By Gillian Clegg
Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal No 5 (1996)
On Monday, 31st December 1888 a waterman named Winslade who lived at 4 Short Street (now Short Road) off Paxton Road, Chiswick, found the body of a well-dressed man in the Thames off Thornycroft’s Works at Chiswick Mall (now the site of Regency Quay, Church Wharf). This was reported in the Acton, Chiswick and Turnham Green Gazette of 5th January 1889 under the heading ‘Found Drowned’.
An inquest was held at the Lamb Tap Inn, Church Street (now Lamb House) on the following Wednesday. The body was identified as one Montague John Druitt and a verdict of suicide ‘whilst of an unsound mind’ was returned.
Montague John Druitt was a thirty-one year-old barrister and assistant master at a school in Blackheath. He is also a prime suspect for the Ripper murders in which five prostitutes were violently murdered and fiendishly mutilated between 31 August and 9 November 1888.
Was Druitt the murderer?
The evidence against Druitt rests almost entirely on a written note left by Sir Melville McNaghten, a senior detective in the Metropolitan Police. In this note McNaghten names Druitt and says: ‘he was sexually insane and from private information I have little doubt that his own family believed him to have been the murderer.’
Perhaps not so coincidentally the murder hunt was wound down after Druitt’s body was discovered. When one of the founders of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee complained about the decrease in Whitechapel policing he was told in confidence that: ‘the man in question is dead. He was fished out of the Thames two months ago and it would only cause pain to relatives if we say any more than that.’
Infuriatingly, no details have since come to light to support the fairly incriminating police note, and the evidence pointing to Druitt’s opportunity and motive seems fairly flimsy. He did perhaps have the opportunity since one month before the first Ripper murder, Druitt’s mother had been incarcerated in the Brooke Mental asylum in Clapton. This was just two miles from Whitechapel, the scene of the murders, and Whitechapel was directly on the route Druitt might have taken to visit his mother (the murders were all committed on Friday and Saturday evenings).
A possible motive is more difficult. It is suggested that Druitt’s mother’s insanity might have been caused by syphilis (very prevalent at the time) and that his mother’s condition caused Druitt’s mind to snap and he began to wreak revenge on prostitutes who were notorious as carriers of the disease (all the murdered girls were cruelly butchered). Since the murderer knew where to find the vital organs in the body, it has always been assumed he/she was someone with a knowledge of anatomy. Druitt’s father was a doctor so Druitt would have had a chance to acquire some rudimentary medical knowledge.
Druitt is just one of many suspects in a murder hunt which has never died down. The plethora of books and articles on the subject has turned ‘Ripperology’ into a science in its own right. The many suspects include an insane Jewish hairdresser, a Russian doctor, a wealthy Lancashire cotton merchant and no less a person than the then heir to the throne of England, Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, Duke of Clarence. We don’t feel qualified to pronounce on whether Druitt was or was not the murderer. More interesting questions are what was Druitt doing in Chiswick, and was he himself murdered?
What was Druitt doing in Chiswick?
As far as is known Druitt had no connections with Chiswick. For many years Ripperologists thought that he was in Chiswick in the winter of 1888 to visit his mother at the Manor House mental asylum. This occupied the large house called Manor Farm House on the west side of Chiswick Lane. The house was built and lived in by Sir Stephen Fox, one of the early benefactors of Chiswick in the late 17th century. Between 1837 and 1892 the Manor Farm House became a private mental asylum run by a family of doctors called Tuke.
Mrs Druitt was incarcerated in the Manor House mental asylum; she ended her days there in December 1890. However, research in recent years has discovered that she was not brought to Chiswick until May 1890, eighteen months after Druitt was found drowned.
Martin Howells and Keith Skinner, in their book, The Ripper Legacy, suggest that Druitt came to Chiswick to visit ‘Wilson’s chummery’, a sort of informal club for homosexuals at The Osiers, Chiswick Mall, the home of one Henry Wilson from 1887 until 1895.
Henry Wilson was a barrister, a close friend of the Duke of Clarence and a leading member of the Apostles, an exclusive, esoteric and secretive homosexual group. Homosexuality was of course illegal and the need for secrecy was particularly necessary in the 1880s and 1890s.
Was Druitt murdered?
Even if he was not the Ripper, Druitt was certainly a man in trouble at the end of 1888. A brilliant scholar and an accomplished sportsman, he seems never to have fulfilled his early promise and he appears to have found it necessary to supplement his income as a barrister by taking a teaching job in Blackheath. On 30th November 1888, after 7 years in the post, he had been summarily dismissed for what was described as a serious (but unspecified) offence.
But did he commit suicide? When his body was discovered, apart from some heavy stones, his pockets were said to have contained cheques, money, a first class season pass from Blackheath to London and a second class half return ticket from Hammersmith to Charing Cross. It seems strange that a man bent on killing himself should invest in a return ticket; stranger, too, that he should choose to pitch himself into the Thames at Chiswick rather than at Blackfriars just a quarter of a mile from his Chambers in Kings Bench Walk.
If he didn’t drown by his own hand, who pushed him? Druitt is thought to have been a homosexual (McNaghten’s description ‘sexually insane’ perhaps being a Victorian euphemism for homosexuality). Whether Druitt was a member of the Apostles and an acquaintance of Henry Wilson is not known, but many Apostles were legal men in the same Chambers as Druitt and one eminent Apostle lived very close to Druitt in Blackheath so he would certainly have mixed with members of the set.
The theory promulgated in The Ripper Legacy is that Druitt was Jack the Ripper; that this was known to people in high places and that Druitt himself was murdered as part of an establishment cover up. The authors reason that if Druitt was involved with an influential clique of homosexuals like the Apostles, whose members, included the heir presumptive to the throne of England, the Victorian establishment would have had every reason to make sure that one of their number did not stand trial for the most notorious murders ever perpetrated.
It must be stressed that this is just one of many theories about the identity of Jack the Ripper. Since the publication of The Ripper Legacy more new suspects have been suggested but there isn’t a watertight case against any of them. So we are entitled to feel shivers down our spine when we think that the country’s most notorious murderer might have been roaming the streets of Chiswick.
Gillian Clegg is the author of Chiswick Past published by Historical Publications in 1995.