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Murder at Vine Cottage

Murder at Vine Cottage

Richmond Borough officially boasts the lowest crime rate of Greater London. This doesn’t mean the leafy area hasn’t had its share of sinister goings-on. One of the most famous murders of the Victorian era took place in Richmond. The gruesome killing of a former schoolmistress by her maid, who then dismembered her body, parts of which were then fished from the Thames; it was a media sensation of the time.

Kate Webster was a ladies maid, but not a very good one. A lifetime of petty crime had meant that she had spent most of her time behind bars since moving to England at 17 from her home in County Wexford, Ireland. Julia Thomas, her employer, was a twice-widowed lady who rented a smart yet fairly modest cottage in Park Road, Richmond.

Mrs Thomas, described by her doctor as “a small well-dressed lady”, was also a strictly religious member of the new Richmond Presbyterian Church on Richmond Green.

Richmond Presbyterian Church

On a bleak morning at the end of January 1887, Kate and Julia Thomas met for the first time at 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road for Kate’s interview. Julia was either sufficiently impressed or desperate enough to take her on. (As a member of the lower middle classes and not strictly needing a live-in maid, it has been suggested that insisting on keeping one was more about appearances.)

Kate turned out to be far from a model employee. Partial to frequenting the many pubic houses in the area. She would have been pleased to discover one conveniently situated just a few doors down known by the name of the Hole in the Wall. 

Within the month Julia had had enough of Kate’s substandard work and terrible time-keeping; she wrote in her diary “Gave Katherine Warning to Leave” (The Times. London. 31 March 1879. p. 11).

 In what was probably a fatal error, Julia Thomas agreed to give Kate a few extra days to arrange herself. In return for this, it was agreed Kate would work on Sunday (usually a day off) Nobody knows what was said before Julia left for church that Sunday evening but a Witness at the Murder trial described seeing Julia:

 I observed that her face was flushed and that her voice was shaking; she appeared to be in a state of very great excitement…. she seemed vexed at something—she left about ten minutes before the end of the service. (court transcripts)

The Killing

No one knows what truly happened when Julia returned that night from leaving church early in a fluster. It was supposed, Kate hid behind the bedroom door at the top of the stairs or else followed Julia up during an argument. After hitting Julia over the head, she pushed her down the stairs and strangled her, to finish her off.

After killing her employer in cold blood she immediately set about the task of disposing of her body. Using only instruments available in a Victorian home – a razor to decapitate, a kitchen knife to disembowel and dismember and a copper (a large copper pot usually used to boil up washing) to boil up the body parts. A stench had been described by neighbours emanating from the house. Another story circulating was that she offered the rendered fat to neighbours and street children as dripping and lard. Although this sounds like the sort of gruesome titillation popular in Victoriana.

For two weeks before being caught Webster assumed the identity of her victim, using the name Ms Thomas. She enlisted the help of former neighbours, the Porters, to sell the lady’s false teeth and that of their 14-year-old son, to help her dispose of some of the body parts.

Robert, Porter’s son describes what happened after he helped Kate carry a large box not knowing what it contained (Probably the torso and some of the limbs) to Richmond Bridge where she claimed to be meeting someone to collect it.

I walked away on the other side the same way I had come—when I got to the first recess on the other side I heard a slight splash—I did not know whether it was the box or a barge coming under the bridge—the prisoner caught up with me when I had got nearly to the end of the bridge—she had no box with her then, and said “Bob, I have seen my friend; now get towards the station and get home,” (court transcripts)

The box was discovered a few days later, floating near Barnes bridge. The attending officer said.

“On Wednesday, 5th March, about 6.45 in the morning, I was at Barnes; … I saw the cord—the box was broken; it appeared to contain human remains—I called Dr Adams, who looked at it, and I then conveyed it to the mortuary at Barnes—I acted as Coroner’s officer and communicated with the Coroner—Mr. Bond, the surgeon…” (court transcripts)

An interesting coincidence is that Mr Bond the surgeon mentioned here became famous in his own right. As a surgeon with the Metropolitan Police, he dealt with many important cases and is considered to be one of the world’s first criminal profilers. He was asked to profile Jack the Ripper just 10 years later.

Catching a Killer

Julia’s brother, worried because she had missed a pre-arranged meeting had read about the shocking discovery at Barnes and went to the police worried the remains could be that of his sister.

2 Vine Cottages

Kate meanwhile had recruited someone to sell the contents of the cottage. As calculating as this seems, Mrs Thomas’s landlady actually lived on the very same street. Caught in the act of selling belongings which were clearly not her own by the landlady’s daughter, she was confronted . The murderesses demeanour however shocked the daughter so much she soon retreated, as this court testimony describes:

“I said, “Where is Mrs Thomas?”—she said “Don’t know,” and turned herself away—she was very much agitated, her face was quite convulsed, and she could hardly speak to me—I said, “Can’t you give me her address?”—she said “No”—I said “You must excuse me, I will attend to it,” and shut the door—she came forward to come up the steps to speak to me, which made me say that because she looked so frightful” (court transcripts)

Knowing the game was up Kate went on the run that day, back to her hometown in County Wexford Ireland, stopping only long enough to pick up her young son who had been looked after by a lady in Kingston for most of his life whilst Kate had been in and out of prison. The authorities soon caught up with her.

Convicted and sentenced to Death

The trial was held at the Old Bailey in July and covered by all main newspapers of the time. A death sentence was often reduced or commuted to life in prison, especially in the case of female offenders, but she ruined her chances by lying to the court. 

On hearing the sentence, in a final desperate act to save herself she claimed to be pregnant. The Judge was unimpressed and requested a team of midwives examine her. At their confirmation, she wasn’t with a child the Judge made it clear there was no longer a chance of leniency.

Kate Webster was hanged at Wandsworth Jail on 29 July 1879, aged 39. She had made a full confession to the prison chaplain and took full responsibility for her crimes.

Afterwards

Now that should have been the end of this strange Richmond story however it crops up again in the London papers over a hundred years later.

During 2010 renovations of the Hole in the Wall pub in Park Road workmen discovered a human skull. Several of Julia Thomas’s body parts had never been found, including her head. 

Word soon spread and many with local knowledge suspected it belonged to Julia Martha Thomas who had been murdered just yards from where it lay undiscovered for an incredible 131 years.

An inquest was opened and experts ascertained it to be the skull of a white female of menopausal age who had a large number of teeth missing. It had been sitting on tiles dated to the Victorian period. Carbon dating aged remains as being older than in 1880.

“Coroner Alison Thompson said: Putting all the circumstantial evidence together there is clear, convincing and compelling evidence that this is Julia Martha Thomas. (Telegraph, 5/7/2011)


References 

https://exhibitions.lib.cam.ac.uk/wrongdoing/artifacts/kate-webster/
http://murderpedia.org/female.W/w/webster-catherine.htm
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/8618240/Head-found-in-David-Attenboroughs-garden-was-murder-victim.html
https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18790630-653
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Julia_Martha_Thomas
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