Just a few minutes walk from where our Jack the Ripper tour begins, there is a little park, which is the Altab Ali Park.
Looking closely at the park, you will notice that there are graves and tombstones scattered around its borders.
THE ORIGINAL WHITECHAPEL
These serve to remind us that this was formerly the site of the church of St Mary Matefelon, a church that, in the Middle Ages, was lime-washed and which, as a result, had such a brilliant white exterior that it was known simply as “the White Chapel.”
In time, the name of the church became synonymous with the surrounding district, and, as a result, the district itself became known as Whitechapel.
This ancient chapel was rebuilt in the reign of King Charles 11 and, if the following illustration of it is an accurate depiction, it must have been a splendid building.
That church was rebuilt again in 1875, at a cost of £12,000, paid for by Mr Octavius Coope, the Member of Parliament for Middlesex.
The Illustrated London News, was sufficiently impressed by the proposed new church that it presented its readers with an artist’s impression of what they could look forward to.
THE MEANING OF MATFELON
The paper also decided to enlighten its readers as to the meaning of the second, and somewhat unusual, part of the name – “Matfelon,” albeit the article was at pains to point out that their explanation was probably just a made up yarn:-
“The second name of this church, ” Matfelon,” will not be familiar or easily intelligible to most of our readers. It is, we believe, identical with a Hebrew word that signifies a woman who has become the mother of a son. There is a legend preserved by Stow, the old antiquarian writer, which has very much the look of a fable.
It is said that in 1428 there was a devout and charitable woman in this parish, who probably may not have had a son of her own, or may have had one and lost him. Indeed, she is mentioned as a widow. But she kindly adopted a young French orphan boy, and actually brought him up as her son.
The French youth requited her motherly care and bounty, when he grew up to a graceless manhood, by the murder of his benefactress for the purpose of getting hold of her property.
Hereupon all the wives in the parish assembled in righteous anger, seized the parricide and killed him with their bodkins, which was less than his atrocious crime deserved.
We do not believe, however, that the naming of St. Mary Matfelon could be derived from this affair; nor is the reason for its taking such a name, in that case, particularly clear; and, what seems more conclusive against it, the name existed many years before the alleged date of the tragic event.”
So that settles that then!
This new church was opened on the 2nd of February 1877.
THE CHURCH BURNS DOWN AGAIN
However, a mere three years after the church was opened, it burnt down on the 26th of August 1880.
The Illustrated London News provided its readers with a breathless description of what happened:-
“The parish church of St. Mary Matfelon, Whitechapel, which was restored, four or five years ago, at a cost of £30,000, chiefly by the munificence of Mr. Octavius Coope, M.P., was unfortunately destroyed by fire on Thursday last week.
This disaster is believed to have been occasioned by the carelessness of some persons employed about the organ.
They had gone away; and presently, some part of the organ catching fire, the flames were communicated to the woodwork above, and thus gained hold of the roof, which appears to have been composed of beams bare and polished.
The alarm was given at half-past one in the afternoon, when some workmen entered.
A few minutes afterwards, one half of the roof burst into flames.
Although a principal station of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade is in an adjacent street, and engines were quickly on the spot, little could be done to stay the destruction except with respect to the tower and belfry.
As soon as the engines had arrived and water could be obtained, a hose was taken into the tower and carried by the men to a window in the belfry, from which a stream of water was thrown on the parts of the main building that adjoined the tower.
By half-past two, however, the work of destruction was complete.
The roof had fallen in all along, the windows were out, and the doors swung wide, while at the gable ends the higher walls threatened to fall every moment.
Fortunately, the firemen had ample space for working, as the open churchyard is at the rear of the building.
The police of the H Division stopped all traffic, which here includes the tramways; and the firemen, under Mr. Gatehouse and Mr. Holmes, superintendents, were enabled to do their work.
Our illustration of the scene during the fire shows the eastern gable of the church, with the tower, and the engines playing on it, while the molten lead was pouring down from the roof.
At that time it was feared that the tower must fall with the rest of the edifice, but it has been saved…”
ST MARY’S REBUILT
The church was rebuilt and it reopened on the 1st of December 1882.
This was the church that was here at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders six years later.
It was the church that Emma Smith was passing on the morning of the 3rd of April 1888 when she became alarmed by a gang of youths who started to follow her; and who went on to attack her at the junction of Brick Lane and Osborn Street.
There is also a strong possibility that Mary Nichols, who many believe to have been the first actual victim of Jack the Ripper, passed the church as she headed towards Buck’s Row on the morning of her murder on August 31st 1888.
DESTROYED IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Sadly, the church was destroyed again on the night of the 29th of December 1940, when the bombs of the London Blitz reigned down, and reduced it to a smouldering ruin.