On this day in history….31st August 1888

On this day in history : 31st August 1888 – Mary Ann Nichols, an East End of London prostitute, is found murdered and mutilated in Whitechapel…. She is the first victim to be attributed to Jack the Ripper….

The Illustrated Police News, 8th September 1888 – Public domain

Mary Ann was born to Caroline and Edward Walker, a locksmith, on the 26th of August 1845…. On the 16th of January 1864 she married William Nichols, who worked for a printing company and together they had five children…. Mary Ann had a problem with alcohol and left her husband several times before the marriage finally broke up in 1881…. At first William supported his estranged wife with an allowance of 5 shillings per week – but in 1882 these payments stopped when William learned of his wife’s prostitution…. The law at the time stated that a man was no longer obliged to provide for his wife if she was earning money through illicit means….

Spending the rest of her days between workhouses and cheap lodging houses Mary Ann made a meagre living on her earnings as a prostitute and on charitable handouts…. As an alcoholic she drank most of her money – she could expect to earn around threepence a time for her trade – the same price as a large glass of gin….

Mary Ann’s last place of residence was at a boarding house in Spitalfields, where she shared a room with Nelly Holland…. At 12.30am on the 31st of August Mary Ann was seen to leave a public house in Brick Lane…. She was then turned away from the lodging house as she did not have the fourpence to pay for her bed for the night…. She was last seen alive by Nelly at 2.30am, standing on the corner of Osborn Street and Whitechapel Road soliciting for ‘business’….

Bucks Row, site of the murder – Image courtesy Hulton Archive – Public domain

At 3.40am cart-man Charles Allen Cross came across Mary Ann and at first was unsure as to whether she was dead or unconscious…. Mary Ann’s skirts had been raised, so after adjusting them to give her some modesty, Cross and another passing cart-man summonsed the police…. A surgeon, Dr. Henry Llewelyn, was called and on his arrival, at around 4am, he pronounced that she had been dead for about half an hour…. Her throat had been cut twice, which would have killed her instantly – and then her abdomen had been mutilated….

Mortuary photograph of Mary Ann Nichols – Public domain

Mary Ann was buried at the City of London Cemetery in a public grave on Thursday the 6th of September 1888…. In 1996 the Cemetery authorities marked her grave with a plaque…. It is thought Jack the Ripper was responsible for the murders of 11 prostitutes between 1885 and 1891….

Mary Ann’s grave marker at City of London Cemetery – Image courtesy : Matt Brown CC BY-SA

On this day in history….28th July 1865

On this day in history : 28th July 1865 – Scotland’s last public execution takes place…. A crowd of reportedly 100,000 watch as Dr Edward Pritchard is hanged for the murder of his wife and mother-in-law….

Public domain

Pritchard, born on the 8th of December 1825 in Southsea, Hampshire was the son of a sea captain….and claimed to have studied at King’s College Hospital, London, graduating in 1846…. How much truth is in this is unclear – but he did manage to secure the position of assistant surgeon onboard HMS Victory – and went on to serve on various other ships, which enabled him to travel the world….

On returning to Portsmouth he met Mary-Jane Taylor, the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant from Edinburgh…. The couple were married in 1851 and went on to have five children….

Pritchard took a job in Yorkshire as a GP…. During this time he wrote several books on his travels whilst in the Navy…. He also wrote about ‘water cure’ – or hydrotherapy….and had numerous articles published in The Lancet…. In 1859 he moved his family to Glasgow – it seems with his reputation tarnished as it appears some kind of ‘incident’ had occurred….

On the 5th of May 1863 a fire broke out in the family home at 11, Berkeley Terrace, Glasgow…. It started in the room of 25-year-old servant Elizabeth McGrain…. Strangely she made no attempt to escape – which would suggest she was unconscious or perhaps even already dead…. No charges were ever brought but there were those who had their suspicions….

The family moved to a new address in Glasgow, 131 Sauchiehall Street….and in early 1865 Pritchard’s wife, Mary, became ill…. Pritchard, aided by his colleague Dr Paterson,treated her at home…. On the 10th of February 70-year-old Jane Taylor arrived to nurse her sick daughter – but on the 28th of February she herself was to unexpectedly die…. Just over three weeks later, on the 18th of March, 38-year-old Mary-Jane also passed away….

Paterson, his suspicions aroused, refused to sign the death certificates, although he did not go to the authorities…. Pritchard however, had no such qualms at signing…. The death certificates recorded that Jane had died from paralysis and apoplexy – and his wife from gastric fever…. Both were buried at Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh….

Although Paterson had not publicly reported his suspicions the authorities did however receive an anonymous letter…. The information in contained was enough to prompt an order for the bodies to be exhumed…. Both were found to contain the poisons tartanised antimony, aconite and opium…. It appears Pritchard had been poisoning the food of his wife and mother-in-law….

The trial of Dr Edward William Pritchard – wood engraving, 1865 – Credit : The Wellcome Collection CC-BY

Pritchard’s five day trial took place in Edinburgh in July and was presided over by Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Glencorse…. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang…. Following his conviction Pritchard wrote a confession but claimed innocence at the murder of Jane Taylor….

He described how he had been having an affair with servant Mary McLeod…. It had begun in the summer of 1863 and in 1864 she had become pregnant…. Pritchard helped ‘produce a miscarriage’…. He claimed his wife knew of the affair – but his mother-in-law had caught the pair together in his consulting room…. He also implicated that McLeod was an accomplice in the murder of his wife….

However, nine days before his execution date Pritchard made a further confession, exonerating McLeod saying he alone was responsible for both of the murders…. At 8am on the 26th of July at North Prison, Saltmarket, Glasgow – in front of a crowd of possibly 100,000 – Pritchard met his executioner….one Mr William Calcraft….


William Calcraft c.1870 – Wheaton (New York) – Public domain

Read more … William Calcraft…. 45 years a hangman….

On this day in history….5th July 1888

On this day in history : 5th July 1888 – Three matchgirls are fired from Bryant and May, accused of telling lies to a journalist about their working conditions; 1,400 female workers go on strike….

Matchgirls striking – Public domain

The mood amongst the Bryant and May factory workers had been darkening for a number of years…. It was a time when employers could do pretty much as they pleased…. Employees could be fined for being late, or even for talking…. In the early 1880s boss Theodore Bryant had even deducted a shilling from each pay packet to purchase a statue of William Gladstone…. Such was the disgust, that at its unveiling in 1882 some workers attended the ceremony to throw stones at it…. Some strike action was taken between 1881 and 1886 – but it had little effect….

Workers in a match factory (possibly Bryant &; May) – The Graphic – Public domain

Conditions at the factory in Bow, East London were appalling…. Girls as young as 12 worked long hours for very little pay….and the work was dangerous…. Lack of ventilation meant the dreaded ‘phossy jaw’ was almost inevitable….

The phosphorous fumes created during the manufacturing process caused a type of cancer which led to facial deformities…. Phossy jaw is a painful swelling in the jaw that produces a foul smelling pus…. the jaw would then turn green and black as the bone rotted away…. The condition would be fatal without surgery….

Phossy jaw – Public domain

In 1888 journalist and campaigner for women’s welfare and rights, Annie Besant, wrote a radical article entitled ‘White Slavery in London’…. She told of the terrible conditions in the factory – respectable Victorians would have been shocked when they learned of the appalling working environment these workers had to endure…. The Bryant and May bosses were furious and singled out three girls they believed were responsible for talking to Besant….and they were sacked….

However, the rest of the match girls decided to take action….1,400 workers went on strike which in turn effected some 3,000 Bryant and May staff…. For three weeks production came to a standstill….strike headquarters were established and workers had to rely on donations from the public as there was no strike pay or indeed benefits available then…. The public showed their support by not buying Bryant and May matches…. Rallies and marches were organised and there was a visit to Parliament to speak with MPs….

Clashing with police at a match strikers’ march – Public domain

The bosses threatened to relocate the factory but finally after three weeks gave in to the workers’ demands….and the 3,000 returned to work – fining had ended and the three girls were re-employed….

Things did not end there though…. On the 27th of July 1888 the first meeting of the Union of Women Match Makers was held…. Premises were secured using money left over from the strike fund and the union grew….eventually being renamed so men could join too….

1889 saw a sharp increase in strike action, such as the Great Dock Strike…. Many workers had gained confidence because of the victory of the match girls….

Image credit : The Wellcome Collection CC BY-4.0

On this day in history….12th June 1889

On this day in history : 12th June 1889 – 89 people are killed and over 170 are injured in the Armagh rail disaster, in Northern Ireland – nearly a third are children…. It remains Ireland’s worse ever rail disaster….

Public domain – photographer unknown

Each year the Armagh Abbey Street Methodist Church would hold a Sunday School excursion to Warrenpoint, a resort town on the northern shore of Carlingford Lough, about an hours train journey away…. The traditional day trip was extremely popular and open to all; lots of different religions:- Catholics, Church of England, Presbyterian and Methodists – of all classes joined in….

This particular year the demand for places was especially high and a special train with extra carriages was laid on…. Accompanied by the band of the Royal Irish Fusiliers around 940 passengers boarded the train – the doors were locked behind them to prevent non-ticket holders from boarding….and the train departed at 10.15am….

Three miles out of the city they ran into problems; the train tried to pull up the Armagh Bank, a gradient of 1.75…. The weight of the train, some 186 tons not including the engine, was too much – and on reaching Derry’s Crossing, almost at the top, the train stalled…. Realising it would be impossible to restart with that much weight it was decided to decouple the front four carriages and take them on to Hamiltons Bawn – and then return for the remaining eight….

Map of the Railway between Armagh and Hamiltons Bawn – Image credit: Afterbrunel (talk) (uploads) – Public domain

The handbrake was applied in the guard’s carriage at the rear – but as an added precaution large stones were placed behind the wheels of the waiting carriages…. However, the stones could not hold the weight and were crushed as the carriages began to roll back…. The runaway train gathered speed and finally crashed into the 10.35 – a powerful engine with a light load – at about 40mph…. There was little damage to the 10.35 but the last three carriages of the Sunday School special and their occupants were obliterated…. 64 were declared dead at the scene and over the following days this number rose…. The names of those who died are recorded in Abbey Street Methodist Church….

Illustrated London News, June 22, 1889 – Public domain
Recently installed memorial in The Mall, Armagh – commemorating the Armagh railway disaster

On this day in history….9th June 1873

On this day in history : 9th June 1873 – After only being open to the public for 16 days Alexandra Palace in London is destroyed by fire…. Less than two years later a new Palace opens….


The ‘Palace of the people’ had been an idea conceived in 1859 by Owen Jones, an English-born Welsh architect…. Designed to compliment South London’s Crystal Palace it was to provide the Victorians with a place of recreation, entertainment and education….

Alexandra Palace was built by Kelk and Lucas (who also built the Royal Albert Hall around the same time) – and many of the building materials used were recycled from the 1862 International Exhibition building in South Kensington, after it was demolished…. In 1871 work started on the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway to connect the site to Highgate Station…. Both Palace and railway were completed in 1873….

The grand opening took place on the 24th of May 1873, Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday….with concerts, recitals and fireworks…. In its first couple of weeks over 120,000 people were to visit….but then sixteen days after it opened disaster struck…. A fire in the dome quickly caught hold and all that was left standing were the outer walls…. Three members of staff lost their lives – and a loan exhibition of some 4,700 pieces of historic English pottery and porcelain was destroyed….

Original Alexandra Palace on fire in 1873 – Illustrated London News – PD-US

However, the Victorians were never ones to hang around…. Within two years, on the 1st of May 1875, a new Palace opened…. Covering 7.5 acres, the new Palace and surrounding Park boasted many features….centred around the Great Hall with its new Henry Willis organ – one of the largest in Europe at the time…. As well as the Hall a museum, lecture hall, library, banqueting room, a large theatre and art galleries were all included…. The grounds held a Japanese village, boating lake, nine-hole pitch and put golf course – and even the Alexandra Palace Racecourse….London’s only racecourse from 1868 until its closure in 1970….

Rebuilt Palace in 1875 – Illustrated London News PD-US

Of course the Ally Pally continues to be a leading venue for arts, sport and entertainment….but not without having to be largely rebuilt once again after being ravaged by fire…. In 1980 much of the building was destroyed when a fire broke out under the Henry Willis organ….

Image: John Bointon CC BY-SA 2.0