Spare a thought for Mrs. Elizabeth Gibbs, a Victorian resident of this street, Ebury Street, in the Belgravia district of London, just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.
Hers is not a name that many people are familiar with, and she gets little or no mention in accounts of London crimes in 1888.
Yet, she holds the dubious distinction of being the first homicide victim in the metropolis that year – a year that would become synonymous with the Jack the Ripper atrocities, the first of which would take place almost eight months to the day after Mrs. Gibbs died.
THE DEATH OF ELIZABETH GIBBS
Elizabeth Gibbs was 68 years old, and she and her husband, John, a land agent lived at 44 Ebury Street.
On Tuesday the 27th of December, 1887, the couple went for a stroll around the neighbourhood.
At one o’clock that afternoon, they were making their way home along Grosvenor Place, and had just stepped off the kerb to cross Halkin Street, when a two horse mineral water delivery van, driving on the wrong side of the road at a smart speed, turned into Halkin Street from Grosvenor place, and knocked them down.
John Gibbs had the presence of mind to roll quickly over, and thus managed to escape being run over by the wheels of the vehicle. He sustained a few cuts and bruises, but it was more his pride than his person that was injured.
SHE WAS BADLY INJURED
His wife, Elizabeth, though, was less fortunate, and, to the horror of several onlookers, the nearside wheel of the van went over her.
Mr Gibbs, along with the onlookers, rushed to the assistance of his stricken wife, and as they did so, they were astounded to see the van continuing on its way at speed along Halkin Street, the driver not bothering to stop.
WHAT WILLIAM SANT SAW
At that moment, William John Sant, a postman, was walking along Halkin Street from the opposite direction when he saw the accident and saw the van coming towards him. Running into the road, he stopped the vehicle and said to the driver:- “Hold on a bit; you’ve run over a lady at the corner. You had better stop and see what you’ve done.”
The driver, so Sant later testified, abused him and used bad language.
He did climb down and look back towards the scene of the accident, but, since no-one was coming down the street towards him, he hurriedly climbed back onto his van and, despite the postman’s protests, drove off.
MRS. GIBBS TAKEN TO HOSPITAL
At the junction of Halkin Street and Grosvenor Place, Mrs Gibbs was lying face down, and it was evident to the onlookers who were trying to assist her that she was seriously injured.
They and Mr Gibbs, therefore, lifted her from the road and carried her to nearby St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner.
Here a doctor was able to assess the extent of her injuries. There was a large bruise, the size of a half crown in the centre of her forehead. Her right eye was also bruised. The elbow of her left arm was broken. Her hands were cut and bleeding. The toes on her left foot were crushed, and those on her right foot were severely bruised.
WILLIAM SANT IN PURSUIT
Meanwhile, the intrepid William Sant had chased after the van and had caught up with it outside Henry Bennett’s butcher’s shop in Belgrave Mews, where he proceeded to take down the name on the side of the van, Batey’s, as well as the van’s number, which was 80.
Spotting him writing his number down, the van driver came over, told him to mind his own business, and began swearing at him again. He then proceeded to strike Sant in the chest, took off his coat and threatened to fight him.
THE BUTCHER INTERVENES
Hearing the altercation, Bennet the butcher, came out and asked what the matter was. Sant told him that the driver had just run a lady over and was refusing to go back and see what he had done.
The driver, who, so Bennett later testified appeared to be drunk, replied that he had done nobody any harm, and proceeded to punch Sant in the chest again.
THE DRIVER IDENTIFIED
Sant later gave the name and number on the van to the police, and Police Constable Stephen Lloyd paid a visit to premises of Messrs Batey and Co. mineral water manufacturers of Kingsland Road, Dalston, where he learnt that the driver of van 80 was forty-three-year old Alfred Winwood, who lived in Rosalind Road, Fulham.
The case was then entrusted to Inspector Adams of the Metropolitan Police’s B Division, who set about tracing the driver.
MRS. GIBBS DIES
At St George’s Hospital Elizabeth Gibbs’s condition was worsening. Hugh Lawson, the House Surgeon, decided that it would be best to amputate her injured arm, and this was done on the 29th of December.
However, her condition continued to grow worse and, at 2pm on Sunday the 1st of January 1888, she died, the cause of death, according to Lawson, being shock and exhaustion following the injuries and the operation.
THE INQUEST INTO HER DEATH
The inquest into her death was held at St George’s Hospital on Wednesday the 4th of January, and Alfred Winwood was summoned to appear, although he failed to do so until late in the day.
On being asked under caution by the Coroner, Mr. Troutbeck, if he wished to give evidence, he declined to do so.
The jury then brought in a verdict of Manslaughter against him, and he was taken into custody by Inspector Adams on the Coroner’s Warrant.
WINWOOD’S COURT APPEARANCES
The next day, he appeared at Westminster Police Court, charged with causing the death of Elizabeth Gibbs on the 27th of December at Grosvenor Place. Following the hearing he was remanded in custody.
At his next appearance the presiding magistrate, Mr. Partridge, committed him for trial at the Central Criminal Court, and stated that this was, without exception, one of the worst cases that had ever come before him. The prisoner had, he said, behaved in a most reckless and unfeeling manner, and such men as he were the pests of the streets of London.
HIS OLD BAILEY TRIAL
Alfred Winwood’s trial took place at the Central Criminal Court on Monday the 30th of January.
The defence, according to The Morning Post in its edition of the 6th of February 1888, tried to argue that:- “…there was contributory negligence on the part of the deceased and her husband in not exercising proper care..”
However, the evidence against Winwood was overwhelming, and, despite the fact that his employer gave him a good character, the jury found him guilty of the Manslaughter of Elizabeth Gibbs – albeit they recommended him to mercy – whereupon the judge, Mr. Justice Hawkins, sentenced him to six months hard labour.
THE FIRST HOMICIDE THAT YEAR
Mrs. Elizabeth Gibbs was the first of 122 homicides that would take place in London over the next twelve months. Within those 122 would be the five victims of the killer we now know as Jack the Ripper – Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly, plus three other murder victims – Emma Smith, Martha Tabram and Rose Mylett whose names simply appeared as “Whitechapel murders” in the official files.
Of course, their murderer was never caught, whereas the man responsible for the death of Elizabeth Gibbs was apprehended and did face justice – although, given his behaviour and his cold and callous attitude in the aftermath of the accident, you can’t help thinking that a six months prison sentence could hardly be described as justice being done.