|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 3, September 1995. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.|
by Adrian Morris
One area of Ripper related history which has been almost completely empty of factual data has been the-known, or in this case, unknown history of Mary Jane Kelly. We have only snatched accounts of her past given mainly to Joseph Barnett.
If we look at what we know about Mary Kelly and what evidence we have accumulated about her, we might be able to come to some conclusions about her and where she may have come from.
It is quite possible for Mary Kelly to have been born outside Ireland, probably in Wales. There are certain anomalies in her evidence, second-hand evidence granted, that makes us wonder if indeed she was born in Ireland. It is said she came from Limerick, (City or County?). However, when she was murdered local Limerick papers carried news of her death. Even taking into account that she was a prostitute, the fact that no one in Limerick recognised her seems very strange indeed.
It could be that, as Mark Madden has suggested, she came from another part of Ireland. If this was so then the Limerick connection would appear odd as she seems to have mentioned it to Barnett and one would therefore wonder that there would be little scope for confusion.
So it could be possible that she may have in fact been born in Wales as this would account for the lack of documentary evidence of her in Ireland. Paul Begg in his book "Jack the Ripper - the Uncensored Facts" quotes the "Western Mail" (10th Nov. 1888) as claiming that Kelly spoke fluent Welsh. Londoners would not have found it easy to distinguish between the Celtic Irish/Welsh brogues.
Emigration of the Irish in the 19th century was enormous especially after the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. In fact by 1890 over two thirds of Irish people were living outside Ireland!
Many families would have moved to the British mainland, especially in port areas. However, only the poorest stayed as the wealthier immigrants would almost certainly have then taken another ship to the United States. Of those that emigrated from Ireland in the 19th century to Britain, over 80% moved on to the United States; only 8% stayed in Britain. It was the poorest Irish immigrants that stayed in Britain as they obviously couldn't afford the fare to the U.S.A.
This fact, along with the assumption that Mary Kelly was illiterate (Barnett used to read to her from the newspapers) seems to undermine Kelly's suggestion that she was from a well-to-do family.
Anyway, the greatest concentration of Irish immigrants tended to be in the major cities - including Welsh ones. In fact Wales still boasts a large Irish community today. If Kelly was born in Wales she still may have regarded herself as Irish because of family ties and also because second generation Irish from large well knit Irish communities still have a great affinity with their ethnic culture of origin. Also, coming from Wales there would have been a Celtic affirmation of this.
Kelly, it is claimed, said she wished to return to Ireland, and that her mother lived there. This may seem to dispute the idea that Kelly was born in Wales and indeed seems also to dispute any Kelly family movement to Wales at any time if her mother was still in Ireland! It was a well-established experience in the 19th century that once a family or person moved from Ireland for economic reasons they never ever went back to live.
However, it was not unknown in 19th century Irish migration for a father to emigrate to Britain to earn money for the family back home in Ireland. If Kelly was born in Ireland she could have gone on to join her father in Wales - but this would have to have happened in her teens as it would have had to be when she was economically responsible for herself.
Kelly could have, of course, gone over to Wales as a child if she was sent over to be semi-adopted by other members of her family (aunties, uncles, cousins). This did happen with Irish immigrants as sometimes families in Ireland couldn't cope with the economic burden of traditionally large Irish Catholic families. This theory of an original family in Wales is supported by the evidence that Kelly is supposed to have been introduced to prostitution by a cousin of hers - although this cousin could have been related to her through her marriage to Davis/Davies.
Whatever her movements and whenever they took place one thing is sure; she knew the whereabouts of her mother and she still kept in contact with her brother Henry, who was known as Johnno. Henry is known to have written to Mary right up to .per time in Millers Court as both Barnett and the landlord McCarthy claimed she received letters from him and that he was stationed with the Scots Guards in Ireland. Yet neither Henry nor any other member of the Kelly family came forward at the funeral or inquest!
These letters that Mary received seem to suggest she was literate as Barnett only admits to reading newspaper reports to Mary and not private letters. If he had done so, one could reasonably assume he would have known more about Kelly and her family.
It has been suggested that Kelly may have been born in Belfast and was Protestant. This is viable. Once outside the sectarian still waters of Ulster, most 19th-century Protestants strayed from their often rigid religious cultural bonds. In fact many Protestant Irish would often find themselves victims of anti-Irish racism and move closer to their Catholic counterparts. However, most Ulster Protestants could afford to go to North America unlike some of their Catholic counterparts.
However, I feel that Mary wasn't born in Belfast. She was probably Catholic. When coming to Spitalfields she contacted the nuns at Providence Row in the same way that the Swede Liz Stride contacted the Swedish Church on the Ratcliff Highway. This was a typical action of an Irish Catholic girl in a new area - i.e. finding a familiar focal point for reassurance. When Kelly first came to London, she lived near the Docks. The Docks in the 19th century were a major settlement of Irish in London.
Kelly is supposed to have come from a large family of seven brothers and one sister - a typical Catholic family. Also Henry, Kelly's brother in the British Army, need not have worried about joining the British Army because he was Catholic because the British Army had always been, in 19th-century Ireland - even with Fenianism on the rise - a major employer of the Catholic population. Many Irish joined because of unemployment. In fact by 1891 14% of the entire British Army were Irish Catholics.
I think more research will bring us nearer Mary Kelly's true identity. One thing to remember, the immigrant, and especially the Irish immigrant of the 19th century, was one of the hardest group for registrars to measure as they were always on the move, lived in bad over-crowded housing and also because of the large numbers of them over a short time. It has been suggested that the censuses of the 19th century left off so many Irish immigrants that the number runs into tens of thousands)