Jack the Ripper

Jack in Innerleithen?

Following the opening of the Union Canal in August 1822, the year a corpulent King William IV appeared in Edinburgh in all his tartan finery, redundant Irish navvy William Burke went to live in Peebles. For the next two years he worked as a casual labourer before moving to Edinburgh. There, in partnership with fellow Irishman William Hare, he found a much more lucrative employment providing fresh corpses for the anatomist Dr. Robert Knox.

Innerleithen and the Glen, however, have, albeit tenuous, links with an even more notorious criminal.

Charles – later Sir Charles – Tennant bought the Glen estate from Colonel George Allen in 1853 for £33,140. He had the existing house demolished and replaced with a magnificent Scots baronial mansion modelled roughly on Glamis Castle and designed by the eminent architect David Bryce. In succeeding years Sir Charles installed an extensive library and collected a considerable number of paintings by artists such as Constable and Raeburn. This was to be the country pile of one of the wealthiest industrialists and most dynamic entrepreneurs of his day.

Although his business was centred in Glasgow and London Sir Charles’s large family spent their childhood days at Glen (the definite article was always omitted). His youngest daughter by his first marriage, Margot, knew every square inch of the estate and its people and retained a strong attachment for the place throughout her life. An intelligent and vivacious young woman with a quick and often acerbic wit, she compensated for a scanty education given by her governess by extensive use of her father’s library. Together with sister, Laura, she would entertain young men in her spacious bedroom discussing books, plays and politics, an innocent activity that was looked at askance by the more staid members of Victorian society.

Margot enjoyed riding, in which she was able to indulge in London and her friends’ English estates. She had several accidents, one of which permanent disfigured her nose. At Glen there was no riding but she often took the reins of the family carriage, driving her father to the hustings in Peebles during the 1885 elections. She accompanied her father to welcome Gladstone at Innerleithen station during his visit in 1890.

On 10th May 1894 Margot Tennant married Herbert Henry Asquith in London. The marriage register that day was signed by four British prime ministers: William Gladstone, the Earl of Rosebery, Arthur Balfour and her husband, who was to be Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916. The couple had a daughter, Elizabeth (1897), and a son, Anthony (1902) but in the early 1900s Margot had the misfortune to suffer a stillbirth. She may well have lost her life but for the care of Welsh obstetrician and Royal physician, Sir John Williams, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper.

At least, this would have been the good doctor’s alias if the theory purported by writers Tony Williams (a descendent of Sir John) and Humphrey Price is correct. Williams discovered amongst his ancestor’s effects an old surgical knife and a notebook from which all the pages dated at the time of the horrendous Ripper murders – 31st August to 9th November 1888 – had been ripped. Doctor Williams had apparently been working freelance in the Whitechapel area at the time, possibly to do research and gain experience in his field of obstetrics, not to mention the alfresco dissection of extremely fresh cadavers in the dark. This is roughly the argument put forward in the book Uncle Jack, in which is printed a somewhat ungrammatical and confused letter from Sir John to Margot Asquith while she was convalescing at Glen.

I wish you could have bounded into health at once – but at Glen you will find it very difficult. You will recover strength by leaps and bounds and the air of Scotland will soon bring roses to your pale cheeks.

I hope you found Sir Charles well, please to convey to him expressions of my high esteem. . .

This letter would have been delivered by a young Innerleithen postman named James Weir, or “Jimmy the Post”. He drove a horse and open carriage which doubled up as an early form of postbus, conveying passengers as well as mail round Traquair and the Glen valley. Jimmy was the Glen postman for over fifty years.

In the late eighteen hundreds the Post Office occupied what is now the Whistle Stop Café in Innerleithen High Street. The Postmaster was James Paterson, originally from Carnwath in Lanarkshire, who lived in the commodious dwelling upstairs – he needed a large house for his wife, Agnes, their four sons and four daughters, ranging in ages from 28 years down to 10 years, and a live-in domestic servant. The 1891 Census Return shows that two of the daughters were employed as telegraphists. There were frequent despatches during the day for letters and parcels, local and farther afield. Two deliveries on working days and one on Sundays were carried out, with the local mail despatch times set to allow same day delivery. Junk mail was unheard of but occasionally the odd weird letter passed through the system.

In 1998 Paul H. Feldman published a book called Jack the Ripper – The Final Chapter. Feldman’s researches have convinced him that the world’s most famous unidentified serial killer was James Maybrick, a Liverpudlian cotton merchant. With his business interests in textiles Maybrick was believed to be visiting various Borders mills during October 1888 and Feldman believes Maybrick may have been the author of the following letter, now held in the Metropolitan Police Archive.

Dear Boss,

I have to thank you and my Brothers in trade, Jack the Ripper in you kindness in letting me away out of Whitechapel

I am now on my road to the tweed Factories I will let the Innerleithen Constable or Police men know when I am about to start my Little game. I have got my knife replenished so it will answer for both Ladies and Gents other five Tweed ones I have won my wager.

I am Yours


The Ripper

The letter was headed “8th October 1888, Galashiels”, but the post mark on the envelope is still clear – 8 Oct 88 Innerleithen! At this time there were hundreds of letters sent to the police and news agencies, supposedly from the killer, none of which have been proved to be genuine, so far as I’m aware. Some were believed to have been sent by journalists to boost newspaper circulation and it is possible that it was a hack who first named the Victorian serial killer “Jack the Ripper”. At any rate, there is no record of “five Tweed ones” sharing the fate of the unfortunate women in Whitechapel.

Ach well, it is unlikely that either of the above letter writers was Jack. I hope so, anyway.

Ted McKie, September 2010