Today was a big day for me, writer-wise. I received two contributors’ copies of The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories which is the first anthology to feature one of my own short stories, ‘The Ballad of Kate Eddowes’. It’s also the first time I’ve had anything published in hard copy, so holding the book and seeing my name in print was a massive thrill. Even if this is the last time it happens, I’ll still die a very contented man.
The book is a tremendous example of an opportunity and an idea coming together at the right time. I saw the call for submissions from editor Maxim Jakubowski, and it reminded me of a Ripper-related idea that had been with me for some time. When I started working in Wolverhampton in 2005 I was intrigued to find out that one of the Ripper’s victims, Catherine (otherwise Kate) Eddowes had been born there. Given that she had family in the area, it’s no surprise that she returned frequently during her life; and it was here that she met former soldier Thomas Conway, a man who became her common-law husband and the father of her three children.
Conway was born in Ireland. He had seen service in India, and was pensioned out of the army due to his ill-health. When he met Eddowes he was making a living as a travelling salesman; and there’s a suggestion that he sold pamphlets and chapbooks, some of which he may have written himself. Was this what attracted Eddowes to him, the lyrical Irish poet who had seen something of the world? And what sort of publications did Conway sell?
Broadsides – single sheet poems and ballads – were a common commodity on the streets of Victorian England. They could be produced cheaply, and then (as now) tales of murder and bloody retribution sold particularly well. I came across an example of one in the Wolverhampton City Archives where I worked, describing the murder of a young woman named Harriet Segar by her sweetheart Charles Robinson. A sad, intriguing story in its own right – but one which leapt to life when I discovered that Robinson was a cousin of none other than Catherine Eddowes.
I remember the shock of recognition, and two different ideas crashing into each other. Was it possible that Eddowes’ partner Conway had written the ballad about the Robinson-Segar murder, and the subsequent execution? Which then suggested that Conway and Eddowes were present at Stafford in January 1867, when Robinson was hanged – executions always brought a crowd, and what better place to sell a souvenir of one of the region’s most notorious crimes?
The idea that a woman who became an irrevocable part of one of the British history’s most infamous murders should have spent her youth selling true crime memorabilia was irresistible to me. The evidence may be tenuous – but surely one of the jobs of fiction (and historical fiction in particular) is to fill these gaps and speculate on the possibilities. Murder dogged poor Kate Eddowes throughout her life, a burden she was finally and tragically unable to escape. I hope my story does something to remind us of the real woman behind the victim, and brings these other aspects of her life to a wider audience.