An Extraordinary Discovery

There are many occasions, when studying the various newspaper reports about crimes that took place in Whitechapel in the 19th century, when you come across a tantalising case that grabs your curiosity and you find yourself desperately wanting to know more about it.

Unfortunately, stories that were picked up by the newspapers the country over have an annoying habit of fizzling out, either because no further information was forthcoming, or because a rational solution was discovered and the newspaper in question decided to drop the story without giving an explanation as to why they had done so.

One such case appeared in the Fife Herald on Thursday 30th March 1848, and concerned a gruesome find that had just been made during building work on Whitechapel High Street.

A view of St Mary's Church seen along Whitechapel High Street.
St Mary’s Church Seen From Whitechapel High Street.


“About twelve months ago, the parochial surveyors of Whitechapel condemned several houses in Tewkesbury-court, High Street, as being from age and decay dangerous and unfit for habitation.

The premises having passed into a speculative builder’s hands, their demolition has revealed some most fearful testimony of the spot having at some period been the scene of horrid tragedies.


The locality in question is known to antiquarians as the spot whereon stood Tewkesbury church, but of late years has been better known to the police as one of the worst harbours of crime in the metropolis; indeed, so intricate were the premises and villainous the colonists, that once in its precincts the refugee, be he murderer, burglar, smasher or thief, could safely baffle the pursuit of the officers of justice.

The recent discoveries at once explain how this has been effected.


In pulling down one of the most notorious of the dwelling, the labourers discovered a cellar, in digging up which the skeletons of children and adults were found; in this cellar they at last came to what appeared, at first sight, to be a cesspool, but what is now found to be the entrance of a subterranean passage, of sufficient diameter for ingress or egress of adults, but where this leads, or rather terminates, is at present undiscovered, as the work of demolition is not sufficiently advanced for the exploration of the mysterious pit; in this horrid place the labourers found the bodies of two fine fellows in a good state of preservation, attired in the garb of sailors, standing upright in the soil, their appearances giving every indication of their having been the victims of a cruel murder.


Sickening as the above details are, we would willingly, if it were only for the credit of human nature, be spared chronicling the sequel, for after the labourers had dug out the bodies, it appears a council of their companions was called, the issue of which was the bodies were stripped, hacked to pieces with spades and picks, and the mangled remains carted to distant receptacles for the deposit of their rubbish.

The only excuse, if any excuse can be entertained for so great a violation of decency and frustration of justice, would appear to be that, if the affair got to the knowledge of the coroner, as witnesses they would lose their time and pay at the inquest.

The general rumour, and which if correct may define the right cause of the outrage, is that the fellows disposed of the clothes and a watch which was found on the persons of the deceased.


The affair has been diligently investigated by Mackintosh, 93 H, an intelligent and shrewd officer, but it may be readily conceived he is engaged in a difficult task, for, even if he but succeeds in gathering the bones of the unfortunate sailors, all evidence of identity is destroyed; it is, however, to be hoped that some of the mechanics engaged at the time upon the works will come forward and assist the constable in the horrible, mysterious, and disgraceful affair, as it is needless to state that he can get no information from the Irish labourers, who have so brutally frustrated the course of justice.


Beside the discovery above mentioned, we have ascertained that numerous secret recesses found in the building brought to light traces of iniquity in the shape of silver spoons and other valuable property; it is to be hoped that the further exploration of the subterranean den will not be left to the barbarians who have commenced it, but that if the parochial authorities refuse, the police at least will explore into what one would be led to expect as likely to bring to light evidences of a harrowing description.”


And, with that, the story disappears from the pages of the newspaper.

I can only presume that, given the fact the article states that the building in which the grisly discovery was made stood on the site once occupied by Tewkesbury Church, the the remains were those of people who had been buried in the church itself.

But, as with so many of these stories, we can only speculate about the origins of the mysterious bodies in the cellar on Whitechapel High Street.