Celebrating with the Queen of Crime

  Last Friday, it was Agatha Christie’s birthday and naturally I celebrated the birth of one of my favourite crime writers at her home. (In fact, I was on my way to the Police History Society annual conference, which was nearby). Greenway, near Torquay, is a beautiful house set in a stunning landscape and it’s easy to see why Agatha loved it so much.     Agatha Christie, née Miller, was born in Torquay on 15 September 1890 and spent her childhood in the family home of Ashfield. During one of her visits home in 1938, with her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, she bought Greenway as a holiday home for their family. The house was the perfect retreat from her busy life as a world-renowned crime writer, and she even wrote two books there: Dead Man’s Folly and Five Little Pigs. The house now belongs to the National Trust and it remains much the same as it was when the Mallowans were there.     The rooms are cosy and comfortably furnished, almost as if the inhabitants had just popped out for a while. There are stacks of books, including an extensive collection of Christie’s own novels – her paperbacks are still on show in the circular bookcase that her daughter had specially made to display them. There are two desks in the house, one in the winter dining room and another in the fax room (although Agatha wrote mainly in her bedroom), and it’s easy to imagine her there, pen in hand, thinking of ingenious methods of killing people.     The house retains much of her...

The Murder of the ‘Little Bobby’

    The man at the heart of my latest true crime investigation is PC Nicholas Cock, the victim. He was patrolling his regular beat in the vicinity of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, when he was shot dead whilst pursuing a suspected burglar. I have been piecing together his story, which sadly was cut short. Nicholas Cock was born in 1856 in Cornwall. He was the youngest of nine children, with four brothers and four sisters. By the time he was born, his brother, also named Nicholas, had died aged eight, of ‘brain disease’, which could have been meningitis. His father, Nicholas senior, was a lead and copper miner, and both he and his wife Elizabeth were illiterate. The Cock family lived in the villages near St Ive, not far from Liskeard. In 1861, the two oldest sons were both working down the mine and a daughter was employed as a copper dresser. Six years later, 59-year-old Nicholas senior died of dropsy, swelling caused by kidney or heart disease. Young Nicholas was just 11 years old. By the beginning of the 187os, teenage Nicholas was also working as a copper miner. As the decade wore on, many Cornish mines closed and, like thousands of other miners, Nicholas lost his job. He then moved to Durham, where he found employment as a collier with a large mining engineering firm. Just before Christmas in 1875, at the age of 20, he joined the Lancashire Constabulary. He was stationed at Chorlton police station, in a quiet suburb of Manchester.     The young police officer was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall. He had grey...
Motive for Murder

Motive for Murder

There really is no place quite like one’s home and, although I left Manchester in 1985, at the age of 18, to study in London, I still feel deeply connected to my city and consider myself a ‘Manc’. When I researched my first book, The Real Sherlock Holmes, about real-life Victorian detective Jerome Caminada of the Manchester City police force, it was a wonderful opportunity to re-discover my home city and find out more about its very colourful history. Recently, I’ve been writing about Manchester once again for my new book, Who Killed Constable Cock? but this time I’ve been loitering in the suburbs. I grew up in Old Trafford, close to Whalley Range and Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Famous for its sporting connections (I’ve never been a sports fan!), it is a reasonably quiet suburb of Manchester, about four and a half miles south-west of the city centre. Yet, almost exactly a century before I lived there, a shocking murder took place just near my family home.     On 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock was walking his beat at midnight. He had reached the junction of West Point, where he stopped to chat with a colleague when two shots rang out in the dark. The young police officer took a bullet to the chest and, shortly after, died of his injuries. His superior officer, Superintendent Bent knew exactly who the culprits were and instantly set out to frame them for his constable’s murder. This fascinating case led to a murder conviction, a startling twist and an astonishing confession by a notorious burglar. Although I wasn’t aware of this crime...
Investigating Jack the Ripper

Investigating Jack the Ripper

Despite having a keen interest in all types of Victorian crime, I have to admit that I’ve always felt bewildered by ‘Jack the Ripper’, as there’s so much already written about the Whitechapel murders and it’s hard to know where to begin. However, all that changed when I recently came face-to-face with one of the victims. The City of London Police Museum is now established in its new home at the Guildhall Library – I went along to see the permanent exhibition. After the displays recounting the history of this unique police force, I turned the corner into the next section to be confronted with images connected with the murder of Catherine Eddowes, one of the victims attributed to Jack the Ripper.     At 1.44 am on Sunday 30 September 1888, PC Edward Watkins of the City of London Police walked into Mitre Square, near Aldgate, on his regular beat. He had visited the cobbled square, surrounded by tall warehouses, 14 minutes earlier, and nothing had been amiss. This time, however, he came across a sight that shocked him to the core. Near the carriage entrance, he caught sight of the dim outline of a person slumped against the wall. Thinking it was someone in a drunken state, the officer approached with his lantern to find the body of a woman lying in a pool of blood. Her skirts were pulled up, revealing her badly mutilated body, and her face was severely disfigured.     PC Watkins immediately alerted a night watchman lodging nearby and  within minutes more police officers and a doctor arrived at the scene. The...
CSI Amelia Dyer

CSI Amelia Dyer

Do you enjoy a stroll by the river? If so, join us in Reading for a tour of the crime scene, where Victorian baby farmer Amelia Dyer, disposed of her young victims. Hosted by H Division Crime Club UK, I’ll be giving my very first guided walk of the key locations connected with this sinister story. The tour is on 3 June 2017, beginning at 12.30 pm, at the Malmaison Hotel. Originally the Great Western Railway Hotel, it was built in 1844, and is believed to be the oldest existing railway hotel in the world. It is an appropriate starting point for the tour, as Dyer used the railway line between Bristol, Reading and London Paddington to carry out her nefarious baby farming business.     The first stage of the tour will visit the key places in Reading’s town centre, including the police headquarters and magistrates’ court, where Dyer was arrested and tried, before her case was transferred to the Old Bailey.     On our way to the crime scene by the river, we’ll pass by Reading Prison, immortalised by Oscar Wilde, who was there at the same time as Dyer, in his famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.     The second part of the tour will begin at the very spot on the river Thames where Dyer’s victims were discovered and her crimes were brought to light. We will follow the same paths she walked by night to carry out her gruesome tasks, and we’ll visit two of the streets where she and her family lived.     If you would like to join...
The Mind of a Murderer

The Mind of a Murderer

One of the mostly frequented asked questions at my talks is whether the notorious Victorian baby farmer Amelia Dyer was mad or bad. One hundred and twenty years after her conviction, it’s difficult to comprehend her motivation for killing so many infants in her care. It was also hard for contemporary observers to understand what drove her to profit from the wholesale trade in infants and ultimately to be able to murder them with her bare hands. Her trial at the Old Bailey, held in May 1896, discussed this central issue in detail. On 20-22 May, Amelia Dyer was tried for the wilful murder of four-month-old Doris Marmon, one of the two babies found in a carpet bag submerged under the Clappers footbridge at Caversham, Reading. Her defence was led by Sharporji Kapadia, an experienced barrister and a qualified medical doctor. Mr Kapadia entered a plea of insanity and began by calling witnesses to testify to Dyer’s suicidal and homicidal tendencies.     During the early 1890s, life had begun to unravel for Dyer. A governess whose child she had fostered, returned to reclaim her baby after marrying the father. As was the case with most of Dyer’s nurse children, the infant was not to be found. The governess and her husband persisted in trying to track down their child, returning repeatedly to Dyer’s home, sometimes with a police officer. Each time, Amelia Dyer had a mental breakdown, was certified insane and detained in an asylum. Three doctors, who treated her at these ‘moments of madness’ gave their testimonies in court. Frederick Logan had attended Dyer on 24 December...