ON 16 January 1864, Mary Ann Walker, known to those who loved her as Polly, married William Nichols at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, in London. On 31 August 1888, her body was found just over two miles away, in Whitechapel. Today, her name most often appears in works that focus on her killer — the unidentified man who gained notoriety as “Jack the Ripper”.
But, on Sunday, she was remembered, back at St Bride’s, as a “precious child of God”, during a service that sought to commemorate not only the victims of the killer, but also those women who, in 2018, find themselves caught up in sexual exploitation.
A photograph of Mary Ann Nichols, displayed at St Bride’s, on Sunday
“Exactly 173 years ago today, a little girl was born in our parish, about 100 yards away from where I am now standing,” the Rector, the Revd Dr Alison Joyce, began the service. “Polly was one of the parish, and I can’t help feeling that we still owe her a duty of care.”
Besides hymns written during Mary Ann’s lifetime, a choir sang anthems by composers from Eastern Europe, the place of birth of many of the victims of sex-trafficking today: Only in Sleep by Eriks Ešenvalds, and Sacred Love by Georgy Sviridov. A candle was lit by Janis Kelly, who will be singing the part of Mary Ann Nichols in Jack the Ripper and the Women of Whitechapel, with the English National Opera next year.
Addresses included quotations from The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, an 1883 pamphlet believed to have been written by the Revd Andrew Mearns, and describing the appalling conditions that led some women — and girls as young as 12 — to enter the sex trade.
Dr Joyce told the story of the life of Mary Ann, which “spiralled downwards”, partly as a result of her alcohol dependency. It was reported that she was out on the night of her murder trying to earn the four pence needed to pay for a bed at a lodging house. Her only possessions, apart from her clothes, were a comb, a small handkerchief, and a broken piece of mirror.
There were, Dr Joyce said, “few stories more desperate, more tragic, more human. . . The odds really were stacked against vulnerable women of her background.” She was “a woman deserving of our love, our prayers, and our compassion”.
Dr Joyce was inspired to research the life of Mary Ann and her connections to the parish after participating in the Hidden History of Women in the East End tour, organised by the charity Beyond the Streets, last year (News, 24 November 2017).
In a second address, the Chaplain of St Botolph’s, Aldgate, the Revd Andrew Richardson, spoke of the women “in situations not dissimilar to Mary Ann’s”, and of the violence to which they were exposed: women working in the sex industry were 18 times more likely to be murdered than the average citizen.
Noting the recent sale, for £22,000, of a postcard said to have been written by “Jack the Ripper”, he posed the question put by Beyond the Streets: “Are people willing to invest as much into protecting and supporting services for women who are sexually exploited as they are in maintaining the historic legacy of a serial murderer?”
The charity is hoping to raise this sum through its #NOvemberCampaign