Thursday, 4 September 2008

A Victorian Deptford tragedy

This failed suicide pact didn’t contribute to literary history, but was reported in the Annual Register for 1861:

SINGULAR CASE OF MURDER OR SUICIDE. – George Inkpen, 20 years of age, by trade a hammer-man, and residing at Deptford, was indicted for the wilful murder, on the evening of the 11th of November, of his sweetheart Margaret Edmunds, a young woman who was in domestic service in the same neighbourhood. According to the statement of the young man he had been during the day to witness a foot-race at Hackney Wick, where he met with a friend and drank more freely than he was accustomed to do. At a late hour in the afternoon he returned to Deptford, and then proceeded to the ‘Lord Duncan’ tavern. While he was standing at the bar the young woman, Margaret Edmunds, came in to get beer for supper for the family with whom she lived. He spoke to her, and they went out together. She wished him to drink some of the beer, which he did, and she drank some also, and then they finished the whole of it.

The young woman then appears to have dwelt upon the hardships of her situation, and remarked that there was no use in living. She then asked her companion if he would commit suicide with her, saying ‘Will you follow me?’ and to this he replied, ‘Yes; wherever you go I will go.’ With that they turned down Mornington Road, and went together to the Surrey Canal. The young man by this time became so affected by the liquor which he had taken during the day that his companion was obliged to hold him up, and he was probably too confused to understand clearly what was going on. When they had reached the canal the young woman asked him if he had got a handkerchief with which they could tie themselves together; but when the handkerchief was produced she said it would not be long enough to go round them both. She then took from her pocket a piece of tape – which, however, she declared she had not brought out with any idea of her present purpose – and the prisoner also took from his pocket a boot-lace, with which and the tape they fastened themselves together. When this was done the young woman expressed a doubt as to whether the crinoline which she wore would not prevent her from sinking in the water; and then placing her arms around the neck of her companion, she flung herself with him into the canal. They turned over together in the water two or three times, when either the lace or the tape broke, and they were separated. The poor young woman seems to have sunk at once, but the man rose to the surface of the water and clambered out on the opposite bank of the canal.

When, after a little time, he became conscious of the fate of his unhappy companion, he instantly plunged into the water again to extricate her; but he was unable to find the body, and he then got out of the canal once more, and ran home to his friends, to whom he related the fatal occurrence. The assistance of the police was immediately obtained, and the survivor, after giving his account of the affair, proceeded with the officer to search for the body, which was soon afterwards recovered from the water, but in a perfectly lifeless condition. The boot-lace, of which the prisoner had spoken, was afterwards dragged up from the canal at a little distance from the spot where the body was found, and so far corroborated his statement.

An inquest was held on the body of the girl, and the jury returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased Margaret Edmunds did wilfully murder herself, and that George Inkpen was feloniously present and assisted in the crime. The unfortunate young woman had been courted by George Inkpen for about two years, and her sister, who likewise lived at Deptford, stated that she saw her during the previous evening, when she appeared in her usual good spirits. Her mistress also declared that she possessed a very cheerful disposition, and that at the time when she left the house to go for the beer she was in her ordinary state of mind. The landlord of the tavern said that the deceased came into his house with a smile upon her face, and appeared to be on very happy terms with the young man. Meanwhile the conduct of the prisoner appeared to be explained in a more satisfactory manner. The judge remarked upon the painful nature of the case, and said that the prisoner’s own statement established his acquiescence in the act which proved fatal to the deceased woman, that the law defined such acquiescence as amounting to the crime of murder. The jury accordingly found the prisoner Guilty, but strongly recommended him to mercy; and declared, in reply to questions put to them by the judge, that they considered the story of the prisoner to be in every particular true, and that there was not the slightest malice on his part. The judge then expressed his concurrence with the opinion of the jury, and stated that the extenuating features of the case should be represented in the proper quarter. Sentence of death was passed; but he was not executed.

The Old Bailey's report of the case adds a tragic detail. Inkpen had only bought the bootlace by chance that day, on his way home from Hackney: he and his companion had purchased a pair between them, simply to get rid of the seller who had approached them in a pub.

A few notes:

  1. This helpful list of Kent pubs in 1832 shows that the Lord Duncan was on Deptford Broadway. That makes a little sense of the reference to the couple walking up Mornington Road: they could carry on north-west through back streets to reach the canal .
  2. The Grand Surrey Canal opened in 1809, with branches added later. By the 1960s, most of it was filled in - the Camberwell Basin is now Burgess Park. You can see it on this interactive map of Victorian London.
  3. You can read the Old Bailey trial papers here. They give a little more information: Margaret Edmunds was employed by a Mr Russell who worked in the income-tax office and his wife; while Inkpen was able to call a number of character witnesses including his employer at the General Steam Navigation Works, and the landlord of the Lord Edmund described him as "of very temperate habits".

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