Mary Ann NicholsJack the rippers first victim

On August 31st we commemorated the 126th anniversary of the death of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, the first canonical victim of Jack the Ripper who was brutally murdered in Bucks Row. In this weeks blog we would like to take some time to look at her life and how it came to be that it was cruelly snuffed out on that fateful morning. We use the term “prostitute” to describe the victims of these vicious murders, but it is important to remember that they were often driven to this profession out of sheer desperation and that they were also women – daughters, sisters, wives and mothers. And of course no writing on any of the victims would be complete without acknowledging the tireless research of Neal Shelden in this area.

According to the Jack the Ripper A-Z, in 1888 Mary Ann Nichols was 5ft 2in tall with greying hair. Her features were described as delicate, and she had high cheekbones and grey eyes. Both her father and a journalist described her as looking ten years younger than her age. However, her front teeth were missing and she had a scar on her forehead from a childhood accident.

Mary Ann Nichols was born Mary Ann Walker on 26th August 1845 in Dean Street in the Soho are of London to locksmith Edward Walker and his wife Caroline. In 1864 she married William Nichols, a printer, and together they had five children. In 1877 William briefly eloped with a woman and Mary Ann took to drinking. Around this time their eldest son moved in with Mary Ann’s father and did not speak to his father until after his mother’s death. Over the next three years Mary Ann was to abscond from home at least five times until the couple finally separated in 1880. Following their separation William retained custody of the remaining children at home and paid Mary Ann a weekly allowance. In 1882 he learnt she was living off prostituttion and so discontinued the payments. She summonsed him for maintenance but he proved her “immoral lifestyle” and so she lost the case.

She spends the next several years in and out of Lambeth Workhouse and Infirmary (except a brief two month stint with her father in 1883) before moving in with a man named Thomas Drew in 1883 in Walworth. She lives here until October 1887 and was said to be respectably dressed when she attended her brothers funeral in 1886. After leaving Drew she has several stints in various workhouses but in December 1887 she is said to be sleeping rough in Trafalgar
Square, before being readmitted to various workhouses. In April 1888 she has a job working for a well to do family in Wandsworth. From here she writes to her father saying:
“I just write to you to say you will be glad to know that I am settled in my new place, and going all right up to now. My people went out yesterday, and have not returned, so I am left in charge. It is a grand place inside, with trees and gardens back and front. All has been newly done up. They are teetotallers, and very religious, so I ought to get on. They are very nice people, and I have not much to do. I hope you are all right and the boy has work. So goodbye now for the present. Yours truly, ‘Polly’ Answer soon please, and let me knowhow you are.

So it seems that Polly had found her feet again, a respectable job and over the worst times. Sadly it was not to last. In mid July 1888 she absconded and stole several items of clothing. There are no records of her movements for the next two weeks, but at the start of August she reappears in Gray’s Inn Temporary Workhouse. She then spends the next three weeks at a lodging house on Thrawl Street where she stays in a “surprisingly” clean room with three other women and shares a bed with another woman. From the 24th August until the night before her death she stays at The White House at 56 Flower and Dean Street, a dosshouse which controversially allowed men and women to share a bed.

On Thursday 30th August at about 11.30pm she walks alone along Whitechapel Road. An hour later she is seen leaving the Frying Pan Pub in Brick Lane (the modern day Sheraz Curry House). Less than an hour later she seeks admission to her previous lodgings on Thrawl Street, and is described as being slightly tipsy. She is turned away by the deputy as she did not have the 4d required for a bed, but leaving she remarked “I’ll soon get my doss money – see what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now!” (she was reportedly wearing a new bonnet, which perhaps she felt made her look more attractive. Just over an hour later at 2.30am the woman she shared a bed with at 18 Thrawl Street (named Ellen Holland) met her at the corner of Osborn Street and Whitechapel High Street. Polly was described as being drunk and staggering. Ellen encouraged her to come back to Thrawl Street, but Polly refused, saying she had earned her doss money three times that day and spent it. Ellen would be the last person known person to see Polly alive other than her killer.

At 3.40am on the 31st August 1888 Charles Cross and Robert Paul walking to work along Bucks Row find Polly’s body. On the evening of 1st September her estranged husband William Nichols, her father Edward Walker, and eldest son Edward John Nichols (now 21 and an engineer) arrived at the mortuary to identify Polly’s body. This was the first time father and son had seen each other for many years. Inside the mortuary William stated “Seeing you as you are now, I forgive you for what you have done to me… Well there is no mistake about it. It has come to a sad end at last.” 126 years removed it is difficult to see what exactly William Nichols felt he was forgiving Polly for. A view apparently shared by the press at the time who sympathised with Polly, as well as Edward Walker and Edward John Nichols