The Murder of Amelia Jeffs

By 1890 the mystery of the disappearances of Mary Seward and Eliza Carter had, to many people, become little more than distant memories, and the horror and consternation their disappearances had caused in the East End of London had, largely, been overshadowed by the 1888 murders,carried out by the criminal we now know as Jack the Ripper.

But then, in 1890, another girl disappeared from the exact same street as the previous girls and, this time, her fate would become known.

Her name was Amelia Jeffs and, at the time of her disappearance, she was just a few months short of her fifteenth birthday.

SHE LIVED IN WEST ROAD

Oddly enough the Jeffs family lived at 38 West Road, the same road from which Mary Seward and Eliza Carter had gone missing eight and nine years previously respectively.

The exterior of Amelia Jeff's House in West Road.
38 West Road. From The Illustrated Police News. Copyright, The British Library Board.

The family were described as being “respectable working people”. Her father worked as a machine man at the London and Tilbury Railway works.

Her mother had, only recently, given birth to a younger sibling and, as a result of her recuperation, “Millie” – as she was known to her family and companions – was taking care of the household chores and, on the day of her disappearance, she had, according to a contemporary news report, been “very cheerful in the performance of the domestic duties which had fallen on her shoulders by reason of the then recent confinement of her mother.”

SENT TO BUY A FISH SUPPER

At about 6.30pm on the evening of Friday 31st January 1890, her mother – whose birthday it was – had given her threepence to go and buy a fried fish supper from a shop in nearby Church Street, and Amelia had dutifully headed out into the cold, damp January night.

An illustration showing Amelia Jeffs leaving home.
Amelia Jeffs Leaves Home, From The Illustrated Police News. Copyright of The British Library Board.

MEETS A NEIGHBOUR’S CHILD

The short walk took her to the top of West Road, where she met a neighbour’s child – Elizabeth Harmer, aged 8, who lived at 16 West Road –  whom she cheerfully informed that she was off to get a fried fish supper.

The junction of West Road and Portway where Amelia Jeffs met her neighbour's child.
One of the Last Sightings of Amelia Jeffs Alive Was At This Junction Of West Road And Portway.

For several weeks, this was believed to have been the last sighting of her. However, in early March 1890, a schoolboy by the name of Alfred George Gardner, who lived at 19 West Road, came forward to say that he had in fact met her walking alongside the empty houses on Stanley Terrace, on Portway, just around the corner from West Road. “She was alone, dawdling along towards West Ham Church,” he told the inquest into her death.  “After passing her in the same direction I commenced running. I did not speak to her.” Importantly, he also stated that he had seen no-one else in the vicinity. He had come back that way about ten minutes later, but saw no sign of her on that return journey.

HER FINAL JOURNEY

What became of  Amelia after these sightings would remain a mystery for almost two weeks.

Had she continued her journey to the fish shop, she  almost certainly, would have continued along Portway – the well-lit main thoroughfare that ran alongside West Ham Park. It was later suggested that she may have turned next left along Caistor Park Road, in order to take a short cut to Church Street, which would have taken her across a vacant plot of land behind a newly built line of large houses, the fronts of which faced onto Portway looking across towards West Ham Park and which, at the time, were empty and awaiting tenants.

An external view of the houses on Portway.
The Line of Houses On Portway In January 2016

However, her father was later adamant that, being a nervous child, she almost certainly would have opted to keep to the well lit Portway, in which case she would have passed by the fronts of the houses en route to Church Street.

THE ALARM RAISED

She certainly never made it to the fried fish shop and, when she failed to return home, her parents became extremely anxious and her father headed over to the shop where he was told that she hadn’t been there that evening. According to contemporary press reports, the rest of the night “…was spent in fruitless wanderings between police stations and workhouses in the hope of finding some news of the lost one.”

Amelia Jeffs Father questions a man over his daughter's disappearance.
Amelia Jeffs Father Searches For His Daughter. From The Illustrated Police News. Copyright, The British Library Boar.

THE LOCAL VICAR GETS INVOLVED

By the Saturday morning, no trace of her had been found and the family enlisted the assistance of their local vicar, The Reverend Canon Scott, who at once “made an application to the justices at the Stratford Petty Sessions Court in the hope that publicity might aid the discovery of the whereabouts of the girl.”

The police also became involved and, when the “usual enquiries” failed to turn up any concrete evidence as to the girl’s fate, a special investigation was ordered.

As the days began to pass, with no word as to what had become of Amelia Jeffs, the police found themselves at a loss to explain her disappearance. Handbills and posters depicting her likeness were placed in the windows of local houses and shops, and everyone in the neighbourhood was on the look out for any sighting or trace of her.

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

THE ILLUSTRATED POLICE NEWS

On Saturday 8th February 1890, The Illustrated Police News reported as follows on her disappearance:-
“.. The Rev Canon Scott, vicar of West Ham, made an application to the justices at the Stratford Petty Sessions for assistance, by means of publicity, to help him in the discovery of the whereabouts of Amelia Sarah Jeffs, a girl fifteen years of age in March next.

It appears that the mother of the girl, who lives at 38, West-road, West Ham, has been recently confined, and she sent Amelia (or Minnie [sic], as she is called by those who know her) to buy  some fish, at about half-past six o’clock on Friday night [31st January 1890]. The girl had threepence in her hand, and she was seen by another girl living in the neighbourhood at the top of the street.

Since then she has not been seen or heard of; and as some few years ago three girls of about the same age disappeared from the same district, and two of them were traced to Belgium, the parents are considerably alarmed.

The missing girl is about four feet six inches high, she has light hair, a fresh complexion and blue eyes. When she left home she was wearing a black frock, somewhat ragged, a black and grey ulster, a brown and white speckled straw hat turned up at the sides and trimmed with ribbon, buttoned boots, and dark stockings,

The police have circulated a description of the  girl all over the Metropolitan district, and the parents have made every possible inquiry as to the child’s whereabouts, but unsuccessfully.”

TRACED TO BELGIUM?

The article is intriguing in its mention of three girls who had gone missing from the same district – since, as far as I can ascertain, only two – Mary Seward and Eliza Carter – were known two have disappeared in the early 1880’s. What is intriguing is the mention made in the article that two of the missing girls had been traced to Belgium. Whether this was true, or simply speculation on the part of The Illustrated Police News, isn’t known and this is the only mention of two girls being found that I have located.

Sadly, however, the fate of Amelia Jeffs would become known.

A SEARCH OF THE EMPTY HOUSES

On the 14th February 1890, the police did something that – unbelievable as it might sound – they hadn’t, apparently, thought of doing over the few weeks since the girl’s disappearance, they decided to search the empty houses in the neighbourhood.

Their search would result in a tragic discovery, which was detailed in full in a long article in The Evening Standard on Saturday 15th February 1890:-

OUTRAGE AND MURDER AT WEST HAM.

“The mystery attached to the disappearance of young girl, Alice Amelia Jeffs, who left her home, 38, West-road, West Ham, on Friday, January 31, on an errand, and never returned, was yesterday solved by the Police, her body being discovered in an empty house, at No. 126, Portway.

In consequence of the anxiety of the friends, and the repeated inquiries as to the girl’s continued absence from home, the Rev. Canon Scott, vicar of West Ham, accompanied by the father, one of his congregation, made an application to the Magistrate at West Ham Police-court a few days ago, and proposed that energetic efforts should be made to trace her, as the parents fully believed she had been decoyed away.

In accordance with the request of Mr. Ernest Baggallay (the Magistrate), yesterday morning Inspector Rooks, of the K Division, in conjunction with Detective Sergeant Forth, resolved upon an inspection of the unoccupied houses in the neighbourhood – taking as the initiative those in proximity to the child’s residence.

Within 200 yards of West-road, a block of buildings, erected by Mr. Roberts, stands in a thoroughfare known as Portway, directly facing West Ham Park.

They are of rather large dimensions, standing three storeys high.

In all, there was a row of ten or eleven dwellings untenanted, and the officers naturally commenced their search from the foremost.

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

THE BODY FOUND

On reaching No. 126, which stands nearly in the centre of the group, the lower rooms disclosed nothing.

Ascending to the upper storey, the officers observed that the dust, which had accumulated on the floor, appeared to have been disturbed, indicating some signs of a struggle.

The cupboard door was slightly ajar, but on its being opened they were horrified to find the object of their search.

The poor little victim was lying on her side, with her scarf pulled tightly round her neck, and, although the body was greatly decomposed and her cheeks bruised, the features were recognisable.

The two detectives looking at the body of Amelia Jeffs in the cupboard.
Police Find The Body Of Amelia Jeffs. Copyright, The British Library Board.

Beside her lay an ordinary market basket, and her clothes were somewhat disarranged.

The officers immediately communicated with their chief, who in turn sent for the Divisional Surgeon. The latter gentleman made a cursory examination of the body, and expressed his opinion that the child had been cruelly violated, and afterwards strangled by means of the scarf, although the precise cause of death could not be ascertained until a post-mortem examination had been made.

The discovery was at once made known to the Chief Commissioner of Police – and Inspector Wildey, of Scotland-yard, and Inspector Langrish, of the K Division, received orders to thoroughly investigate the outrage.

AN INTERVIEW WITH MR JEFFS

In an interview last night Mr. Jeffs, the father of the deceased, made the following statement : –

” For the last ten years I have been employed as machine man at the London and Tilbury Railway Works. I have lived in this road for nine years, but not in this house. We were five in family until the murder of my dear little Alice. She was a most affectionate, intelligent girl, and was brought up in the Christian faith.

An image of Amelia Jeffs' father.
Amelia’s Father.

This is indeed a sad blow to my wife, and I scarcely know how it will end.

Alice went out on the night we last saw her alive at half-past six o’clock.

It was very dark and very damp, in fact very miserable out of doors. She was sent on an errand to purchase some fried fish for supper, at a shop in Church-street, and had with her a market basket, threepence, and a latchkey, which have since been found.

On leaving the house she met a little companion, named Harmer, but from that time no one had seen her until her body was found this morning.

From what I can imagine, my darling mast have been intercepted on her errand – half way on her journey and enticed into the house, and there met with an untimely end.

I shall never forget the night we passed awaiting her arrival.

She was generally so quick on her errands, and in every way obedient and willing to serve you.

When we found she did not return, we naturally became anxious, and nearly the whole night through we searched the police-stations, workhouses, and other institutions; but, of course, in vain, little thinking that the poor girl was lying dead so close to her home.”

The same newspaper also carried and interview with Amelia’s mother:-

MRS JEFFS STATEMENT

“Mrs. Jeffs, the mother of the deceased, in the course of another  interview, said:-

“My daughter’s name was Amelia, but she was generally called Millie. This day fortnight – I remember it well, because it was also my birthday – she went out at half-past six in order to buy some fried fish, and I gave her threepence. She took with her a little basket.

At a quarter-past seven I said to my husband, “Millie is a long time.”

He said he would go and look for her when he had finished the letter he was writing.

Soon after, he went out and on inquiry at the shop to which my daughter was going, he was told she had not been seen.

He went to the police-station, and they said they would telegraph around. I suppose the poor child was surprised by some man, and, before she could recover from her fright, was overcome.

Her father walked shout-the neighbourhood until two o’clock in the morning but we never heard anything about her until to-day, when the police came.”

THE EARLIER DISAPPEARANCES

The Standard then made reference to the previous West Ham disappearances:-

Canon Scott, who has taken all along so great an interest in the girl’s fate, denies a rumour that he had stated there were other girls missing from the locality.

He had reminded the Magistrate at the Police-court of the mysterious disappearances, eight or nine years ago, of two girls named Carter and Seward.

They had never been heard of again, and no clue to their fate has ever been discovered.

CHILDREN SPOKEN TO BY MEN AT NIGHT

He had, however, heard of late of instances where children had been stopped and spoken to at night by men.

A man in a bwler hat accosts a child in West Ham.
From The Illustrated Police News. Copyright, The British Library Board.

Before the disappearance of Amelia Jeffs, a pretty little girl, the daughter of a parishioner, had been stopped in the Portway by a strange gentleman, and challenged to run a race down a dark part of the road, and for doing so sweets were promised her.

A GIRL OF THE PUREST CHARACTER

With regard to the deceased, Canon Scott says that she was a girl of the purest character, and intellectually bright and quick. It had been suggested to him that perhaps she was intellectually weak, but she was no more so than he was. She had received her education at the schools attached to the West Ham church, and was highly thought of by both teachers and pupils.”

THE CARETAKER’S STATEMENT

“Samuel Roberts, caretaker of the houses in one of which the body was found, said:-

“I was here this morning about eleven o’clock, when two men came to me, and said they wanted to go over the empty houses, and wanted the keys.

I did not know who they were.

When we got inside one of the houses they told me they were detectives, and had come to search for some lead, which had been stolen from one of the empty houses. Men were working in some of the houses. I went into some of the houses with them.

When we got into No. 126, one of the detectives went into the cellar, while the other went upstairs. I waited in the passage.

In a few minutes the man upstairs came running down and said to his mate, “Come out of that cellar, I have found what we want.”

THE GIRLS BODY WAS IN THE CORNER

We all went upstairs, and in the top room I saw the girl lying in the corner of the room, with her body leaning in a corner of a cupboard. Her knees were drawn up, and she was covered over with a shawl or something.

Her hat and bag were in the corner. Her eyes were partly open. The officers examined the body. On one knee I noticed some mould, as if she had been kneeling on some grass. She was lying on her left side right in the corner, leaning against the wall. She had undoubtedly been outraged, but I do not know if she was strangled. When the doctor came they would not let me in the house.

They took the body away on a stretcher about one o’clock.”

HOW DID SHE COME TO BE THERE?

“As to how the girl was forced into the house where she was found, without attracting attention, is at present involved in mystery.

The unlet houses, of which No. 126 is one, were erected about a year ago, but, for some reason or other, they have not found tenants, and have been under the care of a watchman.

An exterior view of 126 Portway.
126 Portway Today

All the front doors have good locks, and the windows were kept fastened; indeed, it is said that the house where the discovery took place had not been entered for upwards of three months.

At the back of the row of houses is a large field, reached by a side street, and by way of this lonely waste, any one would experience little difficulty in effecting an entrance to one of them.

A low wooden railing, separating the small gardens from the ground at present unbuilt upon, would, however, have first to be surmounted or broken through.

To get an unwilling person past this obstacle would naturally be a matter of some difficulty, and this fact supports the general impression that the girl had been drugged or overcome in some way by her assailant.

On examination it was found that some of the wooden railings  in the fence at the end of the garden had been broken away, whilst admittance had been facilitated by the absence of a fastening on the window of the room on the ground floor. This would at once enable a person to enter the house and open the door.

Evidence is not wanting to bear out the idea that the murder is the work of some one who has carefully selected the spot for carrying out his design.”

MR JEFFS HAD ALMOST FOUND THE BODY

“A startling incident in connection with the crime is that in his search for his daughter Mr. Jeffs recently saw the caretaker of the houses, and proposed that they should be searched.

Some of them were looked over, but the house in which the murder occurred was one of which the watchman had not then got the key; otherwise there was no doubt that the father would have discovered his daughter’s body.

A CHILD SEEN BEING DRAGGED

Late last night the police received information which may possibly turn out to be of considerable value.

It appears that a stone sawyer, whose whereabouts are not at present known, informed a friend that about a fortnight ago, whilst passing by the house towards dusk, he saw a man dragging a girl along in the direction of the vacant ground at the rear.

A man takes hold of a girl and tries to drag her along.
An Illustrated Police News Image of what a Witness Saw.

He took but little notice of the occurrence, thinking that it might be a father taking an unwilling girl home.”

THE POLICE INVESTIGATION GETS UNDER WAY

The murder of Amelia Jeffs was soon the subject of a massive amount of press coverage and the police had soon launched a murder investigation in order to bring the culprit to justice.

Robert Anderson, the head of Scotland Yard’s Detective Department was quick to pay a visit to the scene, as was reported by The Citizen on the 17th February 1890:-

“THE WEST HAM MURDER.
Our West Ham correspondent telegraphs this morning :—The police have been most energetic in their efforts to trace the murderer of Amelia Jeffs, and evidence has been discovered which it is believed will tend to show how the girl got into the house.

The dusty floor of a room in the home bears the imprint of Jeffs’ boots close together, and it is assumed that she was in the house alive for some time. Mr. Anderson, Assistant Commissioner of Police, today visited the scene of the crime, and accompanied by the detectives engaged in the case went round the locality of the murder.

The medical gentlemen engaged in the case decline to state the result of the post mortem examination, but there is little doubt that after being cruelly outraged that the girl was strangled. Large numbers of persons have visited the scene of the murder, which continues the sole topic of conversation in the district.”

However, as we shall see in the next instalment, the murderer may well have already been known to the police.