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).