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Death, Dismemberment and David Attenborough

Today I'm going to re-tread your favourite ground by diving back to Victorian Crime. In particular this week a proper brutal murder. In July 1879 Katherine Webster was hanged at Wandsworth for the shocking murder of Julia Martha Thomas. It is a crime that raised a lot of questions both then and now. Possibly the most striking of these questions is “what the hell has this to do with David Attenborough?” but we’ll get to that.

Julia Thomas was a retired schoolteacher who had lived alone since 1873 after the death of her second husband. At the trial she was described by her doctor as a smart, well-dressed lady of 54 years old.

In terms of middle class assets she kept a charming semi detached house in at 2 Mayfield Cottages, Richmond in South West London, and I’m sure you’ll agree it is a remarkably pleasant house.

She wasn’t wealthy but, like many people of her status, she very much liked to appear higher in the social pecking order than she actually was. She would dress up and wore plenty of jewellery to give the impression of a greater level of prosperity than she had, but to really seal her status in society there was something missing. She needed a domestic servant.

Her trouble was that she had real difficulty finding and keeping a good servant. First of all, a good servant wants to be serving further up the food chain than a lower-middle class retiree with delusions of grandeur, and secondly, by all accounts she was widely known as a harsh employer who had only managed to keep one maid for any sensible length of time. Basically anyone with a half decent set of references was not going to come anywhere near Julia Thomas.

Then, on the 29th January 1879, she took on Kate Webster. Webster was someone who really did not have a half decent string of references. What she did have, however, was a rather impressive list of convictions.

Webster, born Kate Lawler, in 1849 had served time in Wandsworth prison for larceny in 1864, which made her 15 years old at the time of her first sentence, in 1868 she was sentenced to 4 years penal servitude for further robberies. She was sentenced again having been convicted of 36 counts of larceny in 1875 and then within 6 months of release she was back in Wandsworth again for similar crimes.

In January 1879 Webster had stood in as a charwoman when her friend, Sarah Crease, was ill. Based on this short stint of work she was recommended to Mrs Thomas. She was employed immediately without a single check into her background or character.

As is quite predictable for someone with Webster’s background her work was appalling and her work ethic even worse. Further to this, Mrs Thomas was open with her criticisms. These criticisms were not unfounded by any stretch, but it seems to bear all the hallmarks of someone who was thoroughly unsuited to having employees. The relationship between the two women deteriorated rapidly.

Webster later described their relationship: “At first I thought her a nice old lady ... but I found her very trying, and she used to do many things to annoy me during my work. When I had finished my work in my rooms, she used to go over it again after me, and point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me

Webster was dismissed without references on 28th February 1879. She’d lasted just under a month. However, she managed to convince Mrs Thomas to keep her on a further three days. But when she staggered back in from an alehouse making Mrs Thomas late for church there was a confrontation. A confrontation which had fatal consequences for both women. Webster described it in her eventual confession:

Mrs. Thomas came in and went upstairs. I went up after her, and we had an argument, which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor. She had a heavy fall, and I became agitated at what had occurred, lost all control of myself, and, to prevent her screaming and getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat, and in the struggle she was choked, and I threw her on the floor.

If that wasn’t graphic enough then she goes on to describe how she dismembered the body, boiled it in a wash copper somewhat similar to this one, and burnt the bones in the hearth. I apologise if you’ve recently eaten.

I determined to do away with the body as best I could. I chopped the head from the body with the assistance of a razor which I used to cut through the flesh afterwards. I also used the meat saw and the carving knife to cut the body up with. I prepared the copper with water to boil the body to prevent identity; and as soon as I had succeeded in cutting it up I placed it in the copper and boiled it. I opened the stomach with the carving knife, and burned up as much of the parts as I could

Since Mrs Thomas was rarely seen, and Webster was often seen cleaning, nothing really looked out of the ordinary. After all, have you ever taken a really good look at what your neighbours are doing? She continued, posing as Mrs Thomas when anyone came to the house for orders or deliveries and meanwhile getting the remains into a Gladstone bag and a hat box. But she was unable to get the head in the box so that was buried in the stables of the pub next door. The rest of the remains were dropped from Richmond Bridge into the Thames, apart from one foot which she also could not fit in there. That was thrown onto a rubbish heap in Twickenham.

She continued the charade for another two weeks, arranging for the furniture to be sold for a reasonable sum to a publican called John Church. But by the time this sale was due to complete she had been rumbled, the body parts had been found, her cover blown and she fled immediately to Liverpool, then back to her home country of Ireland. She was arrested at her uncle’s farm in Killanne on 29th March 1879.

The case shocked the nation. It is a sign of the great public interest in this case that the prosecution was led by the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard. The trial took six days of Webster trying to implicate as many other people as possible including John Church, and some of her former neighbours all of whom had solid alibis, and this did nothing to improve her lot in the eyes of the public.

Finally a local bonnet maker testified that Webster had told her that she had come in to property a week before the murder. This was taken as premeditation, and motive and the jury unanimously convicted her.

She was sentenced to hang but claimed she was pregnant in order to avoid the gallows. Unsure where to go from here the court came forward with a jury of matrons, which was an archaic practice but still legally valid, and they determined she wasn’t.

She made a full confession to her crimes and was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on 29th July 1879 by William Marwood – she was the only woman ever hanged at Wandsworth. If you’re interested, you can stand on the trapdoor she stood on at Nottingham Museum of Justice.

The trial and execution was a sensation. Even before the trial Madame Tussaud’s had a “Richmond murderess” display. The Illustrated Police News even put out a souvenir edition covering the crime.

Webster had struck at the very core of the Victorian middle-class identity. By impersonating one of them for the best part of two weeks it highlighted that being middle-class in Victorian London was down to looking the part and having the right things, whether they were earned or not. That there was no visible difference between the respectable schoolteacher and an Irish thug with 40 plus convictions. Quite the reverse of the “hard work and good character” reputation they liked to imply.

Also, it showed that the middle classes were not safe in their own houses, not safe from their own servants, and that’s going to send shockwaves throughout society, especially amongst those people who are looking at employing a first time charwoman without references.

But what…. I hear you all cry…. What has this to do with David Attenborough? Well in 1952 David Attenborough bought the house next door which stood between the murder house and the pub. The pub ceased trading in 2007 and Sir David bought that as well with a view to redeveloping the site.

On 22nd October 2010 workmen uncovered the skull of Julia Thomas, buried there 113 years previously. The skull, the only missing piece of the body was buried in Richmond cemetery on 24th August 2011.

Thank you for reading

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