274 : Murderers, Victims and Contemporary Reports – part 2

With William Brown’s loyal service in the Royal Navy being an element missing from the maritime careers of both Arthur and Allen, and possibly having an influence of the decision to send him to Broadmoor, we can find another black imperial veteran accused of murder: with a major difference in that Percy Clifford was born in England.

The Imperial Yeomanry were mounted infantrymen who were recruited and served in the South African War 1899-1902, an attempt to copy the success of Boer/Afrikander forces who were superb marksmen and rode well. Serving in the yeomanry was Percy Evelyn Clifford. He was wounded and awarded an annual pension of £36 10s. He returned to England but what would have been a more or less anonymous life ended on the scaffold at Lewes prison in Sussex in August 1914. Newspaper and Home Office reports noted that Clifford was a ‘half-caste’, a ‘coloured man’.

Clifford’s father was Francis A. Clifford, a Jamaican who lived in Britain from the 1870s who married, in Sheffield, Ellen, born in Kent. The 1891 census finds them in north London with five children. Reflecting considerable family movement, Florence aged 16 was a draper’s assistant born in Tunbridge Wells, Mabel aged 15 was a confectioner’s assistant born in Hampton Court, a fifteen-year-old boy whose name is not clear had been born in Alderley Edge in Cheshire; and Percy aged 6 and Otto aged 3 1/2 were at school. Their father was a brewer’s yard clerk born in Jamaica. The 1901 census lists the family at Hilton Road near Holloway prison in London. The father’s occupation was valet and cook, domestic, and Percy aged 20 serving in the Imperial Yeomanry had been born in St Marylebone. There is also his brother Chris, aged 17.

The 1911 census shows Percy Clifford married to Alice Maud Walton for three and a half months, and his occupation as electrician. In Brighton on 7 April 1914 Percy shot and killed his wife, and after putting a bullet in his own brain, survived and went on trial for murder. With homicides numbering under eight hundred a year in England and Wales, it was normal to report murders in detail and all over the nation. A ‘man of colour’ was printed in the Dundee Evening Telegraph (8 July 1914), in London’s Daily Herald (1 May 1914), the Welsh Western Mail (9 July 1914), the Birmingham Advertiser (11 July 1914), and the Hull Daily Mail (8 July 1914). The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail had ‘coloured husband’ on 9 April 1914 and London’s Daily Mirror had ‘a half-caste’ and that Clifford had been a dispatch rider in the Boer War. ‘Coloured man’ was used by the Sussex Agricultural Express of 6 August, the Manchester Evening News of 27 July 1914 and London’s People of 12 April 1914. The Leeds Mercury had ‘coloured murderer’ on 28 July. The Home Office rejected an appeal, regarding the shooting as premeditated. The National Archives file HO 144/1323/253968 notes Clifford as a ‘half-caste’ and that his victim was a convicted prostitute. Clifford signed his will in Lewes prison on 2 July 1914 leaving everything (largely pawn shop receipts) to his mother Ellen Clifford. Percy Evelyn Clifford was hanged at Lewes prison on 11 August 1914 and his body buried within the prison’s walls. The fate of Francis and Ellen Clifford and their other children is not known. Probate was granted to Ellen Clifford ‘widow’ who inherited £10-10s-0d, which suggests her husband had died.[1]

Killing his wife Pauline brought William Augustus Lacey (sometimes Lacy) to Cardiff prison in 1900. He was 29 and had been working as a coal miner in Pontypridd. William Augustus Lacey, a ‘negro from the West Indies’ was sentenced in August 1900 to be hanged for cutting his wife’s throat with a razor in Pontypridd. The trial was in Swansea. Lacey, a Jamaican aged 29 was a coal miner at the Great Western Colliery. His wife’s behaviour was provocative but the jury made no recommendation for mercy and Lacey was hanged. A man named Evans had gathered a petition and said he knew of no ‘negro ever having been reprieved in this country’. Evans was wrong: as we know from Arthur. The petition had been available for signatures in Swansea’s guildhall, and supporters included the deputy mayor of Aberavon.[2] There was considerable interest – and the crowd outside the prison on the morning of the execution was said to number five thousand.[3]

Pasha Laffey from southern Africa who worked as a groom in Wilmslow and got drunk with local people had worked for the 1890s Savage South Africa show. He was hanged in Glasgow prison in November 1905 for the murder of 63-year-old Mary Jane Welsh. Known as Liffey, he had worked in a boxing booth having joined the Savage South Africa show in Britain.[4] Reports in both the Edinburgh Evening News and the Manchester Evening News noted he was a Basuto. There was a substantial court report in the Hamilton Herald and Lanarkshire Weekly News of 25 October. One of the witnesses called him ‘the darkey’. The report said he had come to Britain with the Savage South Africa company. The Aberdeen People’s Journal (28 October 1905, p 6) included a sketch of the accused ‘negro showman’ between two police officers in the dock. The Motherwell Times noted the crowd outside the prison on the morning of the execution was not as large as usual.

Britain’s National Archives (Kew, near London) has miles of folders and files. ‘Executions: Coloured Men Sentenced to Death’ is reference HO144/803/134036. It is a very slim file probably gathered at the Home Office in late 1905. It may have been stimulated by the Liffey case in Scotland. Tracing the reported ‘Negroes and other foreigners’ in local newspapers uncovered Thomas Thompson a West Indian who was sentenced to death in Durham in July 1899 for the murder of his wife Emily and lodger Isaac Phillips in West Hartlepool. The behaviour of the dead couple had been ‘grossly provocative’ and Thompson, aged 46 and long settled in England, had his death sentence changed to life imprisonment. The Home Office file noted that nowhere had his colour been taken into account (and that victim Phillips was a ‘coloured man’) and the jury had recommended mercy. A pencil note added an older case, involving Charles Arthur in 1888, ‘might be worth looking at if this question arises again’.

The next name in the file is William Augustus Lacey, a ‘negro from the West Indies’ sentenced in August 1900 to be hanged for cutting his wife’s throat with a razor in Pontypridd. The third man in the file was Ping Lun who shot another Chinese man in Liverpool in May 1904. The authorities seemed to accept the suggestion that Chinese people had different beliefs to Britons, but he went to the gallows as similar behaviour by a drunken Englishman would not lead to a reprieve.[5] The fourth ‘coloured man’ was an Algerian, Ferat Ben Ali who had been found guilty of killing another Algerian in June 1905. A group of carpet sellers travelled around Kent, and the leader was murdered (probably for the cash he held) near Tenterden. The file noted his country of origin valued life in a different way to Britain but ‘he knew very well what the English law is’ and so was executed at Maidstone on 1 August 1905.

Thomas Allen’s name is absent from this government file which leads to the conclusion that the British Home Office had no effective system of noting the ethnicity of people accused of murder.[6]

The British judicial system had room for black lawyers. Indeed, the imperial system required residents of the tropics (where there were no universities) to study in the British Isles or Canada. West African lawyers participated in movements for political reforms, as did those from the Caribbean. These roles have been studied to some extent, as part of what might be called the pre-history of black independence movements. What British cases involved black lawyers during their training and in the period before they returned to the tropics (if they did) have not been noted although two black lawyers show the subject is not a superficial one.

The Methodist Queen’s College in Taunton had a small but steady number of black students including Richard W. Msimang (1884-1933) from South Africa who lived for a decade in the town. At first he was a student at the college, and then he worked as a trainee solicitor in the town with a firm in Hammet Street, which also enabled him to play for the local rugby team where he was successful and praised (‘the brilliant Zulu half back’). Msimang took the Law Society preliminary examination in 1906 and the finals in July 1912, to become a solicitor.[7] Msimang must have earned a salary at the Hammet Street practice or had wealth in South Africa which paid for his lengthy legal apprenticeship. His name was frequently in the Taunton press, playing cricket for the college, and later both soccer and rugby, but not legal matters.

Edward T. Nelson’s life in Britain was typical of an Oxford graduate. He was the son of a builder in British Guiana (Guyana). He studied at St John’s College, Oxford, was secretary and treasurer of the Oxford Union, and graduated in 1902. He was called to the Bar from Lincoln’s Inn in 1904. In March 1913 Nelson was elected to Hale Urban District Council. He continued to be returned to the council until 1940, serving as mayor in the 1930s. He died in 1940.[8]

Although attention was and still is focussed on the Crippen murder of 1910, which explains why Nelson’s role in the murder trials (two men separately tried, a extremely rare event) was long overlooked, they were documented in Jonathan Goodman’s The Stabbing of George Harry Storrs (London: Allison and Busby, 1983; Headline Books, 1988). Nelson’s work in the defence cases was crucial. Cornelius Howard had been tried and found not guilty; now Mark Wilde was in the dock. Nelson had witnesses confirm they had testified they had seen Howard – and, to the prosecution’s anger, got the two men to stand side-by-side. Their different appearances (encouraged by Wilde’s months on a prison diet) led to considerable doubt by the jury.[9] He went free.

The evidence presented in this two-part paper is from a very small number of murders, but even so we can draw some conclusions. That the Home Office saw the Algerian (Ferat Ben Ali) had a different culture to the English, as did Ping Lun the Chinese murderer, is at odds with that Home Office file’s ‘Negroes and other foreigners’ and its title’s use of ‘coloured men’. That petitions were raised and were supported by hundreds including figures of importance in the local communities (those Welsh mayors), seems to reflect humanitarian opinions in an era when murderers were likely to be hanged. Thirdly, journalistic habits led to the use of ‘Zulu’, ‘coloured man’, and ‘West Indian’ when such detail was not mentioned elsewhere. What led the Home Office to open that file in 1905 remains unclear.

The petitions and reprieves do not fit a view of contemporary Britain being basically racist. Juries in London, Liverpool, Lewes, Glasgow, Brighton, Durham and Cheshire showed no uniformity of bias, and the disparate origins of the accused men challenge the idea of a general racial bias. Perhaps attention to reports in newspapers will throw more light on this subject: a world not unduly influenced by ideas of race which perhaps were held by a minority of albeit influential Britons. We could be guided by Stimela Jason Jingoes, who served in the South African labour battalion in France in 1917-1918, who was to recall ‘I had met a fellow called William Johnstone of Folkestone at Dieppe, where he was also working. We hit it off at once and we spent our breaks drinking tea and talking about our two countries, until at last we were close friends. After the war we corresponded for many years, but at last we lost touch and I do not know what has become of him.’[10]

Class is a different matter. A Manchester newspaper in March 1882 referred to a ‘sham doctor’ who was a ‘coloured gentleman’.[11] Ethens de Tomanzie was born in Burma and practised medicine without proper English diplomas – stating ‘Ind’ after listing his qualifications.[12] When he was elected to the city council of Londonderry back in 1876 one newspaper described him as ‘A Hindoo Town Councillor of Derry’ who was ‘a coloured gentleman’.[13] Ten years later he was accused of the murder of Elizabeth Twist. He left the court a free man. The Birkenhead Standard (6 February 1886, p 8) described him as ‘an intelligent-looking mulatto’.

Dr de Tomanzie had broken the law in May 1881, issuing death certificates.[14] At the ‘Black Doctor’s’ funeral in May 1886 was a cross section of Merseyside professionals (and his daughter). He was 45 years old. His status as a doctor, albeit one trained in British India, and acceptance by numerous patients in Liverpool and the electorate in the Ulster city of Derry/Londonderry, overcame colour/racial prejudice it seems.


[1] Lizzie Seal and Alexa Neale, ‘Race, gender and bourgeois respectability – The execution of Percy Clifford, 1914’, Irish Jurist, Vol 60 November 2018, pp 144-153.

[2] Cambria Daily Leader, 16 August 1900, p 2.

[3] Swansea Journal, 25 August 1900, p 1; John J. Eddelston, A Century of Welsh Murders and Executions (Stroud: History Press, 2008); http://www.murderuk.com/one_off_William_Lacey.html .

[4] There are several websites on murders in Scotland.

[5] Ping Lun has been detailed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The Assize court file ASSI 52/99 is available at the National Archives, Kew.

[6] John J. Eddelston, A Century of Welsh Murders and Executions (Stroud: History Press, 2008).

[7] Killingray, ‘Significant Black South Africans’, p 398. James Gibbs supplied a list of Africans who had studied at Queen’s College.

[8] New Community (London): Vol 12 No 1 (Winter 1984-85) pp 149-154.

[9] Irish News (Belfast), 7 September 1910, p 5 noted ‘Mr. Nelson, B.L., a coloured man, who defended Howard, also [had] defended Wilde’.

[10] John and Cassandra Perry, A Chief is a Chief by the People. The autobiography of Stimela Jason Jingoes (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p 93.

[11] Manchester Evening News, 28 March 1882, p 3.

[12] Birkenhead News, 8 April 1885, p 2 had his announcement as ‘Signor de Tomanzie, M.D., Ind’.

[13] Birkenhead Standard, 2 December 1876, p 2.

[14] Liverpool Mercury, 29 March 1882, p 8.

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