The Goswell Road Mystery

By the end of 1882, no new information had come to light that might explain the mysterious disappearances of  Mary Seward and Eliza Carter from West Ham, which had taken place in April 1881 and January 1882 respectively. To all intents and purposes it seemed as though they had simply vanished from the face of the earth.

But then, in January 1883, an horrific discovery in Goswell Road brought suggestions that the fate of at least one of the two girls had finally been uncovered.


An illustration showing the mysterious box.
An Illustrated Police News Image of the Box. Copyright, The British Library Board.

On the evening of Thursday 18th January 1883, Mr Allen, the manager at the head receiving office of Carter, Paterson and Co. – a well-known railway and general carriers, based in Goswell Road on the north-east fringe of the City of London –  became somewhat perturbed by a disagreeable odour that appeared to be emanating from a mysterious box that had, over the course of the previous month, caused some amount of difficulty for the company, as they had been unable to deliver it.

The box – which was described as being a “common deal box, and which measured about 2 feet long, 18 inches high, and about 18 or 20 inches in breadth” – had been deposited at the premises of Davies and Evans on the 11th December 1882. Davies and Evans was a general shop, located at 157 Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green in the East End of London, which operated as a branch receiving office for the carriage company.

The box bore the name of its manufacturer Samuel Berger and Co., Starch Works, Leonard-street, Bromley-by-Bow.”


On top of the box was a small piece of card addressed to “Mrs. Green, No. 24, Abbey-road, St. John’s Wood, N.W.”

The address card on top of the box.
The Address card. Copyright, The British Library Board.

The branch office duly forwarded it to their head office on Goswell Road from whence a carman was tasked with delivering it to the addressee, Mrs Green in St John’s Wood.

However, when he arrived at No 24 Abbey Road, nobody of that name lived at or was known at that particular address, and so he was forced to return it, undelivered and unopened, to his head office on Goswell Road, where it remained for over a month.


During the day, on Thursday 18th January 1883, a disagreeable smell was observed emanating from the box  and, by the evening, it was so bad that Mr Allen ordered that the lid be forced open. This was done and, to their horror, Mr Allen and his underlings found themselves staring at the body of a child which was “far advanced in decomposition.”


Mr Allen at once headed to Old Street Police Station, where he informed Acting Inspector William Davis of the gruesome discovery.

Soon, the Inspector had arrived at the carriers office, where he was joined by the Divisional Police Surgeon, Dr Eugene Yarrow. Since this was evidently not the scene of the crime, he concurred with Dr Yarrow’s view that the remains should be removed to the nearby mortuary on Whitecross Street.

Gruesome as the discovery undoubtedly was, those who saw the body in the box were soon telling journalists how they considered it “…a matter of wonder…how the body had been squeezed into so small a space.”


The remains were duly taken to the mortuary and there Dr Yarrow pronounced that the body was that of a girl between 13 and 14 years of age. It measured 4 feet in length, and was that of a “fair haired child, good-looking, with excellent teeth, but rather thin”.  He was, he said,  strongly of the opinion that the child has been starved, but he couldn’t be positive about this fact until he had made a post-mortem examination.


An illustration showing the head of the girl found in the box.
An Illustrated Police News Depiction of the Body. Copyright The British Library Board.

On 20th January 1883, The Evening Standard reported Dr Yarrow’s post mortem examination findings:-

“Dr Yarrrow expressed his belief that the body was that of a girl between thirteen and fourteen years of age, who had died from starvation. The body was dreadfully emaciated, but there were no marks of violence. Some teeth are missing, but what remain are very good, and show that the victim must have been attended to by a dentist. The eyes are described as hazel, and the hair as brown. The deceased was short of stature, being only four feet in height.”

Interestingly, the newspaper also revealed that the handwriting on the box’s label was believed to have been that of a woman.


Inevitably, the police began to wonder if the remains might be those of one of the missing West Ham girls, Mary Seward or Eliza Carter, and the girls’ relatives were contacted and asked to attend the mortuary to see if they might be able to identify the body as being that of either child.

They duly viewed the remains on the 19th January and The Evening Standard reported on what transpired in its next day’s edition:-

“During yesterday a number of persons visited the mortuary, amongst others the friends of the missing children at West Ham, for whose recovery large rewards are offered, but all failed to identify the remains.”

However, a positive identification may well have been somewhat problematic, if not impossible, since, as the newspaper also pointed out, “the features were quite unrecognisable through decomposition.”

The Illustrated Police News shows the full story of the girl in the box at Goswell Road.
The Mystery As Depicted By The Illustrated Police News on 3rd February, 1883. Copyright, The British Library Board.


That same day, 20th January 1883, the Coroner Sir John Humphreys, opened the inquest into the girls death at the Hope Tavern on Banner Street. At the inquest Dr Yarrow went into more detail about the post mortem examination he had performed on the remains:-


“Dr. George Eugene Yarrow (divisional police surgeon) said that about six in the evening of the 18th of January he was called to the police station, St. Luke’s, and there saw the body of the deceased girl.

“The body was forced in [to the box] doubled upon itself twice, forming the shape of a compressed S, the head being doubled down and the legs upwards. The body, which was that of a girl apparently about fourteen years of age, was only 4 ft. in length. It was utterly emaciated, weighing only 24 lb. He had made a post mortem examination. On the inner ankle of the right leg there was an old ulcer nearly healed.

The complexion was fair, the hair light brown, eyes hazel brown, There was a good set of teeth, large and regular. Four had been removed – one on each side evidently by a professional, because of the overcrowded state. She had all the teeth except the “wisdom” teeth. The ears were not pierced. There was only a chemise over the body. There was no name or mark upon the chemise.

He had preserved the contents of the stomach. He found no sufficient cause of death in the organs of the body.

Although he found nothing pointing to death by poison, there might have been a very slow process of poisoning…”


Obviously, an important line of enquiry for the police investigation was to see if they could trace the person who had initially deposited the box at Davies and Evans shop.

An illustration showing the exterior of Davies and Evans shop.
Davies And Evans Shop, 157 Cambridge Heath Road. Copyright, The British Library Board.

The matter of who had sent the box was put to Mr Edward Smith  – the shop assistant who had accepted it – and, according to the St James Gazette, his recollection wasn’t particularly helpful:-

“… Edward Smith said that on the 11th inst. a box was left at Messrs. Davis and Evans’s, 157, Cambridge-heath, Bethnal-green, receiving agents of Messrs. Carter, Paterson, and Co.

Two men came with the box, and the one who came into the shop was dressed like a tradesman.

He said the sender was a ” Mr. Smith.”

The witness did not ask for any address, as it was not usual to do so.

The man, who was in the shop only five minutes, wore a tall hat and was dressed in dark clothing.

The same afternoon the box was taken away by Messrs. Carter’s carman, and the witness had not seen it again until to-day, nor had he seen the man before nor since.”


Since he was awaiting the analysis of the girl’s stomach contents from Professor Tidy  – who was trying to discover any signs that she had been poisoned, the Coroner stated that he felt it best to adjourn the inquest for two weeks to give the Professor time to complete his analysis.

The inquest reconvened on the 5th February, but since the Professor had still not completed his analysis, it was adjourned again, this time until the 13th February.


On 31st January 1883, The St James Gazette, reported on a possible identification of the girl and even linked her directly to Mary Seward:-

“It is now stated that a girl in nearly every respect answering the description given of the body found in the box, is missing from Salisbury-square, Fleet-street. Mrs. Farrell, who lives there, and who saw the body at the mortuary, states that it resembles that of Clara Sutton, a girl she had adopted from infancy. Her hair was scarcely distinguishable from that in the possession of Inspector Maffey, which has been cut from the head of the body found in the box. The girl, too, was fourteen years of age.

When between twelve and thirteen she was in service at Forest-gate.

She left there and then went to live on the Rokeby Estate, near West Ham Schools.

There she became acquainted with Mary Seward.

She afterwards came home to Mrs. Farrell again, and when Mary Seward was lost she often talked about her, and asked if there was any news of her being found.

In August last a woman who knew her, and said she was from West Ham, came to Mrs. Farrell’s, and said that as she had heard the girl was out of a situation, she had got her a place at Mrs. Young’s, Guildford Lodge, Brentwood.

Mrs. Farrell has written to that address, but could get no answer.”

Sadly, there appear to be no further reports on this particular girl and, since no mention of her was made at any of the inquests, the probability is that the police traced her and had ruled her out as being the girl in the box. She may even be the girl who was reported in the press as having been traced but who had simply run away after being mistreated by her mistress.

It is, however, interesting that, if the newspaper is to be believed, Clara Sutton knew and was friends with Mary Seward.


However, the mysterious Clara Sutton was just one of several girls whose names were being put forward for the identity of the girl in the box.

In early February, several newspapers were reporting on a shopkeeper in West Ham who had made what was being described as “an extraordinary statement.”

One report, that appeared in The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post told the story thus:-

“A woman who keeps a fancy shop at West Ham, near London, and who also has a registry office attached, has made the following extraordinary statement.


She says:- “On 5th October last a young girl came into my shop and asked if I could get her a situation. She was in very great distress, and said she had run away from home because her father so beat her and ill-treated her that she could not stop in the house for fear of him since her mother’s death, which had then recently taken place.

She added that her father had taken a place at a public house, and he wanted her to go there too, but she would not, as she sometimes had to run out of the house owing to his violence.

I gave the girl an address to go to, Mrs  —- at  —— Villa, Leyton,  and the lady was so pleased with the girl’s manner that she engaged her.

The girt left the bundle of clothes she had brought from home, and said she would  go and tell them that she had got a situation.  The girl, however, did not come back, nor go to her situation.


A few days afterwards a coarse looking woman came for the clothes, stating that the girl’s father would not allow her to go to a situation at all, and in order to prevent her from running away again be had locked her in her room.

I thought the woman meant the girl no good, so I refused to give up the clothes.

The woman then went away and the lady, finding the girl did not go to her situation, called at the shop to know the reason.

We then wrote to the girl’s address and the woman came again and demanded the clothes, saying that the father had sent the girl to a home where she would not have a chance of running away again.”


The shopkeeper gave journalists the girl’s address and they promptly headed there to investigate further.

The neighbours told them that it was quite true that the girl’s mother had died a few months ago in the hospital, and that her father had been lodging at the address given, but had recently moved.

The woman who kept the lodging in question told reporters that the father rented a room there still, but that what he did she did not know.

He, however, had been out of work for a long while.

The whole surroundings of the place were that of squalor and wretchedness.

She admitted he had one or two girls, but she said she did not know anything about them.


It is a curious coincidence that the home where the girl lived is in a small little street at the back of the parcel office where the box and body were taken, and within five minutes walk of where the starch  box was supposed to have been bought.”


It would appear that the police did succeed in tracing and interviewing the girl’s father, albeit, if the following report from The St James Gazette, dated 1st February 1883, is to be believed, the interview did little to solve the mystery of the girl’s whereabouts:-

“A police-sergeant had an interview yesterday with the father of the girl referred to by the woman who keeps the registry office at West Ham, and who was prevented by her relatives from going to a situation at Leyton. The father admits the truth of the statement but says that she was prevented from going to the situation because she had to go and live wilt her aunt. He says she is sixteen years of age, and that she has been a source of anxiety and trouble to him, but he has not heard of her being missing, neither has he any reason to doubt that she is alive and well cared for. He could not then give the address at which the girl was living, but said he would ascertain it.”

As with the Clara Sutton story, this one too appears to have petered out in the newspapers, and the fact that this too was not alluded to at the inquest into the death of the girl in the box would suggest that the authorities were satisfied that the girl in question was not the girl in the box.

In the next instalment, we will report on the inquest into the death of the mysterious girl in the box.