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Song played in St Bride’s for victim of Jack the Ripper

24 November 2023

ALISON JOYCE

The memorial for “Polly” in St Bride’s, Fleet Street

The memorial for “Polly” in St Bride’s, Fleet Street

A NEW song telling the story of Mary Ann (“Polly”) Nichols, a victim of Jack the Ripper, was performed this month in the very place where she was married in 1864, St Bride’s, Fleet Street.

The song, “Polly”, was commissioned from the Yorkshire-based female folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow, by the Rector of St Bride’s, Canon Alison Joyce, in 2021. A memorial to Polly Nicholas was installed in March 2020, in the week before a Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in London.

In 2018, the church had held a service to commemorate both Nichols and women who continue to find themselves caught up in sexual exploitation (News, 31 August 2018).

Canon Joyce described how the idea for a song for Nichols had come to her during the “bleak” days of that period. A friend had introduced her to the music of Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow (who created the theme tune for the BBC series Gentleman Jack), and their “beautifully crafted songs, quite often about women whose stories have been overlooked” had led to her approaching them with the commission.

The pandemic had put a stop to a potential TV item about the memorial, and a sense of “unfinished business” had lingered, Canon Joyce said. While Nichols’s story had been told in the opera Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, by Iain Bell and Emma Jenkins, she had wanted a song that was in “her idiom”. The duo had immediately expressed interest, she said, and she had sent them a copy of The Five: The untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold.

Canon Joyce received a preview of the song earlier this year, and described how she had shared it with only “one person: Polly”, playing it under her memorial. The song was “haunting”, she said. “It sounds very simple, but there are so many layers to it. You do hear the heartbeat, the profound sadness. . . It captures her life and the tragedy of her story.”

The chorus includes: “Not what she seems Clutching her dreams Removed from the scene”.

The performance, at an event on 3 November, had been received with “whoops” and an ovation, she said. She had been conscious of the “desperately dire straits” facing musicians during the pandemic. The song features on the duo’s new album, Cloudheads.

In an article for The Times this summer, Canon Joyce wrote: “As a Church of England priest, I have a duty of care to all who live within my parish. I am not alone among clergy in my sense that this responsibility can extend back in time.” Last week, she described the memorial as being “about so much more than Polly. . . It symbolises our need to reclaim the stories of other women whose lives have unravelled, who we so easily judge.”

While the parish of St Bride’s was no longer the residential one it had been in Polly Nichols’s day, Canon Joyce was conscious of the vulnerability of women on the streets — something being addressed by the charity Beyond the Streets, whose tour had first introduced her to Nichols as a former parishioner (News, 24 November 2017). “I think London is a wonderful city, and I love it; but, heavens! there are some dark places and people with dark stories to tell.”

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