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 children.
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 maintenance.
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 could attend.
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 murderer.
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 sixpence.”
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 pips.”
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 Museum.
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.