Death by Dentures, or, The Chiswick Mystery
AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 6 DECEMBER 2021
On a cold Saturday evening in January 1890 an inquest jury of fifteen men gathered in the George IV public house on Chiswick High Road. Their purpose was to investigate the mysterious case of a woman found dead in her house on New Year’s Day. The police favoured the theory that her death was a tragic accident caused by first swallowing and then choking on her own false teeth.
This explanation satisfied many of those called as witnesses — including the woman’s estranged husband along with a plain-clothed policeman who had been the last known person to see her alive and her absent maid — as it absolved them of any part in her demise and might put an end to the damaging speculation that was rife in the press. But the coroner, Dr Thomas Bramah Diplock, was not prepared to accept this convenient theory without further scrutiny. Nor, for that matter, were the jury.
The Brydens of George Square
The victim was a Mrs Margaret Louise Bryden, née Aitken, who was usually known as Maggie or Madge. She had been born in Edinburgh on 14 May 1849, and was forty at the time of her death. Her father, Alexander Aitken, was a wealthy Edinburgh merchant tailor. He and his wife, Christian, had a large family of two sons and nine daughters.
The family lived at No. 27 in the genteel George Square in Edinburgh, where, in the 1881 census, eight of the nine surviving Aitken siblings were unmarried and living at home with their parents. Given that their ages ranged from twenty-one to forty, one wonders why more of them were not married. Possibly the family was so close that the parents could not bear to part with their adult children. Possibly Alexander Aitken was too careful with his money to be willing to provide all his daughters with dowries. Possibly there was something unattractive or unpleasant about the Aitkens that repelled suitors.
Whatever the reason for this unusual state of affairs, the lives of the Aitken children changed when their father died on 23 April 1882, leaving twelve thousand pounds of personal estate in addition to his unvalued real estate. (Twelve thousand pounds in 1882 would have been roughly equivalent to one million pounds today.) The house at 27 George Square was left in trust for the use of his widow and any unmarried daughters for the duration of their lives.
Down from Edinburgh
In the year of her father’s death Margaret Aitken was thirty-three. She probably thought that any chance of marriage had passed her by. But eight months on she had been courted by and married to a twenty-five-year-old man by the name of Francis James Bryden. Soon after the marriage they moved to London, far away from the Aitken clan.
Francis James Bryden — usually known as Frank — was the scion of another Edinburgh trade family. The firm of John Bryden & Sons, which had been founded by his great-grandfather, specialised in hanging bells — bells for churches, bells for institutions, bells for the home. By the time Frank’s father, John Miller Bryden, took up the reins, the firm had diversified into locksmithing, gas fitting, and manufacturing and fitting window blinds. John Miller Bryden was a successful and forward-thinking businessman, and by 1881 he was employing over a hundred workers, with branches in Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee, Glasgow and London.
Frank was sent south to manage the London office. In time the firm would have premises in Wigmore Street in Marylebone and Gloucester Road in Kensington, but initially Frank operated from his home at 2 Bulstrode Street in Marylebone. And it was to Bulstrode Street, running between Marylebone Lane and Welbeck Street, just north of the retail hub of Oxford Street, that Margaret came as a new bride.
On grounds of intemperance
But in September 1889 — less than seven years after their wedding — Margaret and Frank agreed to a legal separation. The reason Frank gave was Margaret’s intemperance, by which he meant that she lacked self-control, or, more likely, that she was a drinker. Indeed, the post mortem examination of her body revealed that she was not in the best of health, and that her heart and kidneys were fatty.
To understand why the Brydens separated rather than divorced, it is important to remember that divorce was a procedure that even at this time was fraught with difficulties. Although the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act had made obtaining a divorce easier than it had previously been — as the preserve of the wealthy — it still suffered from a fundamental inequality. Whereas a man could apply to end his marriage by proving that his wife had committed adultery, a woman needed to prove adultery plus some aggravating factor such as cruelty, incest or desertion. This inequality was probably bound up with inheritance rights, but it also reflected the expectation that a woman would put up with her husband’s peccadillos.
During this period divorce rates in England were amongst the lowest in Europe, while legal separation rates were amongst the highest. As relationships might break down for reasons not recognised by the divorce courts, an informal or legal separation was often the only option for couples who did not wish to live together. Although it ruled out remarriage, a legal separation could be arranged privately by employing a solicitor rather than in the public domain of the divorce court, and it kept personal and possibly sordid details out of the clutches of the press, thereby preserving the reputations of the two parties and their wider families. For some a legal separation made it possible to be seen to preserve the spirit of the ecclesiastical marriage ceremony. For others it kept the hope of a future reconciliation alive.
From Marylebone to Chiswick
The terms of the separation stipulated that Frank must support Margaret with a monthly payment of ten guineas. (This would now be worth a thousand pounds.) But Margaret also inherited money from her father, and in September 1889 she moved across London to 31 Linden Gardens, just off Chiswick High Road, where she lived with a single servant, her Scottish maid Margaret Bowyer Flemming.
Her house was a modern property, built in 1882. Like 2 Bulstrode Street it was of modest size, comprising a semi-basement with an outside ‘area’ at the front, a ground floor — two rooms — and a first floor — two bedrooms — and an attic. Although Chiswick had seen a growth of suburban housing and was connected to central London by railway, it was remote and secluded, which made it a perfect location for a man with an inconvenient and intemperate wife. Close by were the Royal Horticultural Society experimental gardens, and Chiswick House with its extensive grounds, rented at this time by the Marquess of Bute.
In the three months that followed the separation Margaret lived a solitary life. It was noted that she did not receive a single visitor during this period other than on the auspicious occasion, shortly after she moved in, when Frank Bryden came by. In all likelihood Frank’s visit coincided with her writing a new will, detailing who would receive her personal effects after her demise. In it she described Frank as her ‘Dear and liberal husband’, a phrase that might have been merely conventional, but equally might have implied that she still loved Frank and was the unwilling partner in their separation.
New Year 1889
In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve the maid Margaret Bowyer Flemming — Flemming from this point on, to avoid the confusion of the two Margarets — asked her mistress for permission to go to Scotland for the funeral of a relative. Although Mrs Bryden agreed, she did so reluctantly, for she had spent her earlier years in a large household and her married life in the company of her husband and his brother and two servants, and she was not used to solitude. In fact she was nervous about being left alone for five days. On Saturday 28 December 1889 Flemming left for Scotland.
Margaret spent Saturday night alone in the house. The following day she attended a Sunday service at St Nicholas Church in Chiswick — possibly — and at about six in the evening a charwoman made a prearranged call. An agreement was made that the charwoman would return on New Year’s Day to assist the maid in cleaning the house.
New Year’s Eve 1889
At some stage on New Year’s Eve — Tuesday 31 December — Margaret ate a meal. She might then have taken a dram of whisky — a bottle would be found in the house — to toast a lonely Hogmanay. For auld lang syne, as it were. She no doubt remembered happier times spent in the company of her family.
At ten thirty that night Ida Trump, who was a servant next door at No. 30, went out to post a letter. Margaret was at her front door and called out to the girl. She explained that she needed to speak to a policeman, and asked the girl to find one, without giving a reason. But Ida did not meet a policeman on her way to the post box. Nor did she go to the police station in the High Road — a short journey — in spite of Margaret’s evident agitation.
Ida and her employer, Miss Emily Jane Carter, were very interested in the goings-on next door. They speculated as to why Margaret wanted a policeman, twitching the net curtain, as it were, without offering any neighbourly support. Later they saw a man come to Margaret’s front door, and indeed Ida said that from the semi-basement area at the front of No. 30 she could hear Margaret talking to a man in the drawing room — presumably the front reception room — of No. 31.
What the neighbours saw
Miss Carter stayed indoors, but she claimed that she could hear Margaret talking to someone — either the wall shared by the two houses was very thin, or she had applied a glass to it — and thought that she said something about ‘not making a fuss’. Ida said that at eleven fifteen she saw a man in a long overcoat leaving the house. Oddly though, she did not hear the front door close.
Neither Ida nor Miss Carter was aware that just before eleven Margaret had been at her front door, calling to a man she had seen walking down Linden Gardens. There is no evidence that Margaret knew the man or that he knew Margaret before this night. He would later recall her saying: ‘I have done a foolish thing. I let my maid go to Scotland to bury some friends on Saturday, and left myself alone without anyone.’ At some point he was invited into the hall, while Margaret turned the gas down in the drawing room. She asked him if he could send a policeman to her as she needed someone in the house with her that night.
How curious that the obviously nervous Margaret was prepared to confide to a complete stranger that she was alone in the house. And how naïve she must have been to imagine that the police would provide her with an all-night personal bodyguard. By a remarkable coincidence the stranger was a plain-clothes police constable by the name of John Hewitt, who made it very clear that he certainly would not stay with her and that no other policeman would do so either. At the inquest Hewitt stated that Margaret was quite sober. He added that he left shortly after eleven, which strongly suggests that he was the man dressed in an overcoat Ida saw leaving the house.
New Year’s Day 1890
On Wednesday 1 January the maid Flemming returned from her relative’s funeral shortly before midday, and was surprised to find the gas lights on. When she searched the house for her mistress she found her in the unused back bedroom. She was dead. Flemming promptly went to the police station to report the grisly details, and Inspector Amos Warren went back to the house with her, accompanied by a police doctor, Edward Osborne Fountain.
Warren and Fountain found Mrs Bryden on the bed, her head hanging awkwardly over the edge. She was clad in a nightdress, drawers and stockings. Her hands were resting on her chest, and the bedclothes had been pushed to the bottom of the bed.
Looking at the woman’s face, the doctor saw that something had been stuffed into her mouth. He pulled it out: it was an embroidered linen nightdress case of the sort used to store sleeping apparel during the day. This macabre discovery suggested foul play, and the police began to question those close to Margaret to find out who might have wanted to do her harm … TO BE CONCLUDED