The aftermath of the Amelia Jeffs murder, which had taken place sometime between January 31st 1890 and February 14th 1890, saw a flurry of police activity and a great deal of newspaper speculation.
The gentlemen of the press had descended on the area and were trying to sniff out as much information as they could in order to keep their readers as up to date as possible with the latest news on what they were dubbing “The West Ham Mystery” or “The West Ham Outrage.”
A POSSIBLE CLUE
On 22nd February 1890, several newspapers were reporting on an important find that may well have given the police a lead in finding the person responsible for the murder of Amelia Jeffs.
According to The Guernsey Star:-
“The police are in possession of a very strong clue, which they are following up night and day.
In the house No. 126, Portway, was an ash stick with a silver band, bearing the initials of a man who mysteriously disappeared from the neighbourhood three days after the girl was found to be missing.
The person the police are now after is said to have gone out in a ship as an engineer.
The police are of opinion that he has gone to Australia, and have wired a description of him to the Australian police, with the request that he may be detained in custody.
He left the neighbourhood on Monday, 3rd February, and was seen to enter a cab at the door of his house about eight o’clock in the evening.
A gentleman living in the neighbourhood says he knew the man well, and he was surprised that he had gone away without communicating with him.
A barmaid in the employ of Mr. Troden last saw the man, when he borrowed a cigar-box from her to pack some things in to take away with him.
His last remark to her was, “I’m going away ; compulsory retirement without notice.””
The article, as well as getting the address of the house wrong (it was 126 not 26) and the name of the landlord of the pub (it was Mr Foden not Troden), appears to have been little more than the repeating of unsubstantiated local gossip, albeit, as we shall see, there appears to have been a brief mention of this man at the inquest into Amelia’s death.
He may well be the person whom several newspapers referred to later on in the year when they reported on suspicions being entertained against a particular individual who was proved to be wholly innocent of any involvement in the crime.
THE INQUEST OPENS
On Monday 17th February 1890, Mr C. Lewis, the Coroner for South Essex, opened the inquest into the death of Amelia Jeffs at the King’s Head in West Ham.
In his opening statement he informed the jury that they had to inquire into “…a most dastardly, ferocious and abhorrent crime,” but he was sure that “they would spare neither time or trouble in so doing.”
The jury then went to view the body of the girl at the mortuary, after which the first witness to be sworn was the girl’s father, Charles Albert Jeffs who, according to press reports, seemed, understandably, “much affected.”
AMELIA’S LAST 12 MONTHS
He repeated, more or less word for word, the statements he had made to the press, and which we detailed in the previous article.
He added that his daughter had left school about twelve months ago and, since then, she had spent the previous April to September visiting her aunt in Weston-super-Mare but, aside from this absences, she had lived at home with him, his wife and the rest of the family.
He mentioned that, as far as he knew, she had no friends in the neighbourhood, and that she had always been a “good, obedient and affectionate girl” who had no “followers” to his knowledge.
THE SEARCH OF THE HOUSES
The Coroner and the jury were particularly interested in the fact that Mr Jeffs had wanted to search the houses in the block where his daughter’s body was found.
He was asked if, when he first went out to search for his daughter, he had noticed any “suspicious character about?” to which he replied, “I did not think of it.”
He was then asked whose idea it had been to search the empty houses on Portway, to which he replied that it was his wife who had made the suggestion.
He had duly approached Mr Samuel Roberts, who was the night watchman of the premises, and asked him how many of the houses had been open the night before that his daughter might have gone into. Mr Roberts had told him that there were two “which he could get into through the window.”
The Coroner asked him exactly when this conversation had taken place, to which he replied that it had been on Saturday, February 1st, the day after Amelia’s disappearance.
A CONVERSATION ABOUT THE KEY
Mr Atkinson, the solicitor who was representing the Jeff’s family at the proceedings, then asked him if he had had a conversation with the watchman about the key of number 126 Portway?
In reply, Mr Jeffs stated that, although no special mention had been made of this particular address, the watchman had been emphatic that all the other houses, other than the two he had mentioned, including number 126, were locked and “he could not get the key.”
Mr Atkinson then asked why he had only searched the two houses and had not insisted on being allowed to search the others.
Mr Jeffs replied, “because the watchman told me the others were locked. No-one could possibly get into them.”
A member of the jury then observed that “under the trying circumstances”, he would have thought that “the man would have assisted you to get into every house, ” to which Mr Jeffs replied that “he did assist me, to an extent.”
Another Juryman was not convinced and asked, “is it not a fact that the watchman could have got in at the back window?”
Here, the Coroner interjected and replied that he most certainly could have done.
Evidently, Mr Atkinson, the Coroner and several members of the jury were becoming suspicious of Mr Roberts Senior’s seeming reluctance to let Mr Jeff’s into 126 Portway.
MR ROBERTS ASKED TO LEAVE
So much so that, when a few witnesses later, Detective Sergeant Forth was called to give evidence, Mr Atkinson requested that Mr Roberts Senior be removed from the room, and he was duly asked to retire.
At this point his son also asked if he could be excluded from this part of the hearing. Permission was granted but, before leaving he asked that Mr Jeffs be questioned as to whether the deceased had not been in service before she went to Weston-super-Mare.”
Mr Jeffs was duly recalled and stated that he had forgotten to mention that she had indeed gone into service as a nurse-girl to a Mrs Harvey. She left, he said, because he was unwilling that the girl should stay there all day Sunday.
Mr Atkinson then asked if he had, during this time, been aware of Mrs Harvey having “a visitor”, to which Mr Jeffs replied that he hadn’t been aware of it until his just being told so by Mr Roberts junior.
The evident suggestion was that Amelia had become involved with this “visitor”, who, so the reports seem to suggest, could have been the aforementioned man who had left the neighbourhood a few days after Amelia’s disappearance.
It is apparent that it was being suggested that Amelia may well have been leading a secret life of which her parents were unaware, albeit it is difficult to ascertain the exact details of this as the newspapers appear to have been reticent about revealing too many details, possibly out of respect for the murdered girl’s memory and the feelings of her bereaved family.
DETECTIVE SERGEANT FORTH GIVES EVIDENCE
However, Detective Sergeant Forth was then called to give evidence and it became more than apparent that old Samuel Roberts had been anxious that nobody should enter number 126 Portway.
Detective-sergeant Forth, of the K division, stated that since the deceased was missed, he – with Inspector Tidey and Inspector Langrish – had the case in hand.
As The Evening Standard reported:-
“In consequence of an arrangement that the unoccupied houses in the district should be searched, witness, on Friday last, went with Police Constable Cross to search the houses, commencing at The Portway.
Having searched some of the houses, witness and the constable went to the last unoccupied one. He saw the caretaker, Mr. Roberts, who then accompanied them up to No. 126.
Some of the front doors of the houses were open.
Mr. Roberts said be could not let them go into No. 126,as he had not the key, and never had it. Police-constable Cross then went to the rear, and called out that he had the window open. The constable got in at the window, opened the front door, and admitted witness and Mr. Roberts. Cross went down to the cellars, and witness went upstairs, and on the landing at the foot of the top stairs be found a penny. The broach (produced) was on the top landing. He went into the front room on the top floor, and noticed dusty appearances on the floor, from the doorway to the window, as if something had been dragged across the room. On opening a cupboard, under a kind of slanting roof, he saw the body lying just inside. He could not see the head. The left knee was just exposed. The deceased’s knees were slightly drawn up. Witness at once called Police-constable Cross, who came upstairs.
They then saw, by the aid of the description in their possession, that it was the body of the missing girl.
The basket was in the cupboard, and the girl’s hat was on the basket.
All her other clothing was on the body.
On the following day, witness compared the heels of the deceased’s boots with some footprints in the dust on the floor of the back room, and they corresponded exactly…”
QUESTIONS FOR THE SERGEANT
Mr Atkinson then asked if Mr Roberts had used all his keys on the lock of number 126 and had then stated that he “could not get admission?”
A Juryman then observed that the girl’s boots were extremely clean and he thought that if she had passed over the muddy ground at the back of the houses, there would have been dirt on them. The Sergeant replied that the boots, as presented to the inquest, were in the exact same state that he had found them in.
This led several members of the jury to declare that it was impossible that the girl had entered the house the back way, which in turn led the Coroner to conclude that someone had probably gone in the back way and had then let Amelia in through the front door.
When asked if he had seen any signs of a struggle in the room he said that he had seen a place where somebody had been on the ground but, on examining the girl’s jacket, there was no dust on the jacket.
Asked if the appearance of Amelia’s clothing suggested to him that she had been “dragged along” the Sergenat was again emphatic that this appeared to have not been the case, “No: the clothes were over her in the ordinary way, excepting that the left knee was exposed…”
The evidence, it would appear, was suggesting that Amelia had gone willingly into the house and that she must have, therefore, known her murderer.
DR GROGONO’S EVIDENCE
The next to give evidence was the Divisional Police Surgeon Dr Grogono.
He recalled how on the previous Friday he had been called to the house where he saw the body in the cupboard. Having ascertained that she was dead
“…I entered the cupboard by the light of a policeman’s lantern. I saw the body was quite dead, and had it removed into the room, and there cursorily examined it. I saw that the deceased had been violated and I noticed a mark of constriction round the throat. There was a scarf (produced) round the throat, folded, and not tied. There had been blood and froth at the nose and mouth.
I then had the body removed to the West Ham mortuary, and carefully examined it externally. There was a slight bruise on the left knee; the face was swollen, the pupils of the eyes dilated, the tongue was swollen, being pressed tightly against the teeth; there was a deep constriction round the throat, and where it crossed behind there was a slight bruise. In the constriction were particles of wool from the woollen scarf…”
Asked by the Coroner what had been the cause of death, the doctor stated that it had been “suffocation from strangulation.” He also testified that her appearance was consistent with death having taken place on January 31st.
A REWARD SHOULD BE OFFERED
Following several more witnesses, the Coroner, suggested that the jury appoint from amongst themselves a Committee to take in hand the process of offering a reward that might lead to the apprehension of Amelia’s killer.
That committee was duly formed and they appointed as their Chairman Mr Foden, the proprietor of the Park Tavern on Portway, who, according to The Daily News, was “good choice seeing that he is an ex-police inspector.”
The Coroner then adjourned the inquiry for a fortnight in order for the police to complete their investigation.
On the 19th February 1890 Amelia Jeffs’ funeral was held at All Saints Church West Ham.
According to Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper:-
“…the scene was a very impressive one and deep sympathy was expressed by a large crow’d which assembled.
Canon Scott conducted the service, and in a brief address spoke of the character of the deceased, and expressed his grief and shame at the circumstances of her untimely and shocking death. The crime was a disgrace to savages, and he prayed that God, in His good providence, would help to unravel the mystery, and bring the perpetrator of so base a crime to Justice.
The large number who followed the procession from the church found a still larger gathering waiting at the cemetery, where the last rites were performed.
Many beautiful wreaths were laid upon the coffin, one being from the former schoolfellows of the deceased.
It was at first intended by the father to have a funeral and grave within his means. but the committee almost to the last member declared otherwise.
Mr. Isaac Young, undertaker, of the Portway, who carried out the funeral arrangements, was commissioned to buy a freehold piece of ground, and this will enable a monument, to be raised.”
Sadly, all traces of Amelia’s grave have no been obliterated, although the plot where she was buried does still survive n the East London Cemetery, the same cemetery incidentally, where Jack the Ripper victim Elizabeth Stride lies buried.
AN INTRIGUING STATEMENT FROM MR FODEN
Mr Foden, the proprietor of the Park Tavern and newly appointed Chairman of the Reward Committee, appears to have basked in the limelight that his new position had cast on him, since he was more than happy to boast to the press about how he was now an intimate of the police and Coroner alike, both of whom were entrusting him with vital information.
A LINK TO THE WEST HAM DISAPPEARANCES?
According to The Daily News, on the 19th February 1890, he stated that:-
“During the day I have been with the Coroner and the police officers investigating this case and, as was almost inevitable, I learnt how things were going. I heard of clues in their possession which have convinced me that the murderer will be tracked, though I am under a very necessary obligation to keep what I know to myself. No good, and possibly harm, could result from a premature disclosure of the facts, though I give you permission to say that we are most hopeful.
I may say that, so far as I myself am concerned, I am convinced that there is a connection between the two former disappearances of girls, some years ago, and the murder of Amelia Jeffs.
Nothing was ever heard of the other two girls. I am most distinctly of the opinion that they were murdered, their bodies being no doubt buried, perhaps in the very neighbourhood of the Portway.
Is it not likely, too, to suppose that, had it not been discovered when it was, this body would have been buried also?”
THE INQUEST RESUMES
Meanwhile, the police continued in their endeavours to bring the perpetrator of the crime to justice. It is more than apparent that a great deal of suspicion was falling on Mr Samuel Roberts, the watchman, who had been very reluctant to allow anyone into 126 Portway whilst the search for Amelia was ongoing.
On Monday 3rd March 1890 the inquest resumed and the first witness to be called was Amelia’s mother, Mary.
Understandably, she was visibly distressed, and she asked that she should not have to view her daughter’s clothing, to which the Coroner replied that this would be necessary, although it could be done in another room away from the public gaze.
She told the court that, on the night of her daughter’s disappearance she had some suspicion that the girl may have been dragged into one of the empty houses on Portway, hence her suggestion to her husband that he search them.
As far as she knew, Amelia was unacquainted with anyone who actually worked on the houses, but she remembered her pointing out Mr Samuel Roberts to her on several occasions and saying “There is Old Daddy the watchman,” although aside from that she had made no particular reference to him.
SAMUEL ROBERTS CALLED
The next to give evidence was Samuel Roberts himself who stated that he had given up the keys to the properties the previous August, but had received them back the Monday before the body was found. Although he had given six or seven up he had only received five back.
He claimed that he had never opened the door of number 126, and he was emphatic that he did not know the deceased and had never spoken to her.
On the night of Amelia’s disappearance he had gone home at around 5.30pm and had not gone out again for the rest of that night.
MR JOSEPH ROBERTS TESTIFIES
Mr Joseph Roberts, Samuel’s son – and the builder of the houses on Portway – was then questioned about the keys. He stated that the key to number 126 had been missing for five or six months. Replying to the Coroner’s remark that the inference was that somebody must have this key, Joseph Roberts stated that some time ago his little girl had dropped a bunch of keys and probably she might have lost it. He then added that there was a duplicate key, but he had no idea where it had gone. He did, however, have duplicate keys to all the other houses.
At this point the Coroner declared that, since all the evidence was pointing to the fact that the girl had entered the property willingly by the front door, the disappearance of the keys was a most important piece of evidence which ought to be cleared up. To that end he adjourned the inquest, in order to allow the police sufficient time to make further inquiries.
ANOTHER MISSING GIRL
From reading the inquest reports, it is evident that the police, the Coroner and the Jury were becoming highly suspicious of the Roberts family.
It also seems that, in the days that followed Amelia’s disappearance, the police had been dragging their feet slightly in the belief that Amelia may have simply gone off with a “follower” of her own volition. Indeed, in the same issue of Lloyd’s Weekly London newspaper in which the report of her funeral appeared, there was another article concerning a girl of the same age from Highgate, who had also gone missing, but for whom the outcome was completely different.
In our next instalment, we will look at how the keys became central to the investigation and will discuss how strange occurrences at 126 Portway led to an important discovery.