The Poisonous Pownall Sisters of Stoke Newington



Hand-tinted stereograph showing a bashful lover’s first visit. Late 19th century. Boston Public Library.

The respectable Misses Pownall — Martha and Sarah — were certain that their brother was being slowly poisoned by his wife, no doubt to get her hands on his army pension. They had not liked Emma from the start. She was much too young at twenty-seven to make Thomas at fifty-one a good wife.

This suspicion turned to certainty when they saw her and the nurse she employed giving him a mysterious brown liquid. Thomas had also complained that the champagne given to him by his wife made his throat burn, and that the cherries she fed him tasted of canker, which Martha could back up. After eating some, she was ill for weeks.

Shockingly, when alerted to these strange happenings, the many doctors treating Thomas colluded with Emma. The cause of his illness, they said, was an aneurysm of the carotid artery. But Martha and Sarah were well aware that poison was widely viewed as a female weapon, and, when their brother finally met his untimely end, they were determined to avenge him and bring his murderess to justice.

Drawing of the common carotid arteries. 19th century. Wellcome Collection.

A persistent wooer

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Pownall, a widower, found himself back in England in the mid-1860s after a long and successful army career in India. Things had got a bit hairy for him at the time of the Indian Mutiny, when he was sentenced to be hanged. Luckily he had escaped that fate. All the same, a state of perpetual anxiety combined with the wear and tear of the climate to make him realise that he would be better off returning to England, where he might enjoy his half-pay pension. He could have a home with his unmarried sisters in charming Stoke Newington. Perhaps he might even marry again.

Thomas moved into 10 Vittoria Place with Martha and Sarah, who were aged thirty-nine and thirty-seven. No doubt he was able to make their lives more comfortable with his army pension, which was worth £480 a year, and they enjoyed the kudos of having a military gentleman to accompany them to social events. Then in 1866 he met a near neighbour, Miss Emma Jeffs, the youngest child of a respectable professional family whose father, now dead, had been a surgeon apothecary. Her mother, Sarah Jeffs, who was very much alive, resided in some comfort as a lady of property at 6 Middleton Place in Stoke Newington High Street.

Emma was the last of Sarah’s children living at home, and it was probably intended that she would remain there, unmarried, as companion to her mother. But the Colonel, who had taken a shine to her, had other ideas and proposed. He was rebuffed, and in view of what would happen later one wonders if his sisters were among the reasons why Emma refused him. Still, he persisted in his wooing, and eventually Emma agreed to be wed, but not for at least nine months. Finally, on 27 August 1867, they were married at West Hackney Parish Church. Sarah Pownall was one of the witnesses.

Parish Church of West Hackney. H. Greenwood c.1870. V & A.

A bulging artery

From the outset the Pownall sisters did not approve of the marriage. Furthermore, when Thomas — and his pension — moved to Mrs Jeff’s house, they were even more annoyed, and understandably, for one would perhaps have expected him to bring his bride to live with his sisters rather than with his mother-in-law. Then in July of the following year, while holidaying in Ramsgate, Thomas began to feel unwell. He complained of an unpleasant swelling in his throat, which none of the local doctors were able to explain.

At home he consulted Dr Elijah Baxter Forman, who practised round the corner in South Newington Road, and he was referred to various specialists, including Sir William Fergusson, a Dr Fuller of St George’s Hospital, a Mr Paget and a Mr Hilton. The diagnosis was not good. Thomas had an aneurysm of the carotid artery, the wall of which bulged and thinned dangerously. He had pressure in his throat, which made swallowing difficult, and, as the illness progressed, the aneurysm on the side of his neck grew to the size of a grapefruit.

An operation was mooted, but Thomas refused on the grounds that it would be extremely risky. At this point Emma, wishing to spare no expense to help her husband, suggested bringing an expert in aneurysm by the name of James Syme down from Edinburgh. But she was dissuaded from this course of action by the other medical gentlemen, who considered it a waste of money. The only thing to be done was to try to prolong Thomas’s life by nursing him.

Pleasure seekers on Ramsgate Sands. W. Kent & Co. All About Ramsgate and Broadstairs 1864.

It burns like hell!

While the doctors agreed that Emma took exemplary care of her husband, his sisters did not. Martha and Sarah visited daily, and, eagle-eyed as they were, they saw much that alarmed them. In the first place Nurse Gosling, on hire from a local hospital, was not liked by the patient, who had been heard to say that ‘she would be the death of me’. Nurse Gosling was dismissed. In the second place Emma tried to keep the sisters from seeing Thomas, either because they insisted on suggesting to the invalid that she was slowly poisoning him, or because they raised his blood pressure.

Sarah in turn informed Doctor Forman that the patient had reported to her that his throat ‘burnt like hell’ whenever his wife gave him anything to eat or drink, but that he had no problems when the ‘nice’ new nurse tended to him. Dr Forman saw it differently. However, the personalities of Colonel Pownall’s sisters were such that he feared that the matter might come before a court, and so he assiduously observed his patient and his wife.

When Emma was apprised of the accusations, she insisted that only the nurse should give her husband his medicines and food. The Pownall sisters then said that the nurse was in league with Emma. After ten months of suffering, Thomas died at 6 Middleton Place on 10 August 1870. Sarah and Martha continued their complaining, saying that there was something amiss when they were not allowed to see Thomas’s corpse, and that he was buried with indecent haste. Their suspicions were only heightened when the cook rather ghoulishly told them that the body had turned black. It was August, though, so perhaps this is not quite so surprising.

Sir William Fergusson. Carlo Pellegrini 1870. Wellcome Collection.

The determined Miss Pownalls

Thomas was buried in the catacombs in Highgate Cemetery. Emma found herself left with his reduced pension of £170 a year together with £100 of effects and over £300 of debts. The Pownalls might accuse her of being mercenary, but she was not left particularly well off.

One might expect things to die down now. But no: Sarah and Martha Pownall were determined that Emma would not get away with cold-blooded murder. Their family, including an uncle who was a local magistrate, told them to leave well alone. If the doctors were satisfied that Thomas had died of natural causes, who were they to say otherwise?

Instead the sisters employed a detective to watch the widow. Not content with this they continued to blacken her name, writing to the army agents who dealt with Thomas’s pension, which was being paid to Emma, and with other financial affairs. In May 1870 they contacted the local coroner, Dr Edwin Lankester, demanding that something be done about their brother’s death by poison.

Edwin Lankester. The Medical Profession in All Countries volume 2 1874.

Disturbing the dead

Even though Dr Forman said that there were no suspicious circumstances, the Coroner felt compelled to hold an inquest, probably to make the Pownalls shut up. Thomas’s eternal rest was disturbed, his corpse exhumed and his stomach removed for examination by Professor Julian Edward Disbrowe Rodgers. The sisters attended the exhumation to make sure the right corpse had been disinterred.

A jury was then assembled and taken to the cemetery to disturb Thomas yet again, although in the event there was not much to see. I imagine that this at least ruled out arsenic, which supposedly has preservative properties. The inquest was held in the Brookfield Tavern in Hampstead. Martha Pownall explained at length, and with some passion, why she was suspicious of Emma. The doctors then explained why they on the other hand were not, and Professor Rodgers explained that no trace of poison had been found.

The sisters took issue with the post mortem, complaining that Thomas’s brain and heart had not been examined, and ignoring the medical expert who explained that this just had not been necessary. The jury adjourned for a few minutes and ruled that Thomas had died of natural causes. Dr Lankester then made it very clear that no blame at all should be laid at the door of the widow.

A funeral procession. George Somes Layard The Life and Letters of Charles Samuel Keene 1892.

And not only a murderess

Martha and Sarah were furious, but their campaign continued. They now accused Emma of being a bigamist as well as a murderess. They sent out unpleasant anonymous letters along with copies of Emma’s photograph. For example:

To affectionate wives (or widows), alias poisoners, aristocratic families etc.,

Post-mortems performed without disfiguring the body, the brain and heart carefully avoided. The strictest secrecy observed. Their own undertaker employed, etc. Credit given.

Apply personally or by letter to Mrs Pownall, the principal, 6 Middleton Place Stoke Newington Road; Dr. E. B. Forman, 24 Nelson Terrace, Stoke Newington Road; or to the Superintendent, Mr Murray of Highgate Cemetery, where full particulars may be obtained.

Smoking allowed, and ladies accommodated with seats during the honest performance. No admittance to dogs, friends or relatives of the deceased, representatives, persons of common sense or right principles.

Highgate Cemetery. Robert Neal Hind 19th century. British Museum.

Slander and libel

Emma Pownall behaved with quiet dignity, but the situation had become unbearable, and there seemed to be no end to the extraordinary behaviour of Martha and Sarah. No doubt advised by her brothers, Thomas Busby Jeffs, who was a surgeon, and Robert Smith Jeffs, Emma took action.

Martha and Sarah found themselves before the Lord Chief Justice in the Court of Common Pleas in Guildhall being sued for damages for slandering and libelling Emma Pownall. Even their barrister, Mr Serjeant William Ballantine, had tried to persuade the sisters to apologise, and now he asked to be relieved of his duty to represent them. Martha undertook to cross-examine the witnesses herself, which gave her yet another opportunity to libel Emma.

Even so the doctors and nurses who were examined testified to Mrs Pownall’s affection for her husband: it was probably her care that had prolonged his life. A servant called Kate Broadbent said that the invalid had told her that he was glad when Martha and Sarah left, and that he did not like the way they had persecuted his wife. The jury found them guilty, and they were ordered to pay Emma damages of £250 each.

Serjeant William Ballantine. 1870s. National Portrait Gallery.

And after

Neither Sarah nor Martha appear in the newspapers again, so one presumes that they had finally learnt their lesson. They ended up living at 18 Kingsmead Terrace in Bath with another sister, Amelia, in what appears to be genteel poverty.

Emma remained with her mother in Stoke Newington until the old lady’s death in 1873. She never remarried, possibly because mud sticks. Then again it might be that she had not enjoyed being married to an invalid, or having to put up with his horrible family, or both. At the time of the 1881 census she was living in Pembroke. Later she moved to Jersey, where she died on Christmas Day 1917, aged about eighty-eight.

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