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A.K.A.: "The 'Quaker' poisoner"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner - The first person to be arrested as the result of telecommunications technology
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: January 1, 1845
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: 1784
Victim profile: Sarah Hart (his mistress)
Method of murder: Poisoning (prussic acid)
Location: Salt Hill, Berkshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Aylesbury on March 28, 1845

John Tawell (1784-1845) was a British murderer. In 1845, he became the first person to be arrested as the result of telecommunications technology.

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.

Arrest by telegraph

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 extensive scale.


The murder of Sarah HART 1845

The Telegraph

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 frequently succeeded.

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 London.

A few months later however the case of John TAWELL was to give the invention even more publicity.


At the 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.

TAWELL 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.

For a 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.

Now a 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 toothbrushes.

In 1823 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 Crown.

TAWELL 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 her.

Mary died in 1838 and TAWELL began an affair with Sarah which resulted in the birth of two children.

The 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.

TAWELL 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.

By 1843 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.

The Murder

On 1st 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.

Maybe 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 Chase

Among 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.

TAWELL 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!

The 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:

"A 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 all charges".

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 Museum)


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 dropped considerably!

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 TAWELL)"

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 execution.

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 station".

This would not be a problem for today's Transport Police Officer who has full jurisdiction anywhere.

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 ‘Quaker’ poisoner

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 murderer.

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 out’.

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 acting poison’.
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 Assizes.

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.





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