Between 1881 and 1900, a series of mysterious disappearances took place in West Ham in the East End of London. Several young girls, who resided with their families in the district, vanished without a trace and, in all but a few cases, they were never heard of again.
The mysterious disappearances straddled the years in which the, much better known, Whitechapel murders occurred, and yet, in many ways, they are equally as fascinating and, in some ways, far more shocking in their implications, – suggesting as they do a grave danger to young girls in the East End of London in the latter half of the 19th century.
Over the next few blogs we will look at several of these cases and discuss what is known about the facts regarding each case.
MARY SEWARD APRIL 1881
The first girl to go missing in the area was Mary Seward, who disappeared on the 13th April 1881.
According to an article in the Tamworth Herald, detailing her disappearance:-
“The neighbourhood of Plaistow, Stratford, and West Ham, in Essex, is much disturbed by the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named Mary Seward, aged 14 years, who resided with her parents at 98, West Road, Plaistow.
HER NEPHEW HAD GONE MISSING
It seems that on Wednesday evening, the 13th of April, a little boy four years of age, the son of an elder sister who also resides in the neighbourhood; was missed for some time from the house, and the young girl Mary Seward was asked by her mother to go and see if she could find him.
She went out about six in the evening for that purpose, and the last that had been seen or heard of her since is that she was knocking at various doors in the neighbourhood and asking the people if they had seen anything of her nephew, the missing child.
Later on the little boy was brought home by some children, but the girl never returned.
Searches have been made for her by her parents, and they now greatly fear that she has either been sent out of the country or made away with.”
NO CLUES FOUND
Despite a dedicated search by the police, her family and local residents, no hint as to what fate had befallen her could be found and, by June 1881, her parents were being forced to face the heart-rending possibility that she had fallen victim to a gang of people traffickers who had, apparently, been active in the area for some time.
On the 9th June 1881, the North Devon Journal expanded on this theory in an article that carried the alarming headline:-
“DECOYING OF YOUNG GIRLS.”
The subsequent article is worth quoting in full:-
“As a result of the publicity given to the mysterious disappearance of Mary Seward, aged 14, of West-road, West Ham, who has been missing from her home since 6 o’clock on the evening of the 13th of April last, a considerable amount of information has been obtained leading to a belief that for some time past a systematic attempt at kidnapping young girls has been going on in that district. There can, it is said, scarcely be a doubt that the girl Seward has fallen a victim to the prowlers.
ATTEMPTS TO LURE CHILDREN AWAY
Working men, holding good positions in the Victoria Docks, assert that for many years they have heard of cases of girls, the children of men employed at the Docks, being met by strange men and women who have endeavoured to get them away under the pretence of being able to find them good situations abroad, and some of them narrate instances where girls have been missed for years.
A MAN WAS PROCURING GIRLS
With regard to Mary Seward, the father states that he has received information from a woman who positively alleges that she knows a man by sight who has, on various occasions, visited the place for the express purpose of procuring young girls to go abroad.
She further, he says, adds that he is assisted by a woman, and always seems to have plenty of money, and that he will pay a good price for assistance or for the girls, and that he prefers obtaining girls from 12 to 15 years of age.
HE WAS WELL DRESSED
She describes the man as being well dressed, but having common, coarse features, and in appearance like a foreign gipsy. She is certain he was in the neighbourhood the week before Easter.
NUMEROUS ATTEMPTS TO KIDNAP CHILDREN
The mother of the girl Seward adds that she had received information of numerous attempts to entice girls away or to inveigle them into houses, and that one of the common methods adopted is to stop a girl and offer her money to take a letter to a certain house, where she would be drawn in and not permitted to return.
So far as the inquiries respecting her own child have gone, information has been received that when last seen she was near some “roundabouts” inquiring for her little nephew, who was for the time being lost.
HE RUNS AFTER THEM
Many very respectable persons have further given information of their children having been not only accosted but run after by a man in the week before Easter.
Mrs. Hughes, residing near to the “roundabouts,” states that on the Monday evening before Easter – two days before Seward disappeared – she sent her little girl on an errand rather late and that she came in terribly agitated and frightened saying that a man had run out after her from some empty unfinished buildings, and that he crossed the road and tried to lay hold of her.
Other similar cases are also reported.
The little girl named Mary Seward was last seen in the immediate vicinity, and it is alleged that, on that night of her disappearance, the shrieks of a girl were heard near the locality.”
A MISSING GIRL
On the 18th June 1881, The Penny Illustrated Newspaper made the following appeal for information
“The Metropolitan Police authorities at Scotland Yard perform no service which is more widely appreciated than the returning of lost wanderers to their friends.
We believe it is the experience of our Social Guardians that – save in the case of Murder – it scarcely ever happens that a person alleged to have disappeared does net reappear in the course of time. Usually, too, there is found to be a distinct motive for seeking temporary seclusion and there is not infrequently a substantial reason for its being desirable.
She is one of those waifs whose disappearance has occasioned widespread anxiety.
We trust that the following description of Mary Seward in our largely read Journal may lead to her discovery :—
A DESCRIPTION OF THE GIRL
“Missing from her home, No. 98, West-road,West Ham, since the evening of April 13 last, Mary Seward, age 14 , height 4 ft. 6in, thin and pale, hair dark brown (wavy across forehead, and curly behind), teeth irregular and discoloured, eyes dark, thin eyebrows, has a semicircular scar half an inch long between the right cheek bone and ear ; wearing a black cord dress (opening down the front, trimmed with braid), black cord apron, small pink and white woollen shawl, black straw hat, button boots. £35 reward will be paid (£25 by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and £10 by her father) for information leading to her discovery.
NO TRACE WAS EVER FOUND
Despite the best efforts by the police and press alike, no trace of Mary Seward was ever found and her fate remains one of London’s unsolved mysteries to this day.
The general consensus appears to have been that she had been spirited to the continent by a trafficking gang and had probably been put to work in a brothel in a European City.
An article in the Worcester Journal, dated the 11th February 1882, reflected this belief:-
“It is thought that had the child been in England some tidings of her whereabouts would by this time have come to hand; whereas from the night upon which she disappeared to the present no clue whatever has been found.”
THE WEST HAM VANISHED
And there the matter would, doubtless, have rested had it not been for the fact that, within a year, a second girl would go missing in the same area and under equally mysterious circumstances.
Indeed, Mary Seward’s was one of a series of disappearances and murders that occurred in this area of London between 1880 and 1900.
Collectively, they have become known as the “West Ham Vanishings” and, although they are not as well known, nor as widely discussed, as the Whitechapel Murders , they are equally as baffling and, in some ways, even more disturbing. And, just like the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, the crimes remain unsolved, despite the passage of more than 130 years.