273 : Murderers, Victims and Contemporary Reports – part 1

For several years my research into the activities of black people – that is, men, women and children of African descent – in Britain, whilst revealing a very wide range of places and activities, suggested that we might not understand the society in which they lived. The late Victorian period (from, say 1870 to the start of World War One in 1914) was one when imperialism, the scramble for Africa, colonialism and aspects of Darwinism all of which supported racist beliefs were all powerfully present in Britain. Taking up one element in British society – murder – and observing reports in the newspapers, suggests that views on race were varied, sometimes conflicting, and at odds with conventional wisdom.

Charles Higgins, a 29-year-old American sailor labouring in London, was charged with shooting with intent to murder and went on trial at the Old Bailey on 13 January 1890 when he was found guilty but as there was great provocation he was discharged.[1] Sailors seem to be prone to violence.

Charles Arthur was a ship’s steward aged 34 based in Liverpool who originated in Barbados. He was regularly provoked by the captain of the Dovenby Hall, a three-mast sailing freighter which left San Francisco in March 1888, carrying grain to Liverpool. There were 23 crew.[2] Arthur took a knife from his galley and stabbed Captain Bailie who died. Arthur was tried in Liverpool in June 1888. The court heard of ‘frequent quarrels’ between the ‘coloured man’ and the ship’s captain.[3] The ‘coloured man, ship’s steward’ was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.[4]

Arthur had been a member of the congregation at Liverpool’s Sailors’ Institute and petitions seeking a reprieve were organised by ‘Mr. T. Williams, the missionary of the Sailors’ Institute’. One in mid-August 1888 had nearly 900 signatures. The Liverpool Echo reported ‘respite of the culprit’ for ‘the unremitting efforts to obtain a reprieve for the coloured man Charles Arthur, lying under sentence of death in Kirkdale Gaol, have proved successful’.[5] His sentence was changed to penal servitude for life. He served years in Portland Prison, probably labouring in the quarries. The Home Secretary authorised his release in October 1899.[6]

In January 1883 William Brown, a long-serving petty officer in the Royal Navy who had earned a good conduct medal, was charged at Lewes crown court with the murder of his wife Elizabeth. He and his wife, a stepson and their children lived in Munster on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary. Brown suffered from epileptic fits. He killed his wife and stabbed his stepson Alfred Rump: the press called this the Sheerness Murder. Brown had cut his own throat and was unable to talk. Found not guilty of murder through insanity, Brown was sent to Broadmoor criminal asylum for the rest of his life.[7] Mark Stevens’s study of Broadmoor has two pages on Brown.[8] Born in British Guiana around 1832 he married Elizabeth Rump, a widow, in 1871 and had retired from the Royal Navy in 1881. He died in Broadmoor in mid-1885. He had two daughters and a son, and a step-family. The three children were sent to the Sheppey workhouse and then Donald went to Greenwich Royal Hospital School for the orphans of sailors. Donald Adolphus Brown was born in Sheppey in the summer of 1873 and a sister Anna known as Hannah in the winter of 1872. Anna kept in touch with their father in Broadmoor by letter and visits. The other sister, Amanda born in Scotland in 1870, became a servant girl. Donald Brown was a radical in London and married a suffragette, Eliza Adelaide Knight who in the 1900s went to prison because of her protests over the lack of votes for women. Brown took his wife’s surname Knight, and died in 1949; and his widow in 1950. There were children. His sister Amanda died in 1906 and Anna in 1933.[9]

The Gloucester Hotel (sometimes Gloster) was a pub near Swansea’s south dock. In the early hours of Sunday 10 February 1889 the owner’s wife woke to find an intruder in the bedroom, and fired a revolver at him. He rushed off, and she found that her husband Frederick George Kent had been cut: he died three hours later. The police assisted by neighbours searched, aided by the intruder’s footmarks in the snow which led to the docks. Six hours later they found a man covered in blood hiding near a dry dock. He had a bullet in his thigh.

He had dropped a razor (which had been used to cut his victim) and his cap in the bedroom, and the latter helped identify him. ‘Said to be a Zulu’ who had ‘been hanging about the town’ he had been a sailor on the Cubana. A short, slim black man named Thomas Allen, he was taken to the police station – and was abused by angry people for Frederick Kent was well respected. These details come from the Aberdeen Weekly Journal of 11 February 1889, for the incident was widely reported.
The Western Mail of Cardiff carried details when it reported the inquest on 13 February 1889. Allen, a ship’s steward, had said that he had not intended to harm anyone. One of the crowd had hit him with an umbrella as he was taken into custody, but the Western Mail said the mood had changed. Nothing seemed to be known about Allen, although a black with that name had been sent to prison in June 1888.[10]

Charles Arthur had a dignified past, the absence of which may well have been significant in the treatment of Allen. Allen’s English was fluent (there were reports he had been educated at a mission school in South Africa) and he said that he had been invited into the private part of the pub by one of the servant girls. Neither had been out on the Saturday and both denied issuing an invitation. He had been attacked by Kent when he (Allen) lit a candle and had grabbed Kent’s razor in defence. Mrs Kent testified that her husband had had a beard for fifteen months and that she had never seen that razor. The jury decided almost immediately that Kent had been murdered by Allen.

The Illustrated Police News, a sensational London weekly which had reported the murder on 16 February, describing Allen ‘said to be a Zulu’, said on 2 March that Allen had sent a four-page letter to the widow from his prison cell. The trial was at Cardiff on 18 March, when the assize court heard that Allen would not deny killing King but that he had gone into the bedroom at the invitation of a young woman: and had no intention of committing murder. The woman, Annie Taylor, was brought from Swansea prison and told the court she had not seen Allen for ‘several days’.[11] He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

A substantial report, with illustrations including one of Allen, appeared in the Western Mail on 19 March (p 3). His letter to the widow (18 February) removed any doubt over identification (Mrs Kent said she did not recognise him). The Revd Oscar Snelling organised a petition, seeking a reprieve (Western Mail, 28 March). The edition of 30 March published a letter from someone who had been in the court, who pointed out that Kent had attacked Allen who had been sleeping after a drinking session and lit a candle which alerted Kent to his presence – and Kent attacked Allen without a word. Allen had defended himself, so the charge should have been manslaughter, not premeditated murder.

The petition had been signed by four thousand, including Swansea’s mayor. The Home Secretary saw no reason to interfere and on the morning of 10 April 1889 Thomas Allen met his death on the scaffold. He had again written to Mrs Kent, asking for forgiveness and she replied, granting that wish.

Many of the newspaper reports used similar texts, and their headings often included ‘Zulu’. The London St James’s Gazette of 12 February, p 22 had headed its report as ‘the murder by a Zulu at Swansea’, Reynolds’s Newspaper also a London publication had ‘murder by a Zulu’ and ‘a coloured man’ on 17 February 1889 p 6, and the Portsmouth Evening News followed contemporary journalistic practice with ‘the Swansea murder’ – and ‘coloured man’ (11 February 1889, p 3). Reporting the execution, the Aberdeen Press and Journal (11 April 1889, p 6) had just ‘execution of the Swansea murderer’.


[1] Illustrated Police News (London), 18 January 1890, p 4; oldbaileyonline.org refs t18900113-162 and 163 both 13 January 1890.

[2] www.tynebuiltships.com.uk; http://www.thefreelibrary.com.

[3] Leeds Times, 30 June 1888, p 8.

[4] Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 3 August 1888, p 4.

[5] Liverpool Echo, 20 August 1888, p 3.

[6] Manchester Times, 27 October 1899, p 7; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London), 29 October 1899, p 14. Neither reported he was ‘coloured’.

[7] The murder was reported in: Worcester Journal, 20 January 1883, p 2; Evening Standard (London), 18 January 1883, p 3; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London), 21 January 1883, p 8; and the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald of 20 January 1883, p 3 which said he was ‘a labourer employed by the Sheerness Board of Health’.  His wife was buried in the Isle of Sheppey Cemetery on 20 January 1883.

[8] Mark Stevens, Broadmoor Revealed. Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum (Barnsley: Pen and Sword,  2013), pp 81-82.

[9] I am indebted to Elise Knight, family historian in Adelaide, Australia.

[10] Preston Herald, 13 February 1889 indicated Allen had served six months for stealing a watch in Newport in 1888 and also that ‘a man answering his description is wanted by the London police’. The Thomas Allen sentenced to six months for stealing a gold watch and chain worth £20 was the ‘West Indian sent to prison’ noted by the South Wales Echo, 20 June 1888, p 3.

[11] Standard (London), 19 March 1889, p 3.