The Missing Keys – Amelia Jeffs Murder

On Monday 3rd March, 1890, the inquest into the death of Amelia Jeffs,  resumed at the King’s head in West Ham. The fact that two sets of keys to 126 Portway –  the house in which her body was found – were, apparently, missing would be a major line of enquiry for the panel of Jurors.

Both Mr Samuel Roberts, the night watchman, who had been tasked with keeping the local boys out of the empty properties on Portway, and his son, Joseph, the builder who had constructed the houses, were due to testify.

An illustration showing the exterior of 126 Portway.
126 Portway. From The Illustrated Police News. Copyright, The British Library Board.

THE EVIDENCE OF MRS JEFFS

However, the first person to give her evidence that day was Amelia’s distraught mother.

During her evidence Mrs Jeffs was asked by a juror if she had heard rumours connecting her daughter with anyone at 126 Portway? Her reply was “No, never.”

However, when asked if she would recognise the night watchman [Samuel Roberts] she replied, “Yes, because my daughter once pointed him out to me, saying, “There is old Daddy Watchman.””

Asked if her daughter had made any other comment about him, the visibly distressed woman replied, “No, she didn’t.”

A Juror then asked if she had “ever heard anything against the watchman?” Her reply was “No.”

SAMUEL ROBERTS CALLED

Samuel Roberts was then called to give evidence.

The Daily News, reporting on his testimony, observed that he, “seemed to have some difficulty in following the questions that were put to him.”

Questioned as to whether he knew the deceased, he replied “No, I have never spoken to her.”

A member of the jury was, evidently, incredulous of this denial and asked him, “You swear to that?”

“Yes,” came his emphatic reply.

OLD DADDY WATCHMAN

An image of Smaeul Roberts in a bowler hat and with a beard.
Mr Samuel Robers

A jury member then asked him, “Who nicknamed you “Daddy Watchman.” He replied that the local children had done so, but then added “…but the deceased had never called me by that name.”

THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING KEYS

The inquest then turned to the mystery of the missing keys, and a member of the jury questioned his assertion that he had not gone near the houses for some time. He said that he had been away from the houses from the previous August and had only returned to them a “moth before the girl was lost, but then I only swept the front of them to make them look clean.”

The jury were, evidently, starting to entertain grave doubts about the veracity of Samuel Roberts’s testimony, and the Foreman even went so far as to openly challenge him over inconsistencies in his statements. “I should like to know how the witness reconciles two statements he has made. In the first instance he said he did not return until after the body was found, and he now says he had been back a month before?”

At this point the Coroner intervened on Mr Roberts’s behalf and explained that, what he thought Mr Roberts was trying to convey, was “that he came back a month before the girl went missing, but that he didn’t acquire the keys to the houses until the Monday after Amelia Jeffs had disappeared.”

HIS MOVEMENTS ON THE NIGHT

A juror then questioned him about his movements on the night that Amelia went missing. “I know I was not home before half-past-five, I did not go out again.”

The juror then asked who had been there when he arrived home. “I saw the landlady and my son James, I have two sons – James and Joseph – we took tea together.”

“Was James in the house when you came in, or did he follow you in later?” A juror asked.

Samuel Roberts asked him to repeat himself, as he was rather deaf and had not heard the question.

“At what hour did your son James come in?” The Juror repeated.

“I’m not certain,” was Roberts’s reply, “but I know he was in before six.”

A crucial piece of testimony came when he was asked  if he parted with the keys whenever anybody wanted them to look over the house?

“Yes”, was his reply, “sometimes I took people over and sometimes I gave them the keys to go over by themselves.”

MRS JEFFS RECALLED

At this point in the proceedings Mrs Jeffs, who had been taken to another room to examine her daughter’s clothing, returned.

She deposed that she had examined the clothes and had found them to be in much the same condition as when Amelia had left home in them on the evening of the 31st January 1890. The only observation she had was that the collar of Amelia’s ulster was torn, as if somebody had wrenched it.

The jury then turned their attention to Amelia’s character and movements in general, with one member of the panel asking if she ever allowed her daughter to go out at night. “No, she was a very steady girl and gave me no trouble.” was the mother’s reply.

A press image showing a likeness of Amelia Jeffs
A Press Image of Amelia Jeffs

“Was she nervous?” Asked a member of the jury. “Yes, she was very nervous and timid.”

The Coroner then asked if her life had been insured. “Yes,” was her bereaved mother’s reply, “in the Prudential.

MR JOSEPH ROBERTS, THE BUILDER

At this point Mr Joseph Roberts, the builder of the houses on Portway, was called to give evidence.

The report of his testimony, as published in The Daily News on the 4th March 1890, is worth reproducing in full:-

A press clipping of evidence given by Joseph Roberts.
From The Daily news 5th March 1890

THE MISSING KEYS BECOMING CRUCIAL

It was becoming apparent to both the Coroner and the Jury that the mystery of the missing keys was crucial to uncovering the truth about the death of Amelia Jeffs. The Coroner and the rest of the panel of Jurors were in unanimous agreement with one of the members of the panel who stated that “I don’t think we ought to close the inquiry until we have sifted the matter.”

THE EVIDENCE SO FAR

The Coroner, therefore, went over the facts as they were understood at that point:-

“You have had it on evidence that the girl was a timid girl. You have inspected the premises, and you have seen the girl’s boots, and I think it is patent to you, or to any person with any amount of circumspection at all, that this girl never walked over that piece of dirty ground at the back of the house. [At this point a member of the Jury interjected with “Quite right, sir.”] It therefore follows that she went in at the front door. [Another Jury intervention of “Without a doubt, sir.”]

Assuming that she was nervous, is it feasible that she would have waited at the front door, whilst someone went around the back to let her in, unless she was thoroughly acquainted with the person and he had her confidence.? [Hear, hear].

Therefore, don’t you think it is a most important point that this question concerning the duplicate keys should be cleared up as far as possible?

For that reason I quite agree with every Juror that has spoken that it would be unwise to conclude the inquiry now.

We must give ourselves one more chance, and then I think you will have don all that you can do.”

AN INTRIGUING QUESTION POSED

As the Coroner finished his summing up of that day’s proceedings, a Juror asked an intriguing question that hints at a sub plot in the Amelia Jeffs mystery, and which suggests that the police investigation was focussing on certain elements of Amelia’s personal life that, perhaps out of respect for her distraught parents, were not being made public at the inquest.

JUROR: I should like to ask if the police have any clue to any man who knew the girl well?

CORONER: I don’t think that is a question which it would be advisable to have answered.

The short snippet on this intriguing, line of questioning ended with another juror tantalizingly observing that:-

“The police are too sharp to tell you such a thing openly.”

With that, the Coroner adjourned the inquest until the following Monday.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Evidently, the police were conducting some lines of enquiry that the public weren’t privy to.

However, reporting on the inquest in its issue of Sunday 9th March 1890, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, informed its readers that the police were anxious to trace anyone who had had any connection with the property at 126 Portway. The newspaper also told its readers about the witnesses who had been called to testify at the inquest when it resumed the following day:-

A report on the inquest in Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper.
From Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 9th March 1890. Copyright, The British Library Board.

As we shall discover in the next instalment, even more doubt about old Samuel Roberts assertions about the missing keys would be cast by a witness who directly challenged his statement about when he had last been in possession of this crucial piece of evidence.