In 1896, three detectives from Reading Borough Police Force caught one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. Pictured with artefacts belonging to the case, these tenacious police officers used all their powers of deduction and expertise to catch notorious child murderer Amelia Dyer.
On 30 March 1896, when a baby girl was discovered strangled in a brown paper package retrieved from the river Thames by a passing bargeman, Detective Constable James Anderson (on the right) provided the first vital clue in this shocking and complex murder case. James Beattie Anderson was originally from Aberdeen, but he had lived in Reading for over a decade. Like the other police officers on the case, he was married with a young family – he had five sons. Constable Anderson managed to decipher the faint writing on the sodden parcel that contained the tiny corpse found in the river, at Caversham Lock. It read: ‘Mrs Thomas, 26 Piggott’s Road, Caversham’.
The police went to the address, only to find that Mrs Thomas was no longer in residence, but Anderson had the idea to take the parcel to Reading railway station to see if he could find out where it had come from. The package bore a Midland railway stamp and a date, which enabled the railway clerk to locate the entry in his ledger. He told the police that Mrs Thomas’s real name was ‘Mrs Dyer’ and she now lived at 45 Kensington Road. The hunt for a murderer had begun.
The investigation was led by Chief Constable George Tewsley (in the middle). A portly, middle-aged man with a handlebar moustache, he was from London and had worked for the Met, before arriving in Reading. A father of three sons, he had been promoted through the ranks and assumed responsibility for Reading Borough police in 1887. Chief Constable Tewsley instructed Detective Constable Anderson and his colleague Sergeant Harry James (on the left) to set a watch on the house in Kensington Road.
On 3 April, when the prime suspect Amelia Dyer appeared at the property, the police officers used a female decoy to establish contact with her. A woman – probably one of the officers’ wives – knocked at her door and enquired after the possibility of Dyer, a well-known baby farmer, adopting her infant. She made an appointment for later that evening, but when Dyer opened the door she found two police officers on her step. After a thorough search of her premises, Detective Constable Anderson and Sergeant Harry James took her into custody at Reading police station, on suspicion of murder. In a frantic race against time, they now had to build a compelling case against her.
First, Chief Constable Tewsley contacted parents who had written to Dyer about their children’s adoption, after letters were found at her property. When two more babies were uncovered in the river – this time they were together in a carpet bag – he managed to locate the mother of one and the guardian of another. Three-month-old Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons, aged 13 months had been taken by Dyer just before her arrest and had subsequently disappeared. In an identity parade, both women confirmed that Amelia Dyer was the woman to whom they had handed adopted the babies.
In the following weeks, at least six young children were found in the Thames – they had all been strangled with white tape, wrapped in brown paper and weighed down with bricks. Reading police even commissioned a water telescope to dredge the riverbed in their search for more victims. Chief Constable Tewsley telegraphed other local forces, and gathered enough intelligence to build up a picture of Mrs Dyer’s nefarious baby farming practice, which she had run for some 30 years. By the time Dyer stood trial at the Old Bailey in May, for wilful murder, there was enough evidence to convince the jury of her guilt, and she was sentenced to death.
The conviction of Amelia Dyer was an extraordinary achievement for a provincial police force, with little experience of serious crime and no recourse to forensic science or modern crime investigation techniques. They were all rewarded for their efforts, and Chief Constable Tewsley was praised for ‘the great ability displayed by him on many occasions in the detection and prevention of crime.’ He retired the following year, due to ill health, and moved to Scotland. Both Detective Constable Anderson and Sergeant James were eventually promoted to inspector.
You can find out more about how the Reading police solved this case in my book. Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders:
If you’d like to know more about Victorian detectives, read my latest article in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.
Featured image reproduced with kind permission of Thames Valley Police Museum