Charting Jack the Ripper's 'rival' in the West Ham murders

Murder scene in West Ham... depicted in Victorian penny dreadful press 

Murder scene in West Ham... depicted in Victorian penny dreadful press - Credit: History Press

Many people think the most notorious Victorian killings were Jack the Ripper’s unsolved Whitechapel murders that filled the scandal sheets of the day. 

But historian Jan Bondeson believes the killer who stalked the streets in 1888 had his rivals in east London.  

He cites mystery disappearances of 12 young women in West Ham who vanished in the 1880s — some later found strangled.  

The university lecturer, now retired, has just published his Rivals of Jack the Ripper book after delving into police records of the infamous West Ham disappearances at the same time as the Whitechapel murders, all of which remain unsolved to this day.  

Jan Brondeson... author of Rivals of Jack the Ripper

Jan Bondeson... author of Rivals of Jack the Ripper - Credit: History Press

“I write about murder,” he says wryly. “I started researching a history of medicine, but Victorian murder cases soon took over.” 

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Things were too quiet in his native Sweden, so he packed a bag and found London the perfect hunting ground for inspiration with Jack the Ripper “the tip of the iceberg”.  

He has 8,000 books and 20,000 postcards of celebrated cases which he has been collecting for 20 years. Now at 60, this prolific researcher has published five books of his own this year alone, the latest on the Ripper's so-called rivals.

Victim whose body was found in cupboard of empty house in Portway

Victim whose body was found in cupboard of empty house in Portway - Credit: History Press

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The West Ham disappearances led up to the brutal rape and killing of 15-year-old Amelia "Millie" Jeffs who had vanished on an errand.  

Charles Jeffs and his wife Mary lived on West Road. They sent daughter Millie out to buy three penneth of fried fish in Church Street at 6.30pm on Friday, January 31, 1890. 

But Millie never arrived at the shop, nor returned home. The district was in uproar since several girls had disappeared from West Ham without a trace. Two girls had vanished from West Road in 1888, the year of the Whitechapel murders. Foul play was suspected over Millie's disappearance.

Houses built along the new Portway thoroughfare were unsold and left empty. A caretaker let Police Sgt Forth and Pc Cross in to search for Millie, but claimed to have lost the key to No 126.

They got in through a window at the back.

Shock and horror in penny dreadful press of 1890... Millie Jeff's body discovered in cupboard  

Shock and horror in penny dreadful press of 1890... Millie Jeff's body discovered in cupboard - Credit: History Press

Sgt Forth discovered Millie Jeffs in a cupboard. She had been brutally raped before being strangled.

Old Samuel Roberts the watchman had keys to the empty houses except No 126, and could not explain to police how he had lost them.  

Murder house in Portway... and fish shop in Church Lane that Millie Jeffs never reached

Murder house in Portway... and fish shop in Church Lane that Millie Jeffs never reached - Credit: History Press

Millie’s inquest was held at the King’s Head tavern in West Ham Lane where Joseph Roberts, a builder who had employed his elderly father Samuel as watchman felt certain that the girl had been murdered elsewhere.

There had been carpenters working in the empty houses, he assured.  

But Millie's boots were clean, indicating that she had been let in through the front door by the killer using a key, rather than through the mud at the back, which invalidated the story.  

The coroner suspected his father had something to hide and shared police suspicions against the Roberts family. A verdict of murder was returned against a person or persons unknown.  

Murder house at Portway... as it is today

Murder house at Portway... as it is today - Credit: History Press

The house is still there today, seemingly outwardly unchanged since 1890.

The West Ham disappearances began in 1881 when 14-year-old Mary Seward vanished after leaving her home in West Road. Her four-year-old cousin had gone missing, so she went out knocking on doors looking for him. The boy returned home later, but Mary had now vanished. 

Another girl went missing nine months later - Eliza Carter, who was 13 when she vanished from her home in Church Street after visiting her married sister in January 1882. Her dress was found in West Ham Park the next day with the buttons cut off.  

Northing was ever heard again of these missing girls. 

But for Millie Jeffs, the mayor of West Ham, Alderman Frederick Smith, offered £100 reward “for the apprehension of the murderer”.

An anonymous wellwisher paid for her funeral at West Ham Church on February 19, 1890.

Canon Scott prayed that the murderer would “receive earthly justice”.  

But the killer, like Jack the Ripper, never did face justice. All the murders remain unresolved 130 years on.

Jan Brondeson... fascination with Victorian murder cases

Jan Bondeson... fascination with Victorian murder cases - Credit: History Press

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