An inquest was today opened into the death of a woman murdered 131 years ago, after a skull thought to be hers was unearthed in Richmond.

The skull, believed to be that of Julia Martha Thomas but yet to be officially identified, was found in wildlife enthusiast David Attenborough’s Park Road garden last Friday.

Workmen at Sir David’s home found the skull while excavating part of the garden ready for a new extension.

In an unusual step, West London Coroner Alison Thompson today opened an inquest behind closed doors. She has asked police officers from Richmond CID to conduct inquiries into the identification and circumstances of the death.

Investigating officer, Acting Detective Inspector Dave Bolton, said: “We are keeping an open mind as to whom the skull belonged to and the bones will be subject to further forensic examination and anthropological study seeking to establish the cause of death, age of the victim and possible identity.

“The skull was recovered from a building site, beneath foundations that had been in place for at least 40 years.

“The skull remains as the unidentified remains of a woman.

“However, one line of inquiry is the now widely-speculated story that the skull comes from Julia Martha Thomas, who was murdered at a venue in 1879, very close to the site of the skull recovery.”

Mrs Thomas, a widow in her 50s and Park Road resident, was killed by her maid in 1879.

Katherine Webster was found guilty of killing her mistress and mutilating the body when she was sentenced in July of 1879.

On the day of her execution, 29-year-old Webster reportedly told her priest: "I alone committed the murder of Mrs Thomas. I pushed her down stairs and strangled her."

Despite her confession and the recovered mutilated remains, the head of murdered Julia Thomas was never found and it became known as the Barnes Mystery.

Det Insp Bolton today made an appeal for relatives of Mrs Thomas to come forward.

He added: “Police ask that if there are any living relatives of Thomas that they contact us.

“If scientists are able to subsequently extract DNA from the skull we will seek to compare the DNA of a known relative of Mrs Thomas to see if we can conclusively prove or disprove that the skull is indeed that of Mrs Thomas.

"However, police will also continue with other lines of inquiry to seek to establish whether this find relates to any other person.”

If you have any information or are a relative of Mrs Thomas call Richmond police on 020 8247 5809.