Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

162 : ‘Mysterious Death in the East of London”, 1876

Grove Road runs north from Mile End Road to Victoria Park, close to the Regent’s Canal in East London. From November 1875 a young man named Richard Sedgett or Tidgett Evans lodged at 17 Lansdowne Terrace on Grove Road, and courted the landlady’s daughter Mary Maria Smith. They made plans to marry in the summer of 1876.

She was a boot machinist and earned three guineas (£3 3s) a week. Evans earned ‘a few shillings a week’. ‘All the family strongly objected to the marriage’ probably because Evans was ‘a man of colour’ but the several newspaper reports do not give a reason – the difference in their incomes may have played a part. Evans went out with a friend named Henry Hancock, and told him ‘he was in fear of his life where he lodged’. On 10 August he was vomiting and he died the next day. As Evans had ‘expired under suspicious circumstances’ an inquest was held. As normal in Victorian times, the inquest was held in a nearby pub (where function rooms were often quite large and the location such that witnesses were not too inconvenienced). There was ‘much excitement in the neighbourhood’.

Contemporary journalistic practice was for a local reporter to sell the story to the national press, and local newspapers also copied reports in the newspapers of London and other cities. Thus a modern researcher will find the same or very similar wording in several reports. The inquest report appears in the Daily News (London) on 18 August 1876, then in the Birmingham Daily Post of 19 August 1876, followed by Reynold’s Newspaper and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London) on 20 August and the Hull Packet on 25 August 1876. In that way British newspaper-readers learnt that the inquest had ended with an order to conduct a post mortem on the body, to ascertain the cause of death.

No further report has been located and we might assume that the post mortem did not find traces of poisoning, that much-loved Victorian death weapon. We are left to guess that Mary Maria Smith’s mother or her sister Martha Cole had somehow found a way to kill Evans: or that Evans, who was 22 years old, had one of the many intestinal infections that plagued Victorian cities. We draw a blank on Evans because of the absence of any mention of a place of origin and the apparent lack of interest in his ethnicity – was he of South Asian or of African descent? As the Birmingham Daily Post reported, it was indeed a ‘mysterious death in the East of London’.

Evans was not the last would-be son-in-law to be disliked by his future bride’s family and it is tempting to focus on his status as a ‘man of colour’ but we should respect the fact that he and Mary Maria Smith had fallen in love and that Evans  had, in Hancock, a friend in London.

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