Murder of Sarah Hart by John Tawell
The telegraph was only eight years old when, in 1845, it played
a crucial role in helping railway police arrest John Tawell
for the murder of his former lover Sarah Hart. It was the
first arrest ever made using technology.
John Tawell was first sentenced to death in 1814. He had been
found guilty of forging a £10 note, a capital offence. His victims,
Smith's Bank, were a Quaker company and opposed the death penalty.
At their request, his sentence was downgraded, and instead he was
transported to Australia, where he worked his sentence on coal
ships before being moved to work in a convict hospital.
He later found work as a clerk, and was pardoned in 1820 after
his employers successfully petitioned on his behalf. As a free man,
Tawell married and had two children. He enjoyed success as a shop
owner selling pharmaceuticals.
In 1831 the family returned to London but their health suffered
in the bad atmosphere of the world’s largest city. The younger son,
William, died in 1833 followed by their elder son, John, in 1838.
Heartbroken, Tawell’s wife Mary also became ill and he employed a
young nurse, Sarah, to care for her. Mary died in 1838 and Tawell
began an affair with Sarah which resulted in the birth of two
Three years later Tawell met and married a Quaker widow, Mrs
Cutforth. He moved his potentially troublesome former lover, Sarah
Hart, into a cottage at Salt Hill near Slough, making regular
visits to her to pay a weekly allowance of £1 in child
By 1843 Tawell was experiencing financial difficulties. He needed
to reduce his financial burdens and decided that the best way to do
that was to murder Sarah Hart.
On 1 January 1845, Tawell purchased two bottles of Steele's
Acid, a preparation used for the treatment of varicose veins
containing the poison prussic acid. He caught the train to Slough
and went to see Sarah.
During his visit, Tawell must have distracted Sarah long enough to
tip the acid into her beer. A short time later her next door
neighbour, Mrs Ashley, heard loud groans through the party wall.
Mrs Ashley saw Tawell leave the house and went to see if Sarah was
alright. She found her writhing on the floor, frothing from her
mouth. Mrs Ashley raised the alarm but Sarah died before a doctor
Reverend E. T. Champnes was among the first people to respond to
Mrs Ashley’s call for help. The quick thinking cleric took a
description of Tawell and raced to the train station. He got there
just in time to see the suspect board the departing 7.42pm service.
He was too late to stop the train.
Tawell may have thought he had got away with murder. At most other
locations, that might have been the case but Slough was equipped
with the telegraph.
The vicar consulted the station master, Mr Howell, who arranged for
a message to be sent to Paddington. It read:
“A murder has just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected
murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the
train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker
[sic] with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in
the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.”
The telegraph did not have the letter ‘Q’ hence the odd spelling of
the word ‘Quaker’.
At Paddington, the message was passed to the duty Sergeant, William
Williams. He “put a plain coat over his police dress” and met the
train as it entered the station. A few minutes later, Slough
received a message from the capital:
“The up train has arrived and a person answering in every respect
the description given by the telegraph came out of the compartment
mentioned. The man got into a New Road omnibus and Sergeant
Williams into the same.”
Sgt Williams sat in the conductor's seat of the bus and Tawell
mistook him for the conductor. When he alighted at Prince’s Street
he handed the Sergeant his fare. Tawell was followed by Sergeant
Williams along the streets of London, as he went to a sweet shop in
Cornhill and then on to the Jerusalem Coffee House.
The Sergeant continued to follow him along Birchin Lane and in
to his lodging house in Scott's Yard, before returning to
Paddington. Here, Sergeant Williams visited a colleague, Inspector
Wiggins of the Metropolitan Police at Paddington Green Police
Station and the next morning the pair went in search of the
They found him back at the Jerusalem Coffee House, and arrested him
for the murder of Sarah Hart. Tawell protested saying: “I wasn't at
Slough yesterday,” but Sergeant Williams replied: “Yes you were
sir, you got out of the train and got onto an omnibus and gave me
An apple pip defence
The trial opened at Aylesbury County Court on 12 March 1845
presided over by Judge Baron Parke. The court heard how a post
mortem had revealed that the cause of death for Sarah Hart was
“poisoning by prussic acid”.
Other witnesses were called including Sergeant Williams, who gave a
full account of his actions which led to the arrest. Sir Fitzroy
Kelly, Tawell’s lawyer opened his defence simply by saying: “apple
He explained that prussic acid occurred naturally in apple pips and
that Sarah Hart’s death could be explained by her eating a large
amount of fruit over the festive season. His arguments were not
enough to sway the jury who found Tawell guilty. For the second
time in his life, Tawell was sentenced to death.
While awaiting execution Tawell apparently made a full confession
to a priest and at 8am on Friday 28 March 1845 he was hanged
outside the court. Around 10,000 people came to watch the gruesome
spectacle. A print showing the execution is on display at Slough
Tawell’s defence lawyer obtained the nickname of ‘apple pip’
Kelly because of his unusual defence and it is said that because of
this the sale of apples in England dropped considerably.
The telegraph received a massive amount of positive publicity. The
Times declared: “Had it not been for the efficient aid of the
electric telegraph, both at Slough and Paddington, the greatest
difficulty, as well as delay, would have occurred in the
apprehension [of Tawell].”
One may wonder why the Sergeant did not arrest Tawell as soon as
he stepped from the train but it is reasonable that he did not
apprehend the man until he had received confirmation from an
official source; the telegraph after all did call the man a
“suspected” murderer. And why did he seek the assistance of
Inspector Wiggins of the Metropolitan Police to arrest the man?
“Because,” said Sergeant Williams, recalling the arrest, “I am no
officer off the station.”
This would not be a problem for today's British Transport Police
officer who has full jurisdiction anywhere.
There have been many accounts of this case but few make reference
to the fact that it was a railway policeman who was responsible for
the arrest of the murderer.