Monday, 6 June 2011

Hidden London: human fat for sale

Reporting plans by Sir David Attenborough - 'the most trusted person in Britain ' - to develop the abandoned pub next door to his home in Richmond, Surrey, the Daily Mail fails to mention the property's grisly link to a notorious crime. The 'Barnes mystery' attracted attention when human body parts were found in a box in the Thames - eventually the trail led to a disaffected, alcoholic maid, Kate Webster, who was hanged for killing her mistress.

Webster went to work for Julia Thomas at 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond, in January 1897. Webster had been in and out of prison over the years and though she and Mrs Thomas initially got on well, their relationship soon deteriorated. In a row after drinking, Webster is said to have attacked her employer and strangled her; the maid then chopped up Mrs Thomas's body and boiled many of the parts.

She disposed of some in a box from Hammersmith Bridge - a coal man who found it the next morning reported his discovery at Barnes police station, hence the crime's popular nickname. In an even more grim development, Webster is said to have sold the human body fat at the Hole in the Wall pub on Park Road for use as dripping.

The ensuing trial was complicated by the lack of Mrs Thomas's head but a recent news story reveals a human skull was found during work to redevelop the Hole in the Wall as part of David Attenborough's home. Unfortunately, I can't find confirmation that this was the missing piece of the widow's body, though Attenborough has received permission to turn the former pub's beer garden into a 'wildlife haven'.

UPDATE On 5 July it was confirmed that the skull belonged to Julia Thomas.

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