By Frank Dunkley
Bringing a murderer to book in the 19th century was largely a hit or miss affair. In those far-off days, there were no detectives, no CID, nothing that even remotely resembled forensic science.
But then, as now, the Medway Towns had its fair share of young hooligans and thugs: the bovver boys of yesteryear. This is the story of two of them – brothers James Bell and John Any Bird Bell.
James was 16, and his brother a year younger. Both had a notorious reputation in the Strood area, which, in the early 1800s, was known in the more respectable parts on the eastern side of the bridge as “darkest Strood”, because of the number of criminals who lived there.
Thus it was that when the body of a boy was found in the woods at the side of the Rochester-Maidstone Road, the Bell brothers were the first to be brought in for questioning. The murder was a particularly brutal and savage one.
The murdered boy – Richard Falkland Taylor – was the son of extremely poor parents who lived in a squalid cottage in a Strood alley then known as Russell’s Court. (It was later pulled down to make way for Strood railway station.)
The Taylors’ only income was 4s 6d per week parish relief which, in accordance with the Law of Settlement, had to be paid to them by their native parish – in their case, Aylesford.
As a result, young Taylor was sent out once a fortnight by his father on the long and lonely trek from Strood, to collect the money. And because that fortnightly nine shillings meant the difference to the Taylors between surviving and starving, the boy was told: “Guard it with your life.” On a day in early March 1831, he set out as usual – but by the evening had failed to return home. His disappearance sparked off no immediate excitement.
If it had happened today, his anxious parents would, no doubt, have told the police within a matter of hours; and at once, every inch of his route would have been combed for clues.
But this was 200 years ago when it was far from uncommon for boys of Richard’s age to run away from home. It was, therefore, several days before his body was found.
Although the police of that day lacked sophistication, they had more than an adequate knowledge of their local villains. Almost at once, the Bell brothers were asked what they knew about the boy’s death. Loudly and strongly, they protested their innocence – but were charged with the murder and brought before Rochester magistrates.
There was no direct evidence against them and they were on the point of being discharged when one of the magistrates began to question them closely.
John Any Bird suddenly broke down and confessed. He and James, he said, knew about young Taylor’s fortnightly trip. So they met him on his return journey and on the pretext of showing him a short-cut home, they enticed him into the woods.
For their crime, the two boys stood trial at Maidstone Assizes. John was condemned to death and was the first person hanged in front of the new prison at Maidstone.
On the morning of his execution, Taylor’s father travelled from Strood to tell John, as he went to the scaffold, that both he and his wife forgave him for the murder of their son.
James Bird was given a term of penal servitude and after his release, was found a job with a Chatham tailor. But he found a unique way of reaping a dividend from his crime. Once every year, at the Strood Fair, he stood in a booth re-enacting the murder in the woods. The macabre act was exact to the last detail – including James Bird’s imitation of the cries of his victim.
He had little difficulty in attracting audiences. People queued to see him and must have viewed the experience in much the same light as those who nowadays watch violent scenes at the cinema and on television.
The era, too, had its unsolved murders. The story of one of them began with the discovery of the body of a young woman named Mary Abbott in a ditch at the back of Strood High Street, near what is now the Amalgamation Inn. Some of her clothing had been removed. A piece of carpet covered her head and there was no doubt she had been murdered.
Her identity was soon established. She worked “in service” at Gravesend and had arrived in Strood on the Gravesend Omnibus, known as “Edwards’.” One of the last people to see her alive was the chambermaid at a pub near the bus stop called the Silver Oar. The maid had changed half a sovereign for her.
When the inquest opened at the Angel Inn a few days later, the reason for Mary Abbott’s trip to Strood became clear for the first time. She had come to visit a family named McGill – or at least so it appeared from a statement made by one of the the Gills’ neighbours, named Mary Hill.
She had seen Mary enter the McGills’ house and had heard Mrs McGill say: “Come in, my dear.” But when Mrs Hill had asked Mrs McGill, after the murder, who her visitor was, Mrs McGill told her she was a young woman from Brompton. There was little doubt, however, that it was Mary who went into the McGills’ house. Three witnesses all positively identified the body of the girl as the person they had seen knock on the McGills’ door.
When questioned by the police, however, Mrs McGill steadfastly refused to give the name of her visitor and screamed: “1 shan’t tell you. I won’t. So that’s an answer.” It was enough to convince the police that the McGills knew a great deal more about the murder than they were willing to tell. As a result, Mrs McGill’s husband was taken into custody.
By the time the inquest resumed a week later, another surprise witness had come forward. He was Richard Baker, master of the Strood Union, who said that he had seen Mary Abbott with James McGill, the son of the family. And when it was also learned that James lived in Gravesend, the link between the murdered girl and the McGills was established beyond question.
There was also the vital evidence of the piece of carpet which had been found covering Mary Abbott’s head and a piece of which was found tightly clutched in her hand. Mr McGill frankly admitted that the carpet was his. But, he said, it had been in the ditch a month before the murder. On the other hand, Mrs McGill claimed she had never seen it.
The conflicting statements were sufficient for the jury to return a verdict of wilful murder against Thomas McGill, Maria McGill and James McGill. The mystery it seemed, had been solved. In March the following year, all three stood trial at Kent Assizes. The witnesses were paraded in front of the jury. The case lasted for 12 hours.
But all the evidence was circumstantial. The jury deliberated for half an hour and returned to cause a gasp of surprise to echo round the court. They found all three defendants not guilty.
It was one of the most surprising verdicts ever been returned at the Kent Assizes. And it was one that was never accepted by the people of Strood.
After their acquittal, under the pressure of public opinion, the McGills were forced to leave the district, never to return.