Flower and Dean Street had a reputation for being one of the worst streets in London at the time of the jack the Ripper murders.
It was a street made up of common lodging houses, and the consensus of the more “respectable” East End residents was its inhabitants were a lawless and debauched bunch.
GHASTLY DISCOVERY IN WHITECHAPEL
So when, in 1892, demolition work of some of the street’s lodging houses revealed evidence of an undiscovered crime, people weren’t that surprised.
The Aberdeen Evening Express broke the story of the find on Saturday, 8th October, 1892:-
“At a late hour last night, a parcel containing human remains was found on a premises now undergoing alteration in Flower and Dean Street, Whitechapel. The discovery was made by a watchman on going about his rounds, and he at once communicated with the police.
The parcel was taken by them to the nearest station-house for examination by the divisional surgeon, and detectives then set off to make inquiries into the affair.
The police are reticent regarding the discovery, but it is stated that the remains are those of an adult person, though the sex is unknown.
A SERIES OF CRIMES FROM THE PAST
A later telegram says that later information confirms the discovery of human remains at Whitechapel, and at present points strongly in the direction of a series of crimes committed many years ago.
As stated, the discovery was made in Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields – a thoroughfare that some years ago was one of the most notorious in the East End of London as a resort of criminals and bad characters.
The street runs from Commercial Road to Brick Lane, and at the former end is a plot of land which has been vacant for some ten years.
OLD CELLARS AND CESSPOOLS
On this piece of ground were a number of houses, which some ten years ago were demolished in connection with some improvements. There were many old cellars and cesspools on this site, but they were untouched until recently, when a firm of engineers took the site for building purposes.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE REMAINS
In the course of yesterday, two labourers came upon a wooden box, in no way resembling a coffin, at about nine feet from the surface. When opened, it was found to contain human remains that were in a good state of preservation.
The contractors at once communicated with the police, who took charge of the remains, which were those of three persons fully grown.
Telegraphing this morning, the Press Association says:- “With regard the discovery of three skeletons during the course of excavations on some unoccupied ground in Whitechapel, it appears that the first was found on Thursday night, and was considerably damaged in the darkness.
The following morning, during the course of further excavations, a coffin containing two more skeletons was found a little way below the other, but not in any way connected with it.
WAS IT FOUL PLAY?
When exposed to the air, the coffin which was of ordinary length, but abnormally wide, dropped to pieces, and the remains, which were placed side by side, but in a reversed position, were not extricated without damage.
The skull of the uppermost skeleton was battered in, but it is uncertain whether this was a workman’s pick or foul play.
A RENDEVOUS OF THIEVES AND CRIMINALS
Flower and Dean Street, where the discovery was made, was, before the low lodging houses congregated there were demolished, the rendezvous of thieves and criminals.
The ground was known to possess many ancient cesspits and cellars, the remains of the former tenements, and it is supposed that in one of the former the records of two ghastly crimes had been hidden.
The spot had remained undisturbed for over ten years, but the police theory is that the crime is of a much older date than this.
The skeletons were those of adults, and were in good state of preservation.
The remains await a careful expert examination.”
INQUEST ON SEVEN SKELETONS
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, in its edition of Thursday, 13th October, 1892, provided an update on the inquest into the “victims” at which information was given about the history of the site, along with details of the house’s previous owners:-
“Mr. R. Macdonald, coroner for North-East London, held an inquiry on Tuesday at the Town Hall, Old Street, Shoreditch, on human remains found at Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields, on Friday last.
Portions of three separate skeletons were discovered on Friday, but, after the police had been informed, a diligent search was made, and up to the opening of the inquiry the whole of seven different skeletons had been brought to light, and these now lie in the Shoreditch Mortuary.
JAMES LONGBRIDGE’S TESTIMONY
The first witness called was James Longbridge, ganger. He deposed that he was in charge of the men who were making excavations on the site of what was formerly called No. 6, Flower and Dean Street. About 5.50 p.m. on Thursday the witness’s attention was called to a skull that one of the men had found. This was put on one side.
Nothing more was discovered that night; but at about half-past nine the next morning a coffin-shaped box was found. It was about 5ft. 8 inches. long. One head was lying in one direction and another in the opposite direction.
Witness could not say where the child’s skeleton was found.
None of the rubbish was carted away. A space of about 160 ft. had been dug away, but nothing was found until they came to the spot where the coffin was.
WILLIAM ROSE GIVES EVIDENCE
William Rose, a navvy, stated that at about ten minutes to six on Thursday evening, he found a small skull about six feet below the surface of the pavement level.
The next morning, while at work again, he came across the coffin about two inches below where the skull had been found. The “box” was decidedly coffin-shaped.
Witness believed that the two skeletons in the coffin were laid feet together.
Herbert Browning, excavator, stated that the child’s skull and other bones were found outside the coffin, and about three feet above it. They were lying amongst loose earth, and had probably been dug up.
The police were not sent for when the coffin was discovered, but the remains were taken out by the men.
There were some teeth in the skulls when they were dug up.
Wm. H. Walden, builder’s foreman, stated that he was in charge of the work being carried out at Flower and Dean Street.
He was called about 10.15 on Friday morning by the ganger, and was shown by the men what they took for a coffin.
Two skeletons were certainly in the coffin, and there were other bones lying outside the coffin.
Witness was of opinion that the so-called coffin was more likely an egg-chest, the wood being of the same thickness as an egg-chest. The box was of square shape, but the men in digging around, had made the shape of a coffin. He saw the teeth in the skulls when they were placed in the barrow, but he could not say whether the men took them away as mementoes.
He was of opinion that the discovered disclosed foul play, as no bones had been found in any other part of the ground, although excavations had been made in other places eight feet lower.
The remains were found in what had been the yard, and lay over what had originally been a cesspool.
PREVIOUS OWNERS OF THE HOUSE TRACED
Hezekiah Cook stated that he was for sixteen years inspector of common lodging houses, and knew the lodging-house which stood on the spot. It had been a lodging-house for years, and the last tenant was a Mrs. Jane Martha Davies, who died about four months ago.
Reuben Barnfield, stated that Mrs. Davies was his mother, and she occupied the house for 35 years. (Witness’s wife was in court, and said that the witness was making a mistake, the house was in the occupation of Mrs. Davies for 45 years.) Barnfield further spoke of two previous tenants, but did not think it likely that the box could have been secretly buried there.
Inspector George Seabright deposed that he went to the ruins in Flower and Dean Street, and saw the bones in the foreman’s office. He at once communicated with the coroner, and next day he saw more bones.
THERE HAD BEEN RIOTS
He had made enquiries in the neighbourhood, and had seen an old lady who could speak of the houses 80 years ago, and she stated that at that time they were mostly occupied by the Spitalfields weavers.
He had also searched the records, and found that in 1765 a riot occurred in Spitalfields, and, at a later date, many outrages took place. The rioters broke into the houses and cut the looms the weavers, who were working with improved looms. It was stated that many lives were lost at the time.
Witness could not find any trace of any crime having been committed twenty or thirty years ago about that neighbourhood.
The Coroner’s Officer stated that he had seen the last leaseholder, Mr. Ritchie, of Well Street, Hackney, who was now 83 years of age. He stated that be bought the property in 1851, at which time there were three small houses with back yards enclosed, and stood quite apart. They were then occupied by persons of the lowest class.
CAUSE OF DEATH UNKNOWN
Dr. Franklin Hewett Oliver stated that he had carefully examined the various bones and skulls, but could not find anything to lead him to define a cause of death. There were no signs of any violence having been used on any of the bones. They had been in the ground from 75 to 100 years. The skeletons were those of persons whose ages ranged from 18 months to 75 years.
The Coroner said that he thought it only right and proper that a public inquiry should be held where bones of this description were found, but he was afraid that the only course left to the jury was to find an open verdict.
The following verdict was returned:- “That the remains were found buried, but there is no evidence to show who the deceased were, nor how or when they came by their deaths.””