Review of the February 2020 Meeting of The Whitechapel Society.

Sue Parry

Saturday 1st Feb 2020 marked a year since the Society’s meetings moved to The Crutched Friar. Unlike the first Saturday of February 2019 when most of the country was covered in snow, the weather was good. As you can imagine, this generated some discussion about global warming!

You will remember at the last meeting the society had an auction and £211 was raised in memory of Martin Fido who died in April 2019. It was decided that this money would be donated to the British Heart Foundation. Unfortunately, Karl Coppack couldn’t be present to accept the cheque, so Mark Ripper read out a message from Karl which said:

“I apologise for not being here tonight but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to thank to the Whitechapel Society and the East End Conference for choosing us as it’s nominated charity and to yourselves for generosity donating to us at the British Heart Foundation.
The BHF is sixty years old in 2021 and we’ve made great strides in reducing the number of cardiovascular related deaths since 1961. However, there are still over seven million people living in the U.K with one form of coronary heart disease or other. There are also 12 babies born every day with a congenital heart defect.
We receive no government funding and rely solely on people like yourselves to find our life-saving research. Thank you again from us all at the BHF”.

Tony Power then introduced the evening’s speaker, Dr John Sugden. John is a historian, lecturer, senior research fellow and associate editor of the American National Biography project, he holds a doctorate in modern history and is the author of two biographies on Nelson and also a book on Sir Francis Drake. However, it was as the twin brother of the late Philip Sugden, author of “The Complete History of Jack the Ripper” that John was addressing us.

John started by saying that Philip was a difficult man to speak about. He didn’t enjoy attention, had acquaintances but few close friends and didn’t care for public appearances. In fact, after the success of his book, Philip only ever consented to one radio interview (a copy of which was not kept), only made one promotional trip and only appeared on one talk show when he was sandwiched between Reg Presley of The Troggs and a hitman for the Krays. His only TV documentary was for French television (and no copy was kept of that either). Though a very successful teacher, Philip only ever gave one public lecture, and that was about Amy Johnson. In 2003 Channel 4 tried to recruit Philip for a documentary about Jack Sheppard. Philip asked to see the script, read it, suggested a few improvements and then declined to appear!

Philip lived alone, got on with his neighbours, though most of them didn’t even know his name. His diaries recorded his solitary walks in the countryside; his love of nature featured large in his life. A reclusive individual but known for his intellect and kindness. He was a good uncle to John’s children.

The Sugden’s family ancestors arrived in Kingston Upon Hull in the 1820s and were farm labourers and also a number worked, not surprisingly, in maritime trades. Hull at that time was a bustling thriving town; its population quadrupling in just 60 years. There were areas which comprised beautiful tree-lined streets with lovely houses but, as with many comparable towns in Victorian England there were areas of great poverty where life was hard. Though plentiful employment, it was semi/unskilled hard seasonal work and the shadow of the workhouse loomed large (sounding familiar?). John quoted a shocking statistic. Between 1837 and 1900 there were over 700 recorded suicides in this town!

The Sugden family history was ridded with tragic poor living conditions but as well as having some ancestral rogues there were some very noble family role models. Not least Philip and John’s own mother Lily who worked in a factory so that the family could support the twins’ education at the same time as caring for her three children, the eldest of whom had Downs syndrome. John described his mother as hard-working, honest and generous of heart. John and Philip’s father was a painter and decorator and John looked back on his and Philip’s childhood with fond and loving memories.

But it was this family history that was probably the reason why Philip and John related to the “common folk who history often forgets”.

As children the boys loved books, reading them as well as writing them! Between the ages of 8 and 16 John wrote 38 books. They both loved natural history and Philip kept lizards as pets, wrote numerous stories and painted pictures. They then both “discovered” history (I think we can all relate to that)! Whilst they both did well as school it was topics which were not on the curriculum that interested them most. They both loved the history of the American frontier, but it was the under-dog that they cheered for – the native American Indians, not the cavalry! They weren’t interested in the fictional characters; they were hungry for Daniel Boone, Sitting Bull, the real people!

They moved on from the Wild West and at the age of 14 Philip published what John called an “embarrassing” article for the school magazine. |It was entitled “The Case for the Abominable Snowman”. Rather than writing a curt dismissal of the existence of such a creature or alternatively writing a sensationalised “proof”, Philip called for a balanced examination of the evidence – the seed was sown for Philip’s later approach to research.

John recalled that it was on 12th May 1962 that Philip bought his first JtR book – Donald McCormack’s “The Identity of Jack the Ripper”. Philip read it twice in one week!

The boys left school at the age of 16 and Philip became an office junior – a job he hated. He then joined John at night school and then was accepted at the University of Hull in 1969 to study, yes you guessed it, History. He was already a confident researcher as he had started visiting the British Museum on a regular basis to further his interest in Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard.

It was only while writing this that I realised that Philip and my cousin Christopher were at Hull University at much the same time, overlapping by two years.

As a student Philip wrote to Gerald Howson, author of “Thief Taker General: The Rise & Fall of Jonathan Wild”, suggesting he had exaggerated Wild’s influence and used unreliable material. Mr Howson replied saying he “used conjectural material to improve the flow of the narrative and that is how history gets written” and “it is a vain hope to write an objective and personal view of anything”. Needless to say, Philip was not impressed!

Certainly, a young man who knew his own mind setting himself high standards, he even clashed with one of his tutors over the reliability of Gibbon’s “Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire”.

Philip graduated in 1972 and not surprisingly was immediately offered a place to study for a doctorate. He was persuaded to base his thesis on the formation of the East India Company in the early 18th century (I can hear some of you yawning). This turned out to be a disaster as it didn’t inspire Philip either and he spent his time pursuing his own interest in the history of London crime. When his grant ran out in 1976 he abandoned the idea of a PhD. As John said, there is a cautionary tale here: “You do your best work where the heart is”.

Philip then left London and taught in a school in the Midlands. An outstanding teacher who achieved fantastic examination results and inspired children of all abilities. However, this new career was just a stopgap. The boys’ mother had died and their father was becoming increasingly frail, so Philip returned to Hull. He did some part-time teaching but mainly he worked on his books.

In 1983 John and Philip decided to collaborate on a book about unexplained mysteries entitled “A Cabinet of Curiosity: Seven studies in Secret History” – sadly this was never published (I hear sighs of dismay”) as publishers want sensation, not deep analysis.

Philip wrote four of the seven studies – they were, Spring Healed Jack, The Massachusetts Sea Serpent of 1817, Satan in the Snow (a 1855 Devon mystery) and Amy’s last flight (the disappearance of Amy Johnson), the last of which was finally published as a pamphlet in 2016. I have scoured the internet and whilst I can find reference to the pamphlet, I can find no copies for sale!

The boys accepted that this project was floundering, so John diverted his energies into writing a book on Francis Drake and it was at this point that Philip returned to his long-held plan of writing a no-nonsense history of Jack the Ripper.

Philip had expressed dismay about the “deplorable level of scholarship” in some JtR books (I see some of you nodding your heads). He wrote notes about the JtR books he read, and John read out a few examples.

Of William Stewart’s book, Philip wrote “the description of the events is a mess, stuffed with fictitious detail and dialogue” He continued “the author is pathologically unable to get the facts right” and he described the book as “historically worthless”! Gosh, didn’t mince his words did he!?!

Of another he said that it was an “expertly crafted confidence trick”. I wish I could tell you which book that was, but John didn’t expand further. Perhaps WS members would like to send in their suggestions on a postcard!

It wasn’t all bad. Of Don Rumbelow’s “Complete Jack the Ripper” he called it “an important landmark in Ripper research, honest, judicious” and “the first major book not to peddle a theory” and “this enabled the author to view the subject objectively”. There are shades of Drew Gray’s talk last October here!

Philip regarded Don’s book as a benchmark. Philip’s book took 10 years to write and finding a publisher was not easy. In Philip’s own words he was “a difficult author to take on because I am that rare beast, a writer who cares about his work and will not broke any interference”.

Many WS members who have written on the subject will know that most publishers have a preconceived idea of what a Ripper book should be. One publisher told Philip that he didn’t think readers would be happy if they persevered through 500 pages to discover they still didn’t know who Jack the Ripper was!

Philip said he knew there were aficionados out there who were tired of humbug and desperate for good honest research – and how right he was! After rejecting several offers to publish an abridged version it was finally published by Robinson Publishing selling over 140,000 copies.

Philip then returned to his study of Jack Sheppard. Philip’s book on Sheppard encountered the same stubborn resistance by publishers who again wanted him to scale down his book. Philip’s last years were ones of professional frustration. The mantle of the unpublished book has been picked up by John who is currently working to finish it and get it published – look out for “The Forbidden Hero of the Georgian Underworld: Jack Sheppard”.

In 2015 “The Thief of Hearts: Claude Duval” was self-published and was the last item to bear Philip’s name. Philip intended to write a book on Henry Morgan (17th century Governor of Jamaica) but it wasn’t to be. Philip died suddenly, probably on 4th April 2014 at his home of a brain haemorrhage.

Tributes poured in but there was one, from Philip’s good friend Stewart Evans which summed up this great writer’s and researcher’s personal qualities. Though Stewart was only some two years younger than Philip, he said this:

“Philip was a father figure, a friend and a mentor. I met him only once, but we shared many lengthy telephone conversations. He had the ability to lift me when I was feeling low, to advise me when I was seeking difficult answers, to counsel me when I had a problematic situation and to show me additional perspectives when I could see none”.

This was a most entertaining, informative and moving talk. In the room you could hear a pin drop (though outside the room there was some glass smashing going on). The overwhelming feeling of the audience was that Philip’s book was the bible of Ripperology and John had given us an insight into the life of the man that none of us had ever met though we all knew his writing so well.

To hear this talk in full go to www.whitechapelsociety.com and search on the left hand side for podcasts

John Sugden                               John and Philip Sugden