Robert James Lees
Robert Lees' Omnibus Journey
Gladstone once remarked that "the best way to see London is from the top
of an omnibus". According to an article in the Chicago Sunday
Times-Herald of 28th April 1895, Robert James Lees, a well respected
clairvoyant and prominent socialist was doing just that when one day at
the height of the Whitechapel murders, nearly a decade earlier, he had
boarded a bus with his wife at Shepherd’s Bush.
The omnibus ascended Notting Hill and stopped at the top. A man entered the interior of the vehicle. Mr Lees at once experienced a singular sensation. Looking up he perceived that the new passenger was a man of medium size. He noticed that he was dressed in a dark suit of Scotch tweed, over which he wore a light overcoat. He had a soft felt hat upon his head. Over a year had elapsed since Mr Lees’ clairvoyant vision whereby he had seen the Whitechapel murderer. Leaning over to his wife he remarked earnestly "That is Jack the Ripper". His wife laughed at this and told him not to be so foolish. "I am not mistaken", replied Mr Lees. "I feel it".
The omnibus traversed the entire length of Edgware Road, turning into Oxford Street at the Marble Arch. At this point the man in the light overcoat got out. Mr Lees determined to follow him. Bidding his wife continue on her journey in the direction of home, he followed the man down Park Lane. About half-way down the thoroughfare he met a constable to whom he pointed out the man in the light overcoat, informing him that he was the dreaded ‘Ripper’ and asking that he be arrested. This constable laughed at him threatened to ‘run him in’.
It seems that the Ripper must have entertained some apprehension that he was in danger, for on reaching Apsley House he jumped into a cab and was driven rapidly down Piccadilly. A minute later Mr Lees met a police-sergeant to whom he confided his suspicion.
"Show me the constable who refused to arrest him" exclaimed the sergeant. "Why it was only this morning that we received news at the Bow Street station that ‘The Ripper’ was coming in this direction".
If this latter statement be true, no "C" Division constable is shown as being reprimanded or dismissed for neglect of duty, however, a check of official fixed points for that division show that a constable was employed in Park Lane, opposite Stanhope Gardens, who may well have been the constable who had threatened to run Lees in.
Lees was possibly on his way to Oxford Circus where he intended to change vehicles to Tillings green ‘Times’ omnibus which would take him and his wife home to 26 The Gardens, Peckham Rye (at that time part of Surrey), although one wonders why Lees did not use the quicker Underground Railway route from Shepherd’s Bush to Peckham Rye via Whitechapel.
There is a slight flaw in Lees’ observations in-as-much that according to the 1888/1889 edition of Bennett’s Intelligence there was no omnibus service that went from Shepherd’s Bush by way of Edgware Road, only the direct route (as today) via Bayswater Road, which were operated by light-green ‘Bayswater’ omnibuses from Starch Green to Liverpool Street and from Shepherd’s Bush to Mile End Road, the latter direct to Whitechapel. However there was a dark-green ‘Bayswater’ omnibus that ran to Ladbroke Grove via Edgware Road, so perhaps Lees got the two ‘Bayswater’ routes confused. The late Stephen Knight also perpetuated the myth in his book Jack the Ripper - The Final Solution (1976).
An alternative version of Lees’ omnibus journey appears in Prince Jack (1978), written by American ex-detective Frank Spiering. In his version we have Lees once again aboard an omnibus when he saw a man enter a house in the fashionable Grosvenor Square area. Lees quietly got off the omnibus and found a constable. He related to him that he had just seen Jack the Ripper enter a house at 74 Brook Street.
As before, the constable laughs at Lees and threatens to ‘run him in’. Lees hastens to Scotland Yard where an Inspector was willing to accompany him to 74 Brook Street (the residence of Sir William Gull, the Royal Physician) the following morning. However Gull is not identified by Lees as the man on the omnibus.
One cannot help but wonder why Lees took the trouble to go all the way to Scotland Yard when the principal ‘C’, or St James Divisional HQ was situated much closer at Vine Street - just off Piccadilly.
In the earlier 1895 version it was in the latter thoroughfare that Lees saw ‘The Ripper’ hail a cab which was driven off at speed. Again, why did Lees not record the Hackney Carriage plate number so the driver could subsequently be traced by the Public Carriage Office, or at least describe whether the cab was a four-wheeled ‘Growler’ or a two-wheeled ‘Hansom’?
Melvin Harris, in his book Jack the Ripper - The Bloody Truth (1987) is somewhat scathing of Spiering’s version of events which are described as ‘absurdities’ and he goes on to say:- In embellishing his version, Frank Spiering did not bother to check either on the bus routes or the geography of the Park Lane area. Had he done so he would have learned that no buses ran along Brook Street or through Grosvenor Square, while Gull’s house could not have been spotted from any of the buses that passed Marble Arch of ran down Park Lane.
While Harris makes a good point, he fails to provide any evidence to substanciate that Spiering was incorrect in his theory. Unfortunately in this case it is Melvin Harris who has erred, as according to W H Smith’s New Plan of London (1876) green liveried omnibuses on the Lillie Bridge to Oxford Street service are shown traversing North Audley Street and circumnavigating the North and Eastern sides of Grovenor Square giving an unhindered view straight down Brook Street to Gull’s residence at No 74 which was located on the North side between Gilbert Street and Davies Street, albeit that the Grosvenor Square service did not appear in omnibus guides till 1892, by which time the service was now operated by chocolate liveried omnibuses between Baker Street and Pimlico. Another service of ‘Royal Blue’ omnibuses crossed Brook Street via New Bond Street giving a westerly view towards Gull’s house.
Even Lees’ conversation with the constable can possibly be authenticated as just north of Grosvenor Square was a fixed point situated at the Oxford Street junction with North Audley Street manned by a PC of the ‘D’ or Marylebone Division, while just to the south of the square at the South Audley Street junction with Mount Street was a fixed point manned by a ‘C’ or St James Division constable.
The identification of Gull’s house by Lees is further perpetuated by Peter Costello in his The Real World of Sherlock Holmes (1991), however Lees’ omnibus had now mysteriously changed into a tram - which is particularly strange as tramcars had never run through Notting Hill!
In the fictional Lestrade and the Mirror of Murder (1991) by M J Trow, Robert Lees had seen a man he knew to be the fiend ’sitting on top of a No 38 bus from Hammersmith’. Service numbers, however, were not adopted by the London General Omnibus Company until November 1908 at least two decades after the Whitechapel murders, but even here there is an element of fact.
If one peruses contemporary omnibus guides there is indeed a service 38 running from the Hammersmith/ Shepherd’s Bush district where Lees and his wife are alleged to have boarded the omnibus, only this service runs not to the West End but to Chiswick, where incidentally Montague John Druitt, a prominent Ripper suspect, committed suicide in the Thames and whose body was found on New Year’s Eve in 1888.
In the autumn of 1970 Robert Lees’ own version of his sojourn appeared in The Light, the quarterly newsletter of the College of Psychic Studies, written by Cynthia Legh, who had known Lees personally since 1912. Melvin Harris declares that this is ‘A version that kills stone-dead the famous episode involving the omnibus’. However if this tale was told in 1912 then the omnibus story would be described, not in 1888 but in the present day of 1912 when horse-buses still plied around Grosvenor Square and would be described (as by Lestrade) with a service number, in this case No 75. The ‘Royal Blue’ omnibus numbered 66 that crossed Brook Street via New Bond Street had since October 1910 succumbed to the new-fangled motor-bus route 25 (now route 8).
It was therefore still possible for Lees to retrace his original journey and relive his sighting of the Ripper to whoever would listen almost up until the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 when the omnibus horses were sent to the front, so perhaps Lestrade was not mistaken after all!
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© 2003 Stephen Butt