Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Murder and Morality at the National Records of Scotland

I’ve just seen this advertised, and it looks a great event for anyone interested in 19th century murder and women’s involvement in crime.

Eleanor Gordon, the co-author (with Gwyneth Nair) of Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain: The Story of Madeline Smith (Manchester University Press, 2011), will give a talk this summer about the trial and life of Madeline  or Madeleine Smith (1835-1928), who in 1857 was accused of giving arsenic to her secret lover.

The subsequent murder trial  focused on the evidence of letters written by Madeline to her lover; it is no spoiler to say here that although the charge was found to be not proven, the case cast a long shadow over the rest of Madeline’s long life.

Madeline Smith in court

The talk will put the case within its wider context, looking at the stereotypes of the Victorian era in terms of gender relations, for example. There will then be the chance to to see some original artefacts from the case, including the arsenic bottle that Madeline was accused of having.

The talk will take place at General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh, on Monday 14 August at 11am. You can book it on Eventbrite here; find out more about the location here.

 

A Hangman at the Music Hall

James Berry, as pictured in the Shipley Times & Express, 24 October 1913

It was on this day in 1896 that the Illustrated Police news covered a story that showed what new careers former hangmen could embark on, once they had finished playing with rope.

James Berry, one such former executioner, had started a lucrative series of speaking engagements after leaving his job in 1891, the Victorian public having an appetite for stories of crime and death.

In 1896, he had been engaged by Harry Hart, the proprietor of the Marylebone Music Hall in London, to deliver lectures entitled ‘Criminals I have met’. Berry would receive six guineas a week in return for telling enthralled audiences about ‘experiences of different executions of notorious murderers’ in which – the press coyly described it ‘ ‘he had taken part’.

The initial lectures went well – the audiences, more used to other types of Victorian novelty acts as well as song and dance, being much pleased with the subject matter. However, Mr Hart suddenly dismissed his famous speaker.

Mr Hart argued that he had had to sack Berry, after he had turned up at the music hall one night in such an ‘excited’ condition (drunk) that he had been unable to give his lecture. Berry promptly brought an action against Hart to get the salary he argued was due him.

The first person to be called to give evidence was theatrical agent Mr Beesley, but instead, his wife turned up. She said that she had written the letter of engagement between Hart and Berry on Hart’s behalf, despite apparently having no authority to do so.

She said she was in Hart’s employ, but when asked if she had been in partnership with her husband as agents, she was horrified: “No! There ain’t no female agents!”, her response provoking laughter in court. She then winked at the prosecuting solicitor, and was told off.

Mrs Beesley was clearly slightly squeamish about Berry and his former occupation, referring to him as “that man – the hangman – Berry, the hangman”.

The issue of the Illustrated Police News containing details of Berry’s case against Harry Hart

Now, Harry Hart was called, and was sworn in ‘in the Christian fashion’, before the judge remembered that he was Jewish, and demanded that he be re-sworn on the Old Testament, with his hat on.

Once this was done, Hart stated that he would never have agreed to pay Berry six guineas a week – ‘his was a very small house, and the usual run of salaries was £1 a week.’ He had not, despite Berry’s allegations, paid the ex-hangman £5 at the end of his first week, but £3, and he had sacked him after Berry had turned up drunk and threatened to shoot Hart.

Berry then alleged that Mrs Beesley was lying on oath, saying that she had been engaged to perform herself at the Marylebone Music Hall, under the name of Miss Wood. She had turned to Berry and said, “I’m not going to lose my living. I’d swear anything against you.”

Another exchange then took place in court, again attracting laughter:

Judge Bacon: What was his entertainment?

Mr Hart: A lecture on his hangings.

Judge Bacon: Who is he?

Mr Hart: The late public executioner.

Judge Bacon: Was it an attractive entertainment:

Mr Hart: [shrugs shoulders]

Berry, cross-examined, denied that he was ‘speechless drunk’ on the night in question – he argued that Hart had refused to let him speak in order to avoid paying with him, this being ‘a favourite trick of his with his artists’. The defence solicitor, however, then asked, “Is it not notorious that you used to drink when public executioner?”, but Berry denied this.

The defence then asked, “Were you not dismissed by the Under-Sheriff for drunkenness?” – to which Berry responded, “Certainly not. I left honourably.”

The attempts to smear the former executioner – which included Hart’s assertion that he was not friends with Berry, because ‘he is not my class’ – failed. Two constables who Hart had called on to eject Berry from the music hall gave evidence that he had been perfectly sober, and the Judge said that despite Hart’s denials, he believed that Berry HAD been engaged for the larger sum per week, and that ‘the allegation of drunkenness had been most effectually disproved’.

Berry’s obituary in the Illustrated Police News, 30 October 1913

Berry continued to make a living sharing his experiences of life as a hangman, publishing The Hangman’s Thoughts Above the Gallows in 1905 – his second memoir, having published his first, My Experiences as an Executioner, four years before he was engaged by Hart.

It’s clear that he relied on his memoirs, and associated talks, after retiring as public executioner, and Hart’s allegations of drunkenness could have impacted both on the money he could earn, and the trust the public placed in him. He needed both his salary and his reputation, and this court case ensured that he retained both.

The tale of the indecent actor on a Victorian omnibus

A London omnibus

William Alfred Elliott was a 40-year-old actor with a bit of a problem. A pornography problem. Of course, it being the 1890s, this was not porn as we would know it – William’s penchant was for indecent photographs, that he carried around with him. They weren’t of nubile young Victorian women – but of a naked William himself.

William was not ashamed of his predilection. In fact, he got particular enjoyment from getting his images out in public (although, luckily, he doesn’t appear to have got anything else out in public), and seeing people’s reactions to them.

One night in October 1897, Elliott got on a District Railway omnibus in central London, and sat on one side, at the top. The bus travelled along Regent Street, picking up passengers as it went. Joining William Elliott upstairs were two 16-year-old girls, who sat in front of another passenger, the wonderfully named Henry Le Butt Boss, a hotel keeper, who was in turn opposite Elliott.

After a while, the girls noticed something odd in the seat opposite, and became increasingly distressed. Henry Le Butt Boss noticed their distress, which seemed to be result of ‘suspicious movements’ being made by Elliott. Out of the corner of his eye, he started to watch the actor.

“He had something in his hand,” Boss later told a court, “which he thrust forward many times, evidently with the object of the ladies seeing it.”

The bus turned into Cavendish Place, and Boss leaned over to the extent that he could now see what Elliott had in his hand – he was exhibiting some indecent photos that he regarded as being ‘of a very gross character’.

Boss wondered what to do. He continued on the bus for a while, but when it reached Marylebone Lane, he got off, with the intention of finding a policeman. Elliott got off at the same stop, and immediately starting running, ‘as fast as he could’.

Boss got the attention of a police constable, who set off in chase, and caught Elliott at Queen Anne Street. As he was grabbed, the actor starting tearing something up and throwing bits away. As the constable took him into custody, another one was dispatched to pick up the discarded items. They were duly pasted together, and, as the magistrate who later heard the case commented, ‘I call them filthy’.

In court, Elliott’s counsel admitted that his client was ‘very foolish’ for looking at naked pictures of himself in public, but argued, rather unfeasible, that ‘he had no intention of showing them to the ladies’ because ‘Mr Elliott was most respectably connected’. Apparently, posh men couldn’t be perverts too.

The counsel went on to insist that Elliott had a ‘large circle of friends’ and therefore Boss must have been ‘mistaken’ in his belief that the actor had displayed such images. Victorian logic was a wonderful thing. Elliott had simply been indiscreet, and had already been punished sufficiently as a result of the ‘mental anguish’ he had suffered being taken first to a police station, and then to Holloway Gaol to await his appearance before the magistrate.

Luckily, this absurd defence was viewed dimly by the JP. Although he believed that it was nobody’s business if Elliott wanted to photograph himself in indecent poses, it was not much of a stretch to believe that someone who did this kind of thing might then want to show others the photographs too.

In conclusion, the magistrate said, this middle aged actor had been ‘guilty of an act of a very odious character’, and should be fined 40 shillings. Elliott promptly paid his fine, and made his ignominious exit.

If you’d like to know more about the private and professional lives of Victorian actors, my book, Life On The Victorian Stage, will be published on 30 August. You can pre-order it from Amazon now.

Sources: The Illustrated Police News, 16 October 1897; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 17 October 1897

 

 

New crime and punishment records online

The Findmypast search page for its crime collection

Findmypast added a final 68,000 records to its collection of England and Wales Crime, Prisons and Punishments records last Friday, with its collection now being the largest set of English and Welsh crime records available online.

All these new records have come from The National Archives at Kew, and are taken from five separate series:

  • Home Office (HO 8) – convict hulks, convict prisons and criminal lunatic asylums, quarterly returns of prisoners
  • Central Criminal Court (CRIM 9) – after-trial calendars of prisoners
  • Home Office (HO 140) – calendar of prisoners
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 2) – prison records
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 3) – male licences, 1853-1887

This image is from Findmypast’s collection, and originated in the HO8 files (HO 8/161). Part of the ‘Convict Hulks, Convict Prisons and Criminal Lunatic Asylums: Quarterly Returns of Prisoners’, it records names, ages, offences, where and when convicted, the sentence, and the convict’s health and behaviour during the quarter of the year in which the returns were compiled. So here, we can see that William Jeffs, a 22-year-old burglar, had displayed ‘bad’ behaviour, whereas another convict had shown ‘exemplary’ behaviour despite being a convicted rapist.

As you might be able to tell from this image, not all the names are written out in full – several are just initials and a surname – and the location and year are not evident from this simple search result, so you may need to do a bit of cross-referencing or scrolling back through images to give you more information.

FMP’s records have come from The National Archives at Kew

Also, do not assume that the place listed at the front of the entire document is the only one mentioned – for example, with this image, some prior pages are from the Attested List of the Convict Department, Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Broadmoor, and for the quarter ending on 30 September 1864 – but the last entries in the original book are for the Invalid Convict Prison at Woking.

But if you suspect you have a criminal ancestor, these online records may help you track them – and their crimes – down; and even if you don’t have a convict in your family tree, they make for fascinating reading!

You can access the Crime and Punishment collection on Findmypast here – a subscription is needed for full access.

A case for the Fingerprints Department

The Illustrated London News’ coverage of another burglary case – this time from 1928 – where fingerprint analysis was crucial

It was in Argentina in 1892 that Eduardo Alvarez, a police inspector, made the first criminal identification through an analysis of fingerprints. Francisca Rojas, who had murdered her two sons, denied she was responsible for the deaths, but a bloody print on a door was identified as hers.

Various 19th century individuals – such as Sir Francis Galton – had already established that fingerprints could be used for identification purposes, but it was actually fiction that first showed their use for criminal purposes, with one of the stories in Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi (1883) using fingerprints to identify a murderer.

In Britain, the first conviction in the UK made on the basis of fingerprint evidence came in 1902, when Harry Jackson was convicted of burglary. The first British murder case to rely on fingerprints was in 1905, when South London shopkeepers Thomas and Ann Farrow were killed.

The case that I’m looking at this week is from the same decade; just a year after the first case to depend on fingerprints. It clearly shows the novelty of this type of evidence.

It was October 1904, and 22-year-old labourer George Gage stood in the dock at the Central Criminal Court. The court heard that Gage had broken into a house in Hammersmith, and helped himself liberally to some wine he found in there. He then stole silver goods worth £15 (these seemed to have mainly been spoons), before escaping.

Mention of George Gage in the records of the Old Bailey (from Old Bailey Online)

Unfortunately for George, his desire for a drink was his downfall. He left his fingerprints all over the wine glass he had used. It was duly examined by the Fingerprints Department of Scotland Yard, and within half an hour, the prints were found to be ‘absolutely identical with the fingerprint marks of an ex-convict named Gage’.

George Gage, as the records of the Old Bailey show, had appeared in court in September 1903, charged, with another man, of being found at night with housebreaking implements in their possession.

They were both sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour – but it was also noted that Gage had a prior felony conviction dating from July 1897 (when he would have been around 15), and ten other convictions to boot. It is no wonder that the Met had his details on file.

Now, not long after being released from prison, Gage was being arrested again. The police told him he had left something behind at the Hammersmith house. He immediately replied,

“Do you mean my fingerprints?” (London Daily News, 21 October 1904)

There was no other proof of his involvement in the crime, but George promptly pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to four years in prison, with the Recorder noting, as he sentenced Gage, that:

“Finger-print identifications were most valuable, and were likely greatly to assist in the detection of crime.” (Gloucestershire Echo, 21 October 1904)

The science was so new that prior to sentencing, a discussion was had court about the history of fingerprinting, from Egyptian mummies being found to have the same fingermarks, to the tests carried out on fingerprints at Scotland Yard, where out of 600,000 examples, none had been found to be identical.

The Recorder at court noted that using fingerprints would avoid innocent men being sent to prison, although it seems that George Gage wasn’t unduly bothered by being convicted in this way. In fact, when he was told he would serve four years inside, he simply responded,

“Is that all?” (London Daily News, 21 October 1904)

Sources: DL Ortiz-Bacon and CL Swanson, ‘Fingerprint Sciences’ in Max M Houck (ed), Forensic Fingerprints (Academic Press, London, 2016), p.61; Jan Burke, ‘Mark Twain and Fingerprints: Part 1’ (2013)

The original Psycho

The inventor of Psycho – John Nevil Maskelyne

If I said the word ‘psycho’, what would be the first thing that came into your head? The Alfred Hitchcock movie? Or one of the many more recent serial killers who have been dubbed a psycho by the tabloid press? Would you immediately think of it as contraction of psychopath?

In reality, ‘psycho’ simply means relating to the soul or the mind, and in the late 19th century, psychiatry was concerned with issues around the psyche, using the older term psychalgia to describe mental pain, or melancholy.

But alongside such explorations of the mental state of individuals came the term psychopath. This was frequently used by Victorians to describe not an individual suffering from psychopathic behaviour, but as a description of doctors who specialised in the treatment of mental disorder.

It gradually changed to become the term for a person who exhibited psychopathic behaviour, rather than the person treating him or her (the OED gives the first written evidence for this as being 1885).

We’ve certainly witnessed stories involving psychopathic behaviour leading to criminal activity, yet in the 1870s and 1880s, the term ‘psycho’ did not have the negative connotations that we now see with it.

In fact, during this decade, perhaps the most famous psycho wasn’t a human at all. During the recent research I’ve been doing into the history of the theatre, I’ve been studying the life and work of Victorian magician John Nevil Maskelyne.

An advert for Psycho from the Scotsman, 20 March 1884

Together with John Algernon Clarke, Maskelyne created an automaton who they named Psycho – not because he was mentally disturbed, but because he was perceived by contemporary audiences to have human qualities – he could play whist, for example(!)

A newspaper advert for Psycho

Psycho intrigued and fascinated Victorian audiences, and appeared in over 4,000 performances at London’s Egyptian Hall alone. Maskelyne was a master of self-publicity; in one paper of February 1875, no fewer than seven adverts were placed, all promoting Maskelyne and Cook at the Egyptian Hall.

Readers were told that at 3.20 precisely, the ‘wonderful’ Psycho would perform, and that anyone wishing to see ‘him’ perform should buy tickets in advance or face disappointment. (Morning Post, 5 February 1875)

Psycho was described by his inventors as ‘the Great Mystery of 1875’ who would play whist with ‘any three gentlemen who may volunteer from the audience…and perform other astounding feats requiring the exercise of memory and skill of no ordinary character.’

Nine years later, reviews of Psycho were still glowing – ‘There can be no doubt whatever that Psycho is the most clever piece of mechanism that has ever been produced’ (The Scotsman, 20 March 1884)

So when we describe someone as a ‘psycho’, we’re actually using a term that has become a pejorative one over a relatively recent period of years – having, with Maskelyne’s automaton, been a positive term denoting cleverness and skill, yet today being used by parts of the press to denote evil and madness.

Unnatural conduct: the murder of Elizabeth Peers

Elizabeth Peers was not missed.

She had been gone all night, and most of the following day, but still she was not missed.

This is not to say that her parents had not noticed she had gone; more that they knew, but didn’t care. They didn’t miss her.

William Peers was a Liverpudlian labourer, a brick-setter, with a drink problem. His wife Elizabeth wasn’t much better. On the evening of Saturday. 28 October 1905, the couple had been arguing.

They paused for long enough to send their youngest daughter Elizabeth, then aged 10, out from their house in Wendell Street, Toxteth, to buy ‘some pork’. Either they had a strange urge for meat at 12.30am on a Saturday night, or they simply wanted a pretext to get their daughter away from them.

Even though it was absurdly late to send a 10-year-old out on errands – she should have been safely in bed – they sent her anyway. And then they failed to notice when she didn’t come back.

Instead, they went to bed. The next day, they failed to notice Elizabeth’s absence for some time – or at least, they failed to tell the police that their young daughter was missing. Eventually, Mr Peers asked some local relatives if Elizabeth was with them, and found out that she wasn’t.

The 1901 census for Toxteth, Liverpool, showing the Peers family (from Ancestry)

Elizabeth wasn’t with them, because she had been found that day in Back Cullen Street, an alleyway off Smithdown Road, and just two roads away from her home, dead. She had been sexually assaulted before being killed, and had probably been killed shortly after leaving her home on that Saturday night. Her father, obviously, didn’t find her, as he hadn’t looked. Instead, someone – presumably police – had to go to him to tell him his neglected daughter had been found dead in an alley, and removed to the mortuary.

Her cause of death was uncertain – some papers said she was throttled, others that she had been suffocated. All agreed that she had been ‘violated’ – raped. One paper went further and said that she died as a ‘result of the shock and violence to which she was subjected’ during the sexual assault; another that she had been gagged during her ordeal. This was a girl who was still little, who should have been tucked up in bed at home – but who was sent out by drunken parents who failed to protect her or ensure that she was safe.

The inquest shed light on the nature of Elizabeth’s family and associates. One man, a dock labourer named George Amos Wolstenholme, gave evidence that he had seen a man running from the alley at around 1.30 that morning, sweating, with his clothes ‘disarranged’ – but his evidence was dismissed as ‘unreliable’.

Elizabeth’s movements could not be traced – unsurprising given the antisocial hour that she had been out on her errands – and her assailant couldn’t be identified. The press criticised the police as having ‘no clue’, but there being a verdict of wilful murder against persons unknown was returned, the coroner and the jury knew who should really be blamed for this poor girl’s murder.

The jury approached the coroner, and asked him to say something to the public. He willingly agreed, and, as clear as he could, ‘severely censured the parents for the child for their unnatural conduct.’

Elizabeth may not have been noticed in life, but she was in death. When she was buried, it was said that more than 30,000 people came to stand on the Liverpool streets to see her hearse and three mourning carriages make their way to the Smithdown Cemetery. Streets were crowded; the blinds were drawn in the houses on the route; and women cried out for justice as the hearse went past them. The funeral procession was headed by three mounted police and a large number of policemen; perhaps out of respect for the child, but more likely to prevent the crowds turning nasty on the chief mourners, the parents.

There was some form of divine retribution for Elizabeth’s negligent parents. On Hallowe’en, 31 October, Mrs Peers – said to have been suffering greatly from shock, to the extent that the ‘poor creature can scarcely be held responsible for her acts’, spilt a paraffin lamp in the Peers home, setting the furniture on fire. Dazed, she was dragged out of the house by neighbours, and once in the street, fell, and hurt her face quite badly. This was the same woman who on being told a child had been found dead, commented, “God help some poor mother” before going to get some more drink.

The murder reinforced what many newspapers saw as the criminality of Liverpool’s residents, and in particular, of its slum areas. They eagerly covered the case, noting the poor area in which Elizabeth lived, and how children were neglected there. One article was headlined ‘Child life in a Liverpool slum’ and noted how one witness had said that it was not unusual for children to be out playing at midnight in the neighbourhood, and so it would not have been thought strange for Elizabeth to be out at that time.

Elizabeth was a ‘slum child’, given independence far beyond what we give our children today. She was sent on errands, forced to be older than her years as her parents dealt with their lives by numbing their feelings with alcohol.

It is not surprising that the press blamed her death on these parents, and on her location, as it enabled them to highlight concerns about the slums, and to argue for their destruction. It’s a shame they didn’t argue as forcibly for Elizabeth’s murderer to be caught, and for anyone with suspicions to report them. As it is, Elizabeth’s killer remained at large, and probably within the community the press criticised so harshly.

 

 

Sources: Dundee Courier, 23 November 1905, Lancashire Evening Post, 22 November 1905, Portsmouth Evening News, 1 November 1905, Derby Daily Telegraph, 4 November 1905, Gloucester Citizen, 22 November 1905, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 23 November 1905, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 31 October 1905, Manchester Courier, 1 November 1905, Yorkshire Post, 16 November 1905

 

The Canadian Seaman and the Telephone Operator

In September 1908, a Canadian seaman named John Metcalfe was charged at Tower Bridge Police Court with stabbing a telephone operator.

The Commercial Docks at Rotherhithe

Metcalfe (his name also spelled as Metcalf and Medcalfe in the newspapers) was then aged 30, and had been working on the Allan Line’s ss Sicilian, which was moored in the Surrey Commercial Docks. His victim, Annie Standen, lived in Bermondsey. Some reports stated that she was married; others referred to her as ‘Miss Standen, a young woman of attractive appearance’.

Annie had been visiting friends one night, and decided to walk home – from Trundley Road to St James Road – at 1am. Although she walked quickly, she could hear heavy footsteps behind her. She went quicker, but as she turned into Abbeyfield Road, her follower stabbed her in the back.

She wasn’t at first sure of what had happened, and turned, to see him vanishing round the corner. Then she became aware of what had happened, started screaming, and ran to the first house she saw to bang on the door to ask for help.

Luckily for Annie, a local constable had been nearby, and on hearing her scream, rushed towards the sound. He found the young woman standing against some railings by a house, with a knife – identifiable as the sort carried by sailors – still sticking out of her back, the blade ‘buried to the hilt’. The constable pulled the blade out, and blood spurted over his arm. He quickly took Annie to a local doctor, and from there to Guy’s Hospital.

When the policemen at the constable’s station looked later at the knife, they immediately recognised it as the weapon that had been used in a similar attack the week before.

In this case, Mrs Louisa Plumpton, of Rotherhithe, had been drinking in her local pub, the local Star and Garter, with her husband when she noticed two men quarrelling. One pushed against her baby, and when she retaliated by knocking him aside, he stabbed her with a sailor’s knife in her right wrist. The man was apprehended, and justified his actions by saying:

“A man asked me for money, and insulted me, and this being my first visit to England, and not knowing what was going to happen, I drew my knife to protect myself. The woman was injured by accident.”

When he appeared at the police court on this offence, he was discharged after the magistrate commented:

“Sailors, when they come ashore, are the prey of all sorts of rascals who try to extort money from them and rob them. A man who protects himself from such persons is on a different footing from the man who draws a knife to attack somebody.”

Because this attack was seen as understandable, given the man’s status as a sailor, he was released and went back home to his lodgings at Lower Road in Rotherhithe – the same road where the pub was located. It was here that the police duly returned when Annie was then stabbed. He was found fast asleep in bed, and arrested – to which he responded:

“All right, I know what you want me for. I threw the knife away this afternoon in company with a man named Nobby Taylor, and another named Dan Tracey.”

On reaching the police station, he was shown the offending knife – not thrown away, of course – and again tried to argue that he had thrown the knife away and that it must have been picked up by someone else. However, now the timing had changed – he had thrown it away “tonight, in some street”. He was placed in a police cell, where now, he sighed,

“They take no notice of doing one or two in my country.”

But this was clearly no isolated incident, and neither was it a justifiable self-defence against other men. In both cases, this sailor had attacked women, and in one case, the woman was on her own, at night. He had clearly targeted her – and it seems highly improbable that this behaviour would have been taken ‘no notice of’ back in Canada.

The Canadian sailor was duly committed for trial at the Old Bailey, charged with attempted murder, according to the press – but he eventually appeared in court on a charge of wounding. Although he had been rather vocal when arrested, on being tried, he went completely silent, refusing to speak at all, even to plead – instead, a plea of ‘not guilty’ was entered on his behalf. He was found guilty, and sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour.

 

SOURCES: South London Press, 18 September 1908; Lancashire Evening Post, 23 October 1908

 

 

The old lady who was killed with an axe

This tale of murder from the East End of London, only a couple of years after the Whitechapel murders, inevitably grabbed my attention, as the victim shared her surname with me (although, I hasten to add, it wasn’t a relation of mine)!

It was a Wednesday morning in February in Poplar, and Mrs Ann Charlotte Darby, aged 81*, was getting ready to visit her daughter, named later in the press as Mrs Cummings. Ann lived in lodgings at 14 Sophia Street, her ‘home’ being one back room on the ground floor of the building; she had only lived there for three months, but had been in Poplar itself for at least two decades.

This elderly lady had been born Ann Charlotte Osborne at Welch’s Buildings, Shoreditch, on 30 July 1812, the daughter of William and Ann. She was baptised at St Leonard’s Church on 12 October that year. At the age of 17, on Christmas Day 1829, she married William Darby, a rigger from Bethnal Green and at least a decade her senior, in his home parish.

The marriage of William and Ann Darby in 1829

The couple had several children, including Anne, Thomas, Eliza, Martha, Sarah, Elizabeth, and Charlotte, all born in Limehouse. In 1851, the family were living at 31 Eastfield Street, Limehouse; they were a labouring class family, and both Anne and her eldest daughter, 18-year-old Anne, worked as comb makers.

Ten years later, Anne, Eliza, Martha and Sarah were all working as chair caners, living at the family home at 30 Star Street. This was part of a notorious slum area off Commercial Road – Paul Daniel has stated that this was known as Planet Street at the time, but a check of neighbouring streets in the 1861 census suggests that the Darbys definitely lived at this location, in one of the many two-up, two-down houses on the street, which were regarded as being both small in size and with low ceilings

After her husband’s death in 1866, Anne continued to work as a chair caner for a while, and lived in various locations in the wider Tower Hamlets area, remaining close to her surviving family. In 1893, her one daughter Mrs Cummings was only minutes away, as she lived in Sherbutt Street, off Sophia Street; back in 1871, Ann had been living at 3 Duff Street, with another daughter, Eliza, and Eliza’s three young children, George, William and Elizabeth, visiting her.

Her financial status, never great, reduced over the years, until in 1881, she was living at 76 Kerby Street in Poplar, which was a rag shop. There, still eking out a living caning chairs, she was sharing the building with another family, although at the time of the 1881 census, she was being visited by her married daughter Charlotte, now Charlotte Jones.

Although Ann was over 80, she was in good health and regarded as being a high-spirited woman. On 22 February 1893, she had stayed with her daughter a while, but then, it being about midday, she went to the Poplar Poor Law Union to receive her outdoor relief money – she was poor and relied on this money for her food and rent. She received three shillings a week, and went to Hodgson Craig, the Relieving Officer for the west district of Poplar, every Wednesday to get her money.

In the evening, one of her granddaughters, Martha Cummings, aged 16, went to visit her grandmother and found her in a jolly mood; she stayed until around 8pm. It is testimony to Ann’s personality that she was seen as good company – after Martha had left, one of Ann’s other daughters, Eliza Mitchell, then called round and stayed with her mother until 9.45pm, making up her elderly mother’s bed for her as she was now getting tired.

Later, before the coroner, Eliza said that she was ‘under the impression’ that a niece, Martha Johnson, came to sleep with Ann at night, as she had done so in her previous lodgings at Grundy Street; if so, however, there would have been no reason to prepare Ann’s bed for her that night.

There was apparent quiet now at Sophia Street until the next morning, on 23 February. One of the other lodgers at number 14 had gone to visit Mrs Cummings, but realised that she hadn’t repaid Ann for sixpence she had lent her neighbour the day before. Martha was duly despatched to her grandmother’s lodgings to give her the sixpence, the women knowing the old lady would need money that day.

Martha, on reaching number 14, found her grandmother’s door open. She went in and found her grandmother apparently asleep in bed. But on getting nearer, she saw that there was something not right – Ann’s face was an ashen colour, and, frightened, Martha ran back to her mother, and cried,

“I believe there is something wrong with grandmother. She is still in bed, and her face is quite white!”

Her mother and the other woman ran back to the house, and on pulling back the neatly drawn bedclothes from Ann’s body, found that she had been gruesomely murdered – a bloodstained butcher’s cleaver still lying on her pillow. She had been struck behind the right ear, a blow that caused the sheets underneath her to become saturated with blood. The only relief to her family was that Ann had been killed while asleep.

Burglary did not appear to be the motive: Ann’s purse was found under her pillow, still containing her money (one shilling in silver and fourpence and three-farthings, all in bronze), and she was known to be on poor relief. Although one of her daughters had taken out a life insurance policy on her mother, it was only for a small amount. One mistake appeared to have been made by the killer – a clue lay in the thumbprint found on the inside of the door to Ann’s room, but the print was unfortunately rather faint.

An inquest was held on Ann’s body at the Poplar Town Hall the day after her death, presided over by Mr Wynne Baxter. At this inquest, it was heard that although Ann had been friendly with her neighbours, her friends did not regard it as a terribly salubrious place to live, and the day prior to her death, had been discussing moving her to a ‘more respectable’ house.

Honora’s entry in the Colney Hatch admission registers

Then a suspect was named – or rather, this person was seen as dodgy enough to be fingered by the police, without much evidence. The coroner mentioned that another lodger of 14 Sophia Street was Honorah or Honora Driscoll, known as Norah. She was known to have previously been an inmate of Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, ‘suffering form mental affliction’.

‘The facts given in evidence showed that the crime must have been committed by someone in the house,’ said the coroner; and Eliza Mitchell stated that Norah Driscoll had been home when she had gone to visit Ann, and had still been at number 14 when Eliza left. The next morning, Norah had apparently come to stand at Ann’s bedside with the other women, and she was the one who put her hands on the body to check if it was cold.

Others living at number 14 – Mrs Sweeney, presumably the woman who had borrowed sixpence from Ann, and the Goss family – had alibis for the time of Ann’s death. The coroner stated that:

“no-one in the house could have done the deed except Norah Driscoll. She had been in an asylum, and when insanity was fixed in a person it was possible for them to commit acts and be oblivious of them.”

Her period of insanity was presented as though it was recent, but the Colney Hatch Asylum records show that Honora Driscoll was actually admitted some three decades earlier, on 16 October 1867, although she was not released until 1 November 1875. **

Norah was also deemed to be guilty because she was so calm afterwards; the coroner added that she might have been “insane on Wednesday night but sane on Thursday morning”.

She was also seen as the black to Ann’s white – Norah was also reported in the newspapers as being an elderly woman (referred to as “Old Mrs Driscoll”), and also in receipt of poor relief, but whereas Ann was perceived as a jolly old lady, doing her best in straitened circumstances, Norah was seen as a mad old woman, akin to the perception of certain women as witches throughout history.

There was no substantive evidence against Norah, despite the suspicions of the police and the coroner, and the jury – although not in a unanimous decision – erred on the side of caution. Norah Driscoll was at the Town Hall when a verdict of wilful murder against person or persons unknown was returned.

As 2000 people were said to have gathered outside the court and were ‘excitable’, Norah was helped to escape from the Town Hall by the police, who made her climb down a ladder from the building’s back windows, whilst disguised.

Accompanied by the vicar of Poplar, the Hon James Adderley, she was swept through neighbouring schools, the church grounds and East India Dock Road to her lodgings, unnoticed by the crowd at the Town Hall.

 

 

SOURCES: Illustrated Police News, 4 March 1893; Tamworth Herald, 11 March 1893; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 12 March 1893; FreeBMDs – death of Ann Charlotte Darby, March 1893, Poplar vol 1c page 480; death of William Darby, Dec 1866, Stepney, vol 1c page 375; 1851-1881 censuses for Limehouse and Poplar on Ancestry; Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912 on Ancestry.

 

NOTE 1: The majority of press reports into Ann’s murder stated that she was 79, and this is the age given on her death certificate. However, the records show that she was born in 1812, and therefore was around 81 when she died. 81 is also the age given in a few press reports. It’s not unusual for ages to be wrongly given or reported at this time.

NOTE 2: An Honora Driscoll was admitted to Banstead Asylum in Surrey on Christmas Eve 1884, and released on 12 January 1906; she was readmitted on 10 May 1909 and released four years later, on 24 November 1913. Honora Driscoll is also recorded as being admitted to various workhouses in Tower Hamlets in the 1880s and early 1890s; although these asylum and workhouse records would emphasise the depictions of her as a woman with long-term mental health issues, and in receipt of poor relief, her name was shared with many other women of Irish descent in late 19th century London and its environs, and so it is not possible to show that these are the same woman (especially as the entries only occasionally record a year of birth, and few other details).

 

 

New Metropolitan Police pension records released online

The National Archives has announced the release of a set of its pension records relating to Metropolitan Police officers on Ancestry.

The registers of pensions awarded to Met Police officers (MEPO 21) include personal details about the police officers that might include place of birth, marital status, parents and next of kin, service details and, from 1923, details of the officer’s spouse.

You can search the registers on Ancestry under ‘London, England, Metropolitan Police Pension Registers, 1852-1932‘.

The entry above relates to Constable John Howard of Thames Division, whose pension of £44 started in October 1852. The second page of his entry, shown above, is full of detail, from his short height and ‘nearly bald’ head, to his parents’ names, date and place of birth, and the date he entered the police service.

So if your ancestor was a Met police constable, or you’re researching former officers, have a look through this new release of documents, and enjoy!

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