Today marks the anniversary of the murder of Frances Coles on the 13th of February 1891, which is generally held to be the last in the cycle of grisly crimes against women known as The Whitechapel Murders. At the time of Frances’ murder, two and a half years had passed since the last canonical murder committed by Jack the Ripper so it seems highly unlikely that she was a victim of the same killer. However, this is no reason to ignore her fate or let her be forgotten like so many other women who died violent deaths on the streets of the east end during the nineteenth century and beyond.
As with the other better known victims, Frances’ life story followed the usual well trod sequence of poverty, lack of aspiration and addiction. Born in Bermondsey on the 17th of September 1859, Frances grew up in the so called Leather District of Bermondsey, living with her parents and siblings. By the time she was twenty one, she had left the family home and was working for a chemist in the Minories, but it seems that she fell into prostitution soon afterwards either to supplement her income or because she had left her job.
Either way, Frances did her best to conceal her chaotic lifestyle from her family, assuring them that she was still working for the chemist even though her often slovenly appearance and the smell of alcohol that hung about her caused their alarm bells to ring. It was only after her murder that the full truth of her secret existence came out.
At the time of her death, Frances Coles was working as a prostitute in the Whitechapel area and living a hopeless and uncertain existence, moving between doss houses, selling her body for a few shillings a time and under a great deal of stress due to alcoholism and the strain of pretending to her family that she was still living an ordinary life filling bottles for a chemist and lodging with a respectable old woman on Richard Street, just off Commercial Street.
On the 11th of February, Frances was drinking in the Princess Alice on Commercial Street (my favourite pub!) when she fell into the company of a discharged merchant seaman by the name of James Sadler, who had been one of her clients in the past and didn’t waste much time before suggesting they spend the night together, which they duly did at a doss house called Commercial Chambers on White’s Row. The next day, the amorous couple went on a pub crawl around the various drinking places of Whitechapel with Frances, hopelessly drunk by this stage, at one point popping into a hat shop on Nottingham Street, Bethnal Green in the evening to buy herself a new bonnet with some money that Sadler had given to her.
As might be expected, the liaison soon ended in tears after Frances and Sadler had a bust up sometime before midnight on the 12th and stomped off on their own. Frances returned to the Commercial Chambers, where she passed out at the kitchen table and Sadler, more unfortunately, was robbed and roughed up a bit by an unknown woman and her two accomplices on Thrawl Street. He eventually showed up at Commercial Chambers in expectation of some sympathy from Frances but would appear to have found very little before he was summarily ejected for no longer having enough money to pay for his board for the night.
As with more than one of the Ripper’s canonical victims in Autumn 1888, Frances was also chucked out of the doss house just after midnight when she too failed to provide enough doss money and was left to roam the streets in search of enough clients to provide her with money to pay for a bed for the night. Like poor old Polly Nichols with her nice new bonnet, she too may have felt suitably emboldened by a becoming piece of new headgear to feel pretty confident about her chances.
By half past one in the morning, Frances had either saved or earned enough to buy her final meal – mutton and bread from Shuttleworth’s eating house on Wentworth Street and then attempted to malinger at her table, probably in no haste to go back out into the dark, cold streets, after finishing at which point she was asked to leave.
She then bumped into another prostitute, Ellen Callana on Commercial Street and the two women were approached by a rather unpleasant man in what is referred to as a ‘cheesecutter hat’. When Ellen refused to go off with him, he punched her in the face before turning to Frances, who decided to accept his offer and go with him despite Ellen’s pleas that she should turn him down. This is the last definite view we get of Frances, staggering off drunkenly on the arm of a violent man as her friend nurses her bruised cheek and hopes she’ll come back in one piece.
At around two in the morning, a group of men walked through a railway arch known as Swallow Gardens which ran between Chamber Street and Royal Mint Street and saw a man and woman standing by the Royal Mint Street entrance. They shouted ‘Good night’ to the couple but received no reply.
Around ten minutes later, at 2.15am, PC Ernest Thompson from H Division was doing his first ever solo beat down Chamber Street and just after hearing footsteps retreating nearby, turned his lamp onto the tunnel of Swallow Gardens, where he saw Frances Coles lying on the ground with her throat cut more than once and bleeding heavily and her new hat lying on the ground beside her. She was still alive and so he was forced to remain with her and not pursue her presumed assailant as they hurried away. Frances died shortly afterwards.
As can be expected, any such murder in the Whitechapel area at this time reminded people of the Ripper case a few years before and there was an instant panic that he had decided to revisit his old hunting grounds. However, there aren’t really all that many similarities between the murder of Frances Coles and those of the canonical five in 1888 other than the fact that she was a prostitute, had her throat cut and there was no motive of robbery (Two shillings were found hidden behind a nearby water pipe but it’s not known if this was Frances’ earnings for the night that she’d hastily stashed away or cash that belonged to someone else completely).
Although the case remains officially unsolved, in my view it’s most likely that the hapless Sadler was her assailant – after being ejected from Commercial Chambers he had spent the night trying to find another doss house, becoming progressively more drunken and aggressive as he went and had been seen close to the Mint at the time of her murder. He was then seen later on covered in blood after allegedly being robbed on the Radcliff Highway and also had in his possession a blunt knife of the sort that probably did for poor old Frances and which he wasted no time in selling on to another seaman. However, although Sadler was also the Number One Suspect as far as the police were concerned, all charges were dropped against him when it turned out that the couple seen at Swallow Gardens had not been Coles and her supposed client but another couple altogether and, furthermore, the Coroner ruled that if the witnesses who had seen Sadler that fateful night were to be believed then he would have been far too drunk and incapable to murder anyone let alone hold a knife with a steady enough hand to cut a woman’s throat.
Poor Frances Coles. As with the other victims, canonical and otherwise, her sad and brutally short life just serves to demonstrate how desperately unfair and harsh life at the time could be for unattached and vulnerable women with no independent means to support themselves other than their own bodies or low skilled, low paid jobs. Unlike the likes of Annie Chapman or Polly Nichols, Frances Coles wasn’t on the run and unsupported after a failed marriage but rather one of thousands of young women raised through no fault of her own without aspirations or the means to properly support herself and then abandoned to her fate on the cruellest streets imaginable.
I wish that it wasn’t too late to bring her attacker to proper justice but at least we don’t have to forget about her.