On Mother Kelly's Doorstep
by Des McKenna
 

How many of us have hoped to find a new candidate to wear the mantle of Jack the Ripper? In doing so we would be adding yet another name to the growing list of suspects that is beginning to become wearisome - but would it not be marvelous to discover someone to add to that great list? Such a person who can do that becomes a very seraphim in the hierarchy of Ripperologists.

I have been thinking of a remark that my friend John Morrison made to me that the words of the old song On Mother Kelly's doorstep down Paradise Row could almost be "On Mary Kelly's doorstep down Providence Row". This was an aside that John made for which he claimed neither originality nor importance, but I began thinking about it as I believed it's composer was born in the East End of London, spoke fluent French and was one of France's most popular music hall entertainers, who, in his later years, shot his wife dead and turned the gun on himself.

There has always been a theatricality to the ethos of Jack the Ripper. The victims were left on public display with almost a showman's pride and the letters supposedly from the killer had such histrionics which could lead to the belief that he was a thespian. Walter Sickert, who has oft been suspected of an involvement, was briefly an actor under the great Sir Henry Irving, visited music halls habitually and his celebrated painting The Old Bedford, and many others, well illustrates his love of the theatre. Four years after the death of Annie Chapman, in the same street, Hanbury Street, was born one of England's most famous entertainers, Bud Flanagan, and in our own time, in Flower and Dean Street, was born Barbara Windsor. So it is not unreasonable to think that Jack might have been a theatrical too.

The more I thought of it, the more it seemed there could be a deeper meaning to the words of the song, which could be a confession. Now, just for a moment, accept that it was Mary's killer who penned the words of that song and changed her name to Nellie, and if we change it back, they take it upon themselves a questioning uncertainty which could reveal a motive for that old murder which surfaced years later and prompted him to kill again, and something quite unexpected and startling leaps out of the page and stares at us! And that which stares at us lifts this, which is as yet merely an hypothesis, to the status of a theory. So let us look at the words as they might have been:

On Mary Kelly's doorstep, down Providence Row,
I'd sit along o'Mary, she'd sit along o'Joe.
She's got a little hole in her frock,
Hole in her shoe, hole in her sock,
Where her toe peeped through,
But Mary was the smartest down our alley.

On Mary Kelly's doorstep, I'm wondering now
If li'l gal Mary remembers Joe, her beau,
And does she love me like she used to,
On Mary Kelly's doorstep, down Providence Row

Immediately it seems that there are two Joes! The one along whom she sits and Joe her beau, who is doubtful of her affection. Now we know that there were two men of that name in Mary's life, Joe Fleming and Joe Barnett and there was friction and jealousy between them. If, as I suspected, the composer again killed his partner in a fit of jealousy, then these words lose their innocence and become very sinister, and seem like a public confession.

The heroine was, so we are told, the smartest down the alley. Walter Dew commented on Mary's good looks and that she always wore a white apron. There is a picture in the A-Z of a group of women outside a dosshouse, sitting on a doorstep, who are wearing white aprons; the same picture appears in Tom Cullen's Autumn of Terror, but this time they are described as a group of Spitalfields prostitutes. The cover of the A-Z shows a photograph of Dorset Street and the women therein in at least one book are dubbed "prostitutes in white aprons". So it seems that Walter Dew's remarks and the words of the song suggest that Mary was a well-dressed street-walker. The A-Z mentions that Mary 'paraded' round the district. I'm not sure why the inverted commas but I suspect it is because the others of her kind slouched dissolutely on the dosshouse steps to solicit while Mary walked the streets for the same purpose. Obviously the nuns of Providence Row would never allow such a thing on their doorstep but they might have allowed socialising thereon

Notice, by the way, that the words of the second verse are in the present tense, as if the poet knew that Mary was not, in fact, one of Jack's victims at all. There is a growing feeling that the corpse in Mary's room was that of someone who had borrowed the room for her own use for the night.

Put all these together, the patent reference to the triangle between Joe Fleming, Joe Barnett and Mary, the phrase that Mary was "the smartest down our alley", remembering that she was described as "head and shoulders above the rest of her kind", and the insecurity in the question "and does she love me like she used to?", the fact that the composer begins the verses in the past tense and ends them in the present, as if he knows she is still alive, and Mary's stories that she once was an actress and could in later life have met other theatricals and have lived with some of them, and one just might remember what he had done so many years ago and in some dark convoluted way wove it into a song, and if he took to himself another soubrette and did the same things again - put all these together and if they can stand the weight of investigation, then that theory must command respect. I wrote to the historian of the British Music Hall Society, Mr. Max Tyler, to ask if he would be good enough to supply me with the words of the song and hopefully confirm the details of the life of its composer, and this he did most generously and helpfully, and, alas, the whole thing fell apart like a scaffolding of playing cards.

George Stevens, who wrote the song, led a blameless life and never fired a shot in anger and the man who I thought wrote it not only did not do so, but did not shoot his wife, and in fact was shot himself by his own father!

So my suspect, Harry Fragson, did not write the song On Mother Kelly's Doorstep and he was not Jack the Ripper. He did not kill his wife and the words may as well go back to their original ones, because the suspicions against the writer and the song have no substance and my theory is as a spider's web, a thing of gossamer that when breath of doubt falls upon it, it blows away into the night air, and I have been stumbling down a blind alley...

Still, I'm not sorry. I'm sure many others have made equally abortive excursions into the endless game of 'hunt the Ripper'. I'm glad that the song retains its innocence and purityŚ it's too nice a song to sully, and George Stevens and Harry Fragson can sleep on undisturbed.

The above article was first published in the June 1999 edition of the Ripperologist, magazine of the Cloak & Dagger Club. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, Des McKenna. Des lives in Lancashire and is a world authority on 'Jack the Ripper'. You can contact him by telephone on 01942 205926 or by e-mail

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