16 July 2016

A child murderer in Jack the Ripper's London -1895

Jack the Ripper Tours have been a wonderful source of information.  Robert Coombes worked as a purser and chief steward for the National Steamship Co. He, wife Emily and their sons (Robert 13; Nathaniel 10), had moved into a neat, yellow-brick house in Cave Road in London in 1895.

The parents were much respect­ed in the neighbourhood. Robert and Emily Coombes were described as very cheerful; she was a patient wife and mother, and a careful housewife. But the neighbours disliked the two boys who they described as being shifty.

Nathaniel and Robert Coombes in their days of innocence

In July that year, Robert Coombes said goodbye to his wife and children, and headed for the docks to set sail for New York aboard a steamship. Just 3 days after Mr Coombes left, some Cave Road neighbours became concerned that they had seen nothing of Mrs Coombes for several days and had asked the boys how she was. The boys’ response was that their mother had gone to Liverpool to see father and, since the story seemed believable, it was accepted. But then the neighbours began to notice a stench emanating from the house. Were the boys leaving their faeces around the house?

One neighbour was so worried, she contacted the boys’ aunt. The aunt went to the house in Cave Rd on several occasions, but no-one answered the door. On Monday 15th July 1895 the aunt returned to the house at 6pm. The door this time was answered by a man she didn’t know, John Fox. Fox only opened the door very slightly and said “No, you cannot see Emily.. she is not at home.. she has gone on holiday. To Liverpool”. The man then slammed the door shut.

Soon her nephews Robert and Nathaniel came walking up the street and approached the door. “Where is you Ma?” she asked them. Robert confirmed that she had gone to Liverpool. A rich aunt had apparently died and had left them a lot of money. At this point the two boys joined a group of other boys for the recreation ground, so the aunt left.

However the aunt perservered. This time the door was opened and she forced her way in and went straight to the back parlour, where she found her two nephews and John Fox playing cards. Auntie asked Robert if she could go into his Ma’s bedroom. But he said her room was locked and he didn’t have any key. So she borrowed a key from the landlady, unlocked the door and saw the dead body of her sister-in-law on the bed.

Auntie sent straight away for a constable. The police found a dagger-knife on the foot of the bed and a truncheon on the floor. The Divisional Police Surgeon arrived and found Emily’s body in a horrible state of decomposition; the head had been entirely eaten by maggots. The stench was everywhere.

Robert told his aunt that his mother had given Nattie a hiding for stealing some food on the Saturday. Nattie wanted to kill her but he asked Robert to do it instead. So Robert obliged. After committing murder, the Coombes brothers partied it up - they went to watch cricket at Lords and played cards. Emily had been dead ten days! Whoever John Fox was, he had taken Mr Coombes’s gold watch, smoked his tobacco and wore his new suit.

As news of the murder spread across the neighbourhood, journalists arrived in Cave Road to gossip with the neighbours. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper released the shocking story on Sunday 21st July 1895! But the conduct of the boys had excited no suspicion. Both boys went to school each day, had their meals in the house and slept in the back bedroom every night. The matter-of-fact-way in which Robert had described murdering his mother was particularly chilling.

At Robert’s subsequent Old Bailey Trial, there were only three issues of interest:
1. how emotionally disturbed had the mother been in the past?
2. how mentally disturbed was Robert since birth? And
3. how much influence did all the pernicious Penny Dreadful novels in the house have? Should they be banned across Britain?

Nathaniel was never charged with murder. And John Fox was later found not guilty of any involvement in the crime. When Robert’s jury retir­ed, they returned and found Coom­bes guilty; but they strongly recom­mended mercy because of Robert’s youth, and because he did not real­ise the serious nature of murder. He was guilty but insane. Robert was sent to Broadmoor where he remained for 17 years in “classy” Block 2. He emigrated to Australia in 1914, and served with great distinction as a stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli soon after. Presumably Robert, the once-vicious murderer, had been redeemed in Broadmoor and Coffs Harbour.


Now a book has been published called The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, written by Kate Summerscale, published by Bloomsbury Publishing and well reviewed by Victorian Musings.

120 years after the trial ended, Summerscale’s questions are different from those presented to the original jury. In fact the majority of the book focused on what happened post-trial. This is fortunate for me since I am more interested in psychology and sociology than I am in literature for its own sake.
The new book The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale

The author covers many professional fields of expertise, some of which were not available in 1895. The sociologists would have been fascinated to look at 1890s child rearing, especially amonst over-crowded and under-nourished working class London families. The social historian would ask if the violence associated with Jack the Ripper back in 1888-1891 had not dissipated yet in London a few years later? What would psycho-analytically focused psychologists have made of the bizarre relationship between 13 year old Robert and his 37 year old mother? Why was young Robert such a self possessed young lad who seemed very pleased with his shameful behaviour? Did it matter that the boys’ father was usually not at home, sharing the parental responsibilities with his wife?

Finally Summerscale asks how much influence can popular culture have on a young teenage mind? If the same murder happened today, would we be blaming video games and violent films (rather than Penny Dreadful novels)?


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, What always amazes me about these stories, then and now, is how easily murderers enlist accomplices. John Fox's position in this affair is beyond suspicious and equivocal. Why would he be spending so much time with them, and if innocent, how could a circumstance like that stench be ignored? Most important, why would someone only peripherally involved become enmeshed with a murder crime, when the penalties are so severe?

Hels said...


this is the most bizarre story I have seen for a while, set as it was just a couple of years after the newspapers went hysterical after the Jack the Ripper murders and trials.

John Fox was 39 and Emily Coombes had been 37 when she died. Robert Coombes snr was at sea for almost six out of every seven weeks, often isolated on the Atlantic Ocean. Was Emily Coombes so lonely, she turned to John Fox for loving companionship? If they were lovers, why did Fox move into the family home post-murder, thus supporting the young criminal? Did Fox simply take advantage of the chaotic situation, stealing everything that Emily's husband owned?

The evidence presented in court was contradictory, wildly overstated and often sketchy. You might like to read The Telegraph article by Kate Summerscale http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/the-untold-story-of-a-mother-brutally-murdered-by-her-young-sons/

Ex-pat said...

Why would Australia take a murderer? The decades of accepting convicts were long gone.

Kimberly Eve said...

Hi Hels,

Fabulous in-depth article on such a fascinating case and family.
Thanks for linking my article in yours.

Much appreciated,

Hels said...


The Australia (4th June 2016) noted that in March 1912, after spending more than half his life confined to Broadmoor, Robert was released, initially into the care of the Salvation Army. Then, in January 1914, he was granted permission to emigrate to Australia, without restriction. Were the Australian authorities told of Coombes history? Would they have given him a visa, had they known the details of the murder?

Hels said...


Look at the difference between a scrappy lad in a working class part of London and a well educated, well connected man in Melbourne. Both committed horrible murders, yet John Bryan Wallace Kerr (1925-2001) served half his sentence, changed his name, lived very well, shacked up with other women and murdered again. No redemption there :(

"Would a handsome, educated man ever be found guilty of murder in 1949 Australia?"

Deb said...

Good reference to the Telegraph, Hel. Nattie had become a ship’s stoker while his older brother Robert was in Broadmoor, and he served throughout the war with the Royal Australian Navy. After the war Nattie settled in Newcastle where he and Robert were reunited.

No wonder the Australian gene pool is a bit dodgy.

Hels said...


that Nattie followed his dad to sea was not a surprise at all. Emily's father, Nattie's grandfather, was also a captain on immigrant ships to Australia. Ships were in the family's DNA.

But that both brothers ended up in Australia really was a different thing altogether. Who got here first? Nathaniel did ..since in 1914 Robert made the decision to find and join his younger brother, already established in NSW. I wonder what Mr Robert Coombes decided, once he realised his wife was dead and his only sons lived on the other side of the globe.

Mandy Southgate said...

How fascinating - I've never heard of this case which is interesting because I read up quite a bit on child murderers following the Jamie Bulget murder. I would definitely imagine the Jack the Ripper story impacted on the young boys. What I find most interesting is that he appeared to be rehabilitated (one of the Jamie Bulger murderers was, by all accounts, not). I'd love to learn more about that process.

James Brown said...

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Hels said...


I suspect the British newspapers went insane over this particular murder; it was perfect fodder for a press keen on sex and violence, and not too worried about legal and sociological issues. I easily found an Australian newspaper article on the murder (South Australian Chronicle, Sat 31st Aug 1895) and there must be heaps more.

In the conversation between young Robert and his aunt on the day Emily's body was found, John Fox's silent presence was noted in the South Australian Chronicle. The long and detailed article ended: "Fox, who was always regarded as half-witted, was sitting on a chair by the dresser while this conversation was going on."

I admire the endless searching that Kate Summerscale had to do. And perhaps her research isn't finished yet.

Hels said...


Talking of free, parts of The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer (Kate Summerscale) are available on line. You will enjoy it.