The Murderer’s Wife: Part Two

Photograph of navvies working on the Great Central Railway in the 1890s.

If you read Part One of the story of the murderer’s wife, which I published on the London Overlooked website last week, and which can be accessed by following this link, you will remember that the murderer of the title was a man by the name of Alfred Eldridge, and that in 1863 he was accused of a heinous crime of violence.  The victim was Richard Steed, who was in his fifties, and some twenty years older than Eldridge.  They were both involved in the construction of a new railway line in Kent—Steed as a provisioner to the workforce, and Eldridge as a navvy—and they knew each other.  Steed was last seen alive on Saturday the 2nd of May, walking along a footpath in the company of Eldridge, who was understandably believed to be responsible for the assault.

As always in cases of this sort, the impact of the crime was not limited to the victim and perpetrator, and another person who was caught up in these horrific events, through no fault of her own, was Eldridge’s wife, Sarah Ann.  We saw in Part One that Sarah Ann Eldridge was only in her mid-twenties, and that she was having to cope with the demands of motherhood, having an infant son to care for as well as carrying a second child.  She was poor, and married to a suspected murderer, and her prospects were bleak.

POOR HANNAH
But we should spare a thought for Hannah Steed, too, for it was her husband who had died in the most appalling way on that footpath.  She was at home in the village of Maypole when he was carried back, horribly battered, and all but dead.  He had been discovered lying in a ditch by a young engine driver, George Turk, who dashed into the village to get help, having first gone to the house of William Petts, a young agricultural labourer, asking him to watch over the injured man.

The men alerted to the tragedy by Turk carried Steed back to the village, and it was poor Hannah who opened the door to them, and who saw the grim purpose of their visit.  The shock must have been very great, although Hannah’s distress was in all likelihood matched by that of her twelve-year-old son, Albert, who had helped the rescuers retrieve his father’s body.  She was advised not to look at her husband as he was being brought into the house, for he was very disfigured, and, although she thought that she had heard him breathing, he was soon pronounced dead.  Their married daughter, Julia, who lived a few doors away, was also there in the house, and she was obliged to witness the upsetting sight of her brother searching their father’s pockets for evidence of theft, which he found.  Julia declared that the face of the dead man, which had been stamped on with considerable force, was in such bad shape that she did not recognise him.

Scene from the Maidstone assizes.  Image in The Illustrated Police News 12 November 1881.

A KNOCK ON THE DOOR
Albert knew what he was looking for.  He had been with his father earlier that day down at the railway works, and he had seen him collect his wages from the pay office, and count out nine shillings and ninepence, which he then carefully pocketed.  Only about two shillings remained.  The obvious suspect was Albert Eldridge, for he had locked horns recently with Steed, who had demanded that he repay a debt.  He was duly confronted by the Kent constabulary when on the morning after the assault a Superintendent William Walker, accompanied by a Sergeant Gower, knocked on his door.

Walker asked to examine the clothes Eldridge had been wearing on the previous evening, and these were fished out of the navvy’s cupboard, although his socks had mysteriously disappeared.  This looked suspicious, as the socks worn by the assailant would certainly have had evidence of the terrible injuries he had inflicted on his unfortunate victim.  Even so there were bloodstains low down on his trousers.  Walker then asked to see Eldridge’s boots.  These had red stains, but an attempt had been made to wash them off, and it was not possible to say with certainty that they were bloodstains, even when examined by two forensic experts.  However, the boots presented two highly significant pieces of evidence, namely small hairs of the same brown and grey colour as the victim’s, and small fibres of red wool that exactly matched a scarf he had been wearing round his neck.  Finally, Walker ordered Eldridge to show him the route he had taken from Herne to Maypole, and Eldridge obliged, but led the two policemen on what was obviously a detour.  He was immediately arrested on a charge of murder and taken to St Augustine’s Gaol in Canterbury.

Maidstone Prison in 1828.

MY JUST DESERTS
We have already argued that the horrific details of the assault on Steed should not overshadow the wider impact of his death.  His wife and children were confronted very brutally with the reality of the crime.  Nor must we forget that yet another life that would have been affected was that of Sarah Ann Eldridge.  As we saw in Part One, she was entrusted to the care of the Canterbury poor law guardians, and was subsequently transferred to the Strand Union, where she came to the notice of the medical officer, Dr Joseph Rogers.  Her suffering must have been very great.  She was reluctant to condemn her husband out of hand, and she told Rogers that he had been “very kind and good” to her, but she added that when he was drunk he was capable of anything.  Her unhappiness only deepened when he was examined before the magistrates at the St Augustine’s Police Court, before being tried and sentenced at the end of July at the Maidstone assizes.

Eldridge’s defence was doomed.  The material evidence against him was overwhelming, and during the period of his incarceration he had reportedly admitted to a fellow prisoner that he had indeed killed Steed, having “kicked his brains out”.  He repeated this confession on the train journey to Maidstone—“I deserve all I shall get for it”—and he must have known that the game was up even before his trial opened.  The jury had no difficulty in finding him guilty, and the judge accordingly sentenced him to death.

And it was while Eldridge was languishing in the prison in Maidstone, awaiting execution, that Sarah Ann’s misery plumbed new depths.  After his arrest she had sold every last possession to pay for his defence, and she was now destitute.  She was burdened with the knowledge that her husband, for whom she retained considerable affection, was soon to be hanged, and that she herself would inevitably be tainted as having been the wife of a callous murderer.  She was also heavily pregnant.

The notorious hangman William Calcraft.  Image in The Illustrated Police News 28 December 1867.

LAUNCHED INTO ETERNITY
Alfred Eldridge was executed at noon on Thursday the 20th of August.  The hangman was the infamous William Calcraft, who would eventually enjoy the dubious distinction of having carried out well over four hundred executions in the course of his career.  Another murderer, Alfred Holden, was to be hanged at the same time as Eldridge.  The two men sat up late into the night, praying, and on the Sunday before their execution they received Holy Communion.  On the Monday Eldridge was visited by his brothers.  Sarah Ann was not fit to make the journey down to Maidstone, but she had written to him, and it was believed that she had expressed great affection.

The execution, not unnaturally, was a sombre occasion.  It was widely reported, and one of the London papers wrote that

at noon yesterday the two condemned men appeared on the scaffold, walking with firm steps, and attended by Calcraft.  The executioner having adjusted the ropes the drop fell, and the wretched men were launched into eternity.  They had manifested signs of penitence and they died quickly.  The crowd must have numbered over 6000, but they were very orderly.

The news that her husband’s death sentence had been carried out was given to Sarah Ann by the matron of the Strand Union infirmary.  One struggles to imagine how bleak the world must have seemed to her at that moment, and we have Rogers’s testimony to the depressing effect that the whole affair had obviously had on her.  He found her “excessively distressed”.  Any efforts he made to console her were of no avail, and she would simply say in a voice stammering with emotion that her husband had always been good to her.

She had a bad confinement, and was very unwell for some time after the birth of her child.  At some point in the course of her recovery she applied to the board of the Strand Union for outdoor relief.  She was instructed to attend the next meeting of the board, but on the evening in question, as she was making her way to Bow Street from her lodgings, she was caught in a downpour, and she sat for two hours in thin wet clothes.  She was soaked through again on the return journey, and that night she fell ill.

Photograph of Joseph Rogers.

MOVING HEARTS
For many days Sarah Ann’s life hung in the balance.  She had contracted acute bronchitis and her condition was exacerbated by rheumatic fever and heart disease.  But she rallied, and Dr Rogers arranged for her to be sent to a convalescent home in Hertfordshire.  He clearly saw her as especially deserving, and later he wrote that

having seen her under such affliction, and having always found her to be grateful, and respectable in every way, I have felt for her much sympathy.

He maintained that his sympathy was shared by the board of guardians, but red tape limited the help they could offer the young mother of two, and, although she was granted a year’s outdoor relief, she was ultimately dependent on the generosity of charitable individuals.

Who were these generous souls?  The answer is, quite simply, members of the public.  Rogers had launched a newspaper appeal on Sarah Ann’s behalf, and his dignified account of her predicament not only outlined the troubles she had endured as a consequence of her husband’s crime, but also presented her as a vulnerable individual whose “damaged constitution” would make it difficult to earn her living by the sort of “laborious pursuit” that a woman of her class would normally undertake.  He did not hold back—“surely the sin of the father should not be visited thus heavily on the widow and the children”—and he moved many hearts.  Having received twenty-five pounds in donations he was able to buy Sarah Ann some extra clothes, and to pay for her to return to Canterbury, there to begin a new life.

View of Canterbury.  Image by George Samuel Measom in The Official Illustrated Guide to the South-Eastern Railway and its Branches (1853) page 253.

ALL’S WELL
Sarah Ann had one further tragedy to confront, and that was the death of her second child, which had occurred before she went back to Kent.  However, in all other respects her life did indeed improve, for she found work in Canterbury, and made enough to support herself and her other child, George Thomas Eldridge, who would have been only about one-and-a-half when his father was executed in Maidstone.  Rogers’s belief in the goodness of her character was fully vindicated when he caught up with her in Canterbury about seven years later.  She had made such a success of her life that she was able to return almost all the money that had been raised by the newspaper subscription.  Only five pounds had been spent, to cover the cost of her removal from London.

All that remains is to answer the question why the board of guardians in Canterbury saw fit to send Sarah Ann up to London.  Rogers was of the view that

if they had allowed her to remain in their workhouse until after the execution of her husband, as a widow they could not have removed her for a twelvemonth; they therefore sent her away at once to avoid this dilemma.

And he leaves us in no doubt that this heartless treatment of a “broken-hearted” young woman was prompted by cynical self-interest.  He was no admirer of the workhouses, and his daily practice as a medical officer presented him with too many Sarah Anns for it to be acceptable, both as a doctor and as a compassionate man, to hold his tongue.

© london-overlooked 2022

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