Murder in Walthamstow! – Elizabeth Jeffries: Killer or Victim?

Elizabeth Jeffries (1727-1752)

During my rambles around Georgian London I came across the story of Elizabeth Jeffries – said to be one of Walthamstow’s most notorious murderers. Superficially her crime seems to have been driven by a combination of stupidity, greed and ingratitude. But a re-examination of the circumstances reveals that much deeper, darker, concerns – going a long way to explain why a financially secure and well-educated young lady should resort to murder.

In the early hours of Saturday July 3rd 1751 Mr Buckle of Wood Street Walthamstow was awaken from his slumber by the sound of screaming coming from his neighbour’s property, and upon going to his window he saw 21-year-old Elizabeth Jeffries standing outside her house, wearing only a night shift, in some state of distress. Upon going down to investigate Elizabeth told Buckle ‘Oh! They have killed him! They have killed him, I fear!’ and she directed him into her uncle’s house.

Joseph Jeffries lived in the vicinity of Wood Street, Walthamstow

Buckle was admitted to the crime scene by man-servant John Swann, and found Joseph Jeffries was lying on his side with three gaping wounds in his head. He was not yet dead and was able to grasp Buckle’s hand with some force. A doctor was sent for and Buckle was then informed that a botched robbery had taken place – after which the culprits escaped carrying various items of value. Mr Forbes a surgeon from Woodford attended the scene, observing the congealed blood in the room, finding that Jeffries had been both shot and stabbed, with a very serious wound behind one ear, that would likely prove fatal – Poor Jeffries had to endure another day in great agony before his death, and was unable to shed any light upon the perpetrators. However, other attendees at the house began to sense that all was not as it seemed. It was noted there did not seem to be any evidence of strangers having been in the house, and the dew on the grass around the building did not appear to be disturbed.John Swann appeared to be in a state of agitation, unable to account for his movements during the commotion, and repeatedly stating that he wished he died with his master.

Jeffries’ man-servant John Swann

Despite these misgivings, a few days later Elizabeth was examined by two magistrates, and no evidence could be found to incriminate her. So she was enabled to prove her uncle’s will at the Doctors Commons and take possession of the estate. However, she did make the fatal mistake of implicating a former servant Thomas Matthews, and therefore set in train a line of investigation which was to prove her undoing. The subsequent Coroner’s inquest ruled that Matthews could be a material witness, and committed Elizabeth and Swann to prison in Chelmsford until this could be ascertained. Not surprisingly both sides were anxious to dispose of the matter quickly, but the search for Matthews meant that this case was had to await until Chelmsford Assizes reopened in March 1752.

Chelmsford Assizes (courtesy Essex Record Office)

When events were reported in the London newspapers they came to the attention of a Mr Gall, landlord of the Green Man and Bell public house in Whitechapel, who had cause to remember both Swann and Matthews since they had been extremely drunk at his establishment just a few days previously. Whilst trying to eject them Gall found two pistols in Matthews’ great coat, and had both men arrested. The following morning they were remanded to Bridewell prison. Shortly afterwards Matthews and Swann were bailed by none other than Elizabeth Jeffries, who actually visited Gall’s house with both men afterwards in order to apologise and compensate him for his trouble. She told Gall that the pistols belonged to her uncle and that she had ‘borrowed’ them to put down as security for a debt she owed to a family friend – and implored him to keep the matter private ‘as the disclosure of it to her uncle might lead to her ruin’.

Matthews was more of a reveller than a hit-man

Gall determined to find Matthews, and (in typical East End style) put the word out on the streets to track down his man. Sure enough, Matthews was seen coming out of India House, where it was discovered that he had secured an engagement overseas in the service of the East India Company – and he was soon found in lodgings in Rosemary Lane. This arrest proved pivotal; for Matthews story shed light on the whole murky affair. Matthews was a needy and poverty-stricken Yorkshireman who had met Swann by chance while travelling through Epping Forest on his way to London. Swann took Matthews home with him and engaged him in the gardens of his master’s house – without wages – with only his food and lodgings provided.

According to Matthews, Elizabeth called him into the house after just 4 days service, asking him ‘What will you do if a person would give you £100?’ This was a colossal sum of money – perhaps five times what Matthews could earn annually through hard labour – hence his reply ‘Anything, in an honest way’. Elizabeth then sent him to see Swann, who took him to a garden out-house and declared ‘I will give you £700 if you would knock the old miser, my master, on the head’. Matthews refused to comply, but just two days afterwards found himself on the wrong side of old Jeffries, who dismissed him from his service, with just a shilling to send him on his way. Swan intercepted Matthews on his departure with a guinea – asking him to buy a brace of pistols to murder their master. Matthews was a simple man, but not a bad one, and he soon wasted his booty at the Green Man pub in Leytonstone, before deciding to continue his journey into London. However,  Matthews was soon intercepted by Swann – who took him to Whitechapel, bought the pistols, and proceeded to get them both drunk in front of landlord Mr Gall.

The Green Man, Leytonstone – scene of mischief for centuries

Matthews admitted visiting Gall with Elizabeth and Swan the day after their committal to Bridewell, and testified that he afterwards travelled to the Buck Inn, Epping Forest to partake in the murder plot. On the night of Friday 2nd July Matthews arrived at Jeffries house in Wood Street, let himself in the back door,  and hid in the pantry. At midnight Elizabeth and Swann came to him stating ‘now is the time to knock the old miser on the head’. They had already hidden some plate and other valuables in a sack in the cellar so as to make it look like a robbery. Faced with the enormity his task, Matthews declared ‘I cannot find it in my heart to do it’. Swann threatened to blow his brains out for the refusal, but left him cowering in the pantry, after first forcing Matthews to swear an oath of secrecy. Not long afterwards Matthews heard the sound of pistol shots, and escaped from the house, towards the ferry on the River Lea, crossing over to Enfield Chace.

On 10th March 1752 at 6am Elizabeth and Swann appeared before Justice Wright and a jury at Chelmsford. The Court was packed with spectators eager to see justice done. Swann was charged with ‘Petty Treason’ for the ‘wicked murder of his late master’ and Elizabeth for aiding and abetting the said murder. It was quickly established that Elizabeth and Swann were involved in a relationship, which had caused a breach with her late uncle. Old Jeffries had repeatedly threatened to alter his will ‘if she did not alter her conduct’ – and this threat was put forward as her primary motivation for arranging his death. It was said that Swann and Elizabeth had been together for at least two years, during which time old Jeffries, a previously kind employer, had become increasingly hostile towards Swann – meaning that the lovers must have plotted his downfall for a very long time. Witnesses came forward to complete the picture of events. For example the local barber testified that he had been offered financial inducements to get the old man drunk in a pub on the evening of his murder, and servants revealed the increasingly sour atmosphere within the house. Richard Clarke, a servant at the house, testified that six months previously he had been taken for a walk by Swann into the grounds of nearby Wanstead House where he was asked about his prowess with a gun, to which he replied ‘I’m no sportsman’ – though Swann offered him £50 if he was willing to use a gun. On the night of the murder, however,  it was recorded that no bloodstains were seen on Elizabeth or Swann – and several testified that Elizabeth was very kind and attentive to her uncle.

Inside Chelmsford Court (courtesy Essex Record Office)

The trial lasted 19 hours, including one hour in which the jury deliberated – which is actually quite a long time for that era. Elizabeth fainted repeatedly throughout, at one point delayed proceedings for half an hour. The pair were found guilty, and a few days afterwards a sentence of death was passed upon them both. On the evening of her conviction Elizabeth made a full confession in which she accepted joint-responsibility alongside Swann, and totally exonerated Matthews of any involvement. Swann was furious and refused to corroborate Elizabeth’s version of events until after his death sentence was pronounced.

The Procession to Elizabeth’s Execution

Consequently, in the early hours of 28th March 1752 an execution procession set out from Chelmsford towards the site of execution, which was to be six-mile stone in Epping Forest – somewhere near modern-day Whipps Cross roundabout. Elizabeth was taken by cart, sitting upon her own coffin, but Swann was dragged behind by sledge as a consequence of his conviction for Petty Treason. When they reached the gallows, Swan was forced to stand on the cart while Elizabeth, being only 5’1″, stood on a chair alongside him. Their legs were not tied and they were not blindfolded. A crowd of 7,000 people gathered to watch them hang. Neither Elizabeth nor John acknowledged one another, while the hangman cracked his whip and drove the cart out from under them. John died in less than five minutes. Elizabeth, however, being lighter than Swan, took over fifteen minutes to die, struggling to the end. It must have been a ghastly spectacle. Elizabeth’s body was released to relatives for burial, but Swann’s indignity was to continue – for his body was chained  up and placed in a gibbet and hung up in the forest to serve as a deterrent to any domestic servant thinking of betraying their master.

Elizabeth sat on her own coffin on the way to her execution

Swann’s body was strung up as a warning to others

Despite their confessions this case leaves many unanswered questions, such as, why didn’t old Jeffries simply dismiss Swann if he knew the man-servant was carrying on with his niece? And why indeed did Elizabeth need to kill Jeffries at all? OK, he had been threatening to disinherit her – but this had already been hanging over Elizabeth for at least two years  – so what changed that forced her to take action now? The answers can be partly found via letters Elizabeth exchanged with another lady, also found guilty of murder in March 1752 and incarcerated in prison awaiting execution. Mary Blandy was found guilty of poisoning her father, and – like Elizabeth – was middle-class and well-educated. Her case has been excellently presented on the Capital Punishment UK website – revealing the sensation aroused by these concurrent trials. Not one but two supposedly devious female killers were the hot topic of conversation in 1752.

Mary Blandy was hanged on April 6th 1752

Elizabeth’s letters reveal that her life with old Jeffries was far from idyllic. It appears that she was the victim of sexual assault at the hands of her uncle from a very young age, culminating in her first rape at the age of 15. Given these circumstances it is easy to see why Jeffries continually threatened his niece with disinheritance, for he knew that her refusal to submit to his perversions – would leave her on the streets and destitute. Far from being an ‘instance of the most unnatural barbarity’  Elizabeth’s murder of her uncle may have been a last resort to protect her from ruin. The timing of Jeffries murder was interesting – for Elizabeth had long since come of age, perhaps entitling her to a greater degree of freedom. It was claimed at the trial that Elizabeth was pregnant carrying Swann’s child and knew that once her uncle became aware of this situation, they would both be turned out. But her pregnancy would clearly have been impossible to hide, and there is no mention of Elizabeth’s subsequent childbirth, so we must assume this was untrue.

Contrary to classical art – there is nothing noble about rape

However,  Elizabeth’s motherhood status is less certain. Not only via her letters to Mary Blandy, but also locally it was known that Elizabeth already two children by her abusive uncle – one of whom was described as ‘a fine boy’ in some versions, and in other accounts had not survived childbirth. Many people believed that old Jeffries had caused Elizabeth to abort both children, and so it would seem that incest was the main factor of this tragic case. The colossal power retained by men in Georgian society, meant that Elizabeth was in almost every respect just another one of Jeffries’ goods and chattels. It is therefore difficult to imagine how she could have put an end to years of control and abuse without resorting to killing her uncle.

Elizabeth’s trial transcripts were published less than a week after her death

So the question must remain as to whether Elizabeth Jeffries really belongs in the canon of cold-blooded calculating killers, or if indeed she was really the victim – left with no other avenue to take – willing to forsake her inheritance – to escape the clutches of an evil monster.

I must acknowledge some great existing resources examining this case, including

  1. Bill Bayliss’ very good summation of events via Walthamstow Memories
  2. Caroline Gonda’s chapter  in Women, Writing and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830, edited by Elizabeth Eger and Charlotte Grant (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Gonda draws an excellent summary of both the Blandy and Jeffries cases, and rightly identifies incest as the primary motive in the Walthamstow case.
  3. Capital Punishment UK website – which has excellent and in-depth analyses on a great many cases including the one referred to in this blog
  4. The image above of six mile stone is taken from the very brilliant Spitalfields Life website, in an article written by Julian Woodford

 

I have strayed beyond the boundaries of Wanstead a little for this blog, but Wanstead House still made a guest appearance in the evidence presented. However, there are some very good internet resources available for Walthamstow including

If you are interested in London’s history and traditions you may like a brief history of the Epping Hunt – or  to find out just how multicultural Georgian Wanstead might have been – via the writings of Thomas Hood. Learn to find your way round Regency London’s departure points, or pay a visit to one mansion with 6 layers of history

My next blog will return to the Victorian Monopoly Board – If you have not yet joined me on this journey, there is still time to catch up!

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  1. Pingback: All Things History – Roundup for February 2017 – All Things Georgian

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