The Murderer’s Wife: Part One

Photograph of Joseph Rogers.

If you read my recent article on Joseph Rogers, of which the first part can be accessed on the London Overlooked website by following this link, you will no doubt have formed a very favourable impression of the man.  He was a doctor, and, as well as campaigning for improvements in public health provision, he worked as medical officer in the infirmaries of two metropolitan workhouses, first for the Strand Union and then for the Westminster Union.  In all that he did and said—and he was certainly outspoken on many matters—he demonstrated integrity and genuine commitment to the welfare of the poor and the marginalised.  Many an overlooked Londoner had reason to be grateful for the timely interventions of Dr Rogers.

In this second article, as in the first, the setting is the Strand Union workhouse in Cleveland Street.  In his memoirs Rogers gave a detailed and uncompromising account of the building and its unfortunate occupants.  He was clearly horrified at the conditions he encountered in the year of his arrival, which was 1856, and he highlighted the particular difficulties he experienced in the discharge of his medical duties.  There were no paid nurses, and the routine care of the sick was carried out by female paupers, who were “more or less infirm”, and who were only occasionally helped by strong younger inmates.  Just outside the male wards two upright posts and a cross bar had been set up for beating carpets, which generated so much noise that it was difficult for the sick inmates to sleep, as well as filling the yard with dust so thick that the windows had to be kept closed.  The male insane ward was at the top of a flight of steps, which made it “absurdly unsuitable” for the sort of unpredictable behaviour that was frequently manifested, and the female insane ward was immediately beneath the lying-in room, so that the cries of the lunatics unsettled the expectant mothers.

One day in 1863 Rogers found himself dealing with a very distressing case.  A young woman in her mid-twenties was heavy with child.  She was already a mother, and had an infant son.  She came from Kent, and had formerly been in the workhouse in Canterbury, but her circumstances were so unusual, and so problematic, that the guardians were unsure that they were able to deal with her.  And so they sent her away, arranging for the workhouse in Cleveland Street to take her in.  Her name was Sarah Ann Eldridge, and her husband, Alfred Eldridge, was in prison in Canterbury, waiting to be executed.

Inside the Westminster Union workhouse.  Oil painting by Hubert von Herkomer dated 1878.

Alfred Eldridge was born in October 1830 in Walworth.  His father, William Eldridge, was a house painter.  His mother, Maria Eldridge, had no recorded occupation, but she was mother of several children, and she would certainly have had her hands full.  We know nothing else about his childhood, but we can draw a detailed picture of the life he led in his twenties, for we have it on record that he enlisted in the army, and served with the 54th Regiment.  This would have been in the 1850s, a turbulent decade in which a man in uniform would have seen a great deal of action, and during the course of which young Eldridge was caught up in two major military incidents.

These were the Crimean War, which broke out in 1853, and lasted until 1856, and the Indian Rebellion of 1857.  Later it would emerge that Eldridge had “served with credit” in his time in the army, although a less favourable assessment was also recorded, namely that he had been discharged “with a blank character”.  Either way, he was not in the army for the long haul, and around the age of thirty he had returned to civilian life, and was working as a labourer.  In 1861 he married Sarah Ann Webb in Canterbury.  They had a child—George Thomas Eldridge—who was baptised early in 1862.

At this point in the story more information about the sort of man Alfred Eldridge was begins to emerge.  We know, for example that he was a navvy, and that he was employed on a new line that was being constructed by the South Eastern Railway company between Canterbury and Herne Bay.  He was also, apparently, a man of strong passions who was inclined to bear a grudge.  In fact his volatile nature had landed him in trouble, and at the time of the incident that is central to our story he had only recently come out of St Augustine’s Gaol in Canterbury, where he had been serving a prison sentence for stealing timber.

Soldiers fighting in the Crimean War.  Photograph by Roger Fenton dated 1855.

Now at some point he had lodged with a man by the name of Richard Steed in Maypole, a village situated between Canterbury and Herne.  Steed, who was in his fifties, and about twenty years older than Eldridge, earned his living as a carrier, delivering goods with a horse and cart.  Latterly he had concentrated his efforts on the navvies—men like Eldridge—making frequent runs between Maypole and the railway works with kegs of beer and other essential supplies.  However, for reasons unknown he and Eldridge fell out, and Eldridge took himself and Sarah Ann off to a cottage in some other part of the village, where, one guesses, he allowed his resentment against his former landlord to grow and grow.

Early in 1863 Steed went to find Eldridge in order to recover a debt.  The details are not all that clear, but it would seem that Steed was claiming repayment of a few shillings, which Eldridge refused to hand over.  In response the older man took out a county court summons against the former soldier, who, irked that the issue had come to court, visited Steed at home, offering him a shilling by way of settlement.  When Steed rejected the offer, the two men quarrelled.  Steed turned Eldridge out of his house, and Eldridge in his turn voiced a number of threats, one of which was that he would “do for” Steed, and that he would “do for” him before very long—in a matter of weeks, to be precise.

For a while nothing untoward happened.  It looked as if the storm had passed.  But on Saturday the 2nd of May the quarrel started up again, and matters quickly got out of hand.

Photograph of navvies working on the Manchester Ship Canal in the late 1880s.

What happened was this.  Steed closed the door of his house in Maypole, and, as was his usual practice, he went down to the railway works at Herne.  He was still there when the navvies were paid off—at about six-thirty in the evening—and went their various ways.  When he too left, Eldridge, who by now had received his wages, was not far behind.  However, there was nothing in the manner or the behaviour of either man to suggest that they were at daggers drawn.  The situation was calm, and it was still calm half an hour later, when they were seen together at the Prince Albert.

The Prince Albert was a public house in Herne Street, and no doubt it was popular with the navvies.  It was a substantial property built on two floors, with extra rooms beneath the steeply pitched roof.  There is reason to believe that it was at one time used as a safe house for local smugglers, and certainly its position on the north coast of Kent made it attractive to the gentlemen who made a living by handling contraband.  That, though, is quite another story.

As far as we are concerned, the Prince Albert is significant only as the place where Steed and Eldridge were last seen together, on that fateful Saturday evening in May.  Evidently they were getting on well, almost as if they had decided to draw a line under the past, and resume friendly relations.  However, what is not clear is whether they were drinking or not.  Some contemporary sources state that they were, and it is easy to suppose that alcohol encouraged the two men to squabble again.  Other accounts take the opposite view, that when they left the public house in Herne Street they were stone-cold sober.

View of Canterbury.  Coloured print by George Shepherd published 1828.

Drunk or sober, they were in high spirits, so much so that Steed suggested that he and Eldridge walk back to their village together.  The distance from Herne to Maypole was not great—under two miles—and the only route was along a footpath.  The footpath passed a spot known locally as Pooley’s Gardens, where they were seen at about seven thirty, walking side by side, and evidently enjoying each other’s company.  But the next sighting of Steed and Eldridge was of a very different—and distressing—nature.

For about half a mile from Pooley’s Gardens, as the footpath approached Maypole, Richard Steed was found lying in a ditch.  He was in a terrible state, which one of the Sunday papers described in the following lurid terms:

The skull was fractured, the bones of one side of his face were completely smashed, one of his eyes was crushed out and was lying on his cheek, these injuries having apparently been occasioned by his head and face being stamped upon by a heavy iron-armed boot, and his brains and blood were scattered about in all directions.

Of Albert Eldridge—the railway navvy with a tall and muscular physique and a violent temper—there was no sign.  Nor was there any evidence of a struggle between Eldridge and the wretched Steed.  The only reasonable reconstruction of events was that the victim had been suddenly struck down as he was walking along, and that he had then been stamped or jumped on as he lay helpless on the ground.

Steed was taken to his home, but he was beyond recovery, and in a matter of hours he died.  Suspicion fell on only one person: Albert Eldridge.  Accordingly, on the morning of Sunday the 3rd of May, Superintendent William Walker of the Kent Constabulary knocked on the door of a cottage in the village of Maypole, intent on performing his solemn but necessary duty.  He was a Scot, he was in his late thirties, and he had a grim expression on his face … TO BE CONCLUDED.

© london-overlooked 2022


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