The place was Sussex. The year was 1894. Mary Ann Hills, née Keeber, a forty-two-year-old mother of two young children, Maud and Reginald, lay dying. And, as her marriage had been spent in cemetery lodges, death had played a greater part in her life than in most. Her husband had plied his trade as a cemetery superintendent, seeing almost daily funerals with streams of mourners. Were these now a reminder of the shocking tragedy―the poisoning of Charles Bravo, the “Balham Mystery”―which she had witnessed so many years before? Although neither inquests nor newspapers considered Mary Ann a candidate for the role of poisoner, did she in fact hold the key?
The death of Charles Bravo took up many column inches in the newspapers during the summer of 1876. The one undisputed fact was that the thirty-year-old barrister died an agonising death from ingesting antimony in a pretty white house on the edge of Tooting Bec Common. But who was responsible is a question that has never been conclusively answered. Oddly, most of the house’s inhabitants had at least some combination of motive, means and opportunity. I have always suspected that the twenty-four-year-old Mary Ann Keeber, who at the time was employed by Bravo as housemaid, knew more than she let on. She was capable of displaying a respectful, discrete demeanour, but, living in close proximity to her mistress and master, she would certainly have been privy to all manner of secrets that they wished to remain private.
A SHAMEFUL SECRET
Mary Ann was born in January 1852 in Brixworth in rural Northamptonshire. Registered and baptised as Mary Ann Keber [sic] Burgess, she was the illegitimate child of Eliza Burgess. Nine months before, Eliza had been working as a house servant at nearby Lamport for Mrs Elizabeth Eaton, where she had made the acquaintance of Mrs Eaton’s farm servant, Joseph Keeber. Joseph, at eighteen, was four years younger than her. Now, Eliza made it clear that Joseph, to whom at the time she was not married, was Mary Ann’s father. Joseph obviously wasn’t a cold-hearted seducer, as he did eventually marry Eliza in 1855. Possibly his parents had refused them permission to marry, and they had been obliged to wait until he was of age. One way or the other, the family moved to Joseph’s home village of Pitsford, where he worked as an agricultural labourer. As for Mary Ann, like many Victorian working-class girls she went into service locally when she was about 15. By September 1872 she was in London working as a housemaid for Mrs Florence Ricardo at her rented house, Stokefield, in Leigham Court Road in Streatham.
Mrs Ricardo, a wealthy widow aged twenty-seven, had a shameful secret, which was probably well-known to her servants, even if they pretended not to notice. She had a lover.
He was an elderly doctor by the name of James Manby Gully, and by all accounts he was a charming, clever and kindly man. Before retiring to London to be with Florence, he had run a famous hydro in Malvern, where he numbered among his clients Tennyson, Darwin and Dickens. However, there was no chance that the couple could marry, as not only was Dr Gully thirty-seven years older than Florence, but Mrs Gully was alive and well in Brighton. After accompanying the good doctor on holiday to study German hydrotherapies, Florence returned pregnant, and, to avoid what would have been a terrible scandal, Gully operated on her on the pretext of removing a “tumour”. She became extremely ill, and was nursed devotedly by her housekeeper, Mrs Jane Cox. A widowed mother of three, Mrs Cox would have had a very good idea what had happened. She probably wasn’t alone. There was the lady’s maid who helped Florence wash and dress, and the housemaid who made the beds and cleaned.
LIFE AT THE PRIORY
In March 1874 Mrs Ricardo moved into a rented house―The Priory―on the Balham side of Tooting Bec Common. The house retains its charming exterior, although it has been divided into apartments, and the eight acres of grounds have been largely covered by blocks of flats and houses. Florence was a rich independent woman, with a fortune of £3000 a year left by her first husband, the unfortunate dipsomaniac Captain Ricardo. She was able to live in fine style with four horses in her stables, a butler, a footman, a cook, at least two housemaids, a lady’s maid, three gardeners, and her companion, the astute and devoted Mrs Cox.
There is not much one can say about Mary Ann Keeber at this time except that she was kept very busy. All the same, she was not too busy to notice that Dr Gully, who lived just down the road at Orwell Lodge, was frequently in the house, and that on each such occasion he had let himself in. Rumours soon abounded that the couple had previously been caught in flagrante in the drawing room of Mrs Ricardo’s solicitor. Florence had become increasingly isolated not only from her scandalised neighbours but also from her family, who strongly objected to her relationship with the doctor.
Her isolation may have been behind her rash decision to marry Charles Delauney Turner Bravo in the winter of 1875. Bravo was introduced to Florence through Mrs Cox, who as acquainted with his wealthy stepfather. Despite his family’s comfortable position Bravo was reliant on handouts, so no doubt he was keen to marry the rich Mrs Ricardo. On the surface the Bravos appeared happy, but behind the scenes there were problems. Florence had suffered two miscarriages in four months, and was slow to recover, and it has been suggested that Charles frequently subjected his wife to unwelcome anal intercourse. Given that she was pregnant for much of their marriage, one suspects that he did so as a means of control and humiliation rather than as a crude―but effective―form of contraception.
The Bravo parents thought Florence was extravagant, and were always ready with unsolicited advice on how her fortune should be spent. She was not amused: she had been used to controlling her own money and household prior to her marriage, and Charles’s interfering was heavy-handed. As well as her coachman and one of the under-gardeners, he had sacked her lady’s maid. Mary Ann was then told to combine her already burdensome duties as housemaid with those as Florence’s lady’s maid.
Things came to a head on Tuesday 18th April 1876. After dinner—bloater on toast, lamb, spinach and eggs washed down with three glasses of burgundy for Charles, and champagne and marsala for Mrs Cox and Florence—they retired briefly to the morning room. Mrs Cox accompanied Florence upstairs to help her get ready for bed, as Mary Ann was eating her supper. After finishing her meal, Mary Ann took cans of hot water up to the bedrooms, only to be sent downstairs by Florence to get a glass of marsala—she had sent Mrs Cox down for one only a little while before. As Mary Ann left the dining room she met Charles coming out of the morning room. Unusually, he said nothing to her, but he looked angry, probably at the sight of yet another drink for Florence—it was known that he thought his wife drank too much.
After giving Florence the drink, Mary Ann discretely went into the nearby dressing room to tidy up. Meanwhile Charles had words with Florence about her drinking—in French, so Mary Ann wouldn’t understand—and then went into the spare room, where he had been sleeping since the miscarriage. Mary Ann left the room to take the dogs downstairs, while her mistress lay in bed, with Mrs Cox seated nearby knitting. Almost immediately she was startled by Charles flying out of his room, calling desperately for Florence and for hot water. Despite the noise—he was only a few feet from the main bedroom—nobody came to his aid. And so Mary Ann rushed into the room, where Florence and Mrs Cox appeared oblivious to the commotion outside.
The capable Mrs Cox and Mary Ann went into his room to find Charles being sick out of the window. Mrs Cox took charge and sent Mary Ann to fetch hot water and mustard and camphor and then to empty the sick bowl. A doctor was summoned—the family doctor rather than the nearest general practitioner.
Eventually Mary Ann went in to wake Florence, who appeared deeply asleep. Who knows whether she had been knocked out by alcohol or was feigning sleep? But she seemed genuinely alarmed, and insisted on bringing in a doctor who lived closer to the house. Charles’s condition was deteriorating, and the doctors—and by now several had been summoned—agreed that he had ingested some type of poison. Mrs Cox said that Charles had admitted to taking something and not to tell Florence. It is a strange fact that Mary Ann, who was in the room, said that she hadn’t heard this. Mrs Cox also said that she had told one of the doctors about this suicide attempt. Oddly, the doctor said that she hadn’t.
Mary Ann was one of the few servants who helped look after Charles. He even acknowledged to her that he was dying, saying that he would not be joining the household on a trip that was being planned to Worthing, but instead would be going to Streatham churchyard.
On Friday 21st April, having seen his parents, his sister, cousins, parents-in-law, five doctors (including Sir William Gull—aka Jack the Ripper by some), his wife, Mrs Cox, the housemaid and the butler, Charles Bravo died. He had suffered terribly. But he had not seemed particularly curious about how he had come to be in this position, nor had he blamed anybody else, nor, contrary to Mrs Cox’s claim, had he admitted taking anything himself other than a little laudanum for sore gums. Before his death he appeared on affectionate and good terms with his wife. He wrote a will leaving everything to her, and asked her to be kind to his illegitimate daughter, Katie. He was buried in West Norwood Cemetery.
A VICTORIAN WHODUNNIT
Death was found to have been caused by swallowing a large amount of tartar emetic, a derivative of antimony. As James Ruddick says on page 86 of Death at the Priory:
There were traces of it in his mouth, throat and stomach, where it had burned through the tissue lining his alimentary canal. But the worst damage was in the intestines, which had been blistered and swollen. The large intestine, in fact, had virtually disintegrated, eaten away by the corrosive poison.
After the police investigation and and two inquests, the verdict was that Charles Bravo had neither committed suicide nor died by accident but had been poisoned, although there was not enough information to say by whom. At the second inquest revelations of Florence’s sexual relationship with Gully and the subsequent abortion led many to believe that she was the culprit. But this Victorian whodunnit remains a mystery to this day, with numerous inventive solutions having been put forward since 1876.
Was it Florence, who, after years of freedom and minding her own money, rebelled against the domineering and volatile fortune-hunter she had wed only five months previously? And if so, was she driven to it because she objected to being persistently buggered, as she confided to her doctor? This is perhaps not as unlikely as it might seem, for although Florence had engineered a separation from her first husband, she might not be able to do so a second time without losing face and her family. After all, Charles Bravo was a clever lawyer, not the hopeless alcoholic her first husband had been.
Then again, Florence might have poisoned Bravo accidently. It is suggested that Victorian wives might administer small doses of tartar emetic to control their husbands’ libidos by making them feel nauseous. Did Florence get the dose wrong? Florence certainly had the means, as she was frequently in the stables, where a supply of antimony was kept.
Was it Mrs Cox? Even though she had introducing the young couple to one another, she was now threatened with dismissal by the ungrateful Charles, again to save money. Much was made of her supposed poverty at the time, but James Ruddick has revealed that she and her sons knew that they were due a large inheritance. Or was Mrs Cox just protecting a woman with whom she had a very close relationship?
Was it Doctor Gully, who couldn’t bear to see the woman he loved married to someone else? Or had Mrs Cox confided in him what an utter beast Charles was turning out to be, and had he therefore given her the antimony? Agatha Christie thought that Gully was the only one clever enough to commit the crime. After all, he and Mrs Cox had been meeting “by chance”, and he had given her some “homeopathic” medicines. But the doctor seemed resigned to the loss of Florence. Perhaps at sixty-eight he was glad not to have to put up with all the dramas she seemed to cause.
George Griffith—the coachman—makes a good suspect because he definitely had antimony in the stables. He used a solution to treat horses for worms or “black bots”. He also held a grudge against Bravo, who was responsible for dismissing him for careless driving, and he had told the proprietor of the Bedford Hotel that his former employer wouldn’t live long after his marriage. But George makes a bad suspect because he was working in Herne Bay when Bravo died. George also said that he got rid of the horse lotion before he left the Priory. But his testimony isn’t always reliable, so who knows?
Griffith is an interesting character. He worked first for Dr Gully, and then on Gully’s retirement for Florence. He was dismissed from Florence’s service in 1872 when he married Louise Plascott, who at one time was her lady’s maid—supposedly she wouldn’t have a married coachman. It’s odd that he was re-employed in 1875, and lived in the Priory lodge with his wife. I wonder if there was a little blackmail going on. The couple knew an awful lot about Florence’s relationship with Gully!
Did Charles Bravo kill himself? Mrs Cox said that he had admitted as much to her and had asked her not to tell Florence. This is unlikely, as he had seemed quite chipper on the day of his poisoning, inviting a friend to play tennis the next day, and telling Mary Ann not to empty his bath so that he could use the water the following morning. Another theory is that Charles was giving Florence small doses of tartar emetic to control her drinking, and that he accidently took it himself.
At the time the other servants—butler, footman, cook, gardeners, new coachman, housemaid-cum-lady’s maid—were not suspected as having no motive and no means and no opportunity. But did Ellen the cook put antimony in the bloater on toast, which only Charles ate? Unlikely. Antimony acts quickly, so we can rule her out. Again, it probably wasn’t the butler, Frederick Wing Rowe, doctoring his master’s three glasses of burgundy. Not only was the timing wrong, but the antimony would have affected the colour of the drink, and Charles would have been sure to notice.
The question of timing, and the nature of the substance, suggest that the tartar emetic must have been put in the bedside drinking water. Charles always drank from his water bottle before going to bed, without even bothering to pour it into a tumbler. Now, any of the indoor servants could have gone upstairs and put the antimony in the bottle: the Bravos were in London that morning and Mrs Cox was in Worthing. And any of the outdoor servants could have climbed on to the conservatory roof—I know this is getting a bit far-fetched!—and entered his bedroom. But who would have known that Bravo could be relied on to drink the water? Probably only his wife and the housemaids responsible for filling the bottle. So if the poisoner was neither Mrs Bravo nor Mrs Cox, we are left either with Elizabeth Evans, who assisted Mary Ann Keeber, or with Mary Ann herself.
IN THE FRAME
I have often wondered about Mary Ann. She certainly had the opportunity—might she also have had the motive and the means? Perhaps Charles Bravo thought he had droit de seigneur over her when Florence was indisposed, relying on her understandable reluctance to resign her post without the security of a good “character”. Then again, Charles had once written to his father about two gardeners who had left his service, one going to Knole to better himself, and the other being dismissed for not doing what he was asked to do. Might the second of these two gardeners have been the sweetheart of Mary Ann—or indeed of Elizabeth—and might his dismissal have provided a motive? Interestingly, Mary Ann said at the inquest that she had given her notice to Mrs Bravo after the death of Mr Bravo as she was “soon getting married”. (In the end she didn’t marry for another eight years.)
Again, if the gardener connection exists, it might provide the means as well as the motive. George Griffith stated that one of the gardeners used to assist him with the horses in the morning. Another possible connection is the fact that Mary Ann’s father is described as a coachman at the time of her marriage. Did he too use antimony?
Mrs Bravo and Mrs Cox were not the only ones with motive, means and opportunity. However positive a picture Mary Ann Keeber tried to paint of Bravo—how he always had a kind word for the servants—his actions don’t match. As well as the mistress of the house and her companion, there were plenty of former servants who had reason to dislike him: Griffith, dismissed from his job and home when his wife, the former lady’s maid, was pregnant; the gardener who was let go for refusing to carry parcels; Rowlands, the lady’s maid who was let go to save money; and then Mary Ann, who was not only expected to take on extra work but also had more contact with Charles Bravo.
Whatever Mary Ann did or knew, she was with Florence during the inquest, even though she had given her notice, whereas many of the servants, including Elizabeth Evans, had already left her employment. She is next found in 1881 working as a housemaid for a Mrs Mary Neville at Broadwater Down in Tunbridge Wells. In 1884 she is a servant at 1 Stanhope Street, just north of Hyde Park in what is now Stanhope Terrace, and getting married in St James’ Church. Her husband is John George Hills, a gardener of Seal in Kent. Was he the gardener who went to Knole to better himself? They had two children: Maud Alice was born in about 1887 and Reginald a year later.
By 8th November 1888 Mary Ann and John had moved to Hove, where he took up the post of Superintendent of Hove Cemetery. Judy Middleton, in her fascinating blog post on the cemetery, notes that he was paid only 35/- per week but had the use of the lodge with its own garden and free fuel. Then in October 1893
he asked permission to reside away from the Lodge because of his wife’s illness. Her medical attendant had advised that she should live in a warm and sheltered place during the winter months; permission was granted.
Towards the end of 1894 Mary Ann died, and I suspect the secret of The Priory in Balham went with her.
A mass of information exists on the Balham Mystery—far more than I could possibly have included in this brief post. Contemporary newspapers covered this story extensively. Over the years I have read many books on the Balham Mystery, and those I particularly like include:
- Elizabeth Jenkins. Dr Gully. 1972. A fictional account of the events centred around Dr Gully.
- Elizabeth Jenkins. Six Criminal Women. 1977. There is a chapter on Florence Bravo
- William Roughead. Malice Domestic. 1928. The Balham Mystery forms a chapter in this book.
- James Ruddick. Death at the Priory. 2001.
- John Williams. Suddenly at the Priory. 1957. This gives a very detailed account of the case.
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