The Camden Town Murder was the talk of the country in 1907. It was on the front pages of all national newspapers and became a landmark case for future murder trials. Almost one hundred years later it remains one of the most famous unsolved murder mysteries. Owing to the interest of the American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, it has now been linked with Jack the Ripper and the artist Walter Sickert.
The story began in 1907 when a young prostitute known as Phyllis Dimmock was found with her throat cut in St Pauls Road, near to Kings Cross in North London on the morning of 12 September. The police arrested a young designer by the name of Robert Wood. He was the last person to have been seen with Phyllis and had sent her a postcard on which he had asked her to meet him at a local pub.
Phyllis was not her real name. She was born Emily Elizabeth Dimmock (which is what I will call her) on 20 October 1884. All accounts of the case, including that of Sir David Napley, a well respected British solicitor, have given her birthplace as Walworth, South London. Thanks to the efforts of my colleague Alan Stanley this can be now discounted. Her birth certificate shows that she was born in the village of Standon, Nr Ware, Hertfordshire and that at the time of her birth her mother Sarah was resident at the Red Lion, Standon.
The census of 1881 shows a Dimmock family living in Lambeth now in South London, but then in Surrey. The father William is recorded as being a photographic artist from Bermondsey, London and mother Sarah, was from Great Hadham, Hertfordshire - a mile or so from Standon. An elder brother William Maynard Dimmock was born in Codicote, Nr Stevenage also in Hertfordshire and only a sister Esther Elizabeth was actually born in Walworth. It is possible that some investigators have confused the daughters and reported Emily as being born in Walworth rather than her elder sister.
In Hertfordshire guide books it is mentioned that the Bell in Standon had a carpenter's shop attached in the nineteenth century. On Emily's birth certificate William Dimmock gave his occupation as journeyman carpenter so that it is likely that the Dimmocks were lodging at the Bell, Standon, where William was working.
Emily was still a young girl when she left home to work in service in East Finchley, near Barnet in Hertfordshire. In common with so many she drifted to the Kings Cross area of North London, still in 2002 a magnet for prostitutes and drug dealers. By 1905 at the age of 21, she was lodging in a house at 1 Bidborough Street, just off Euston Road close to Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross stations. It was owned by a John William Crabtree. He was a small time crook who had previous convictions for street theft and horse stealing. He was arrested on and off during the next two years on charges of running a disorderly house.
Whilst a tenant of Crabtree Emily appears to have made the acquaintance of a man called 'Scottie'. The latter had intimidated Crabtree with a cut throat razor and made abusive remarks to Emily about ruining his life and the effect it would have on his parents.
Crabtree, who was in prison at the time of the murder, was less than forthcoming to the police but he was the first person that acknowledged the existence in 1905 of a friend of Emily's who was young, of medium build with artistic hands. The description given by Crabtree fitted that given in court of Robert Wood. The latter always stuck to his story that the first time he had met Emily Dimmock was on 6 September 1907, two years later.
In the early months of 1907 Emily was living with her common law husband, a man named Bertram Shaw. They had began life as a couple in Great College Street and moved later in the year to St Pauls Road. The latter was himself only a young man, possibly as young as 19 and had proposed to Emily that they live as husband and wife on condition that she gave up her previous employment as a prostitute.
Shaw was employed by the Midland Railway as a chef on the Sheffield Express that ran between St Pancras and Sheffield. He usually left home at about 4.15pm and arrived back in London at about 11.30am the following day. He most probably first met Emily after a days work, in a bar in Euston Road. On the night of September 11/12 Bert's alibi was that he was in Sheffield and had no involvement in her murder.
My own interest began following the publication of an article I had written on the Old Bedford Music Hall that once stood in Camden High Street, North London. I was contacted by Alan Stanley. He had a personal interest in the murder as his great uncle was Bertram Shaw.
He mentioned Emily and Bert's address which was 29 St Pauls Road. The case has always been known as the Camden Town Murder but St Pauls Road connects St Pancras Way in the south with York Way in the north, both popular routes to Kings Cross and St Pancras stations. It is now called Agar Grove. Perhaps because the area has no specific definition the murder was ascribed to Camden Town which is the closest geographical address in popular street guides.
In 1907 Bert and Emily were living as Mr and Mrs Shaw in St Pauls Road. By day Emily was a dutiful housewife; once Bert had left for work she returned to her previous calling, apparently missing the entertainment provided by the many public houses in Euston Road, particularly the Pindar of Wakefield and the Rising Sun.
It was certainly in the latter on Friday 6 September 1907 that Emily met Robert Wood. Other women noted the young man with the artistic hands and when a young hawker came in offering postcards for sale Emily was eager to buy one. She enjoyed collecting postcards as much as she liked playing the piano. On this occasion Wood pulled a postcard out of his pocket which he had brought back from a holiday in Bruges and wrote on it: "Phillis darling. If it pleases you to meet me at 8.15 at the (and here he drew an artists impression of a rising sun). Yours to a cinder." He signed it Alice so as not to arouse Bert's suspicions.
This postcard was to be central to the prosecution's case. It was not posted until the early hours of Sunday morning - or Monday 9 September, some two days later than when it was written. Bert was still working his night shift on the trains, innocent of Emily's deception. Emily had taken another man home for three nights, a ships cook by the name of Robert Percival Roberts. On the night of Wednesday, 11 September Roberts was in the Rising Sun with a friend named Frank Clarke expecting to meet Emily again. She was in a local pub, the Eagle which was in Great (now Royal) College Street, close to the southern end of St Pauls Road. Here too, was Robert Wood. It was the last time Emily was seen alive.
On that Thursday morning of September 12, Bert's mother came to visit Emily. Alan has told me that not surprisingly Mrs Shaw strongly disapproved of Bert's relationship with Emily and had not come all the way from Northampton on a goodwill visit.
The family recollects that Mrs Shaw arrived early, well before the end of Bert's shift at 11.30am. We have subsequently put the time at about 11.00am. She recounts seeing a body in Emily's rooms. Some accounts say Emily and Bert lived in the basement, others say on the first floor. It was certainly the latter and the houses are built in such a way that the first floor is at ground level.
She waited for Bert to arrive home and together they went upstairs where they discovered Emily's bloodstained body. The rooms had been ransacked, her postcard collection had been scattered around the room and two of Bert's razors were quite visible by the wash bowl. Someone had cleaned their hands of blood, probably the razors as well and the towel was also stained with blood.
The police soon pieced together Emily's life without Bert. The postcard had been well hidden by Emily but was eventually found by Bert and published in many national papers, including the News of the World. Wood had tried to put together an alibi for the early part of the evening of September 11 by stating that he had been with a former girl friend Ruby Young. But Ruby had read the papers and had told a friend, who had a friend in the press, and as night follows day Wood was identified by Ruby and charged.
Robert Wood designed glassware for the Sand and Blast Manufacturing Company in Grays Inn Road. Possibly on their account he was represented by a solicitor well versed in criminal causes celebres. Arthur John Newton later went on to represent Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen. He secured the services of Edward Marshall Hall QC. Hall was to become a master of the criminal courts, revered as a pop star would be today. His style of oratory was quite often bizarre by modern standards but at the turn of the century the criminal courts were another form of popular entertainment and the crowd followed his every word.
The public gallery of the Old Bailey was filled with the great luminaries of the day; actors, writers and artists jostled for the reserved seats. The general public filled the streets outside and before them paraded some of the most defiled sections of society to give evidence in the trial of Robert William Thomas George Cavers Wood.
Many of Emily's friends and acquaintances were prostitutes, pimps, brothel keepers, thieves or general low life. The prosecution made much of Wood's statement that he had known Emily for no longer than a few days in September. It was apparent that either Wood was a consummate liar or that witnesses were eager to blacken his name.
Marshall Hall's cross examining was brilliant, his summing up superb but even he believed that Wood's life still hung in the balance. The cornerstone of his defence was that Wood had asked for an alibi for a time before the murder had occurred. The judge appeared to be instructing the jury to convict Wood when suddenly he stated that he did not feel the prosecution had proven their case and it was their duty to acquit the defendant. After deliberating for only fifteen minutes the jury returned a verdict of "Not Guilty".
The case became a landmark in English Legal History in that it was the first time since the passing of the Criminal Justice Bill of 1905 that an accused man in a murder trial was able to give evidence on his own behalf. Despite Newton's reservations Marshall Hall bowed to the opinion of his junior Wesley Orr, and had called Wood to the witness box. The latter did not appear to impress the court. He had a diffident, nonchalant even vain side to his character and spent a lot of his time sketching the court, both counsel, the judge and witnesses.
In the event his life was saved but the question remains as to who did kill Emily Dimmock.
At first the police suspected Bert Shaw. He had the perfect motive - jealousy. Was the young boy pushed too far by Emily's continuing deception? Even Marshall Hall tried to incriminate him in court but his alibi was watertight. He had been in Sheffield.
Emily had been with many men but suspicion fell next on the ships cook, Roberts. He admitted to sleeping with Emily on three previous occasion but on the night of the murder was back in his lodgings as testified by his close friend Clarke and also his landlady.
The petty crook Crabtree recalled the dark, mysterious and malicious "Scottie". His real name was never uncovered. He had been seen to have threatened Emily. Crabtree testified that he himself had been intimidated by Scottie wielding a cut throat razor and whatever reasons Scottie had for hating Emily for the damage she had done to himself and his family he had kept to himself.
Crabtree also mentioned a "Scotch Bob" whom he had often seen with Emily but his real name was Robert Mackie and appeared to have an alibi for the time of the murder. He was in Scotland. The dates he gave were subsequently found to be wrong but it was never pressed by Marshall Hall and no reason given for that decision. Two men, Sharples and Harvey who saw Emily in the company of a large man in the King's Cross Area around midnight on 11/12 September were only allowed to give witness statements, although their evidence was known to the prosecution who decided against cross examining them in court.
Then there was Robert Wood. He maintained throughout that his reasons for keeping his love of pubs and loose women a close secret was to protect his father who was in ill health. In the event that the testimony of Crabtree and the other prostitutes, reformed or otherwise, was true then there is no doubt that Wood had lied on oath and possibly about everything else. He was an unreliable witness.
He appeared to have known Emily for far longer than the couple of days that he claimed. He admitted to writing the postcard that was found by Bert Shaw when clearing out his possessions and was later published in the national press. He denied that he sent it to arrange a meeting. Equally incriminating was the charred remains of a letter found in the grate at Emily's lodgings. Roberts testified that Emily had shown the letter to him on the morning of 11 September along with the postcard and claimed that the writing proved that the sender was the same.
The letter unlike the postcard was burned, but again it was asking Emily to meet the sender at the Eagle pub that Wednesday evening. It was signed Bert but neither Roberts, Wood or the police were able to decipher the exact words when called to the witness box. The court only had the testimony of Roberts to verify the message. It must be emphasised that Roberts was also interested in saving his own neck as if Wood was proved to be innocent then he would be the next logical suspect.
It is easy to understand Roberts concern. Emily was a working girl and had probably taken many men back to her rooms. Her landlady Mrs Stocks maintained that she ran a respectable guest house and was unaware of Emily's night work. It was an understandable viewpoint. She most probably turned a blind eye but in any event Emily must have become adept at secreting men in and out of her rooms without alarming her landlady, or her husband. Both apparently retired early as he rose early to work on the railway.
In the event that we exclude all of the above suspects we are left with two alternatives. One is that Emily left Wood at the Eagle pub, carried on walking into Kings Cross where she met a casual punter who robbed her, then murdered her and left her for dead as he slipped out of St Pauls Road. This may account for the man seen with her by Sharples and Harvey.
The second alternative is to consider Walter Sickert.
For many months I was unable to decide why this case had become so famous. It was, in the order of things, just another murder of a young woman in a quiet back street of a popular residential area. Then I discovered that the Old Bailey had only just been re-opened in February 1907 by Edward V11 and the occasion marked by the granting of a knighthood to the defence counsel who appeared opposite Marshall Hall, Sir Charles Mathews QC.
Cinema was still in its infancy. Television was light years away and most common people found their amusement at the music hall, the pubs or the courts. A murder trial was a great theatrical event and drew all levels of society to sit and watch the court at work.
The Camden Town Murder acquired a high profile, assisted by the appearance of Marshall Hall whose star was waning following a disastrous attack on Lady Beaverbrook in 1901. It has been linked again with the crimes of Jack the Ripper.
There are few, if any similarities. The line of association begins with the assumption that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. This theory has many adherents especially now that Patricia Cornwell has published her book. I am not a Ripperologist and am as open minded as the next one as to his guilt in that case.
However, one aspect of the Ripper crimes has been asked many times, and answered in many ways. Why did the Ripper stop? If the Ripper was an early serial killer then why in common with many others didn't he carry on until he was caught, or if he managed to escape detection die leaving the crimes unsolved? If Sickert was the Ripper and matched the profile of a serial killer why did he suddenly stop? And why start again after 19 years? And then, if this theory is to hold water, did he apparently stop as just suddenly once again?
The next link to establish is the method.
I must at this point state that much of this information has been handed down verbally through the family of Bert Shaw. After the murder he moved away and lived a quiet, unassuming life in Manchester until his death in the late 1960s at his sisters home on the south coast. He had a close family and quite naturally they were reluctant to discuss what had happened to him. After all, he narrowly missed being hung himself.
My colleague Alan Stanley has respectfully and slowly found out about Bert's involvement by talking to the surviving members of the family and although much is still personal the facts as related below are as near to truth as can be.
The family have read most books on the murder including Napley's account and state that this is as close as can be to the actual events.
Mrs Shaw, Bert's mother had been invited down by Bert and Emily in order that the latter could effect some form of reconciliation. Emily was a month short of her twenty third birthday, Bert was just nineteen and in accordance with English law would have required his parents consent to marry. Therefore Mrs Shaw's approval to their relationship was vital.
Mrs Shaw travelled down to London from Northampton and arrived at St Pauls Road about 11.00am. Her claim that she saw Emily from the top of the front steps must be accepted. She tried to raise Emily and unable to do so waited downstairs with Mrs Stocks the landlady for Bert to finish his shift. When Bert arrived home they went upstairs where they found Emily.
First, it is still unclear whether the door to their rooms was locked or not. If it was unlocked Mrs Shaw may well have invited herself in. Therefore it may be that the room was locked.
Emily's throat had been cut and there was plenty of blood but there was no mutilation. This is a significant departure from other Ripper victims. Elizabeth Stride suffered less severe injuries than the other victims although it is generally held that the Ripper was interrupted. There was no other marks on Emily. It appeared that she had been killed whilst asleep, that her head had been raised and her throat cut from left to right.
The discovery was made at about midday. By 1.30pm the body had been removed and a post mortem carried out which determined death at about 5 or 6 am. Emily had ate a meal at about 2am and the remains of a meal for two were on the table.
Despite newspaper reports the family do not recall, or have not mentioned anyone else apart from the police entering the house. An artist such as Walter Sickert appearing almost out of the blue to sketch the dead body would have been an event to remember. In any event it would have taken a while for him to have walked from Mornington Crescent, along Camden High Street and through the back streets to St Pauls Road even if he had been alerted to the discovery of a body at midday. If he had arrived earlier he would have been seen by either of the two women.
The final departure from the serial killings of the Ripper and that of Emily Dimmock is in the way that the murderer tried to eliminate all evidence of his being there. He had washed his hands. The razors had been cleaned. However, the room was overturned in someone's anger at not being able to find something that might incriminate him. Possibly a postcard.
The Ripper took great delight in cutting open his victims and leaving body parts lying around. There was no attempt at cleaning the area. The human carnage was almost a signature. There was no evidence of this at 29 St Pauls Road. If it was the work of a serial killer then after a hiatus of nineteen years he had changed his pattern and his trademark. It seems unlikely.
The murderer would have had plenty of opportunity to do as he wished. Emily was seen in Kings Cross about midnight, she ate at 2.00 so that she must have slipped indoors without awakening Mr or Mrs Stocks or any of the other lodgers sometime shortly after 1.00am. She died at the latest 6.00am so that the killer would have had almost five hours to have killed her, mutilated her body and made his escape. He had plenty of time but it would appear that he waited until the last moment, possibly after sleeping with her and waking before her, then killing her, cleaning himself and then making his escape.
With the progress made in forensic science it would have been possible today to have matched the blood samples found in the room with that of Emily, Robert Wood and any other suspect. This was a luxury the police at that time did not have. The existence of blood only served to prove that the assailant had tried to clean himself before leaving.
The escape route was either through the house after locking the door behind him or out through the window. Bert Shaw told the police that three keys were missing along with a variety of small personal effects so it appears that the locked door theory is more possible. In the early hours there were people about, ordinary working men on their way to work.
Anyone shinning down a drainpipe was taking a huge risk. Robert MacCowan testified to having seen a man fitting Wood's description in St Pauls Road at about 5.55am. Marshall Hall was able to discredit him when Arthur Newton found a witness named William Westcott who testified to being a boxer with an awkward gait and who could have been the man MacCowan saw. The latter also remembered seeing a bobby on the beat, a common sight in 1907 but not so much in 2002, but it underlines the point made above that acting suspiciously in 1907 was liable to bring attention on yourself. Something a murderer leaving a crime scene might not attempt.
Much of the discussion on Sickert's involvement rests on his paintings. He lived and worked in what is now the larger Borough of Camden and he painted a series of pictures called the Camden Town Murders, based on the Ripper victims. One entitled 'What Shall We Do for the Rent' is thought to be modelled on Emily Dimmock. She was clear of debt. Mary Kelly the last victim of the Ripper did owe rent money. Another subject for many of his paintings was the Old Bedford Music Hall in Camden High Street of which I am sure Emily must have known and visited.
For most of his life Sickert lived close to the shadowy underworld that was Camden Town and that was what fascinated him, as it did Robert Wood. Sickert was living in Mornington Crescent in 1907 and could not fail to have known of Emily's murder. It was reported in the papers and facsimiles of the postcard written by Wood were printed in many of them. It most probably inspired many of his works.
Much of my correspondence with Alan Stanley occurred before we had learned of the publication of Patricia Cornwell's book. The name of Walter Sickert never arose in our talks, nor was it mentioned by any of his family. In David Napley's account of the trial there is no mention of Sickert either by the author or from any of the witness statements.
I read Melvyn FaircloughÕs conspiracy theory in Ripper and the Royals and he mentions the involvement of the solicitor Newton in the Cleveland Street scandal. It is a strange co-incidence that nineteen years later the names of Newton and Sickert are linked again. One the representative of Robert Wood and the other a suspect. It is a teasing piece of information.
As a final byword my parents moved into 10 Agar Grove (as St Pauls Road is now) when they married in 1940. My mother died last year at the age of 91 having lived in Camden Town most of her life. It is odd that she never mentioned the Camden Town Murder at all, nor did she talk of Walter Sickert. My father who was a true cockney having been born and bred in Hoxton knew all about the Ripper theories, but he never mentioned Sickert either.
I believe that the Camden Town Murder must remain a mystery. It is a sad, sorry affair of a young woman drawn to the bright lights who met a brutal end. It is unlikely that she was the victim of a serial killer, or of Jack the Ripper be he Walter Sickert or not. It is more likely that she was the victim of a jealous lover or a man enraged
It is perhaps ironic that the last word must be Emily's. Her death certificate states as cause of death: "loss of blood from injuries to throat inflicted with some sharp instrument. Wilful murder against Robert William Thomas George Cavers Wood."