the winch, as you see it being emptied now.

We were loading at night as well, and it is possible that the hand might have been shovelled in with the dirt at night and not noticed.”

“Did you lie alongside the quay?”

“Part of the time we lay alongside the quay, and part of the time we were out in the dock.”

“Then it is impossible the bag can have been put on board in the rubbish without the men noticing it? Don’t you think it must have been smuggled on board by someone and put into the hold?”

“I can’t say, but I don’t think anyone could have done so, as we were at work up to ten o’clock, and after that we had a watchman on duty.”

“But watchmen sleep on duty occasionally, do they not?”

“Well, perhaps, they do. Anyhow, I have no theory at all as to how the bag or the hand got on board.”

“Is it not possible that one of the labourers might have smuggled it on board?”

“It is possible; some of them are bad enough for anything.”


Our reporter then asked the stevedore whether any search had been made for the bag.

Mr McAulay said that his men had looked for it about half an hour, but then he had been obliged to take them off the search and put them upon their regular work.

“Have not the police put labourers on to search for it?”

“No; they wanted me to find men to do it; but I have none to spare, and I cannot do their work.”

“So you have gone on since putting ballast into the lighter, and we are not likely to know for some time what is in the bag?”

“Yes; that is so.”

“Have not the police done anything in the matter?”

“No; they have taken away the hand.”

“It seems to me that  I am about the only one who has been making enquiries into the matter?”

“Well, it is a fact that no one has asked so much about it as you have. We have had no one but you and the constable on board about it.”

This was about the sum and substance of all that could be gathered on the vessel. (It should be stated that in all probability the dates given on leaving London are a week too recent, judging by the time that the loading of ballast was completed).


Our reporter then went in quest of the police, who have the matter in hand.

Near by there was only a works policeman, who seemed to have had no material connection with the case, and the next nearest officer was a constable at Haverton Hill. He was out in connection with the case, and could not be found at that salubrious village.

Our reporter, however, discovered him later, with the ghastly remnant of humanity swinging innocently on a string from his hand in a brown paper parcel.

After the manner of his august calling the officer was reticent, and disposed to make as little as possible of the matter.

As to the question of whether the hand was that of a man or woman he declined to commit himself to a reporter, observing that it was a question for a medical man. He thought the hand must have been dead eight or nine weeks, and explained that it would decompose much more slowly than other parts of the body, all the blood being out of it.

The reporter enquired whether any search was to be made for the bag.

The officer replied, “We cannot search for it. It is under tons of ballast, and the lighter is full. There is nowhere to empty the ballast to look for it. We cannot throw it in the river. We shall not be able to see what is in the bag until the lighter is discharged in the usual way, which will be about the middle of next week. Sergeant Cameron, of Stockton has the case in hand, and your representative at Stockton will know all about it, as soon as there is anything to know.”


In reply to further questions the officer remarked that he thought that there was nothing in it, and that the bag would probably be found to contain dead dogs or cats. If that was so, there was only the hand to go upon, and there was no knowing where the hand had come from; the ballast was often passed on from one ship to another.

As to whether the hand was a man’s or a woman’s, no medical man had seen it up to the time of the interview with the Haverton Hill constable.

The thumb, in removing the packing in the paper parcel, has dropped oft the hand. It is undoubtedly a small hand, and though one police officer has opined it to be that of a man, all the crew of the vessel and the stevedores men and one or two others who have seen it are unanimous in believing it to be that of a woman.

The case thus stands exactly where it did when the hand was first discovered, and in all probability we shall know nothing further until the lighter is emptied, in the usual course, about the middle of next week.”


The Daily Gazette For Middlesbrough published an update on the case in its edition of Monday 16th December, 1889:-

“On Saturday evening, the hand which was found on Friday in the ballast on board the Swansea barque Picton Castle, from Millwall, while discharging in the Tees, was removed to Stockton and examined by Dr. Foss.

This gentleman expressed the opinion that it was the right hand of a full grown female; it was in an advanced stage of decomposition. The hand had been separated from the wrist, Dr. Foss believes, after death, and that gentleman is also of the opinion that the hand has been for some months either in water or in a very damp place.

This has led to a hypothesis on the part of the police that the hand has been dredged up in the soil from the bed of the Thames, or dug up from the foreshore, and is probably that of some drowned person.

The clean severance from the wrist, however, seems to call for some further explanation.


Although the Haverton Hill constable informed our representative on Saturday morning that no search could be made for the bag of suspected human remains which was shot into the lighter Flora, uninvestigated, and covered with ballast before the hand was found, until the lighter was discharged in the usual course, some constables went on board on Saturday night and made a search for the bag, which, however, they were unable to find.

It was at first arranged that the lighter Flora should be discharged at Connal’s wharf, but as it was found that she would not be able to take a turn there until Wednesday Mr Henderson, the proprietor, decided to discharge her ballast out at sea today.

When our reporter boarded the Picton Castle between eleven and twelve this morning the lighter was still alongside, and the ballast was still being unloaded.

The mate stated that he was expecting that the lighter would be towed off to be emptied directly.


Therefore, up to the present the case has only been advanced by the medical opinion of Dr. Foss, who confirms the general opinion as to the hand being that of a woman; but whose opinion as to the length of time that the hand has been dead, and as to its probable long immersion, rather militates against the theory of another recent “Thames Mystery” or “Jack the Ripper” horror.

In discharging the lighter a careful look-out for the bag will be kept, and when found it will be handed over to the police to investigate.”


Then, on Wednesday 18th December, 1889, the Gazette revealed that the missing sack had been found, albeit its contents proved to be something of an anti-climax:-

“Owing to the high wind which prevailed on Monday Mr Henderson’s lighter Flora was not discharged at sea, as had been intended.

Yesterday the wind had still further freshened, and the lighter was taken to Connal’s Wharf to be discharged.

The work oi unloading was commenced shortly after one o’clock, and went on for over three-and-a-half hours without anything being seen of the bag which had been tipped into the boat with the ballast from the Picton Castle.


The bottom was almost cleared when, in the one corner where the soil bad not been removed, the bag was found.

It was, as Mr McAulay, the stevedore, described, a common sack tied round the mouth with some string.

It was at once hauled up to the wharf and opened in the presence of Superintendent Bell, from Stockton, who had been watching the proceedings throughout, and of Detective Superintendent Thorpe, and a number of Press representatives.


On being opened the long-sought-for bag was found to contain earth or guano, full of fibrous matter, and emitting no particular odour. Consequently the fearful smell which the stevedore’s men described appears to have been conjured up by a memory of a too flexible character.


Therefore the supposed tragedy rests entirely upon the right hand of a woman which was found in the ballast on Friday afternoon.

The hand will probably be buried now, and its presence in the ballast and who has been its owner will probably forever remain a mystery.”