Playing Jack The Ripper

One of the issues that raised by the newspaper coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders was whether the constant reporting of the atrocities was having a detrimental effects on the impressionable minds and behaviour of the children of the age.

Indeed, many people were worried that constant exposure to reports and stories violent crime might well influence youngsters to emanate such crimes. This would, sadly, seem to have happened in 1895 when Robert Coombes was arrested for the murder of his mother.

A press illustration showing Robert Coombes stabbing his mother with a large knife.
Robert Coombes Carrying Out The Murder. From The Illustrated Police News, July 27th 1895. Copyright, The British Library Board.


However, on Friday, 21st December, 1888, The Hendon and Finchley Times carried a story about a group of schoolboys whose playtime antics of imitating the Whitechapel murderer had almost ended in tragedy:-

“Oliver Thorne, schoolboy, of Hendon, was charged with wilfully wounding Edward Govier, eight years old, by stabbing him with a knife, in the playground of the British Schools, Hendon.

Mr. Lovett prosecuted, and Mr. A. W. Tootell defended.


Mr, Lovett, in opening the case, said that it appeared that on the 11th of December, Edward Govier, James Clarke, and William Dean were scholars at the Hendon British Schools.

After they were dismissed they were consulting in the playground at midday what game they should play, when Thorne went up and proposed a game called “Jack the Ripper.”

Before Govier could say anything Thorne got hold of him, dragged him into the vestibule where the hats were hung up, laid him on a trestle, knelt upon him, took knife from his pocket, and stabbed him on the shoulder. Prior to stabbing the boy he flourished the knife about.

James Clark took Govier’s coat off to see what was the matter, because he called for his mother, and found him bleeding.

Thorne offered him a chain to say nothing about what had occurred.

The prisoner had been accused previously in the neighbourhood of indecent behaviour.


William Edward Govier, eight years old, was then called, and said that he lived at Hendon. He was at the British Schools on the 11th of December. Defendant was there. James Clarke and Dean were there also. They were playing with Thorne in the playground. It was a little after 12 o’clock.

Thorne said, “I am Jack the Ripper,” then pulled him into the lobby. Here he threw the witness over some trestles and sat upon him.

The witness could not see whether he had a knife in his hand, because his face was downwards. While there a knife came “bash” into him. Thorne said, “Don’t go and tell teacher,” and offered him a chain not say anything. They were not bad friends before this occurrence.

A doctor had been attending him since.


By Mr. Tootell:- Before playing “Jack the Ripper” they had been playing “Buffalo Bill.” They caught one another in that game, and the one captured was placed in the lobby.

While playing “Buffalo Bill” they did not fire a pistol off.

He had not played “Jack the Ripper” before this occasion.

Before he was thrown on the trestles he ran about the playground, which was part of the game of “Jack this Ripper.”

It was usual to put the one caught into the lobby.

The prisoner knelt upon him, and then sat upon him, and as he got up he felt the stab. “The shock passed right down” to his feet. He had never seen a knife used before, although they had played this game.


James Clarke, 8, Chatterbox Row, Golders Green, said that he was scholar at the British Schools.

He remembered Tuesday the 11th.

After they came out school the witness proposed a game at buffaloes, but Thorne said, “No, let’s play Jack the Ripper.”

Before Govier could say yes, Thorne collared him and took him into the lobby. He then got a trestle, laid it on the floor, and put Govier on the trestle face towards the ground.

Thorne knelt upon him, and said, “Now I’ve got you.” He then took his pocket knife out and told Govier that he would cut his hair, and began to cut it. Afterwards he moved the knife about, and it accidentally struck Govier on the breast. He halloed out “mother.”


The witness and Dean went to his assistance, and rolled Thorne off the trestle. Govier went into one corner, and the witness took his waistcoat of. Another boy went to tell the teacher.

Thorne offered the boys something not to tell anybody. He could not say whether Thorne and Govier were on good terms.

When they played this game the boys usually had piece of wood, which they flourished in a similar way.

By Mr. Tootell:- He did not think that Thorne intended to injure Govier. It was a common game, and it always terminated in stabbing a scene, but this was done with piece wood. It was not part of the game to lay the boys on a trestle and kneel upon them.


William Dean, 22, Bellevue terrace, remembered Thorne stabbing Govier.

When they left school three of them were going to play “Buffalo Bill,” but Thorne asked Govier to play “Jack the Ripper.”

Govier agreed to play with him.

Thorne caught Govier, placed him on a trestle, took out his knife, and cut his hair. The witness did not see Thorne stab Govier, because he left the lobby at that time. When he returned Govier was bleeding.


Mr. Johnston:- “It is strange that such game is allowed in a school playground.”

Mr. Fortnum:- “It is disgraceful.”

Mr. A. W. Tootell contended that the assault was not intentional, and remarked that some further supervision should be exercised over the boys.

Mr. Fortnum said that he did not believe Thorne intended to do his little companion real hurt, but Govier’s friends had got to pay the doctor’s bill. It was an accident, but the boy ought to be punished for using a knife.


Mr. Govier said that the boy was violent, and had knocked one of his daughters about; and his wife told the Bench that it was the opinion of the doctor that the knife was used with great force.

Mr. Fortnum observed that this was the upshot of boys reading and hearing of these horrible crimes in Whitechapel, and he considered the schoolmaster ought to punish boys for playing such games.


Mr. Butler, master of the British Schools, said that he had done all in his power to stop these games. He had only seen the boys playing it once.

Mr Fortnum:- “Put it down.”

Mr. Johnston said that there ought to be rules to prevent improper games.

Mr. Fortnum:- “This boy appears to require your special attention.”

Mr. Butler said that he had looked after the boy, and his father was willing to afford him every assistance.

Mr. Fortnum then cautioned Thorne, and was discharged, the magistrates considering that his parents ought pay the costs.”