Before getting into the details of this story, it should be noted that the church referred to in the newspaper articles was a predecessor to the one shown in the photographs.
Aside from the horror of the Jack the Ripper murders, the 19th century inhabitants of Whitechapel, had other “horrors” to contend with in their everyday lives, as is amply demonstrated by a series of horrific finds in the parish Church of St Mary in 1863 and 1864.
In August 1863, The Newry and Dundalk Examiner carried a headline which belied the gruesome nature of the article that followed. The headline simply notified readers of:-
THE EXTRAORDINARY DISCOVERY AT WHITECHAPEL
However, the article itself left little need for imagination in relation to the full horrific extent of the “Extraordinary Discovery.” It read:-
“The singular discovery of dead bodies in Whitethapel Church has created, as might be supposed, intense excitement in the neighbourhood.
Last evening Mr. Churchwarden Lankester, directed that a thorough search should be made in the roof of the church, and Joseph Cooper and Joseph Tomlinson, who had made on last Saturday week, the 21st of August, the first discovery, while they were engaged in fixing patent ventilators in the roof, accordingly made a careful examination of the whole.
COFFINS BROUGHT TO LIGHT
The result of this search, which was concluded at eight o’clock on Thursday night, was that in all 11 coffins, three of which contained bodies of children, were brought to light.
Eight of the coffins were broken asunder, and were in pieces apparently from violence. Three were in good condition, and one had written on it in blacklead “Mrs Foster, No. 35, Bedford-street.”
Two of the bodies are supposed to have been still-born. It is not apparent how the third child came by its death. In addition to these remains about seven skulls of children were found, and they were stained with blood.
There were some bones and dust and the remains of clothing. A cap was on the head of one of the bodies, and napkins were also lying amongst the remains.
PUT THERE 40 OR 50 YEARS BEFORE
The Sexton, Mr Wilkinson, states it as his opinion that the bodies prove, by the way in which they moulder into dust when touched, that they must have been placed in the roof forty or fifty years ago.
Other person, however, are of the opinion that at least one of the bodies was only dead twelve months.
Dr Blackman, who will have the examination of the bodies is, at present, in the country, and therefore a scientific opinion is yet to be had.
Information of the facts has not, as of yet, been received by Mr. Humphreys, the Coroner, and therefore it will entirely depend on what may transpire hereafter whether inquests will be deemed necessary.
The bodies are at present deposited in a cupboard in Whitechapel Church.
HOW THE DISCOVERY WAS MADE
The way in which the discovery was originally made was as follows:-
On Saturday 22nd August, at 9 o’clock in the morning, the men whose names are mentioned above whilst engaged on the south side of the roof, making preparations for improving the ventilation, placed their hands on a coffin resting on the ceiling over the organ. They drew it out and informed the Sexton and, by his direction, they communicated with the churchwardens.
No immediate steps were taken, but yesterday, at eleven o’clock, at the west side of the roof other coffins and the skulls already mentioned were found, and then a general examination took place.
It is now certain that no more bodies are concealed in the roof.
The men state that the bodies were originally dropped into the position in which they were found through a hole in the belfry.
The police are engaged in making a most searching investigation with a view to ascertain, first, who placed the remains in the roof of the church, and next, whether there is any reason to believe that the children had come by their deaths through foul play.”
The newspaper then went on to provide its readers with an update on the latest events surrounding the gruesome discoveries:-
“The result of the inquiries instituted by the police authorities allayed all apprehensions that the children had been murdered.
The general impression in the neighbourhood was that the children had met with foul play and the most intense excitement arose in consequence, groups of persons assembling in the street and openly canvassing “the murder of the babies in the church.”
The coffins, three of which are whole, were made of half inch deal, painted black, and present the appearance of crudely constructed boxes rather than of regular coffins. and they are of the same character as those commonly used by undertakers for the disposal of still-born children.
Seven of the bodies are reduced to mere fragments and dust, but the skulls are small, though singular to state, three of them are covered with encrusted blood.
NO SIGNS OF VIOLENCE
Two of the bodies that are entire were manifestly those of stillborn children, and that of the third, though it possibly may not have been stillborn, presents no marks of external violence.
The inference arrived at is that the bodies were those of stillborn children, or of perhaps some that had died from natural causes, and had been deposited between the ceiling and the roof of the church for the purpose of saving the burial fees which had been paid by parents, and which were consequently embezzled.
GUILTY PARTY KNOWN
It is understood that a clue has been obtained as to the guilty party, but it would be considered, at present, premature to act upon it.
The singular circumstance, that most of the coffins and bodies had been broken up into small fragments, is explained by the supposition that they were dropt from an opening in the square clock tower down into the roof and were smashed by the fall.
The appearance presented by the shocking pile of remains, at present deposited in a sort of closet in the church, is hideous in the extreme, and conveys an idea of the wholesale scale on which the disgusting trade was carried on.
The heap is four feet high, and is composed of childrens skulls, legs with the dried and shrivelled flesh hanging from them, intermingled with little hands dessicated until they have acquired the look of bird’s claws, and the fragments of coffins, dust, napkins, and infants’ caps.
PROBABLY NO INQUESTS
The vicar of the parish, it is understood, desires that the whole circumstances should be investigated before the Coroner’s court on oath; but it is doubtful whether inquests can be held upon the bodies of children of which either certificates of death can be, it is said, procured or which were manifestly stillborn.
Ultimate proceedings will no doubt be adopted in any case against the individuals who have been guilty of this atrocious desecration of a religious edifice.”
MORE GRUESOME FINDS
In August 1864, almost a year to the day after the discovery of the children’s remains in the roof of the church, the newspapers were again reporting on a similar find that had been made, this time alongside the parish church of St Mary’s.
On Saturday August 20th 1864 The Morning Chronicle carried the following article:-
DISCOVERY OF THE BODIES OF
EIGHTEEN CHILDREN IN WHITECHAPEL
“Great excitement was caused in the neighbourhood of Whitechapel yesterday morning by the discovery of the remains of a number of children covered over in a heap of rubbish near the parish church.
There are at least eighteen bodies, several of them being shockingly mutilated, and in some cases deprived of the heads, which appear to have been removed for some purpose.
It will be remembered that some time ago a number of bodies were found concealed in the roof of the church, and an official investigation was made into the matter.
It is now believed that the shocking discovery made yesterday morning has some connection with the previous one, and that the parties concerned in the sacrilegious transaction have placed the fragments of humanity where they were found with a view to ulterior removal.
This opinion is somewhat confirmed from the fact that the bodies have been but recently deposited in their present position.”
LINKED TO THE PREVIOUS DISCOVERY
Reynold’s Newspaper, on Sunday August 21st 1864, was a little more informative as to how the bodies came to be at the location at which they were discovered:-
AN EXPLANATION IS GIVEN
An explanation of the circumstances was given by the parochial authorities.
It appears that the churchyard being now closed the churchwardens determined upon pulling down the bone-house in one corner of the ground, and have the walls on that side repaired, so as to present a more seemly appearance.
In the bone-house the ground had also been dug up between two and three feet, and in the earth were the remains of coffins which had contained the bodies of children. The remains discovered in the ground of the bone-house were again decently interred in the presence of Messrs. Hawkins and Cuff, the churchwardens.”
BACK TO THEIR EVERYDAY LIVES
Thereafter it would appear that the excitement generated in the district by the ghoulish find simply petered out.
DEMOLISHED, REBUILT, DESTROYED
The church building inside and around which the gruesome discoveries were made was demolished in the 1870’s and replaced by a new church building that was consecrated on 2nd February 1877.
That building only lasted three years, being devastated by a fire which broke out on 26th August 1880. The church was rebuilt and the new building opened for services on 1st December 1888.
Sadly, that building lasted less than a year and was destroyed in the Blitz on the 29th December 1940. The ruinous building was finally demolished in 1952 and the Altab Ali Park on Whitechapel Road now occupies the site.