A case for Sergeant Burr

By Gerald Hinks

Nobody has thought of perpetuating the memory of Police Sergeant Burr. Indeed, posterity cannot come up with his first names without considerable research.

But we do know that in late 1890s his beat included Chatham’s notorious Brook district, where prostitutes and thugs were more likely to rub shoulders than virtuous Victorians.

And we do know that Sergeant Burr was not a man to rush to hasty conclusions. For instance, early on the morning of 4 June, 1898, when he was called to a lodging house in Queen Street, just off the Brook.

In a second-floor bedroom, rented for eightpence a night, was the naked body of a woman lying over a chair. Her face was a sickening spectacle of blood and wounds.

There were bruises on her arms and body and a large wound on the chest. Blood was splashed on the walls and a bloodstained poker was in the fender.  The woman’s clothes were scattered about the room m rags, apparently having been torn from the body.

But Sergeant Burr, as we said, was a cautious individual. He assessed the situation carefully. “It looks as if there has been foul play,” he said. And even that conclusion, which deserves some niche in police lore, was almost matched by the explanation of Thomas Daley.

The Brook in Victorian times was a den of crime

He said: “She came home drunk last night and fell down.” The dead woman was 38-year-old Sarah Ann Penfold, who had been living with Daley for seven years after leaving her husband and two children. She was described as quiet and orderly. A police superintendent gave her the accolade of being “a superior person of her class.”

And that certainly could not be said of 40-year-old Thomas Daley. Nobody could find a kind word to say of him. When he worked, and that was not too often, he distributed handbills for music halls and traders or sold flowers and children’s balloons.

His most strenuous exercise seemed to have been in killing his mistress in a drunken frenzy. He had struck her successively with a poker, fire shovel and chair and then kicked her and jumped upon her.

He stripped every particle of clothing from her body, tearing some of her garments into shreds. Then he had gone to bed and slept soundly. Incredibly, while this maniacal assault was taking place, nobody in the lodging house or any of the neighbours took the slightest notice.

Charles Grant, whose room was immediately below, gave evidence at the inquest of hearing a rough and tumble. “But it was like a man and wife,” he said. “It’s a common occurrence in the Brook.” A juror commented: “You were no man to lie there and hear it.” Mr Grant indignantly replied: “If the woman had shouted murder I would have got up.”

A neighbour, Ann Bailey, said there was only a lath and plaster partition between her room and the room in the adjoining lodging house. All through the night she heard the sound of Daley beating the woman. Then she heard a great smash. “It seemed as though a chair was picked up and used with such vengeance that it shook the partition,” she said.

“I heard the poor thing groan after that. The groans got fainter and fainter.” The coroner, W J Harris, asked if it occurred to her to do anything. Mrs Bailey replied: “The parties were both strangers to me and I have never spoken to them. The prisoner is worse than the beast in the field.”

Daley, who had been under arrest since that early morning confrontation with Sgt Burr, provided further dramatic colour to the black comedy of an inquest. He was asked by the coroner whether he wanted to give evidence and was told to kiss the Bible. “Knowing the crime I have committed it’s a mockery to kiss God’s word,” he cried.

Then he told his story, part fact, and part fiction, to the shocked gathering in the Medway Union Workhouse. His wife had come late after going on an errand for him. When asked where she had been Sarah replied: “Oh Tom, I’ve been drugged. They tried to get me into a house.”

Daley continued: “I asked her who it was and she said she would know them again. She fell down near the two chairs by the window and rolled over with her head against the fireplace. I jumped out of bed and said, ‘Now get into bed.’ She got a drink of water. She wouldn’t undress so I tore the things off her and got her into bed.“ She got out two or three times. The last time she upset a jug of water over the bed. Then she got up again and I got out too.

“I picked up the poker and struck her with it. I knocked her down to the ground then I jumped on her and kicked her. I was so irritated I hardly know what I did do. After my temper came to a bit I found she didn’t move and I gave her another kick; but not a word came from her. I found she was dead and picked her up and put her on the chair. I then went to bed. I was in the horrors of drink.”

Daley broke down several times while making his statement. He concluded his confession: A better woman never lived and no man wished to have, but she got led away by other people in the house and pawned the things. The coroner said Daley stood indicted by his own confession and he was sent for trial at Maidstone Assizes.

And when that trial began, five months later m November, a witness was missing. Charles Grant, who had been living in the same lodging house and told the inquest of the “rough and tumble” had been given a year’s hard labour at the assizes that same day for robbery with violence.

His testimony was not necessary. The defence suggested that Daley might have suffered from temporary insanity. But it was a frail case. And in his summing-up, the judge, Sir Henry Hawkins, said: “Drunkenness, pure and simple, is no excuse for crime and there is no evidence that the prisoner’s intellect was so diseased that he did not know the nature or character of the act.” The jury found Daley guilty of murder without retiring.

After he had been sentenced to death, Daley’s last words in court were: “I trust the Lord Almighty will give me the power to see her again.” Daley was hanged in Maidstone Prison. No one mourned him.

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