Murder of Master Starchfield, 1914
The discovery of a young boy's body in a train compartment
led to a complicated investigation for the police.
An errand boy's discovery
On 8 January 1914, an errand boy was sent to deliver a parcel.
On his way back to work, he boarded a train at Mildmay Park station
on the North London Railway.
The lad entered a third class compartment. As the train
approached Dalston station, he suddenly noticed a small hand
protruding from under the seat.
Frightened, the boy tried without success, to attract the
attention of a porter. When the train arrived at Haggerston, the
boy bolted from the station and out into the street.
He recovered himself, and went to the station master's office to
report what he had seen. The train was stopped and searched.
Beneath the seat in the compartment the lad had travelled in was
the body of a five or six year old boy with long golden curls. The
face was suffused with blood, the lips were bruised, and marks on
the neck suggested that a cord of some kind had been used.
Identification of a child
Chief Inspector William Gough took the case up and initiated
enquiries on the assumption that the boy had been strangled. His
opinion was soon confirmed by Doctor Spilsbury who examined the
It did not take long to identify the child. He was the son of John
and Agnes Starchfield. John Starchfield sold newspapers. In 1912,
he had enjoyed some notoriety after he tackled an armed Armenian
named Stephen Titus who entered the Horseshoe Hotel and shot a man
Starchfield was separated from his wife. Willie, their little
boy, lived with his mother and about 12.50pm on the day of the
murder she sent him out on an errand. He never returned.
According to the medical evidence, the murder took place some time
between 2pm and 3pm, and the train had shuttled several times
between Chalk Farm and Broad Street after the murder had been
The inquest opens
The inquest opened on 15 January 1914, and evidence was given by
the guard of the train, the errand boy who discovered the body, and
the porter who first searched the train.
John Starchfield was asked to account for his movements on the
day of the murder. He said he was in his bed in a lodging house and
he had not seen the boy for three weeks. The inquest was
When the inquest was resumed a week later, two signalmen gave
evidence relating to a piece of cord they had found on the line on
the day of the murder. Doctor Spilsbury said that it could have
been responsible for the marks on the child's throat.
A third signalman testified that when he was on duty at the St.
Pancras Box as the 2.14pm train from Chalk Farm passed, he saw a
man in a compartment bending over what he thought was a young girl.
This signalman examined the body of the murdered boy and said that
he recognised the face as the one he had seen, the long curls had
misled him as to the sex.
Another witness was the driver of a shunting engine in Camden
Coal Yard. He stated that between 2.30pm and 3pm he had seen a man
stooping over something in a compartment and that the man appeared
to be tying up a parcel.
The most important witness was Clara Wood. She said she had seen a
man leading a little boy by the hand on the afternoon of the
murder. The boy was eating a piece of currant cake. The post-mortem
had disclosed one and half ounces of partially digested food which
contained currants. Wood was asked if she could identify the man.
She pointed to John Starchfield. “Me?” said Starchfield. “Yes,”
said Wood. “It's a lie,” shouted Starchfield. The coroner adjourned
the inquest at that stage and remarked the further enquiries would
be made in Starchfield’s interest.
When the inquest was resumed, witnesses from the lodging house gave
evidence on behalf of Starchfield. A commercial traveller named
John White was called. He described how he had seen a man and boy
together at Camden Town Station. He identified Starchfield as the
man. “It's a lie,” shouted Starchfield, “a damned lie.” One of the
lodging house witnesses said: “It is too, he was in bed at the
The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against
Starchfield. He was taken into custody and taken to Old Street
The case collapses
While he was awaiting trial, one of the essential witnesses
attempted to commit suicide and the prosecution suffered a further
setback when Wood failed to stand up to cross-examination. She
created the impression that she had seen a photograph of
Starchfield in a newspaper before she had identified him.
She was confused about the hat he was wearing when she saw him
she admitted that when shown a photograph of the boy she could not
identify him as the boy she had seen.
The judge was critical of the coroner’s office after the coroner
had read to the jury statements made to the police without formal
depositions or questioning the witnesses.
The judge said: “I find that the depositions were not taken down at
the time by the coroner, or at any rate they were not read over to
the witnesses. Then, apparently, the coroner’s officer who took
them round to be signed was permitted to allow the witnesses to
correct them. That procedure seems to me to be an entire mockery
and an abuse of the duties entrusted to any coroner.”
The judge instructed the jury to return a formal verdict of not
Starchfield died in the St. Pancras Infirmary in 1916. He always
protested his innocence and used to say that some friend of Stephen
Titus killed his son in an act of revenge.