Jessica O’Neill: behind the PhD

19 Nov

Everyone has a story. Would-be professor of dark hearts and self-styled Ripperologist Jessica O’Neill mixes her PhD research with community engagement. As a result she is a fabulous person to lead spooky guided walks around London. And then there’s the side of her that loves museums and finding out about people in Islington… Interview by Nicola Baird.

Jessica w_ wine glass

Jessica O’Neill – who hopes to become a Doctor of Dark Heritage – tries out wine tasting in Islington.

Jessica O’Neill seems a bit uncomfortable telling me what her PhD focuses on. Even chatting to students at University College London (UCL) she finds it easier to claim she studies pottery, because she’s been assigned to their archaeology department. In fact she’s doing a PhD in the dark side of history – memorials to murdered prostitutes. By 2017 she’ll have that PhD and officially be a Doctor of Dark Heritage.

Although Canadian born Jessica now lives in Hackney she knows Islington well – when she moved to London from Vancouver her first place was in Archway. We’ve just finished a meeting where she’s been expertly helping me, and the King’s Head Theatre, organise the Islington Faces Live show so at last I can ask her why she was interested in working with a blogger focusing just on Islington. “Community dynamics are at play all over the world! As an outsider it’s interesting to get to see a new community and to find out about the hidden underside of an area. It would usually take a decade to discover the characters you profile on Islington Faces, helping organise the show is a quicker way!” explains Jessica.

If you missed the show, here’s the 4min film.

Jessica’s twin knowledge of community engagement and organisation, plus her internship at the King’s Head Theatre smoothed out a lot of pre-planning questions for the Islington Faces Live event. “Put the best on first,” was her top tip, “and see if you can get people to do tricks…” This latter suggestion was quite tough as it didn’t just mean finding musical performers, but people who could make the audience feel as if they could join in too. For a while I’d been hoping to have a chef showing off bread rising, but sense took hold. In the end one of the people tricks that proved popular was Pete May talking about the treasure (aka broken household stuff) he finds in the holes workmen dig in the road when relaying gas pipes or adding cable.

Neon lights close to Islington Green.

Jessica O’Neill collects neon signs – so enjoys the neon lights close to Islington Green.

Places Jessica O’Neill likes in Islington

I met Matt, a born and raised Londoner, on a blind date at the Lamb Pub at 54 Holloway Road, N7. If we are anywhere nearby we go in. I really like their big Boxer dog.

I like to see horror movies at the Union Chapel shown with a live orchestra using the organ. It makes Halloween so interesting – it’s so spooky and bone chilling. I like the way they’ve chosen to step away from the traditional church program.

I love Exmouth market.

I like to look for the old ghost boroughs that Islington swallowed up – you’ll be walking through an area of Islington and then see on the road signs you are in Finsbury and Holborn.

All about Islington
Although Jessica is a fan of Islington, she doesn’t remember her first few months in London fondly. “I was seeing a boy and we broke up at a pub quiz that was part of the Archway with Words festival (held in October). Thinking back that was the best thing in my life because I then met the love of my life a month later – in another Islington pub.”

Jessica is full of energy – she’s often leading walks with Free Tours by Foot. She also volunteers for the Geffrye Museum, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum and she’s joined a UCL committee to help bring people into museums. In her spare time she’s obsessive about food, collecting neon signs and is an amateur taxidermist.

As for her studies: “I focus on what we don’t like to talk about – victims of Jack the Ripper, the Ipswich Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper, and in Canada the Green River killer.”

“It says a lot about a culture knowing which people can be targeted. It’s easier to get away with a crime if you target prostitutes. In Vancouver Robert Picton killed 49 women over 20 years. There’s a reason why he didn’t target women in the suburbs – there’d have been an immediate man hunt. Now Vancouver is having a hard time trying to commemorate those women because the police never took seriously the loss of transients, prostitutes and drug addicts. And now it’s been left for so many years it is really hard to make a memorial that doesn’t feel insulting.”

It’s a good point. London is filled with memorials. As Jessica says “they are everywhere”. Even on Upper Street she reckons “you can probably see one wherever you are”. But once her PhD is finished it looks as if society’s most unlucky women will be better remembered.

Over to you

If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via at Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow (see menu top right), @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola


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