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Just what did happen in July 1868 off the east coast of England that allegedly set in motion the chain of events that would lead to Robert D’Onston Stephenson being Jack the Ripper?
During the writing of my upcoming book, as a resident of Kingston upon Hull, I was inundated with tips about Hullborn Robert D’Onston Stephenson and told to look closely at this gentleman. I was especially advised to look at his early life and at events that occurred in the summer of 1868.(1) I was told that there was a shooting incident involving Stephenson and that I could find the evidence in newspapers at either Hull or Bridlington libraries.
With this date in mind, I made tracks for the local studies libraries to arrange to view all the newspapers that covered the period. I wasn’t disappointed. I discovered a number of articles that described a shooting that took place in early July 1868 off Flamborough Head.
Serious Injury to a Customs Man
The first article I discovered was from the Bridlington Free Press of 11 July 1868 — a Monday. The report stated:
SERIOUS GUN ACCIDENT
On Tuesday last, Mr. Stephenson of the Custom House, Hull, engaged a yacht at the Quay, and with a friend left the harbour for a day’s shooting at Flamboro. From some cause the lock of his friend’s gun hung fire and while examining it to ascertain the gun went off and lodged its contents in the thigh of Mr. Stephenson. Although greatly alarmed and much affected by the accident, his friend, who from experience was able to tender all possible assistance, brought him to shore and had him conveyed to the Black Lion Hotel, Bridlington, where surgical aid was promptly obtained and several of the shot extracted. We are happy to say he is progressing very favourably and it is hoped he will soon be able to get about again.(2)
It would appear that Robert D’Onston Stephenson, who was a Customs Officer during this period of time,(3) was involved in an accident involving a shotgun whilst on board a chartered vessel. The vessel was chartered from Bridlington Quay, which is a mere five miles southwest of Flamborough Head. One of the passengers on board was experienced enough to offer assistance to the stricken man, and the vessel returned to the Quay so that Stephenson could be taken to the Black Lion Hotel, which was 1.4 miles away.
The first mystery was why a man who has suffered a gunshot wound would be taken to a hotel 1.4 miles from Bridlington Quay when the area around the Quay was rife with hotels and inns. Bridlington during this period of time was renowned for its wonderful spas with healing spring waters, which were all the rage in the Victorian period. In fact, to this day, the Victorian spa is still in existence on the town’s sea front.
Is it possible that Robert D’Onston Stephenson was staying at the Black Lion Hotel previous to the incident? Indeed so: I discovered that an advertisement appeared in the Bridlington Quay Observer on 11 July showing a list of guests who were staying at the hotel, and among them was a Stephenson, D O, Esq from Hull.(4)
We can see that the Bridlington Free Press article states that the incident occurred ‘Tuesday last’ which gives us a date of Tuesday, 5 July 1868, for when the incident actually occurred.
Accident On Board the Flying Scud
In Kingston upon Hull, The Eastern Morning News and Hull Advertiser, of Monday, 13 July reported on the same incident in its third edition, but elaborated on several points:
SERIOUS ACCIDENT TO A HULL GENTLEMAN
On Tuesday afternoon last Mr. R. D. O. Stephenson of Her Majesty’s Customs at this port, while cruising off Flamborough, on board the yacht Flying Scud, met with a serious accident. The party on board were shooting seabirds and Mr. Stephenson was standing just abaft the mast, waiting for a shot when a boatman belonging to the yacht, who was behind him, took up one of the guns to fire and managed to explode prematurely, sending the whole charge into the back part of Mr. Stephenson’s thigh.
The heavy charge (1.1/2ozs of No2 shot) at a distance of about two yards tore a jagged hole, about 1.1/2inches wide and the same depth, and lodged itself in a lump near the bone, which, however it miraculously failed to injure. Fortunately a gentleman was on board who had some surgical experience, and immediately applied temporary bandages. The unfortunate gentleman was landed at Flamborough as soon as possible, and carried to the top of the cliff by a stalwart young fisherman. The only available conveyance being a fish cart, belonging to the landlord of the inn, it was filled with clean straw, and the patient conveyed to Bridlington; where under the skilful hands of Drs. Brett and Mackay, the greater part of the shot were removed. We are informed by eyewitnesses that the sangfroid with which the sufferer treated his terrible and painful wound was something remarkable, and excited the warmest admiration and sympathy in the bystanders. We understand that there is every hope of saving the limb. Provided that neither erysipelas nor gangrene (the two great dangers in gunshot wounds) make their appearance. Mr. Edwin Gray timber merchant, Hull, very kindly superintended the landing at Flamborough.(5)
This is an interesting story as it gives us the first mention of the name of the vessel, The Flying Scud. In fact, The Flying Scud was a popular name for a vessel during this period and several were listed in Lloyds Shipping Registries between 1868 and 1870,(6) and yet none were used for commercial purposes and the lightest came in at 151 tons,(7) which is a little heavy for a yacht and a little too big for the Quay at Bridlington.
The Eastern Morning News article also elaborates on the other passenger who was, in this version of events, trained to administer first aid. It tells us that Stephenson was landed from the vessel at Flamborough and not Bridlington Quay, making the journey to the Black Lion even more agonising. Again this is a mystery in itself. Just why would the landlord of the Black Lion have a fishing cart all the way out at Flamborough? I am aware of the important role that Flamborough had in the fishing trade along the East Coast but surely it would have been easier, quicker, and cheaper to have the cart at Bridlington Quay? Unless the cart was awaiting the group at Flamborough. But how did they know that was the destination? Is it possible that the cart was there for another reason? One would love to speculate on romantic notions of smuggling, but this neither furthers our research nor gives us any answers.
The mention of Drs Brett and Mackay is important as it gives us another source from which we can verify the story. Unfortunately, I have had difficulty tracing a doctor by the name of Mackay. Brett, however, is another story. A quick search of the 1871 Census revealed four members of the Brett family residing at St John Street in Bridlington.(8) The entry shows:
Flora M Brett, Surgeon, aged 30
Francis C Brett, General Practitioner, age 26
Helen S Brett, Physician, age 31
John A C Brett, Student of Medicine, age 21
The location of the family house is also significant as it lies just off High Street where the Black Lion was situated. Interestingly, the junction south of High Street along St John Street is now named Brett Street.
Another significant name mentioned is that of Edwin Gray who was a Hull-based timber merchant. The 1871 Census shows that Edwin Gray, age 44, Head, Timber Merchant, resided at 6 Myerson Terrace, Spring Bank.(9)
His occupation as a timber merchant will have no doubt put him in contact with the Stephenson family as Richard Stephenson, Jr, was involved in the company Rayner, Stephenson, and Co, who were merchants and ship owners also based along High Street.(10)
Finally, note the statement in the Eastern Morning News that ‘The greater part of the shot were removed’ implies that Stephenson thereafter not only had to carry on with shot still embedded in his leg, but that this may well have affected the way he walked and possibly given him pain whilst attempting to walk, particularly in the cold weather that plagues Britain in the autumn and winter months.
On 14 July, the Bridlington Quay Observer published a verbatim copy of the Eastern Morning News report.(11)
On 17 July, the Hull Packet carried an article that seems to be an amalgamation of the previous stories, mentioning the same facts, people, and locations. Again, however, it is notable that it once more emphasizes the point that it was Stephenson’s friend who had surgical knowledge, and not Stephenson. This is interesting because Stephenson claimed to have medical degrees, of which there is no evidence. It was also prior to this incident that Stephenson was said to have served under Garibaldi as a field surgeon, yet other than nonconclusive muster rolls held at the Bishopsgate Institute, there is no evidence to suggest he ever left Britain to serve with Garibaldi. The article also states that Dr Brett was a member of the Coast Guard – although a recent search of Coast Guard records failed to verify this.
DANGEROUS ACCIDENT TO A HULL CUSTOMS OFFICER
The following circumstances are reported to us, Mr R. D. Stephenson of the Customs House at Hull and a friend engaged a small yacht, in which they went to Flamborough for a week’s shooting. While thus engaged on Tuesday last week, a fisherman on board, who was standing behind Mr. Stephenson took up a ready charged gun and fired, lodging the charge (above an ounce of number 2 shot) in that gentleman’s thigh. A portion of the trousers as large as a crown piece, was cleanly punched out and driven to the bottom of the wound, which was nearly a couple of inches in depth. The sufferer was landed as speedily as possible, and removed in a cart to Bridlington where the services of Dr Brett, of the coast guard, and Dr Mc’Kay, were secured.
The majority of the shot were cut out the next morning and it was found that the thigh bone had most providentially escaped. The medical gentlemen entertain strong hopes of saving the leg, and should the wound continue to progress as favourably as at present, no danger to life is apprehended. Fortunately for Mr Stephenson, his companion possessed some surgical knowledge, and the bandage he applied undoubtedly prevented a fatal loss of blood.(12)
On 18 July, the Hull and North Lincolnshire Times carried a word-for-word reprint of the Hull Packet story.(13)
Stephenson’s Version of Events
Finally, we have the recollections of Robert D’Onston Stephenson himself which were published in the Review of Reviews 1892 (New Year’s Extra Number) under the title ‘Dead or Alive’:
The next year  . . . passed rapidly for me until the first week in July, when I was shot dangerously in the thigh by a fisherman named Thomas Piles, of Hull, a reputed smuggler. A party of four of us had hired his 10 ton yawl to go yachting round the Yorkshire coast, and amuse ourselves by shooting sea-birds amongst the millions of them at Flamborough Head. The third or fourth day out I was shot in the right thigh by the skipper Piles; and the day after, one and a quarter ounce of No.2 shot were cut there from by the coastguard surgeon at Bridlington Quay (whose name I forget for the moment), assisted by Dr. Alexander Mackay, at the Black Lion Hotel. The affair was in all the papers at the time, about a column of it appearing in the Eastern Morning News, of Hull
. As soon as I was able to be removed (two or three weeks) I was taken home, where Dr. Kelburne King, of Hull, attended me.(14)
So in Stephenson’s own words he was shot by a ‘Thomas Piles, of Hull.’ The 1871 Census reveals a fisherman in Hull during this period named Thomas Piles. The Census states, ‘Thomas Piles, Yorkshire, Captain of the Advance a 61-ton Smack used for the Fishing Trade.’ The entry also mentions that he was born in Brixham, and was docked in the port of Hull, Albert Dock, on 7 April 1871.(15) It was common practice for those involved in the industry to come to Kingston upon Hull for employment as it was one of the largest ports in Great Britain during this period. Other industries began to thrive and the port expanded at a sizeable rate.
With these clues in mind, I looked for whatever was available on the fishing smack Advance. This is when I discovered HullTrawler.net, a website devoted to the fishing trade in Kingston upon Hull and to all the brave men who perished while carrying out the trade.
It was on this website where I found this piece of information:
Smack Advance H249, Built 1867, Location Rye, Official Number 56258, Length in Ft 69.2, Tons Gross 61.4, Registered Owner Robert Jordan. Fate 13 Dec 1876 Listed as Missing in the North Sea.(16)
On the same page is a table of those who lost their lives in the disaster, but further down is the crew list featuring Thomas Piles.
So What of the Flying Scud?
I made a search of the shipping lists at Hull City Archives and I discovered that there was in fact a vessel called The Flying Scud:
The vessel in question was built by J P Rennoldson of South Shields in 1866. It weighed in at 100 tons and measured 98ft by 18ft. It had a single mast but was more commonly used as a steam paddler. It had 1 engine, 1 deck, 1 mast and was constructed entirely of wood. Its registered ship number was 53404. The vessel’s registered owner was Thomas Gray.(17)
Lloyds Shipping Registry, 1869/70, showing the Flying Scud. The image has been cropped to show the headers at the top. Lloyds Shipping Registry, 1870/71, showing the Flying Scud. Ripperologist 89 March 2008 20 You may remember that Edwin Gray supervised the landing at the Quay in Bridlington, and it was Edwin who lived close to the Stephenson family in Hull. Could the two men have been related? Unfortunately when I made a Census search I was unable to establish a link between the two individuals. Lloyds Shipping Registries showed some interesting entries but none of the vessels listed for 1867–1868, 1868–1869, and 1869–1870 seemed to match the vessel mentioned in the newspaper articles.
Much has been written in regards to Robert D’Onston Stephenson as a fantasist. The articles he wrote for Borderlands are certainly filled with vivid and colourful encounters, such as the episode with the Flying Woman of the Susu. However, his ‘Dead or Alive’ story for Review of Reviews 1892 does have a ring of truth to it. But does his seeming adherence to the truth in this instance mean we must believe everything he writes? And what of Thomas Piles, the supposed smuggler? So far searches have failed to turn up any evidence that fishing boat captain Thomas Piles of Kingston upon Hull was a smuggler. There was, however, an article published on 28 March 1849 in The Times that named a Thomas Piles, a seaman of the Sidon steam frigate, as one of two sailors convicted at Portsmouth Borough Police Court of smuggling tobacco.18 The problem we have here is that with the article being dated 1849, this adds considerable years onto this Thomas Piles, and would a clerk from the Customs Service have associated with a smuggler? If Robert D’Onston Stephenson was on board and knew Piles was a smuggler, was he working undercover? It seems unlikely, because Stephenson was a mere clerk: a pen pusher with delusions of grandeur. I am sure that if Stephenson was an undercover operative for the Customs Service, he would have been the first to tell us in his many writings – which he fails to do! It is my belief that Stephenson learned in later years that a Thomas Piles was a smuggler. Whether or not it is the same Thomas Piles remains to be seen, and is certainly open to debate.
From the contemporary newspaper accounts, it is clear that something of significance happened to Robert D’Onston Stephenson on that summer’s day in July 1868. An incident that not only endangered Stephenson’s life but that changed it forever. But although the episode may well have altered his life, it was not in the way that certain authors would have us believe. Getting shot does not make one a serial killer. But think about this: if Robert D’Onston Stephenson was the Ripper, wouldn’t his leg have made making a getaway risky? Would he have been able to walk the distances required with his leg still carrying shot? And would the cold weather have affected his leg?
It’s a good job Robert D’Onston Stephenson was safe and warm in the London Hospital during the ‘Autumn of Terror.’
As well as the sources I have listed above, I used Roy Robinson, A History of the Yorkshire Coast Fishing Industry 1780–1914. Kingston upon Hull: Hull University Press, 1987.
Thanks to Chris at www.HullTrawler.net for all his hard work on a fantastic website and for allowing me to quote from his work on Thomas Piles’s smack, the Advance; to Arthur Credland of Hull’s Maritime Museum for his assistance and help throughout; and to all the staff at Hull’s Local Studies Library, Hull City Archives, Hull Reference Library and Hull Museum and Art Galleries. I also thank Howard Brown and the staff at the JTR Forums www.jtrforums.com and Stephen P Ryder and everyone at ‘Casebook: Jack the Ripper’ www.casebook.org
1 Both Melvin Harris in The True Face of Jack the Ripper (London: Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, 1994) and Ivor Edwards in Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals (London: John Blake Publishing, 2004) mention the 1868 shooting off Flamborough Head as having been a seminal point in Robert D’Onston Stephenson’s life. Several people advised me to use this incident as a starting point for my research.
2 ‘Serious Gun Accident’, Bridlington Free Press, 11 July 1868 (available from Bridlington Local Studies Library).
3 1867 White’s Trade Directory lists, Robert D Stephenson, Chief Clerk Customs House. 1869 Mercer and Crocker’s Directory and General Gazetteer of Hull lists, Customs House, Whitefriargate, Clerks, R D’Ouston [sic] Stephenson.
4 Black Lion Hotel guest list published in the Bridlington Quay Observer, 11 July 1868 (available from Bridlington Local Studies Library).
5 ‘Serious Accident to a Hull Gentleman’, The Eastern Morning News and Hull Advertiser, 11 July 1868 (available from Kingston upon Hull Local Studies Library).
6 Lloyds Shipping Registries, 1867–1868, 1868–1869, 1869–1870; four different vessels named Flying Scud are listed each year.
7 Lloyds Shipping Registry, 1869–1870, The Flying Scud, owned by W Fleming, Mastered by A Ricketts and weighing in at 151 Tons.
8 Class RG10, Piece 4811, Folio 77, page 13, GSU roll 847358.
9 Class RG10, Piece 4791, Folio 8, page 14, GSU roll 847347.
10 1867 White’s Trade Directory. Richard Stephenson Junior, Merchant and Ship owner, Rayner Stephenson and Co, High Street, Vice Consul to Uruguay, High Street, and Residence, Willow House.
11 ‘Serious Accident to a Hull Gentleman’, Bridlington Quay Observer, 14 July 1868 (available from Bridlington Local Studies Library). Flamborough Head in relation to Bridlington Quay and the town of Bridlington.
12 ‘Dangerous Accident to a Hull Customs Officer’, The Hull Packet, 17 July 1868 (available from Kingston upon Hull Local Studies Library).
13 ‘Dangerous Accident to a Hull Customs Officer’, Hull and North Lincolnshire Times, 18 July 1868 (available from Kingston upon Hull Local Studies Library).
14 Robert D O Stephenson, ‘Dead or Alive.’ Review of Reviews 1892 (New Year’s Extra Number).
15 Class RG10, Piece 4797, Folio 156, GSU roll 847353 and 847352.
16 The website www.HullTrawler.net enabled me to trace the fishing smack Advance.
17 Hull City Archives holds Shipping Registries in a card index. The actual books containing the information are very large and a request must be made to view them.
18 ‘Naval Intelligence,’ The Times, 28 March 1849.
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