(1784-1845) was a British murderer. In 1845, he became
the first person to be arrested as the result of
Transported to Australia in 1820 for
the crime of forgery, he obtained a ticket-of-leave, and
started as a chemist in Sydney. There he flourished, and
after fifteen years left it a rich man.
Returning to England, he married a
Quaker lady as his second wife. He confessed to the
murder of his mistress, Sarah Hart, by prussic acid, his
motive being a dread of their relations becoming known.
Between six and seven o'clock one
morning in 1845 a woman named Sarah Hart was found dead
in her home at Salt Hill, and a man had been observed to
leave her house some time before.
The police knew that she was visited
from time to time by a Mr John Tawell, from Berkhamsted,
where he was much respected, and on inquiring and
arriving at Slough, they found that a person answering
his description had booked by a slow train for London,
and entered a first-class carriage.
The police telegraphed at once to
Paddington Station, giving the particulars, and desiring
his capture. 'He is in the garb of a Quaker,' ran the
message, 'with a brown coat on, which reaches nearly to
his feet.' There was no 'Q' in the alphabet of the five-needle
instrument, and the clerk at Slough began to spell the
word 'Quaker' with a 'kwa'; but when he had got so far
he was interrupted by the clerk at Paddington, who asked
him to 'repent.' The repetition fared no better, until a
boy at Paddington suggested that Slough should be
allowed to finish the word.
'Kwaker' was understood, and as soon
as Tawell stepped out on the platform at Paddington he
was 'shadowed' by a detective, who followed him into a
New Road omnibus, and later arrested him in a coffee
tavern. Tawell was tried for the murder of the woman,
and revelations were made as to his character.
Tawell was executed, and the
notoriety of the case brought the telegraph into repute.
Its advantages as a rapid means of conveying
intelligence and detecting criminals had been signally
demonstrated, and it was soon adopted on a more
The murder of Sarah HART 1845
In the 1970s, I worked at Victoria
Station where throughout the day "boat-trains" would
arrive from the south coast ports. At the docks, the
names of people entering the country would be checked
against ledgers held by the Special Branch but often a
suspect person would have left by train before it was
realised that they were wanted.
The BTP at Victoria would be
telephoned and asked to meet the train in order to
arrest the suspect. With a colleague I would often put
on a "civvie jacket" and try to identify and arrest the
offender, often from a vague description. Luckily we
Today criminal records are
computerised and CCTV can capture the image of a person
which can then be sent anywhere in the world within
seconds. We now take communication for granted. But who
made the first arrest using technology? Many people will
cite the arrest of Dr CRIPPEN who was arrested after a
wireless message was sent to the ship in which he was
making his escape. That was is 1910 but the first arrest
using technology was 65 years earlier and was made by a
railway policeman using the telegraph.
The railways were pioneers of the use
of the telegraph. On 24th July 1837 an electric
telegraph was invented by Professor (later Sir) Charles
WHEATSTONE and Sir William COOKE. It was demonstrated
along the railway line between Euston and Camden
stations when a message was successfully sent the 1 ½
miles between the two stations.
Directors of the Great Western Railway witnessed the
demonstration and arranged a further trial between
Paddington and Hanwell in April 1839. This was also a
success and the experiment was extended to West Drayton
by July the same year. The telegraph was transmitted
along wires insulated in cotton and buried alongside the
track but when the cable became wet the connection
failed. When WHEATSTONE and COOKE where invited by the
GWR to extend the system to Slough they changed their
design and suspended the wires from posts along the line.
The railway insisted that their messages were
transmitted free of charge but the inventors recovered
some of their money by allowing members of the public to
send messages at a shilling a time.
By 1844 the telegraph had been
purchased by the Government and a further line had been
strung along the railway connecting the Admiralty with
the Navy base at Gosport near Portsmouth. On 6th August
the same year the telegraph was in the news when the
announcement that Queen Victoria had given birth to her
second son was conveyed by telegraph from Windsor to
A few months later however the case
of John TAWELL was to give the invention even more
age of 14, John TAWELL worked in a shop owned by a
Quaker widow who persuaded him to attend the monthly "Friends"
meetings held by the Quakers. Six years later he went to
work in a drapers shop in Whitechapel owned by another
Quaker. At the age of 22 he seduced a servant-girl
called Mary and when she became pregnant the couple
married much to the disproval of the Quaker community
they were members of.
got another job with a druggist in Cheapside where he
was quick to learn the trade of the chemist. It was in
1814 that he committed his first known crime when he
attempted to forge a £10 note of the Smith's Bank of
Uxbridge. Forgery was a capital offence and at his trial
he was sentenced to death. However the victims, Smith's
Bank were a Quaker company and they opposed the death
penalty, so luckily for TAWELL, his sentence was
commuted to transportation to the Colonies for 14 years.
few years TAWELL worked his sentence on coal ships
around the Australian coast but his skills with medicine
were identified and he was given a job in a convict
hospital. He later obtained work as a clerk to a Mr
Isaac WOOD of the Sydney Academy who was impressed by
this knowledge and faith. He petitioned the Governor for
TAWELL'S pardon which was granted in 1820.
free man, John TAWELL set up a small shop selling drugs
and chemicals. Although he had no formal pharmaceutical
training or qualifications he was examined by the local
medical board who pronounced that he was authorised to
dispense medicine. With this accreditation business
boomed and the shop had to move to larger premises.
TAWELL became financially stable and acquired land and
property sponsored in part by the sale of fancy goods
imported from England. He also became involved in the
export trade and cornered the market in whalebone which
was sent to London where it was used to make combs and
TAWELLS wife and two children joined him in Australia
and despite the fact that he had had entered the country
as a convict, managed to get the trip paid for by the
appears to have been well respected in the community and
wore the uniform of the Quaker which included a wide
brimmed black hat. In 1837 he donated the first Friends
Meeting House in Sydney which bore a plaque "John Tawell
- to the Society of Friends" He also made a public
display of his temperance by pouring casks of gin and
rum into the sea at Sydney Cove. However, despite his
apparent piety he was never fully accepted by the
Quakers maybe because of his criminal past and the fact
that prior to his family arriving from England, he had
kept a mistress.
In 1831 TAWELL and his family
returned to London but their health suffered badly in
the bad atmosphere of the largest city in the world. The
younger son, William died in 1833 followed by their
elder son, John (who had trained to be a doctor) in
1838. Heartbroken, TAWELLS wife Mary also became ill and
he employed a young nurse, Sarah LAWRENCE to care for
Mary died in 1838 and TAWELL began an
affair with Sarah which resulted in the birth of two
London Society of Friends continued to bar TAWELL from
full membership despite his continued charitable work.
It was through this work that he met a Quaker widow, Mrs
CUTFORTH who ran a school in Clerkenwell. Despite the
reservations of her friends and family the pair were
married in 1841.
moved his potentially troublesome former lover, Sarah (who
had changed her name to HART) into a cottage at Salt
Hill near Slough. He made regular visits to her to pay a
weekly allowance of £1 for the upkeep of her children.
the previously affluent TAWELL was beginning to
experience financial difficulties mainly due to the
failure of his business interests in Australia. One
means of relief was the disposal of the financial burden
that was Sarah HART.
January 1845, TAWELL went to a chemists shop in
Bishopsgate Street where he purchased two bottles of "Steele's
Acid" from the proprietor Mr HUGHES. The preparation was
used for the treatment of varicose veins and contained
the poison prussic acid. He travelled across London to
Paddington Station where he caught the train to Slough
and went to see Sarah. He found her in good spirits and,
having received her allowance, went to a local inn to
buy a bottle of stout.
TAWELL managed to distract Sarah long enough to tip the
acid into the newly purchased beer but a short time
later her next door neighbour heard loud groans and
moans through the party wall. The neighbour, Mrs ASHLEY
saw TAWELL (who she recognised as a frequent visitor)
leave the house and went to see if Sarah was alright.
She found her writhing on the floor, frothing from her
mouth. Mrs ASHLEY quickly raised the alarm but poor
Sarah was dead before a doctor could attend.
the persons to respond to the cry for help was the Rev.
E.T. CHAMPNES, the vicar of Upton-cum-Chumley. The quick
thinking cleric took a description of TAWELL and raced
to the station to intercept him. He got there just in
time to see the suspect board the departing 7.42pm
service. He was too late to stop the train.
sitting on the speeding train may have been smug enough
to think that he had got away with murder and at most
other locations that might have been the case but Slough
was equipped with the telegraph!
quick thinking vicar consulted the station master, Mr
HOWELL who arranged for a message to be sent from the
Telegraph Cottage just outside the station. The historic
message to Paddington read:
murder has just been committed at Salt Hill and the
suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket
to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is
in the garb of a Kwaker with a brown great coat on which
reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the
second first-class carriage"
(The telegraph did not have the
letter "Q" hence the odd spelling of the word "Quaker")
At Paddington a clerk ran the message
to the Great Western Railway Police Office where it was
passed to the duty Sergeant, William WILLIAMS. He "put a
plain coat over his police dress" and met the train in.
A few minutes later the telegraph
House at Slough received a message from the capital:
"The up train has arrived and a
person answering in every respect the description given
by the telegraph came out of the compartment mentioned.
The man got into a New Road omnibus and Sergeant
WILLIAMS into the same"
Sgt WILLIAMS sat in the conductor's
seat of the bus and TAWELL must have mistaken him for
the conductor as when he alighted at Princes Street (alongside
the Bank of England) he handed the Sergeant his fare!
TAWELL was followed by Sergeant
WILLIAMS along the darkened streets of London. He first
went to a sweet shop in Cornhill and then on to the
Jerusalem Coffee House. (A haunt of East Indian and
Australian Merchants) The Sergeant kept him under
observation as he left and then walked along Birchin
Lane and thence to a Lodging House in Scott's Yard. He
stood outside TAWELLS lodgings for over an hour before
returning to Paddington. Here, he visited a colleague,
Inspector WIGGINS of the Metropolitan Police at
Paddington Green Police Station and the next morning the
two men, having confirmed details of the crime, went in
search of the murderer.
He was gone from his lodgings but
they located him back at the Jerusalem Coffee House
where he was arrested. TAWELL protested saying "I wasn't
at Slough yesterday" but Sgt WILLIAMS replied "Yes you
were Sir, you got out of the train and got onto an
omnibus and gave me sixpence" TAWELL haughtily retorted
"My station in society would be sufficient to rebut any
suspicion against me"
He was wrong.
An Apple-pip Defence
Whilst in custody he sent for "the
best lawyer that money can buy" and engaged the services
of Sir Fitzroy KELLY a promoter of the Appeals Court and
the Chief Baron of the Exchequer. On hearing TAWELLS
testimony he pronounced that his client was "innocent of
The trial opened at Aylesbury County
Court on 12th March 1845 presided over by Judge Baron
PARKE. (who as Lord WENSLEYDALE was later to become the
first ever "life-peer") Sergeant BYLES opened the
proceedings and the jury soon heard how a post mortem
had revealed that the cause of death for Sarah HART was
"poisoning by prussic acid"
Other witnessed were called including
Sergeant WILLIAMS who gave a full account of his actions
which led to the arrest of the accused. Sir Fitzroy
KELLY then opened his defence with just one word "apple-pips!"
He explained that prussic acid
occurred naturally in apple-pips and that Sarah HARTS
death could be explained by her eating a large amount of
fruit over the festive season. His arguments were
interesting but not enough to sway the jury who after
two days of deliberations too just half an hour to find
TAWELL guilty. The judge donned his black cap and the
former convict (maybe with a feeling of déjà vu) was for
the second time in his life sentenced to death.
Awaiting execution TAWELL apparently
made a full confession to a priest and at 8am on Friday
28th March 1845 he was publicly hanged on a gallows
erected outside the court in which he was convicted.
10,000 people came to watch the gruesome spectacle (a
print showing the execution is on display at Slough
There were several consequences of
the case. His defence lawyer obtained the nickname of "Apple-pip
KELLY" because of his unusual defence and it is said
that because of this the sale of apples in England
The Crown who had seized TAWELLS
English assets allowed his widow to keep their
Birkhampstead home and following a discussion in "The
Times" Sarah HARTS children were placed into care.
In Australia it was discovered that
the Hall given to the Quakers by TAWELL had not been
formally gifted and it was subsequently purchased by the
Jewish Community for use as a Synagogue. His estate was
held by the Governor but there was considerable argument
as to how it should be disposed of. It took over sixteen
years for the matter to be resolved.
But the main benefactor was the
telegraph which had received a massive amount of good
free publicity. "The Times" declared "Had it not been
for the efficient aid of the electric telegraph, both at
Slough and Paddington, the greatest difficulty, as well
as delay, would have occurred in the apprehension (of
Other railway companies soon took on
the new system. In 1847 the telegraph was again used in
connection with a murder case. A man was under sentence
of death at Maidstone Prison when a Home Office message
was received at London Bridge Station asking for a
message to be telegraphed to the gaol to stay the
The message was sent and the hanging
was delayed. Shortly afterwards the railway received a
further message to be sent to Maidstone authorising the
execution to continue. Realising the message was the
prisoner's death warrant, an official was sent to
confirm that the message was correct and when this was
done the telegraph message was duly sent. The way the
South Eastern Railway had handled the matter made a very
good impression with the press.
One may wonder why the Sergeant did
not arrest TAWELL as soon as he stepped from the train
but I think it is reasonable that he did not apprehend
the man until he had received confirmation from an
official source; the telegraph after all did call the
man a "suspected" murderer. And why did he seek the
assistance of Inspector WIGGINS of the Metropolitan
Police to arrest the man? "Because" said Sergeant
WILLIAMS, recalling the arrest "I am no officer off the
This would not be a problem for
today's Transport Police Officer who has full
There have been many accounts of this
case but few make reference to the fact that it was a
Railway Policeman who was responsible for the arrest of
the murderer. The first arrest to be made by technology.
Kevin Gordon - March 2003
Not What He Seemed
John Tawell of Berkhamsted – the
John Tawell was a successful and honourable man.
At 61, he and his wife, Sarah, shared a ‘Quaker-lifestyle’ of
outwardly respectable disposition. They lived in Berkhamsted, and
could be seen in town in their Quaker clothes and talking Quaker
speech, albeit both had been expelled from the movement on their
marriage. John Tawell was so righteous he might have been regarded
as above the law.
But he was not above the law, and though his
earlier standing as a Quaker probably saved him from the gallows
when he was a young man, a quarter of a century later he would
hang for the cold-blooded murder, by poisoning, of his secret
mistress, 30-year old Sarah Hart.
Born in Beccles, Norfolk, Tawell had worked as
a salesman in Lowestoft before moving to London. He learned a
trade as chemist and druggist and, somewhere along the line, the
art of forgery. In 1815, he was convicted of forging a Bank of
England note at Uxbridge, a capital offence in those days. It
would not do to hang a Quaker, so he was sentenced to 21 years
transportation to Australia.
Fortunately for Tawell, his chemist’s
qualifications stood him in good stead, and he was set to work in
the convict hospital. This, together with good conduct, led to the
granting of a ‘ticket of leave’ after only three years. He opened
his own chemist’s shop in Sydney and married, and after some
successful and fortuitous speculations came out very well after
escaping the noose first time around. In fact, transportation led
to him making his fortune, a rarity surely, and in 1831 he
returned to England.
It is unclear whether his wife died in
Australia, or after accompanying Tawell to England at their home
in Berkhamsted. Whichever, Tawell lived at the Red House, on the
town’s main street. He tried to regain his ‘official’ standing
with the Quaker movement, but failed, hardly surprising for a
convicted felon. He dressed and acted Quaker ways nonetheless.
It is unclear whether Sarah Hart came to the
family home to nurse his sickly wife, or as a servant, but she
went into service at the Tawell home nonetheless. She may have
aspired to be the next Mrs Tawell; indeed, she became pregnant by
him, whereupon she was dispatched to London where she lived, and
Tawell visited to pay her an allowance. When a second child came
on the scene she moved to a cottage in Bath Place, Slough. Tawell,
who married Sarah Cutworth, continued his covert visits whilst
maintaining his righteous ‘Quaker’ lifestyle.
It wasn’t as though paying her an allowance was
a problem. But when Sarah Hart made their ‘arrangement’ official
by taking out a court order for maintenance for her and the
children, she presented Tawell with a problem. For now our pillar
of society was open to discovery and a subsequent fall from his
esteemed position. He would have to do something about this risk,
and he did.
On New Year’s Day, 1845, John Tawell paid Sarah
a visit. She was delighted, and went to buy some porter. They
spent time together at the cottage, and between six and seven that
evening he was seen leaving by a neighbour, Mary Ann Ashlee. Mary
Ann thought she had heard the sound of moaning and a stifled
scream, and she left her house to investigate, taking with her a
candle. She was on her garden path when she saw Tawell. She would
have believed Tawell, resplendent in his Quaker garb, was the man
whom Sarah had told her brought her allowance, as indeed he was.
He brushed past her without a word, and hurried off.
Mary Ann found Sarah Hart on the floor in her
cottage. She was moaning and gasping pitifully for breath. She ran
for help, but she and a neighbour were unable to even give Sarah a
drink of water. The Reverend Champnes, a local vicar, attended
also, but Sarah died in agony where she lay.
There were two glasses on the table. One glass
was empty, the other contained some porter. Those present realised
Sarah had been poisoned, and the Rev Champnes sent for the local
constable who tried but failed to nab Trawell before he reached
the railway station. A messenger was dispatched and Tawell was
seen to board the 7.45 train.
The superintendent at Slough railway station,
being informed of the facts, sent a message by electro-magnetic
telegraph to the station master at Paddington. It read: ‘A murder
has been committed at Slough, and the suspect was seen to take the
7.45 train. He is in the garb of a Quaker…’ The telegraph, being
new-fangled, had no letter ‘Q’, so the message read ‘Kwaker’. It
was the first time in Britain the telegraph was used to trap a
At Paddington, Sergeant William Williams was
waiting, and on sight of Tawell he decided to follow him. Wearing
a civilian coat over his uniform, he caught the same bus as Tawell
to the City, where he followed his quarry to a coffee parlour,
then to a lodging house in Cannon Street. Why the officer did not
arrest him at Paddington isn’t clear, but his initiative in taking
up surveillance was first class. In any event, Tawell was arrested
by the City of London force the next morning. One can imagine his
surprise. ‘You must be mistaken, my station in life places me
above suspicion,’ he said.
At first, Tawell denied ever being to Slough,
or knowing Sarah Hart. Then he admitted knowing her, saying: ‘That
wretched woman was in my service for over two years. She was a bad
woman. She said she would make away with herself if I didn’t give
her money. When I told her I wouldn’t give her any she threatened
to do for herself. She held a small phial over a glass of stout
and said, “I will, I will”. Then she poured something from the
glass and drank it. Then she lay down on the rug and I walked
Sarah had indeed ‘poured something from the
glass and drank it’. As the post mortem would show, she had
consumed over one grain of prussic acid, contained within her
drink, a fatal dose. The issue was now clear, and would remain so
throughout the trial of John Tawell: did he spike her drink, or
did she commit suicide by drinking poison deliberately, put there
by her own hand?
Prussic acid is a hydrocyanic acid, a ‘potent, rapidly
Symptoms of prussic acid poisoning can occur within 15 minutes:
excitement, rapid pulse, muscle tremors followed by laboured
breathing and collapse.
Tawell’s wife and the good citizens of
Berkhamsted knew what they believed. John Tawell a murderer? A man
of such importance, such high poition in the community a poisoner?
Never. It was all a mistake. Fortunately for justice, theirs was
not the decision that would decide the guilt or otherwise of John
Tawell; that would lie in the hands of the jury at the Aylesbury
The trial took place that March. Not
surprisingly, it generated great interest: a ‘Quaker’ on trial for
murder! But hadn’t he kept a mistress? And wasn’t he a qualified
druggist – someone who would know about poisons? These were new
revelations, as was the evidence of a chemist of Bishopgate,
London, who said on the day of the murder Tawell had called at his
shop and asked for two drachms of prussic acid ‘for his varicose
veins’. Then a friend of Sarah’s told the court that a few months
before Sarah had been sick after drinking porter, after a visit by
Tawell, the implication being he had tried to poison her then.
Tawell told the court nothing, as the law in
those days forbade accused persons to testify on their own behalf;
it was assumed they would say anything, including lies, to secure
an acquittal. But Tawell’s lawyer, Mr Kelly, had much to say,
suggesting Sarah Hart, who had eaten an apple, had somehow
devoured prussic acid from apple pips. This nonsense earned him
the nickname ‘Apple Pip Kelly’, which might have been well
deserved. Then he read out an emotional plea, which brought tears
to his own eyes if not the jury’s.
Reading out a letter written to Tawell by his
wife just before the murder, Mr Kelly ended with Mrs Tawell’s
words, “My loved one, the year has opened with a lovely day. I
hope it is an omen of the future which awaits us”. ‘Could any man,
after receiving such a letter, commit an act which would make his
wife a widow?’ asked Apple Pip Kelly.
The judge seemed to think so, for he told the
jury that ‘on the day Sarah Hart was poisoned Tawell had poison in
his possession and on the following day he did not’. Murder or
suicide? Murder, said the jury.
On 28th March, 1845, John Tawell was hanged at
Aylesbury before a crowd of over 2,000. But not before he wrote
down a full confession to the crime of murdering Sarah Hart, and
trying to kill her the previous September. Until that time, his
wife remained loyal, refusing to believe her husband was a
murderer, proving that people, even those you know intimately, are
not always what they seem.
As for Tawell, his hanging was ‘botched’. He
was of slight build, and the hangman did not allow sufficient ‘drop’;
instead of Tawell’s neck breaking he took ten minutes to slowly
strangle to death. A cruel but fitting end, you might think, for
the man who murdered Sarah Hart. The electro-magnetic telegraph
used to entrap him, having earned its place in history, was put on
show to the public at a shilling a head.