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The Borough Mystery: Dr William Kirwan

By Paul Slade
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“And the bad boys, the rude boys, they’re into the game,
And they keep their eyes open for the halt and the lame”

- Dave Francey, Ankle Tattoo



Southwark’s petty thugs must have thought all their birthdays had come at once: a well-dressed toff stumbling round their borough in no state to defend himself, and with an alcoholic street whore as his only companion.
The toff in question was William Kirwan, an Irish doctor then living in Stockwell, South London. He was 42 years old, unmarried, and dressed in a silk top hat, overcoat and suit with a gold watch chain gleaming on his waistcoat. He wore yellow kid leather gloves, and leaned heavily on his furled umbrella as he struggled to stay upright. Many of the witnesses who watched Kirwan’s hopeless progress round the streets surrounding Redcross Way that October morning in 1892 assumed he was drunk, and for some that marked him as an easy victim.
The doctor’s friends, testifying at the murder trial that followed, described him as a steady, abstemious man who had no money problems, and never drank to excess. Eliza Ardley, his landlady, had seen him out the door of her Brixton Road lodging house at noon the previous day. “He seemed to be in excellent spirits and good health,” she said. “He paid me most regular, once a week. I never saw him drunk.” (1, 2)
When Ardley last saw him, Kirwan had been on his way north of the river to Canning Town, where he was doing some locum work for a Dr Moire. After completing his afternoon’s duties there, he spent from 5:30 till 6:00pm drinking tea at his friend Dr James McLoughlin’s nearby home, then went off to dine with McLoughlin’s brother. “He was then in the best health and spirits,” James said. He saw Kirwan again about 10:00pm, when the two dining companions returned to his house. “He left me about a quarter past ten to go home,” James said. “Nothing was taken on that occasion. He was as sober as any man could be.”

The police ranked Balch and Waller as two of the most dangerous thieves in all of London

At about 10:45pm, Kirwan walked into a Canning Town pub called The Aberfeldy with an unidentified man. He was a regular there, but the barmaid Emily Taylor testified that he seldom stayed as much as an hour. Kirwan and his companion drank a tuppenny shot of scotch whisky each, and then left together at about 11:15pm. “Dr Kirwan was perfectly sober when he left our house, and his companion also,” Taylor said. “He was quite sober when he left.”
Kirwan's home in Brixton Road lay about five miles to the south west, but he never made it there that night. Between 11:15pm on Tuesday, October 11, 1892, and 5:30 the next morning, he vanishes, and the mystery of our tale lies in just what happened to him during those six lost hours.
The most direct route home would have taken him straight through Southwark. Stopping there left him still about a mile from home, but that’s evidently what he decided to do. He was next spotted at 5:30am on Wednesday, when he walked into a Newington Causeway pub called The Alfred’s Head, accompanied by Blanche Roberts. They made an old couple, for Roberts scraped a living at the very bottom of Southwark’s social pile, where she combined the roles of begger and whore.
Roberts had been drunk for several days before running into Kirwan, and later testified that she could remember nothing about how they met or what they did during their time together. “I can’t remember where I slept on the Tuesday night, because I had been drinking so heavily,” she said. “I don’t remember anything. I have a recollection of being out all night, but who I was with or where I was, I don’t know.”
The barman in The Alfred’s Head that morning was Edwin Stirling. “About half past five, two persons came into one of the public bars,” he said. “They were Dr Kirwan and Blanche Roberts. He asked for a glass of bitter for himself, and tuppenyworth of Irish whiskey for the woman. I served him with it, and he paid for the two drinks. They appeared sober. They stood at the counter. They remained about ten minutes, I heard them talking together [and] they left together.” (3)
We lose sight of Kirwan and Roberts again at this point, picking up the trail nearly five hours later, when they entered a flower shop about half a mile away in Great Dover Street.
“About quarter past ten, two people came into my shop,” Matthew Thomas, the florist, said. “Dr Kirwan and the girl they call Blanche. I should think they had been recovering from a drink – rather steadying themselves. The woman smelt very strongly of drink, and was very dilapidated. The gentleman seemed rather an aristocratic gentleman. He seemed the most sober of the two.
“She said she wanted a flower. He gave her one: a chrysanthemum. She would not have it – she wanted a rose. He said, ‘Let her have what she wants’. He paid for it. He was quite sensible and understood, but he seemed weary and leaned on the counter.”


An hour later, Alfred Kelly, who earned his living making bottle-stoppers, spotted Kirwan and Roberts walking along Southwark’s Marshalsea Road, and was curious enough to follow them. “The woman seemed drunk and the gentleman not far from it,” Kelly said.
He wasn’t the only one following Kirwan by this time. Edward Waller, a stoker, Charles Balch, a “general dealer” and James Noble, a costermonger, were all trailing him too. Waller and Noble were both in the mid-twenties, Balch just 30, and both Balch and Noble had lodgings in Southwark’s notorious Redcross Way. Balch and Waller both had prison records, and police ranked tham among the most dangerous thieves in London. Their plan was to rob Kirwan as soon as they could get him off the street. (4, 5)
Kelly watched as Roberts briefly left Kirwan to run back and talk with the three men following. She returned to the doctor, broke off again for a second consultation with the men, then led Kirwan into Redcross Way. She stopped him outside the entrance to a run-down lodging house there, and that’s when the trio made their move. Noble was first to grab Kirwan’s arm and try to push him in through the house’s entrance, quickly followed by Balch and Roberts. “Balch got hold of the doctor’s arm at the same time the woman did and they tried to shove him in there,” Kelly said.
Kirwan seemed to pull himself together at this point, throwing Noble’s arm off and swinging his umbrella at Balch’s head to drive him away. “The doctor resisting, he immediately let go,” Kelly said of Balch. Roberts took Kirwan’s arm again, and tried to sooth him as she led him back through Marshalsea Road to the One Distillery pub in Borough High Street, where she persuaded him to buy her another drink.
The three men followed again, this time at a discreet distance, and waited for Kirwan and Roberts to emerge. They were joined outside the pub by a group of local urchins, who’d found the couple entertaining enough to start following them round. Waller, seeing Kelly was also lingering there, asked him, “What the fuck are you waiting for?” and Kelly thought it best to withdraw. He busied himself pretending to look in a nearby shop window, but kept a crafty eye on the pub’s entrance too. (6)
It was now about 11:30am, and Lewis Durant was serving in the One Distillery. “The doctor asked for a small lemon and a dash of bitter beer,’ he said. “And twopenny worth of whiskey for the lady. The doctor paid. They remained in the house for five or six minutes. They appeared to me to be quite sober. They left together.” Durant added that Roberts was “very rough”, and that Kirwan seemed ashamed to be seen with her. (7)
Kelly watched the couple come back into the street. “A lot of children standing there laughed at them, and they turned in the opposite direction into Borough High Street,” he said. “The three men still followed them into Union Street and so did I, to the second or third turning, then they turned into a small entrance to Redcross Gardens.”
The turning they chose off Union Street was Whitecross Street – now called Ayres Street – and the entrance to Redcross Gardens sent them doubling back towards Redcross Way and the lodging house where Waller, Balch and Noble had staged their first assault. Redcross Gardens is a tiny patch of greenery wedged between Whitecross Street and Redcross Way itself, just south of the Union Street corner.
The gardens’ caretaker, James Rothwell, was sweeping up there when Roberts and Kirwan arrived, the children behind pelting them with mud and howling abuse. “The children followed through the woman being three parts drunk, and they were calling out ‘Tottie Fay!’” Rothwell said. This name was Victorian slang for a street prostitute, and Rothwell added that he thought it was accurate enough in Roberts’ case. “I think the woman answered [that description],” he said. “The lower part of her things were dirty. She had on a brown Ulster and her hair was down. (8)

“I took the man to be perfectly sober,” he continued. “The gentleman did not stagger, but looked round wild, as if he did not know where he was going. […] His face was florid and he looked worried.” Rothwell’s guess was that Roberts and Kirwan had planned to sit quietly together in the gardens for a few minutes, but that the children’s persecution forced them to abandon this idea. Instead, they walked straight through Redcross Gardens and out the other side into Redcross Way.
Roberts led Kirwan back to the One Distillery, where Waller, Balch and Noble were again seen lurking outside. This time, when the couple emerged, they walked on past Whitecross Street towards Southwark Bridge Road. Someone had chased the children away by this time, but the three would-be muggers and Kelly were still following.

‘The gent did not stagger, but looked round wild, as if he did not know where he was going.’

At about 1:20pm, Roberts and Kirwan stopped on a patch of waste ground where Union Street met Southwark Bridge Road, and that’s where Kelly decided to abandon the chase. “When I last saw the doctor, he was drunk,” Kelly said. “The gentleman appeared to be drunk and could hardly stand.” Asked why he hadn’t found some policemen when he saw how vulnerable Kirwan had made himself, Kelly replied, “Because I don’t like them enough’. (9)
Waller and the others must have got rid of Roberts at this point, because there was no sign of her when they bundled Kirwan into a Whitecross Street pub called The Lord Clyde at about 1:30pm. Henry Lee, who was already drinking in there at the time, found himself caught up in the murder trial that followed, but seems simply to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. (10)
Elizabeth Knight, the landlady at The Lord Clyde, said Kirwan sat on a bench opposite the bar, closely flanked by Waller and Balch. Noble ordered a jug of beer, and Kirwan produced a sovereign and a sixpence from his pocket to pay for it. Another drinker at the bar that day saw Noble take the coins from Kirwan’s hand, pay for the beer with the sixpence, and slip the remaining sovereign into his own pocket.
Noble poured a glass of beer from the jug for Kirwan, which he drank. The others drank a mouthful or two for the sake of form, but clearly their real purpose was to pour as much beer into Kirwan as possible. Noble moved to fill the doctor’s glass a second time but Kirwan rebelled, sweeping it off the table to shatter on the floor in a splash of spilt ale. Noble tried to explain this away by saying Kirwan was “my uncle from the country”, and quickly paid Knight tuppence for the smashed glass.
Questioned at the coroner’s hearing, Knight said she didn’t know if the three men had slipped anything into either the jug of ale or into Kirwan’s individual glass. “They drank after the deceased, but I do not know whether from the same glass or not,’ she added.
Watching all this was George Williams, a local pharmacist, who’d had a good deal of experience treating problem drinkers while he was in the army. “The gentleman appeared dazed, as if on the borders of delerium tremens or recovering from its effects,” Williams said. “He seemed to be recovering from a bout of drinking. He was not sober, nor could it be said that he was actually drunk. He had a dark overcoat open, and I could see a gold chain.”
After the incident with the smashed glass, Knight called her husband over to make sure Noble and his friends behaved. When Waller saw him approaching, he decided it was time to leave, and the four men got to their feet. “Waller said, ‘Let us go out,’ and they filed out,” Williams recalled. “The gentleman went in the centre of two men, I believe Waller and Noble, and the other two were behind.” The second of these two men following on was Lee, but another witness said he got no further than The Lord Clyde’s doorway, and watched the others walking away up Whitecross Street from there.
“The doctor remained in the house from 1:30pm till about 2:10,” Knight said. “He seemed sober, but sleepy, as though he had been up all night. When going out, he seemed to need assistance, as if he was in pain, from the the way he held his hand.” Later she added: “Only one pot of beer was had. Both the deceased and the men seemed to be in deep conversation. The deceased was perfectly sober. When he went out, he was bent as if in pain.” (11)
Looking out of her window at 5 Whitecross Street, Emma Smith saw the group of four men approaching the entrance passageway to a pub called the George IV. The pub itself fronted on to Southwark Bridge Road, but could also be reached through this narrow, partially-covered and shadowy alley from Whitecross Street. The passage was just wide enough for one person to pass at a time, and led back about four or five yards to the George IV’s rear door.
“Two men were on one side of the deceased, and one on the other,” Smith said. “They were all arm-in-arm and humming to themselves. They looked as if they were out for a day’s spree, had had a drop and got dazzled. They were walking towards the passage.”
Two of the local children were watching too. Lizzie Williams, 10, and John Wentworth, 13, both lived in Whitecross Street, and Wentworth was tending his donkey cart there when the men passed. Williams, who knew there’d been a spate of muggings in Whitecross Street recently, immediately guessed what Kirwan’s captors had in mind. “I called Mrs Sweeney and said, “I think those three men are going to rob that gentleman,” she said. (12)
“They were coming from the Lord Clyde,” Lizzie Williams continued. “Waller had hold of the gentleman’s right arm, Balch had hold of his left. They were telling the gentleman to sing ‘Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay’. The gentleman appeared very tired. His feet were dragging along the ground. His face was white. He was leaning forward, supported by his umbrella, and the men were holding him up as they walked along. He looked like a man who wanted to go to sleep. His eyes were half-closed.” (13)
Wentworth gave exactly the same account. “The gentleman was leaning over,” he said. “He was leaning forward, and would have fallen if he had not been supported. They went towards the passage and said ‘Sing up’ to the gentleman, but he did not sing. They entered the passage.”


Waller and Balch dragged Kirwan a few feet into the passage, while Noble stood guard at the Whitecross Street end. Williams and Wentworth watched as Noble glared frantically up and down the street, but they could see nothing of what was going on behind him. Given some privacy at last, Waller grabbed Kirwan’s neck with his right hand, twisting the doctor’s tie as he squeezed, and placed his left hand over Kirwan’s mouth to block any screams. Balch produced a knife, intending to stab the doctor, but succeeded only in accidentally nicking Waller’s chin before their victim collapsed to the ground.
The three men went quickly through Kirwan’s pockets, grabbing anything of value they could find, and then fled through the George IV out into Southwark Bridge Road on the other side. Susannah Sweeney, the local milk carrier Williams had called earlier, watched them run north towards Union Street and beyond.
Now the two children had a clear view into the passage. “I saw someone with white cuffs on lying on the ground,” Williams said. “A man rolled up there like a ball on the ground. I called Mrs Smith and she called the potman. Other people came. The police came and sent for an ambulance.” Smith added: “I saw the gentleman doubled up on the ground about a yard-and-a-half up the passage. I saw no umbrella, chain or ring. [His] head was between his legs his right leg under him and his left leg out.”
The potman from the George IV who Smith alerted was called John Tagg, and the policeman he fetched from nearby Flatiron Square was PC Ovens. Both Tagg and Smith confirmed Kirwan was still breathing when they found him, but that he died as he was being lifted on to the hand-cart ambulance that would take him to Guy’s Hospital. William Carling, the house surgeon at Guy’s, confirmed Kirwan was already dead when the ambulance arrived there at 3:00pm.
“The cartilage making up the larynx was broken on the right side,” Carling said. “The tongue bone was also broken. About this part of the neck, especially on the right side, there was a good deal of blood. Deceased died from asphyxia, due to strangulation.” (14)
The police circulated descriptions of Waller, Balch and Noble, together with a list of Kirwan’s missing property, and these produced their first result at 8:00pm. Two police sergeants called Thomas Divall and William Gentle were on patrol in the Marshalsea Road when they saw Waller hurrying along, pulling on a pair of yellow kid leather gloves as he went. They arrested him on suspicion of the killing and took him to Southwark Police Station to be searched.

Turning out Waller’s pockets, Divall and Gentle found ten shillings and seven pence in cash (worth about £55 today), three pawn tickets and a hankerchief stained with fresh blood. Waller explained that the blood was his own, saying someone had accidentally nicked him with a penknife earlier in the day. That was true as far as it went, but what Waller did not say was that the wound came from Balch, and occurred at the very moment Kirwan was being strangled.
Studying the three pawn tickets, police saw that one was for a gold hunter watch (pledged for £2 on September 30, 1892), one for a diamond ring (pledged for £1 and 10 shillings on September 23, 1892), and one for an overcoat (pledged for £1 on July 12, 1892). The first two tickets had Kirwan’s name and address noted on them as the man who’d done the pawning, but the third one used the name George Allen.
Waller claimed the watch and coat tickets were his own, but said he knew nothing about the diamond ring. Asked how he came to have the ring’s ticket on him if he knew nothing about it, he replied, “I don’t know”. Later, he changed his story, saying Kirwan had voluntarily given him all three tickets as they drank together in The Lord Clyde. The police took the view that he’d more likely stolen them - along with the gloves and the cash - from Kirwan’s pockets as he lay slumped in the George IV passageway. They locked Waller up and set about finding his companions.
Next to be arrested was Henry Lee, implicated in the killing by Elizabeth Knight’s testimony. Police found him in a Whitecross Street pub called The Prince of Wales, where he’d been playing the banjo to earn a bit of extra cash. He was just taking the hat round when Gentle came in and grabbed him. Told he was being arrested on suspicion of joining with three other men to rob and kill a man in Whitecross Street that afternoon, Lee replied, “Oh, that is a mistake. I was with them in the public house, but I had nothing to do with it.” Gentle took him back to the station, where he was locked up with Waller.

Newspapers fell on Kirwan’s story with glee, tagging it ‘The Borough Mystery’ in all their coverage

At 3:00 o’clock next morning – Thursday, October 13 – the police burst into Balch’s room at 19 Redcross Way and arrested him too. Balch denied all knowledge of the crime, claiming he’d been on the other side of the river all day Wednesday, but it didn’t do him much good. A search revealed he had seven shillings and threepence on him, and he was locked up too. That afternoon, the police called Elizabeth Knight, Lizzie Williams and John Wentworth in to view an identity parade, which placed Waller, Balch and Lee in a line-up with nine other men. Knight picked all three out of the line, but Williams and Wentworth identified only Waller and Balch.
All three men were charged, and sent off to the holding cells at Holloway Prison. Now only Noble remained at large. (15)
The crowded conditions at Holloway meant Waller and Lee had to share a cell, where they were quickly joined by another prisoner called John Featherstone, who’d been arrested for a bond robbery in the West End. Waller and Featherstone fell into a conversation which, according to Featherstone’s account, went like this:

Waller: “Me and this man [Lee] are charged with killing a bloke.”
Featherstone: “Where?”
Waller: “In the Borough.”
Featherstone: “Whereabout in the Borough?”
Waller: “We’d been drinking in a public house, and we got the old toff boozed. We then took him up a court. There was three of us – one man they have not got [Noble], my mate Balch, and myself.”
Featherstone: “How did you do it?”
Waller: “I put one of my hands inside his shirt collar and the other over his mouth and held him while Balch – who had got his knife out to stab him, but I stopped him and I got a slight stab on my chin with the knife – struck him on the head with his fist, and the other man, the one they have not got, went through his clothes.’
Featherstone: “How much did you get?”
Waller: “Only one pound six [26 shillings].”
Featherstone: “That’s not much to kill a man for.”
Waller: “We didn’t intend to kill him, and if we’d known he had only so little like that, we shouldn’t have touched him.”
Featherstone: ‘What kind of man was he?”
Waller: “An old toff.” (16)
Featherstone: “Did anyone see you with the old gentleman?”
Waller: “Yes, worse luck. A woman from the public house where we were [Knight] has identified us, but she’s made a mistake in this man [pointing to Lee]. He went into the public house and had a half pint, but he didn’t drink with us.”
Featherstone: “You’ll get off if no-one saw you do it.”
Waller: “There was an old woman in the court [Sweeny] where we took the old toff down. I believe she saw us and is sure to come up against us. I’ll take 20 years for my chance. I don’t care so long as it doesn’t come to a hanging job.”

Featherstone said nothing about this conversation at first, and was sent to Newgate for his own offence. That’s where he was on October 17, when a visitor showed him a copy of Lloyds Weekly with a story reporting the Kirwan case’s progress. Seeing Lee was in danger of being convicted for the killing too, Feathertone wrote a letter to Inspector James O’Dea, the officer in charge of the case. He gave O’Dea the account above, which not only exonerated Lee, but also gave the police what amounted to a full confession from Waller. (17)
Featherstone described this conversation again at the Old Bailey murder trial, adding that Waller had mimed the killing on Featherstone’s own throat as he described it. “I wish he had not done that,” he said. “I got up off my seat and got out of the way of him. He did not mean any good, I could tell. I was afraid.”
The newspapers couldn’t get enough of the Kirwan case, badging their stories “The Borough Mystery” to reflect their puzzlement at why a respectable gent like Kirwan would make himself so vulnerable in London’s roughest borough. This mystery only deepened when police took Dr Thomas Brady, another friend of Kirwan’s, round the pawn shops which had issued the tickets found in Waller’s pocket.
They began at Osborne & Gall’s pawnshop in The Strand, whose name appeared on the September 30 ticket for the gold hunter watch. The shop’s William Nead confirmed the ticket was genuine and produced the watch itself, which Brady immediately recognised. “I knew the deceased intimately. He was in the habit of wearing a gold watch, but I did not know before his death that he had pawned it,” Brady said. “The deceased had tea with me about three weeks ago. He then had a chain, but I could not say whether he wore a watch.”
Three weeks ago would have put that meeting at September 28, just two days before the hunter watch was pawned. Anyone seeing the gold chain on Kirwan’s waistcoat as he stumbled round Southwark in October would quite reasonably have assumed there was still a watch attached to it, and his killers must have been very disappointed to discover this was not so.
It was the same story at the two other pawn shops: Nathan’s in Poplar, which took the overcoat on July 12, and Attenborough’s in Fleet Street, which accepted the diamond ring on September 23. Carling had found a mark on the middle finger of Kirwan’s right hand when he examined the body, suggesting that a ring had been pulled from that finger some time ago. He stressed that this mark was an old one, however, and could not possibly have been caused on the day of Kirwan’s death. Now it looked like Kirwan had tugged the diamond ring off his own finger on September 23 as he stood at Mr Attenborough’s counter. (18)
The police took this information to James McLoughlin, the friend Kirwan had taken tea with just three days earlier. “I cannot account for his pawning these articles,” McLoughlin told them. “I know he had money, [but] sometimes he would pawn things. He was eccentric in that way. He liked to be considered poor.” And perhaps that explains the name “George Allen” on the overcoat’s pawn ticket too – did Kirwan have an alias he sometimes used when playing at poverty?
As Brady toured the pawn shops with police, Carling was carrying out a post-mortem on Kirwan’s remains. He was helped in this by Thomas Stevenson, a forensic medicine expert at Guy’s. Carling has already concluded from his previous examination that Kirwan was “well-nourished and developed” with “nothing to indicate he took alcohol to excess”, and the post-mortem supported these findings.
“The face was not contorted, but there was a leaden look about it, and some small points of extravasated blood on the scalp and forehead,” Carling reported. “There was no fracture of the head and the brain was healthy. The pupils were not contracted. On removing the windpipe and lungs, a smell of beer was noticed, and there were some pieces of food in the gullet.” (19)

He repeated his conclusions about the injuries to Kirwan’s throat, then explained what he’d found in the rest of the body. “The heart was contracted, and on the front of the left side of the heart, there was an extravasation of blood covering an inch by a third of an inch. I discovered no fracture of the spine. The deceased died from asphyxia due to strangulation.”
Carling added that he’d found traces of beer and wine in Kirwan’s stomach, but no signs that he’d been a regular heavy drinker. There was no hint of any other drug, irritant or poison in his system, and nothing to explain the fact that he’d been seen doubled over in pain when he left The Lord Clyde. Stevenson backed all these conclusions, adding that an attack like the one Waller described to Featherstone could produce precisely the injuries seen inside Kirwan’s throat.
Early next morning - Saturday, October 15 - Noble turned up at Southwark police station and announced he was giving himself up. Asked, “What for?” he replied, “For the old gentleman”. He was arrested too, and identified by Knight the same day.
The next step was Kirwan’s inquest hearing, which began at Southwark Coroner’s Court on Monday, October 17. Frances Graham, Kirwan’s sister, fainted as soon as she saw his body, so his brother-in-law Richard Egan, a tax inspector, made the formal identification instead.
The coroner, Samuel Langham, had asked special permission from the Home Secretary for the four accused to be present at this hearing so that they’d have an opportunity to question the witnesses. This was not normally done at a coroner’s hearing, but in this case the Home Secretary allowed it. Waller, Balch, Noble and Lee were brought handcuffed into the courtroom, surrounded by four warders, and seated behind the jury box, where Balch and Noble were seen keeping notes on the proceedings. (20)
When Elizabeth Knight entered the witness box, Lee questioned her quite aggressively, insisting she was mistaken in thinking he’d entered The Lord Clyde with the other four men. “You kiss the Book on that?” he scoffed, referring to Knight’s witness oath. “You are speaking falsely!” But Knight stuck to her guns.
After hearing all the witnesses, Langham turned to instruct the jury. He told them that the case against Lee was far from conclusive, but that the evidence against Waller, Balch and Noble was much stronger. He reminded them that, if they were convinced the three had set out to rob Kirwan, and caused his death by doing so, that was enough for a collective verdict of wilful murder against the whole trio. It would mean they had all been involved in an action which amounted to murder, and all would be guilty of that charge no matter which individual struck the fatal blow.
The coronor’s jury retired to deliberate, returning with a decision that Waller, Balch and Noble should face a criminal prosecution for the wilful murder of William Kirwan. They decided a murder charge against Lee would not be justified, but that didn’t mean he was in the clear just yet. All four prisoners were then returned to Holloway to await the next stage of the process. (21)


A remand hearing was needed to let police keep the men in custody until their full murder trial could be arranged, and that came at Southwark Police Court on Friday October 28.

Sims set the court ablaze when he announced his new witness had heard Waller confess

By then, the papers had stirred up so much interest in Kirwan’s death that the public gallery could not accommodate everyone who wanted a glimpse of the killers. “The court was crowded during the hearing of the case,” one newspaper reported. “And there was a still larger crowd outside who were unable to gain admission. A special force of police, in uniform and in plain clothes, in the charge of Inspector O’Dea, was in attendance to guard the prisoners.” The magistrate at this hearing was Mr Lushington, and the prosecutor was called Sims.
Featherstone’s account of his conversation with Waller had come too late for the coroner’s hearing, and Sims caused a sensation in the Police Court when he announced he had a new witness with details of Waller’s confession. Featherstone, by then serving his own term in Pentonville, was brought to the witness box by two prison warders, and testified wearing his prison stripes.
Sims ran through all the evidence presented at the inquest, explaining that the coroner’s jury had exonerated Lee on the murder charge, but said he intended to prosecute all four men for killing Kirwan anyway. New evidence had come to light since the coroners’ hearing which implicated Lee too, he said. Police were investigating reports that Lee’s brother had been seen with Kirwan’s missing umbrella shortly after the murder, and Sims argued Lee should not be dismissed till that was explained.
All the key witnesses were called again, and described events as I’ve detailed above. Kelly had managed to avoid the coroner’s hearing, but did turn up at the Police Court, and that’s where he explained he hadn’t alerted the police about Kirwan “because I don’t like them enough”. Asked why he had waited two weeks before offering any account at all of what he’d seen that day, Kelly replied, “Because I was afraid”. The men in the dock smiled at this, knowing that friends on the outside had been busy intimidating witnesses on their behalf.
That, I think, must be why Emma Smith, who’d watched Waller, Balch and Noble shuffling Kirwan along the pavement from her Whitecross Street window, insisted so vehemently in the Police Court that she’d seen none of their faces. The two children, Lizzie Williams and John Wentworth, were braver, describing frankly what they’d seen at every stage, but Wentworth paid a heavy price for his courage.
The 13-year-old-lad, who sold firewood from his donkey cart all round Southwark, relied on that donkey for the only income he had. When he spoke out against Waller, Balch and Noble in court, their friends took swift revenge, mutilating the donkey so badly that it could no longer work. (22)
The murder trial itself finally reached The Old Bailey on November 18, 1892, by which time the rumours about Lee’s brother and the umbrella had evidently been dismissed. The murder charge against Henry Lee was dropped, leaving just Waller, Balch and Noble in the dock. Roberts was produced to give evidence at the Old Bailey, the first hearing where she’d done so, but it proved far from illuminating.
Describing herself as “an unfortunate woman”, she confirmed she’d had a room in either Blackfriars Road or Southwark Street (both quite close to the murder scene) at around the time Kirwan was killed. Asked about their visit to The Alfred’s Head, she admitted she had sometimes used the place, and that Irish whiskey was her preferred tipple there. And that was about it.
“I know I was out all one night,” she said. “I have no recollection of being at The Alfred’s Head early on Wednesday morning, or being with a gentleman. I have no recollection of being in a florists in Great Dover Street, or being at The One Distillery in High Street. I don’t know Marshalsea Road. I don’t know Redcross Way exactly. I don’t remember taking a gentleman to the door of that house [in Redcross Way] on Wednesday morning, or going into the gardens there.
“I have no recollection of a number of children following or calling after me. I don’t remember being with anyone or speaking to anyone. [...] I can’t say what I did that day because I was in drink. I don’t know what clothes I was wearing on October 12.”
Despite this blank in her memory, Roberts was clear about one thing. “I do not know any of the prisoners,” she claimed. “I never did speak to the prisoners at any time. I have no recollection of seeing them that day or any other day.”
Kelly, who also testified at The Old Baily, repeated that he’d seen Roberts consulting with the three men before their first attempt to mug Kirwan, and that she had helped them try to push him inside the lodging house in Redcross Way. It strains credulity to think the one and only thing Roberts could recall with any clarity just happened to be something that would have cleared her of any responsibility for Kirwan’s death, so there’s no reason to believe her denial here.
The Old Bailey heard all the evidence I’ve summarised, and the various parties’ lawyers made their final arguments on November 21. Charles Matthews, leading the prosecution, had begun his case by telling the jury that everyone who took part in robbing Kirwan “was guilty of the crime of murder”. This was exactly the same advice the coroner had given to his own jury. By the time he summed up, though, Matthews seemed to have changed his mind, telling the Old Bailey jury that a manslaughter conviction might be more appropriate in Noble’s case. “His back was turned to the assailants, and he did not himself offer personal violence to the deceased,” Matthews admitted. (23)

Noble’s lawyer, a Mr RJ Drake, hoped to go a step further, suggesting that his client carried no responsility at all for Kirwan’s death. “Noble thought that Waller and Balch were taking the deceased up the passage for a legitimate purpose,” The Times said in its summary of Drake’s argument. “He had no knowledge that a robbery or anything else was going to take place there. Noble simply stood in the passage waiting for the others.”
Mr WM Thompson, defending Waller, argued that no-one had testified they’d actually seen his client strangling Kirwan, that no-one planning a murder would have let themselves be seen so publicly leading the victim to his death, and that it was ridiculous to think Waller would have confessed to a stranger like Featherstone a few minutes after meeting him for the first time. Ernest Beard, speaking for Balch, contented himself with saying the case against his client thad not been proven.

The fascinating thing about Kirwan is why he went out of his way to invite such a violent end

The judge, Mr Justice Bruce, briefed the jury on how the law stood on cases like this, and they retired to debate a verdict. They returned with a shock decision that all three men were guilty only of manslaughter, rather than the murder charges that had originally been brought. Waller and Balch were each sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Noble to 14 years. (24)
Many people found it incomprehensible that Waller had escaped a murder conviction. A Lincon’s Inn lawyer, who signed himself only “AR” wrote a letter to The Times saying he found the Waller verdict “wholly inexplicable”.
“It is a settled point of English law that a man who, in commission of a felony, kills a fellow creature, whether intentionally or not, is guilty of murder,” the letter continued. “Yet the jury found Waller guilty of manslaughter only, and seemed entirely unaware that if he had done what he was alleged to have done, the offence would have been murder, while if he had not done it, there would have been no offence at all. The public will await an explanation of this matter with some anxiety.” (25, 26)


Southwark’s death records for the final quarter of 1892 show that Dr William Patrick Kirwan – our man’s full name - was buried at age 42 in St Olave’s Parish, right next to the St Saviour’s Parish where he died.
The fascinating thing about his death is not the strangulation itself, but why a respectable professional man of moderate habits would go out of his way to invite such a violent end. If this was Kirwan’s version of what Oscar Wilde called “feasting with panthers”, then why choose a moment for it when he was so utterly unable to defend himself?
In trying to think this through, I consulted two medical experts: a family doctor and a county coroner, both with many years’ experience in their fields. Neither wanted to be quoted by name, so I’m just going to call them “our doctor” and “our coroner” here.
Both these gents agreed to look through the evidence I’d gathered about Kirwan’s death – principally the eye-witness statements and the post-mortem report – to see what conclusions they could reasonably draw. I didn’t prompt them in any way, and they each produced their conclusions independently of the other.
Bearing all that in mind, let’s consider the possible reasons for Kirwan’s reckless behaviour one by one:

1) Too much booze?
We have the testimony of Kirwan’s friends and landlady that he was not an habitual heavy drinker, and William Carling’s autopsy confirms this. In one sense, this may have counted against him, as an unaccusomed session of heavy drinking would hit someone like that all the harder.
We know Kirwan was sober at 11:15 on the Tuesday night. We have no idea what he did in the hours between then and 5:30am Wednesday, but the barman in The Alfred’s Head, who served him at that hour, thought he was still sober. Kirwan and Roberts then disappear again until 10:15am, when the Great Dover Street florist describes him as “weary”.
As far as we can see, Kirwan drank only two or three beers in the five hours that followed, and witnesses are about evenly divided whether he was drunk or sober when they saw him. If he had been drinking heavily between 5:30am and 10:15am, you’d think he’d either be keen enough to carry on drinking till he collapsed altogether, or pull himself together sufficiently to go home and sober up.
Suddenly switching to moderate drinking half way through a day like that seems the least likely option of all. The only way I can imagine that happening is if Kirwan realised he was horribly drunk and tried to leave for home, but his companions kept talking him out of it. That much is plausible enough, but it doesn’t explain why he’d behave so out of character in getting that drunk in the first place.
“His previous, apparently abstemious, nature makes DTs, as suggested by the pharmacist Williams, unlikely,” our coroner said. “It doesn’t really match the picture.”
Our doctor added that the traces of alcohol found in Kirwan’s stomach at autopsy suggested no more than the moderate two or three drinks we have direct evidence of him taking. The one beer Kirwan was seen drinking in the Lord Clyde just after 2:00pm would have still been in his stomach when he died less than an hour later, which explains the smell of beer Carling noticed when opening him up.
“A drink will typically take anything up to two hours to empty from the stomach,” our doctor said. “Most people metabolise a unit an hour, so he would never have had very much alcohol in his system. I think, with the evidence you have, the amount of alcohol he drank was very modest.”
Taken together, I think these remarks rule out alcohol as the sole – or even the prime – cause of Kirwan’s behaviour. As we’ll see in a moment, though, it still may have acted as the trigger for a more serious underlying problem.

2) Some other drug?
Kirwan’s death came bang in the middle of the period historians call “The Great Binge” (1870-1914), when Londoners could legally buy morphine and cocaine preparations over the counter. As a medical man, Kirwan would have had even more access to these drugs.
It’s a tempting theory, but Carling’s autopsy seems to rule it out. He specifically stated that he found no drug except alcohol in Kirwan’s system, and no trace of any poison or other irritants either. “If he’d had a large dose of opioids, he’d be quite happily high, but you don’t get confused with that normally,” our own doctor said.
Our coroner was less willing to dismiss the idea. “There must be a strong possibility of his being drugged or having a ‘spiked’ drink,” he said. “One has to suspect he was drugged by an agent not detected in testing at that time.”
Some form of doping may have played a part in tipping Kirwan over from vulnerable to helpless in that last stumble up Whitecross Street, but it can’t explain why he ended up in Southwark in the first place. That would require the dope to be administered in Canning Town on the Tuesday night, and it’s hard to see what anyone could hope to gain from that. What would be the point of spiking someone’s drink and then letting them slip miles beyond your grasp before the drug takes hold?

3) Lack of sleep?
It’s true that Kirwan didn’t make it home on the Tuesday night, but one night’s missed sleep at the age of 42 doesn’t knock you out to the extent that he showed.
Roberts was in the business of offering quick knee-tremblers up an alleyway rather than hosting clients in her room, so I doubt he spent the night with her. If he’d slept rough for some reason, his clothes would have shown the marks of that, but no-one mentions any such dishevelment next day. Perhaps he’d simply walked the streets all night and it was that extertion that left him so tired?

4) An earlier mugging?
If someone had jumped Kirwan after he left the Aberfeldy in Canning Town on the Tuesday night, that might go some way towards explaining his strange behaviour next day. But any attack like that would surely have left some evidence – either as damage to Kirwan’s clothes or a visible injury on his person.
Everyone who saw Kirwan in Southwark next day reports he was perfectly smart, and Carling found no injuries on his body that could not be accounted for by the Whitecross Street assault. Even in 1892, our doctor confirmed, a post mortem would certainly have picked up any head injury Kirwan may have received, and none was mentioned.
Also, if someone had attacked Kirwan on the Tuesday night, why would they not have taken the gold watch-chain he was later seen wearing in Southwark?

5) Sexual slumming?
Kirwan was unmarried, and we know from his pawnshop activities that he sometimes liked to play at being poor. He wouldn’t be the only Victorian gent to use underclass women as a source of sexual relief.
I can believe he might have stopped off in Southwark to find a whore – perhaps even one like Roberts – but that does not explain why be chose to linger there all night. Why not spend his ample funds on a rather more appealing woman or, if Roberts’ lowly status was part of the appeal, why not go back to his nice warm bed when the deed was done? “Doctors can lead double lives, and he wouldn’t have been the first to visit a prostitute,” our own doctor admitted. “But, as you say yourself, he’d want to go back to a comfortable bed.” (27)
If this was part of a wider masquerade Kirwan indulged in for some reason, perhaps using his George Allen alias, then why not go the whole hog and dress in rags too? He must surely have known that wandering round Southwark in a top hat and all his other finery would mark him out as a toff and therefore put his life in severe danger. (28)

6) A stroke or seizure?
Having rejected all the above theories one by one, I was left with the idea that Kirwan may have suffered something like a minor stroke after he left the Aberfeldy on Tuesday night.

‘It would give rise to acute confusion, often triggered by alcohol, and acute abdominal pain.’

I imagined him innocently on his way home when this neurological disaster strikes, leaving him so confused that he abandons his journey in Southwark and begins walking aimlessly round the streets there. Sooner or later, Roberts finds him stumbling along, mistakes him for a drunk, and decides he’s source of easy cash.
Perhaps she offers him sex, or perhaps she merely takes him by the arm and persuades him to buy her a drink. By this time, he’s helpless enough for Roberts to lead around at will. His brain, the very instrument which would once have allowed him to diagnose his condition, is now so damaged that he barely knows who he is.
Waller and the rest start trailing him too, and the rest we know. Apart from occasional brief rallies – fighting off the Redcross Way mugging attempt, casting away his second beer in The Lord Clyde – Kirwan gets steadily worse as the day wears on until he’s dragged up Whitecross Street barely able to walk.
Once again, though, Carling’s autopsy report seems to rule this out. “He might have have a small stroke or a small cerebral bleed,” our doctor said. “But you have to believe that would have been picked up on the post mortem, because they looked at his brain quite carefully. If he’d had a head injury or if he’d had a bleed? They’d have picked up those major things.
“If it was a stroke, you might expect him to have a weakness down one side, or slurred speech, and there was nothing. He was certainly moving all four limbs by the sound of it. So there’s nothing to suggest he’d had a major stroke. Bleeds can progress and build up, but normally you get a blinding headache and it knocks you to the ground. The reports are that he was absolutely fine and behaving totally normally the night before, and there was nothing to suggest that he was ill.”
Our coroner came to the same conclusion when considering the possibility of a seizure. “Unusual behaviour may follow fits (a post-ictal state) or psychiatric problems (a fugue state),” he told me. “But there is no previous history here.”

7) Acute intermittent porphyria?
This is the disease now thought to explain the supposed insanity of King George III, as depicted in the Alan Bennett play and the film that followed it. In George III’s case, the condition’s believed to have been triggered by attempts to poison him with arsenic, but our doctor told me that booze could do this job equally well.
“Acute porphyria can be triggered by alcohol,” he explained. “It would give rise to acute confusional states, often triggered by alcohol or drugs, and to acute abdominal pain. Now, if you look at the report carefully, Kirwan clearly had acute abdominal pain. He was curled up. Lizzie Williams said he was very pale in the face – and that’s a classic feature of acute abdominal pain. And he was slumped over: they had to support him. That would fit very nicely.”
Porphyria would never have occurred to me without this steer, but when I did a bit of research I discovered that its acute form does fit much of Kirwan’s behaviour. “Signs and symptoms appear quickly and usually last a short time,” the Genetics Home Reference site says. “Episodes of acute porphyria can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation and diarrhoea. During an episode, a person may also experience muscle weakness, seizure, fever and mental changes such as anxiety and hallucinations”. (29)
A couple of paragraphs later, the same site names alcohol as one of the factors known to trigger attacks, adding that AIP is the acute disease’s most common form and that it’s thought to be found most often in northern European countries such as the UK. (30)
Kirwan certainly didn’t show all these symptoms, but he did exhibit a fair sprinking of them. A sudden attack followed by a bout of confusion would explain both his aborted attempt to get home, and his night wandering the streets of Southwark. We have descriptions of him doubled over with pain in The Lord Clyde and looking very pale a few minutes later, both of which suggest severe abdominal pain. (31)
The pharmacist watching Kirwan in The Lord Clyde thought he had delerium tremens, which shows many of the same symptoms as porphyria, including confusion, anxiety, hallucinations and extreme sensitivity to light. The muscle weakness seems to fit with Kirwan’s weariness in the flower shop and the fact that his legs would barely support him later. James Rothwell saw him staring around wildly and looking worried in Redcross Gardens, which suggests anxiety and, perhaps, that he was suffering hallucinations too.
Porphyria was not identified until 1889, and would have still been very little understood when Kirwan died. Even as a medical man, he’d have had scant chance of identifying his condition, and I doubt Carling knew enough to consider it in the autopsy either. To the uneducated folk of Southwark, most of Kirwan’s porphyria symptoms – if that’s what they were - could easily have been mistaken for simple drunkeness. Finding himself confused on the streets of Southwark, he gets picked up by Roberts, and the rest plays out as in the stroke scenario above.
“Porphyria would fit nicely with his presentation of acute confusion,” our doctor told me. “Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and wandering. Porphyria can do this. It can come on very acutely – one minute you haven’t got it, and the next minute you have.”
I put this idea to Liz Gill of the British Porphyria Association, but she was sceptical. “As an acute prophyria sufferer, it seems to me quite unlikely that this would be the answer,” she said. “Personally, I think you were probably more on the right track with a stroke.”
If Kirwan really was a porphyria sufferer, Gill told me, and if alcohol was his trigger, then he’d most likely have shown symptoms of pain after drinking on previous occasions – and yet neither his friends nor his landlady mention anything like this. As far as a full-blown attack is concerned, Gill thinks it would have taken quite a lot of alcohol to push Kirwan over the edge.
“Alcohol is generally thought to be a problem [only] in fairly large quantities,” she said. “Although we still advise acute prophyria patients to avoid alcohol, many sufferers do have small amounts to no ill effect.” Kirwan policed his drinking very carefully most of the time – perhaps because he knew it caused problems otherwise – but there’s no evidence of an uncharacteristic binge when he reached Southwark.

And that, I fear, is about as close as we’re likely to get in discovering why Kirwan behaved as he did. We have one vote in favour of poisoning, one in favour of porphyria and one in favour of a stroke – but also some powerful points against all those theories. Unless someone out there has a blinding flash of insight or some new information to offer, The Borough Mystery looks set to remain just that.

*****

Appendix I: 'Police don’t go down here unless they have to'


In March 1902, less than ten years after this murder, a social researcher called George Duckworth walked round exactly the same Southwark streets Kirwan had walked on the last day of his life. His notes give us a vivid glimpse of just what this neighbourhood was like in the Victorian era. Duckworth calls it: “A set of courts and small streets, which for number, viciousness, poverty and crowding is unrivalled in London.”
     In Redcross Way, he notes “a notorious women’s lodging house” at the north-east end, and “hardly a whole pane of glass in any window”. There was a row of single-story stables, only one of which was occupied, and that by “one scarecrow horse”.
     “Stable yard used as a dumping ground for house refuge, and full of manure,” Duckworth continues. “Bread, bones, rotting oranges, brickbats, ‘stabling to let’ on a notice. Three women sitting on doorstep at [eastern] end; one suckling a child, bare breasts. No attempt to cover herself as I passed; all of lowest type, the other two huddling under shawls.”
     In coming down Redcross Way alone, Duckworth was ignoring warnings from a PC Barton, who clearly thought the Eton-educated researcher was mad. “Barton was nervous of me going down here alone, saying the chances were in favour of brickbats or slops on my head,” Duckworth writes. “Many evil faces at windows, but nothing happened.”
     Anyone unable to defend himself, Duckworth adds, might not have been so lucky. “Any man at all the worse for drink has a bad chance if he once gets in here at night,” he writes “He is sure to be robbed of everything, and is lucky to get out of the place without bodily injury. […] Police don’t go down here unless they have to, and never singly.”
     In Falcoln Court, just off Redcross Way, he adds: “There is a public house at the south side and a pawnbroker’s at the north. Thieves, prostitutes, bullies. Prostitutes standing at the Bough Street end; spiders to catch flies. Women sitting on doorsteps. Barton said it was bad, but not as bad as Redcross [Way]. An awkward place for a stranger at night.” Duckworth saw more prostitutes in nearby Whitecross Street. “They are Irish cockneys,” he writes. “The charges of such prostitutes are one shilling or six pence – sometimes only a pot of beer.”
     Duckworth was an unpaid volunteer helping to gather data for the third edition of Charles Booth’s Life & Labour of the People of London. “In one street in Southwark, where there are many single-room tenements, it is said there are 800 people living in 36 houses,” Booth writes in the finished volume. His poverty map, produced at about the same time, shows Southwark as one of the most deprived boroughs in London, with over 40% of its people living in poverty. Close to the river, where Kirwan died, Booth puts the percentage at over 60%.
     Streets like these were the last ones William Kirwan would ever see, and Duckworth’s portrait of them makes his decision to stop there more puzzling than ever.

You can view Duckworth’s original notebooks at the Charles Booth Online Archive here.

*****

Appendix II: Gangland rule in Southwark: July & August 1898


There’s never been a time when respectable Londoners didn’t fret about groups of drunken, violent young men roaming the streets.
      The men who maimed John Wentworth’s donkey were far from the only gang in Southwark in the 1890s, and it’s no coincidence that’s when the word “Hooligan” first appears in print. The word’s believed to derive from Patrick Houlihan, an Irishman who made Southwark’s Lamb & Flag pub the HQ for his family’s criminal operations in (I think) the 1880s. (32)
      He was a skilled thief, a formidable fighter and much in demand as a bouncer in the borough’s toughest boozers. He gathered a big gang around him, attracted by what Clarence Rook’s 1899 book Hooligan Nights calls his “combination of skill and strength, a certain exuberance of lawlessness [and] an utter absence of scruple.”
      It was a small step to corrupt Houlihan into “hooligan”, and hence create a handy genric term for all men of Patrick’s type. Most of those who earned that nickname were not the charming rogues I’ve implied in my description here, but simply vicious little thugs. Southwark was one of the London boroughs most plagued by these gangs. By 1898, they were powerful enough there to routinely intimidate any witnesses asked to testify against them, and their members often escaped punishment as a result.
      “Very few people dare to either prosecute or give evidence against known Hooligans,” one newspaper lamented. “They enjoy comparative immunity.” The same story adds that the gangs sometimes gave themselves colourful names based on stories they found in the cheap, gory magazines called penny bloods. (33)
      Here’s a few examples of the cases passing through Southwark Police Court in the summer of 1898.

James Darcy was part of a six-strong gang who brutally assaulted a young butcher’s assistant called George Fish when he asked them to let him pass in a narrow alley. He was arrested, and other gang members offered Fish ten shillings to drop the charges. He refused, but admitted £10 might have been another matter. Two of the girls in the gang swore in court that Darcy had never touched Fish, and police were unable to find anyone who’d testify against him. The court fined Darcy for drunkeness and keeping a disorderly house, but had to drop the assault charges for lack of evidence. (34)

Thomas Darcy, James’ 16-year-old brother, was arrested a week later, this time for stabbing a blacksmith called Henry Mappin to death in the street. Thomas was charged with wilful murder, and police moved to protect witnesses the gang had threatened. An Old Bailey jury found him guilty that October, sentencing him to death. The sentence was commuted because of his age. (35)

Alfred Jacobs, 17, and a gang of his mates approached an old woman called Mary Verado on the steps outside Southwark’s parish relief office and “attempted to improperly assault her”. She resisted, and Jacobs gave her a savage beating. He was arrested and fined £5 for the assault. “The money was paid and the fellow, who seemed to be quite indifferent to the charge, was released,” the Daily Mail reported. “Nothing was said about compensating the old woman for her injuries.” (36)

William Sinker walked up to a man called Morris in the street near the Old Vic theatre and demanded money. When he refused, Sinker stabbed him in the face. The papers reported that Morris, who trembled with fear in court, had been threatened by two of Sinker’s female associates, both of whom had criminal records of their own. Unable to persuade anyone who saw the assault to come forward, the court had to settle for giving Sinker a single day in jail. (36)

Frederick Edge, 16 years old, was fined 40 shillings for pushing people off the pavement and throwing mud at them as he walked down Weston Street in Southwark with a gang of young roughs. The same day’s hearings gave Morgan O’Neil, 31, a month’s hard labour for what the South London Chronicle called conduct “of a similar kind”. (37)

Samuel Owen, who the papers called “a notorious hooligan”, followed a stonemason named George Clamp around Lambeth for several hours demanding money before Clamp finally lost his temper. He span round on Owen, stabbed him in the arm, and was later brought to court for it. Owen didn’t bother to turn up for the hearing, and the magistrate dismissed all charges against Clamp. Police called him “a straightforward, honest, hard-working man of unblemished character”. (38)

To see what the playwright Arthur Wing Pinero made of William Kirwan's murder, please visit PlanetSlade's May 2013 letters page here.

Sources & Footnotes
1) Old Bailey trial transcripts, November 14, 1892. (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/).
2) The Old Bailey transcript of this particular case spells many of the surnames wrongly: “Kirwain” instead of “Kirwan”, for example, and “Hardley” rather than “Ardley”. When in doubt, I’ve used The Times’ spellings instead, which seem more reliable.
3) Stirling recognised Roberts from her previous visits to The Alfred’s Head. He had never seen Kirwan before, but identified him from a photograph shown in court. All the other Southwark witnesses identified Kirwan in the same way.
4) Kelly identified the third man he saw not as Edward Waller, but as a 28-year-old stoker called Henry Lee. The balance of other evidence suggests he was mistaken in this, however, and I’m going to assume it was Waller all along. My reasons for doing so will become clear as the story unfolds.
5) Street names were used more informally at this time, and the names Redcross Street, Redcross Court and Redcross Alley were applied more or less interchangably to describe this one road. I’ve used its modern name of Redcross Way throughout for the sake of clarity.
6) Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, my source for this remark, actually printed it as “What the ---- are you waiting for?” Given its place in the sentence, I can’t think what other word they might have had in mind.
7) This fits McLoughlin’s description of Kirwan’s drinking habits. “I never knew him to drink to excess,” McLoughlin said. “He drank lemonade and beer mixed, very seldom spirits.”
8) An Ulster was a popular caped overcoat of the Victorian era, which Roberts must have acquired somewhere in second-hand form. Details here: http://theministerspen.blogspot.co.uk/.
9) This remark produced “loud laughter” when Kelly made it in court. It’s resported in an unidentified New Zealand newspaper dated December 30, 1892.
10) Kelly identified the three men he’d originally seen following Kirwan as Lee, Balch and Noble, but can’t explain how Lee magically turned into Waller between Southwark Bridge Road and The Lord Clyde. Elizabeth Knight, the landlady at The Lord Clyde, said she thought Lee had been in company with Waller, Balch and Noble there, but all four men vehemently denied this. Lizzie Williams testified that Lee remained back at The Lord Clyde as Waller, Balch and Noble led Kirwan off to his death, and prosecutors eventually concluded he had not been involved in the murder.
11) Knight’s husband ensured The Lord Clyde had its own solicitor present at Kirwan’s inquest hearing, which suggests he was concerned the murder could end up costing the pub its licence. If so, then he – and perhaps the other publicans involved as well – would have had a vested interest in minimising how drunk Kirwan had seemed to be while on their own premises.
12) The Times, October 18, 1892.
13) This is an amalgam of Williams’ evidence at the Police Court hearing of October 28, 1892, and the Old Bailey trial that followed. Sources as above.
14) Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, October 23, 1892.
15) Holloway didn’t become a women-only prison until 1903.
16) I’ve omitted a couple of lines of the transcript here to avoid confusion. Waller had mistaken Kirwan for a solicitor rather than a doctor, and that’s how he described him when talking to Featherstone. As far as I can see, it was a meaningless mistake, so I’ve chosen not to muddy the water with it here.
17) I don’t know whether the police gave Featherstone anything in return for his co-operation or not.
18) Eliza Ardley, Kirwan’s landlandy, said he also wore a gold ring on his little finger, though she could not be sure he had it on when she last saw him. This may have been the ring some witnesses said they saw Kirwan wearing (on his left hand) in Southwark, but if so it appears to have been stolen from his body and never recovered.
19) The Times, October 20, 1892.
20) Langham was coroner for both Southwark and the City of London. On October 4,1888, four years before Kirwan’s death, he’d presided at the inquest hearing for Catherine Eddowes, the fourth of Jack the Ripper’s five victims.
21) The coroner’s jury added a poignant little note of their own to the verdict, saying that, if ever called to serve at an inquest again, “we hope we shall not be put in a mortuary”. I take this to mean that Southwark Coroner’s Court had no proper jury room available that day, so they’d been forced to deliberate their verdict in its mortuary instead.
22) One newspaper reported that the donkey had been blinded. This happened after the coroner’s hearing, but before the police court one. Lloyds Weekly collected contributions from its readers to help Wentworth survive, and he pressed on with his testimony all the way to the Old Bailey trial. The judge there called the donkey’s maiming an act of “barbarous cruelty”, but said he could not allocate court funds to compensate Wentworth. The RSPCA gave him a new donkey after Waller, Balch and Noble were jailed.
23) The Times, November 21, 1892.
24) In setting these sentences, the judge took note of Waller and Balch’s previous convictions. Waller had done a total of 26 months in jail for stealing a couple of pairs of boots and some grapes, while Balch had served a total of 17 years – more than half his life at this point – for stealing. Noble had no previous convictions, but police knew him as the leader of a criminal street gang in Southwark which the Yorkshire Herald said had nick-named him “The Ace of Spades”.
25) I can think of two possible explanations for the jury’s perverse verdict, but they’re no more than guesswork. (1) Given the apparent confusion in Matthews’ mind whether Noble was guilty of murder or manslaughter, perhaps the jury feared they must hang all three men or none? If so, they may have felt a manslaughter verdict against Waller was a price worth paying to spare Noble the gallows. (2) We know Waller’s friends moved to intimidate at least two of the witnesses against him, so it’s quite possible that they got to the jury too. Perhaps a manslaughter verdict was the best they could achieve.
26) You could argue that Waller was responsible for Kirwan’s mother’s death as well as the doctor’s own. On November 12, 1892, the Cheshire Observer reported that the old lady had died in Dublin five days earlier. “Mrs Kirwan, on hearing of her son’s sad end, became completely prostrated and never rallied,” the paper said.
27) The prospect of al fresco sex with Blanche Roberts recalls a 1973 exchange between David Hatch and Jo Kendall in I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’s version of Victorian London. Narrator: “In the sinister alleyways, Nellie Button, her clothes ragged and fithy, her hair unkempt, her face raddled and grimy, plies her trade.” Nellie: “Want an ‘orrible time, sailor?”
28) Just six years before this case, Robert Louis Stevenson had published a hugely popular novel describing another respectable doctor with a dark secret life. For Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, read William Kirwan and George Allen.
29) Genetics Home Reference (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/porphyria).
30) Porphyria has also been linked to the vampire legends of central Europe. The disease can lead to receding gums, creating the appearance of fangs, and sufferers often experience extreme sensitivity to sunlight. Some believe these symptoms were once mistaken for something supernatural, which led to the original vampire myths.
31) A spiked drink like the one our coroner proposes could have produced abdominal pain too, of course. But it would have to be a substance that didn’t show in the autopsy.
32) Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable suggests an alternative etymology, citing Islington’s notorious “Hooley’s Gang”.
33) I found this story in the Auckland Star of January 16, 1901. They probably lifted it verbatim from a British newspaper, but I don’t know which one.
34) Daily Mail, July 23, 1898.
35) Daily Mail, July 30, 1898. The Mail story calls the killer Thomas Darcy, but some other sources call him John Darcy.
36) Daily Mail, August 6, 1898.
37) South London Chronicle, August 13, 1898.
38) Daily Mail, August 14, 1898.

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