PC Charles Shelton of the Metropolitan Police arrived at number 40 Kent Street in the early hours of Thursday 16th November, 1876. It was one of the poorest roads in the Borough, a land of street sellers, market traders, gypsies, nomads and thieves. Not far away was the notorious Mint Street, famed as the ‘nastiest street in London.’
So it was with some trepidation that he climbed the stairs and entered the bedroom to examine the scene of a suspected murder. Fifty-five year-old Mary Pratt lay on the floor near the fireplace, covered in blood. Her stockings were stained a dark red. It seemed that a piece of quilt had been used to try to mop up some of the pools of blood on the ground. A few feet away, two men were lying on the bed, both apparently fast asleep.
‘Get up Ned, your wife is dead,’ shouted a woman, one of the small crowd of people already gathered in the room. At that Edward Roland awoke, staggered to his feet and stumbled about a while before sitting back on the bed. PC Shelton noticed a bite mark on his right hand.
After being informed a second time that Mary Pratt was dead, Roland replied: ‘I don’t believe it.’ He remembered going out drinking with Mary and the other man on the bed, James Gumble, on the Wednesday night but denied there was any quarrel or fight. They arrived home, Roland asked Mary to go to bed with him, but she refused, and so he got undressed and went to sleep. He had nothing to do with the blood.
Gumble remembered seeing Mary Pratt on the floor when he entered the room on Wednesday night. He said something to her, but could not remember whether she answered. He then went to sleep.
It was at one o’clock in the morning that Gumble’s girlfriend Caroline Brewington went to 40 Kent Street to look for him and found Mary Pratt lying on the floor. Noticing she was cold to the touch, Ms Brewington went to fetch the landlady on the ground floor, Susan Hill, who contacted the police.
Later that morning the police surgeon Charles Downs examined the body and found a ‘lacerated wound about three-quarters of an inch in length’ which cut through the blood vessels beneath the skin. Mr Downs thought the injury had been caused with a sharp, jagged instrument of some kind.* Mary may also have been kicked.
Rowland and Gumble were both arrested ‘on suspicion of ill-using the deceased’ but both denied all knowledge of what happened to Mary Pratt. There was no blood on Gumble’s hands to tie him to the dead woman and no proof of what had really happened. Two days later on Saturday, 18 May, an inquest jury returned their verdict ‘that the deceased died from injuries, but there was not sufficient evidence to show how such injuries were caused.’
But Mary Pratt’s story does not end there: a few weeks earlier she had been visiting friends staying in a gypsy caravan on a vacant plot of land in Battersea when a 39 year-old photographer named John Thomson stopped by and asked for permission to take their picture.
Thomson found out about Mary’s tragic death when he took a copy of the photograph to the owner of the caravan, William Hampton, described as ‘a fair-spoken, honest gentleman.’
On seeing the picture, Hampton exclaimed: ‘Bless ye! That’s old Mary Pradd, sitting on the steps of the wan, wot was murdered in the Borough, middle of last month.’
Further details of Mary’s life emerged: she had once been the wife of a tinker called Lamb but when he passed away she began roaming the country with Rowland and Gumble, looking for items to sell, or ‘hawk’, to pay for food, lodging and booze.
Her daughter Harriet Lamb, who lived in Fox’s Buildings in Kent Street (you can see a 1913 photograph of Fox’s buildings at the City of London Collage website), had last seen her mother on the day before her death. Mary was very drunk.
Thomson wrote in his book Victorian London Street Life: ‘The poor woman who met her end in so mysterious a manner had in life the look of being a decent, inoffensive creature. Clean and respectable in her dress, she might in her youth have been even of comely appearance, but now she wore the indelible stamp of a woman who had been dulled and deadened by a hard life.’
As for Kent Street, it changed its name to Tabard Street a year after Mary Pratt’s death. Its reputation as a ‘thieves’ den’ led to a series of attempts to improve it and in the early 20th Century the London County Council tore down the east side of the road to make room for new housing blocks and the green space of Tabard Gardens. (see 1955 Survey of London). These days, it looks very different from how it would in 1876.
*The exact location of the wound was not disclosed by the newspapers, who referred only to it being ‘on her person.’ This probably indicates that it was in the area of her groin.
Reports of Mary’s death in the Daily News of November 20, 1876, and the Manchester Times of November 25 (which for some reason gives her name as Mary Ann Hunter).
John Thomson, Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs (1877) (Click here to see it on Amazon)