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The Murder Of Mary Pradd (Often Known As Old Mary Pradd, Sometimes Mary Pratt)


London Nomades, by John Thomson, in Victorian London Street Life (1877). Mary Pratt is sat on the steps of the caravan.

Police Constable Charles Shelton from the Metropolitan Police made his way to 40 Kent Street during the early hours of Thursday, November 16th, 1876. Situated in one of the most impoverished areas of the Borough, Kent Street was bustling with street vendors, market traders, gypsies, nomads, and thieves. Not far away was the notorious Mint Street, famed as the ‘nastiest street in London.’



With a sense of apprehension, he ascended the stairs and cautiously stepped into the bedroom to investigate the suspected murder scene. There, fifty-five-year-old Mary Pratt lay on the floor beside the fireplace, her body drenched in blood, staining her stockings a deep red hue. It appeared that a section of quilt had been utilised in an attempt to absorb some of the blood pooled around her. Just a few feet away, two men lay sound asleep on the bed, seemingly oblivious to the grisly scene unfolding around them.

Mint St

‘Get up Ned, your wife is dead,’ shouted a woman, among the small gathering of individuals already present in the room, Edward Roland stirred from his slumber, rising unsteadily to his feet and meandering about before resettling on the bed. PC Shelton observed a distinct bite mark on Roland's right hand.


After being informed a second time that Mary Pratt was dead, Roland replied: ‘I don’t believe it.’ He remembered going out drinking with Mary and the other man on the bed, James Gumble, on the Wednesday night but denied there was any quarrel or fight. They arrived home, Roland asked Mary to go to bed with him, but she refused, and so he got undressed and went to sleep. He had nothing to do with the blood.


Gumble remembered seeing Mary Pratt on the floor when he entered the room on Wednesday night. He said something to her, but could not remember whether she answered. He then went to sleep.


At one o'clock in the morning, Gumble's girlfriend, Caroline Brewington, ventured to 40 Kent Street in search of him, only to discover Mary Pratt sprawled on the floor. Sensing her coldness, Ms. Brewington hastened to fetch the landlady, Susan Hill, from the ground floor, who promptly alerted the police.


Later that morning, the police surgeon, Charles Downs, conducted an examination of the body, revealing a lacerated wound approximately three-quarters of an inch in length, which severed blood vessels beneath the skin. Mr. Downs suspected the injury had been inflicted by a sharp, jagged instrument of some sort. Additionally, Mary may have suffered blows consistent with kicking.


Rowland and Gumble were both arrested ‘on suspicion of ill-using the deceased’ but both denied all knowledge of what happened to Mary Pratt. There was no blood on Gumble’s hands to tie him to the dead woman and no proof of what had really happened. Two days later on Saturday, 18 May, an inquest jury returned their verdict ‘that the deceased died from injuries, but there was not sufficient evidence to show how such injuries were caused.’


But Mary Pratt’s story does not end there: a few weeks earlier she had been visiting friends staying in a gypsy caravan on a vacant plot of land in Battersea when a 39 year-old photographer named John Thomson stopped by and asked for permission to take their picture.


Thomson found out about Mary’s tragic death when he took a copy of the photograph to the owner of the caravan, William Hampton, described as ‘a fair-spoken, honest gentleman.’

John Thomson, self-portrait with Manchu soldiers in Fujian, 1871.

On seeing the picture, Hampton exclaimed: ‘Bless ye! That’s old Mary Pradd, sitting on the steps of the wan, wot was murdered in the Borough, middle of last month.’


Further details of Mary’s life emerged: she had once been the wife of a tinker called Lamb but when he passed away she began roaming the country with Rowland and Gumble, looking for items to sell, or ‘hawk’, to pay for food, lodging and booze.


Her daughter Harriet Lamb, who lived in Fox’s Buildings in Kent Street (you can see a 1913 photograph of Fox’s buildings at the City of London Collage website), had last seen her mother on the day before her death. Mary was very drunk.

Thomson wrote in his book Victorian London Street Life: ‘The poor woman who met her end in so mysterious a manner had in life the look of being a decent, inoffensive creature. Clean and respectable in her dress, she might in her youth have been even of comely appearance, but now she wore the indelible stamp of a woman who had been dulled and deadened by a hard life.’


As for Kent Street, it changed its name to Tabard Street a year after Mary Pratt’s death. Its reputation as a ‘thieves’ den’ led to a series of attempts to improve it and in the early 20th Century the London County Council tore down the east side of the road to make room for new housing blocks and the green space of Tabard Gardens. (see 1955 Survey of London). These days, it looks very different from how it would in 1876.

 


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