Victorian Murder Mystery

Harriet Staunton died, aged 36, at 34 Forbes Road in Penge on April 13, 1877. She had lived at the address less than two days. Her twelve-month old baby had died five days before in Guy’s Hospital. What happened?

A few days after her death Louis Casabianca, her brother-in-law, overheard in a post-office, purely by chance, Louis Staunton, her husband, asking how and where he should record his wife’s death. Casabianca, startled and suspicious, reported the conversation to the police. (There had been some discussion by Staunton as to which county Penge was in and where he might apply for the legacy.)

As a result, Staunton and three others— Alice Rhodes, Patrick Staunton and Elizabeth Staunton—were arrested on suspicion of murder. What the four may have hoped would be overlooked as an insignificant and isolated death revealed a story of neglect, jealousy and vulnerability.

News of the crime caused a sensation in the national press. The trial proceeded like a convivial entertainment for the privileged: society ladies drank champagne and consumed chocolates as they watched the trial unfold  at the Old Bailey.

Nobody came out of the story in a good light but the legal shambles of the trial did lead to the creation of the Court of Appeal.

Harriet Staunton herself was born Harriet Richardson, daughter of a Reverend Richardson of Essex. Her father died when she was twelve. Her aunt had left her £5000 in a will (£500.000 today). Now Harriet would be viewed as an educationally-challenged young lady, possibly functioning somewhere on the autistic spectrum. At the trial, her mother described her daughter as ‘simple-minded’.

Her mother, now a Mrs Butterfield after remarriage, had taken good care of her, teaching her to dress well and behave like a lady in polite society. But this was not enough to prevent the cruel exploitation of her vulnerability and innocence by the unscrupulous. Unscrupulous people were only too close at hand in the person of Louis Staunton, an auctioneer’s clerk from Streatham and a friend of the family.

Twenty-three year old Louis had been introduced to Harriet by Thomas Hinksman, a relative of the Richardson family and step-father to fifteen-year old Alice Rhodes, while simultaneously carrying on an affair with the said Alice. The narrative plays out like a tangled web of intrigue and double-cross until the sad and tragic denouement.

In no time Harriet and Louis were engaged to be married even though Louis was still seeing Alice Rhodes. Mrs Butterfield objected to the marriage and tried to make Harriet a ward of court to prevent Louis claiming her inheritance. But Harriet, in her innocence and passionately in love, objected to her mother’s interference and banned her mother from visiting them. Louis followed this up with a further letter banning Mrs Butterfield all contact with her daughter. The stage was set for Harriet’s total isolation and oppression.

Living by now in Frith Cottage in Cudham, Kent, with Thomas and Elizabeth (Louis had set up house a mile away at Little Grays with Alice) Harriet was locked in a small room, deprived of shoes and outdoor clothing and, over time, apparently starved to death. Her mother did visit and tried to intervene but was turned away. Harriet tried to escape but was beaten senseless and returned to the room. All the while the other four went about their business as if all was normal.

When asked during the trial about Harriet’s emaciated appearance and lice-infested body and why they had not called a doctor, Elizabeth said they had no idea she was so unwell. But, because Harriet’s animal-like screams of hunger were beginning to cause suspicion among the neighbours, and the fact that her year-old child, Thomas, fathered by Louis, had died recently from malnutrition, the four decided to move her away from Cudham to the anonymity of a boarding house at 34 Forbes Road, Penge. This was on 12 April, 1877. She died the next day, on April 13.

The initial enquiry into the murder was held in a room in what became, more than a century later, the Hollywood East pub, now a flats conversion. Harriet’s body weighed five stone, she was all skin and bone, with matted hair and lice infestation. All four were arrested and put on trial at the Old Bailey, presided over by judge Henry Hawkins. Medical records presented at the trial had shown she died from meningitis and tuberculosis. Judge and jury recorded a verdict of murder by neglect and starvation, with the view that such treatment had precipitated her ill-health and death. All four were sentenced to death by hanging.

For reasons which may be difficult to understand today, the verdict of judge and jury was called into question by the medical profession in a letter to The Lancet. An appeal by 700 medics asked for a retrial, stating that not enough credence had been given to medical evidence. This led to the founding of the Court of Appeal and the sentences of the accused were commuted to life imprisonment. In effect, Alice Rhodes was pardoned and Elizabeth served no more than six years. Thomas Staunton died in prison. Louis Staunton spent twenty years in Dartmoor prison then emigrated to Australia.

Unfortunately the crime tarnished the reputation of Penge as an up-and-coming and desirable place to live. Penge was still comparatively rural and the building programme, started with the arrival of the Crystal Palace in the grounds of the now demolished Penge Place, had yet to gather full momentum. There had been much to attract people from London and the counties but, sadly, the popularity of Penge ceased for a while. Forbes Road was renamed Mosslea Road to disassociate connection with the event.

Why move her to Penge in the first place? Judge and jury surmised that it was in the interests of further isolation. But was it that simple? Elizabeth Staunton stated at the trial that it was to seek medical help. Harriet’s baby had recently died in Guy’s Hospital so it is plausible that the four may have moved to her somewhere nearer the metropolis and on a main railway route to the city. Penge East Station was only a few minutes walk from the house.

Forty years later distinguished pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury reviewed the evidence given at the trial and implied that the vilified judge and jury had been right all along: this was death by starvation which amounted to deliberate homicide.

The indifference and withdrawal of food and care shown to the simple-minded Harriet in 1877 was amplified on a massive scale towards the infirm and handicapped seventy years later in the Nazi concentration camps.

The story is an unhappy one with many nuanced aspects which were not taken into proper consideration at the original trial. Many witnesses for the defence were not called to give evidence. So far the case remains indeed ‘a mystery’.

Harriet’s story was the subject of an award-winning novel by Elizabeth Jenkins, and published in 1934 while Louis Staunton was still alive. A model prisoner while at Dartmoor, Staunton had always maintained that Harriet had refused the food they had carefully prepared for her. He saw the novel win the Femina Vie Heureuse prize, surpassing Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust and Antonia White’s Frost in May. Virginia Woolf, herself a recipient of the prize in 1928 for To the Lighthouse, had admired Jenkins’ writing after meeting her at a number of Bloomsbury evenings.

Harriet’s story was dramatised, seen from the point of view of Alice Rhodes, her tormentor, in a 1970 television play in the Wicked Women series. Gillian Raine played Harriet with Joanna Dunham as Alice and Ralph Bates as Louis. The screenplay was by Jacques Gillies.

The case was re-examined in the BBCOne series Murder, Mystery and My Family on 3 August, 2020. Sasha Wass and Jeremy Dein looked into the case on behalf of a present-day relative, Nigel Staunton, and found evidence which exonerated Louis Staunton of the murder.

BBC One – Murder, Mystery and My Family, Series 4, Staunton

Harriet is buried in St George’s churchyard in Beckenham and the name on her gravestone is still visible.

For further reading:

Brotherly Love, Dorothy Cox (Buckingham: Barracuda Books Ltd, 1989)

Harriet, Elizabeth Jenkins (London: Persephone Books, 2013 [1934])


The Guardian – Harriet Staunton Penge Murder Jenkins

Persephonebooks Harriet The Penge Mystery