Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Watched: The Unsolved Murder of Frances Buxton

Coverage of the case from the Sheffield Evening Telegraph made explicit the unlikelihood of the perpetrator being found

On 17 January 1920, Mrs Frances Buxton, landlady of The Cross Keys pub in Chelsea, was murdered.

Two days before, Mrs Buxton, aged 53, had been ‘pestered’ by a man at the bar. He was quite tall – between 5’10 and 6 foot, with a long, clean-shaven face, light hair and ‘very piercing’, close-set black eyes. He seemed respectable; he wore a bowler hat, was aged about 40, but spoke with quite a high-pitched voice for a man.

But what he said in that high-pitched voice disturbed her. He asked her intrusive questions about her love life, requested that she have supper with him, and then finally asked her if she lived at the pub on her own. She answered ‘yes’ and then immediately realised how stupid she was to do so. The man had then tried to walk into her private parlour, at which point, she pushed him out.

The incident bothered her so much that the following day, 16 January, she asked a local timekeeper, named variously as Briscoe Hervey, or Detley Driscoll Harvey, if he had noticed the man when he had been in the pub that day, but unfortunately, Hervey had not noticed him. However, he realised how concerned she was; she felt that she, and the pub, were being watched, but thought perhaps it was the police, monitoring the premises for evidence of improper conduct.

The London electoral register for 1919 records Frances in Chelsea (from Ancestry)

Frances was a married woman – but separated. She had lived apart from her husband, Frank, since about 1908, and they had not seen each other since the previous summer. Frank had relocated to Sussex, where he ran the Sussex Hotel in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Frances was not a drinker, but she had seen other men since she and Frank had separated; one of her barmaids, a Mrs Mitchell, believed that she had been seeing two men ‘at times’.

Then, on the morning of 18 January, Frances Buxton was found dead in the cellar of her pub; she had died shortly before midnight on the night of the 17th. That evening, Mrs Mitchell and her daughter had been working at the pub – the daughter was engaged to wash glasses – and had left at 10.30pm, Frances saying goodnight to them before Mrs Mitchell closed the door. Frances may then have had a late meal – in a small room behind the bar, the remains of a meal were later found, with it looking like she had been disturbed whilst eating.

Happier days? The 1891 census records Frances living with her husband Frank at 64 Fetter Lane, in the City of London

Whatever happened just before midnight that night involved violence. There was a smashed bottle and a pool of blood in the passageway, and Frances’s body had been placed on a pile of burning sacking, and covered in sawdust, with a spade lying nearby. She had not been dead long when the police found her. She had been killed from head injuries caused by the broken beer bottle, including a fractured skull – but her nose had also been broken by a blow, and it looked as though someone had attempted to strangle her with a cord of wire.

There were clues found by the police; fingerprints on Frances’s dress and the walls; two Treasury notes dropped by the perpetrator; missing money and jewellery belonging to Frances. All except the missing items (obviously) were photographed by the police, who suspected that two individuals – men – must have committed the crime.

The National Probate Calendar entry for Frances, from Ancestry. Although the date she died is given as 18 January, she was attacked the night before.

The inquest into Frances’s death had to be adjourned, but on Tuesday 3 February, it was resumed, with the coroner, HR Oswald, stating that ‘as there was no immediate prospect of the arrest of any suspected person, the jury could not in fairness continue to adjourn the inquiry on the chance of one taking place.’ The coroner’s jury soon, therefore, returned a verdict of wilful murder ‘by some person or persons unknown’.

There had, in the three weeks or so since the murder, been no arrests, and there was, as the coroner noted, no sign of there being any in the near future. This increased the fascination with the case by the press; the Globe employed a ‘special representative’ to give a gushing account of an interview Frank Buxton had with the police, together with a list of jewellery that was missing from the pub. This correspondent had made ‘inquiries from neighbours’ who frequented the pub, to build a picture of what it had been like on the night of the murder: ‘there were several couples playing dominoes’ was one of the earth-shattering things he found out.

More significant, perhaps, was the reporter’s suggestion that as Frances’s ‘exceptionally good’ watch-dog had failed to bark (or at least, was not heard to bark) when Frances was attacked, ‘the crime was probably perpetrated by someone familiar with the premises and known to the dog’. Given that the murder occurred in a popular pub, where many people would have been ‘familiar’ to the dog, though, this might not narrow the list of suspects down very much.

And so it proved. Nobody was arrested or charged with the murder, and five years later, it was being described in the press as ‘one of London’s unsolved crimes’.

 

NOTE: Five years after Frances’s death, in 1925, the case made headlines again when a man at the Tottenham Police Court suddenly declared that his niece could solve ‘the Chelsea murder mystery’. Another man had been charged with stabbing his nephew, following an argument where he had made allegations about his nephew’s wife. In court, another of the nephew’s uncles – so probably the defendant’s brother – commented about the nephew’s wife, “Our niece doesn’t want it known that she can give the information the police want to solve a Chelsea mystery of four [sic] years ago. The proprietress of a public-house was found murdered and her jewellery stolen.”

The defendant in this case was discharged, and immediately turned to the reporters in the police court, and asked them to print the family’s allegations against the nephew’s wife. Was this a baseless vendetta against the woman, or was there really a witness who could say what had happened? We don’t know, and all subsequently went quiet again – until the summer of 1926, when a Mr Creed was murdered in a Bayswater provision shop, a crime that resulted in anonymous letters being written to the police by a woman.

In coverage of this crime, it was noted that ‘the circumstances of the murder of Mr Creed are very similar to those in the case of the murder, in 1920, of Mrs Frances Buxton.’ Then, the following summer (1927), an ex-convict provided a statement to Scotland Yard that whilst serving a sentence in a French prison, he got talking to another prisoner who confessed that he had ‘taken part’ in the Chelsea crime.

Although Scotland Yard were stated to be trying to track down this confessing prisoner, there was doubt as to whether the ex-convict was telling the truth, for he was, after all, ‘well-known to the police in this country, and one who has many aliases.’

Sources: Western Daily Press, 21 January 1920, p.6; Nottingham Journal, 4 February 1920, p.5; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 February 1920, p.9; Globe, 19 January 1920, p.1; Daily Herald, 25 June 1925, p.5; Lancashire Evening Post, 25 June 1925, p.6; Nottingham Evening Post, 30 August 1926, p.1; Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1927, p.5; Nottingham Journal, 25 July 1927, p.1; Northern Whig, 25 July 1927, p.9. Records relating to the murder of Frances Buxton are also to be found in The National Archives (ref MEPO 3/268B).

1 Comment

  1. Your blogs are really interesting and are very well written, I really enjoy reading them keep up the good work.

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