Blood On My Boots was one of the titles I considered for my book on the Thames Path. I love social history , especially murder mysteries, and many bodies have ended up in the river. The book was eventually published as All Along the River; Tales From the Thames, but many of those tales involve suspicious deaths. In most cases the culprit was caught, sometimes with the help of the river itself.
One of the most awful but intriguing murders occurred at Richmond in the Victorian era. Oddly enough it was not fully resolved until 2011, with the unwitting assistance of none other than Sir David Attenborough! Here is an extract from the book;
Following an argument on March 2 1879 in her home at No. 2 Mayfield Cottages, a fifty five year old local widow, Mrs Julia Martha Turner, was pushed downstairs by her servant Catherine (Kate) Webster. Irish born Webster then panicked and strangled her mistress. In an effort to hamper identification she boiled the body in a copper and dismembered it with a razor and hacksaw. She then dumped a box of remains in the Thames, but unluckily for her it was retrieved by a passer-by the following day, a mile downstream at Barnes. The head was missing, but fortunately police found other proof of identity and Webster was convicted of murder at the Old Bailey. She was hanged at Wandsworth prison on July 29 1879.
THE FINAL TWIST
In October 2010 the skull of a middle-aged woman was unearthed during construction of an extension to the home of Sr David Attenborough, next door to Mayfield Cottages. Sir David needed more space for his extensive library.
The skull was found while workmen were excavating the site of a pub frequented by Webster. Exhaustive tests were carried out, revealing fractures consistent with a fall down stairs plus a low collagen level. The latter was a grisly indication that it had been boiled. In July 2011 the coroner declared; ‘Putting all the circumstantial evidence together there is clear, convincing and compelling evidence that this is the skull of Julia Martha Thomas.’
Higher up the river at Reading, a serial killer was involved in a grisly business for decades.
THE WOMAN WHO ‘TOOK CARE’ OF INFANTS
Mrs Amelia Dyer was hanged in 1896 for infanticide. Dyer took in babies from unmarried mothers then strangled them using dressmakers’ tape. She parcelled the bodies with brown paper and string before throwing them into the Thames. Meanwhile, the unsuspecting mothers continued to pay Mrs Dyer until she eventually informed them their infants had died of natural causes.
It was Dyer’s penny-pinching habit of recycling paper that proved her downfall. When a dead child was pulled from the river by a bargeman, police deciphered one of her previous addresses on the wrapping. It had been written in indelible ink. Further evidence came from a neighbour who had innocently supplied string for the parcels. Mrs Dyer confessed during questioning and as the river was being searched for more bodies she told police, ‘You’ll know mine by the tape around their necks’. Seven bodies were recovered, but since Mrs Dyer had been in business for over twenty years the true number of her tiny victims scarcely bears thinking about.
I should point out that during my walks along the Thames Path I unearthed many other, more lighthearted stories! My partner Rob and I have also enjoyed the unparalleled beauty of the river throughout the seasons. Below is a photo of the Harleyford estate near Marlow, after a rare fall of snow. A lodge on the estate was our holiday home for many years.