Tuesday, 24 January 2012

THE MURDERER OF TREDEGAR SQUARE

By Essie Fox



Much of the action in my Victorian novel, The Somnambulist, takes place in East London – and I was to return to those haunts last week when being interviewed and filmed for the 2012 TV Book Club.


One of those settings, in the middle of Bow, and just five minutes walk from Mile End underground station, is the actual location in which my imaginary narrator, Phoebe Turner,  has been brought up, living with her widowed mother Maud, and Maud’s much younger, more glamorous sister who once had a singing career on the stage - the rewards for her fame now keeping the family in style.



Tredegar Square is a beautiful collection of houses which surround some well-kept gardens, a development that would not be out of place in the more affluent parts of Kensington or Chelsea. The north side of the Square is the grandest, with fine stucco and classical decoration – all of which has hardly changed since the mid-nineteenth century. 






The land upon which the houses were built was originally used for pasture, later leased out to builders by Sir Charles Morgan of Tredegar, whose ancestral home was in Newport, Wales - which explains why the streets in the surrounding estate have names with Welsh connotations - such Rhondda, Aberavan, or Cardigan. By the time the development was completed, aroundabout 1860, it had its own school, shops and church, along with several public houses. And, in time, it had its own murderer. 






Henry Wainwright lived at number 40 Tredegar Square, along with his wife and four children, while running a brush-making business on the nearby Whitechapel Road. Right next door to that premises was the Pavilion theatre - and Henry did love a trip to the theatre, socialising with many performers, even inviting them back home to dine with his wife in Tredegar Square - though the younger, prettier actresses were entertained elsewhere, and when Henry met a hat maker by the name of Harriet Lane, he set her up as 'Mrs King' in various East End residences, the last being in Stepney's Sidney Square. 


But, or so the story goes, Henry tired of Harriet's charms. She was murdered and her body was buried under the floor of his Whitechapel warehouse, which is where it was to remain until, a year later, in 1875, with the warehouse sold and about to change hands, Henry was said to have exhumed the corpse, cutting it into pieces which he wrapped in thick canvas cloth. When trying to move those remains he asked a member of his staff to help with transporting them to the site of his new premises - claiming the packages contained hair that was used in the process of his trade. When the poor workman complained at the stench, Wainwright assured him that it would 'blow off'. A little while later, out in the street, when the workman complained again at the weight, Wainwright became exasperated, leaving his employee alone with the parcels while he went off to find a cab, into which the parts were then loaded as Wainwright travelled on alone. But, during his brief absence, the suspicious employee had sneaked a look inside the offending parcels and discovered a human head and hand and although he said nothing at the time, fearing he might also be murdered, as soon as the cab set off he sought out a constable to inform and, in due course, Wainwright was detained - literally red-handed, with blood seeping out from the cloth in his arms. 





However, as in many Victorian sensational tales, there was one more twist to this story. Wainwright was hanged for the crime, but during the court case it came out that he had a brother, Thomas, and how, when Henry had tired of Harriet's affections, his brother had wooed her in his place, a situation that Henry encouraged hoping that way to ease the break. 


When Harriet's death was eventually known, Thomas had long since disappeared and some believe that he was the real murderer but that Henry, having already been ruined when discovered with the grisly 'proof', sought to protect his brother's name by taking the blame for Harriet's death, until the time of sentencing when he was reported to have said - 


"...standing as I now do upon the brink of eternity, and in the presence of that God before whom I shall shortly appear, I swear that I am not the murderer of the remains found in my possession. I swear that I have never in my life fired a pistol. I swear also that I have not buried these remains, and that I did not exhume or mutilate them...I have been guilty of great immorality. I have been guilty of many  indiscretions, but as for the crime of which I have been brought in guilty I leave this dock with a calm and quiet conscience. My Lord, I thank you for the patience with which you have listened to me."


This story has been briefly alluded to in the pages of The Somnambulist, but I think there is the seed of a entire novel in Henry's final statement. And for those who wish to research him more, and perhaps to visit his old stomping ground, I recommend a visit to The Morgan Arms just to the east of Tredegar Square. The food is very good and the atmosphere most convivial - as Henry Wainwright might also have found back in the mid-nineteenth century.  









My debut novel, The Somnambulist, is a Victorian gothic mystery set in the London Music halls, the docks and a nearby cemetery, as well as a sprawling country house that may, or may not, be haunted. The paperback was published earlier this month, and for more information about the book, please visit www.essiefox.com.













18 comments:

Fiz said...

It sounds really good - I heart true crime!

Fiz said...

This is now on my "want" list.

adele said...

Marvellous story....possibly your next book?

b said...

That's such a good story you really should write it yourself. But I can't see me risking a hanging for my own brother!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Sorry, Essie. Pressed the button too early. The above comment was from me.

Sally Zigmond said...

Absolutely fascinating. You must write it. If it's half as good as The Somnambulist, it'll be a cracker.

(Incidentally I spent three years at Queen Mary College, London University, which is on the Mile End Road. I found the area far more pleasant than its 'reputation' had led me to believe.

frances thomas said...

Eek! I was at QMC too and for a year I lived in Tredegar Square (south side, can't remember the number) As far as I know we didn't have a murderer, but we did have a rat. And yes, I too, loved living in that part of the world

michelle lovric said...

What unusual presence of mind that employee had, to hide his reaction until he was out of danger. He must have been an interesting character too.

Very best of luck with the TV Book Club, Essie, can you remind us when it is on so we can put it in our diaries?

Michelle Lovric, possibly posting as anonymous if Blogger won't play today.

The Virtual Victorian said...

Isn't it amazing how true life is often more fascinating than anything you could make up.

Tredegar Square is so beautiful - and I was amazed when I first found it, just off the bustling grime of the Mile End Road. Wasn't QMC once The People's Palace - or am I getting confused? East London is full of so many architectural gems - I suppose because it's been so neglected.

My book club episode is on February 12th, Michelle - I shall be watching from behind the sofa - a bit like when I was little girl, watching scary episodes of Doctor Who. But I'm hoping there will be some good shots of Tower Hamlet's cemetery which was beautifully lit and atmospheric on a late winter's afternoon.

frances thomas said...

Yes - the wing on the left was The People's Palace.
Coincidentally, I discovered, some years after my scruffy student friend and I had left Tredegar Square that my husband's grandparents had lived there in the past, when it must still have been posh.

The Virtual Victorian said...

It's very posh again now, Frances ... A smaller house recently sold for 1.5 million! Goodness knows what the really grand ones would fetch.

Leslie Wilson said...

A really fascinating story, and I too am fascinated by him hanging for his brother. Unlikely, maybe? What it needed was Mr Sherlock Holmes to sort it out. Or, as someone else has suggested, Ms Essie Fox could take Sherlock's place.

The Virtual Victorian said...

I wonder if the two brothers were both involved. I think there is quite a lot more about this that could be investigated - the story was a huge sensation at the time. But, honestly - anyone who wants it can have it. I'm not really prone to writing detective mysteries - but this would certainly make a good case to 'imagine' around.

Penny Dolan said...

Such a delight to find this post - one day late, I admit - as yesterday I saw a copy in my local library, grabbed it with both hands and a swipe card, and it is now at hand to read. Glanced at opening pages and am eager to know what happens. (Had to honour Tomalin's Dickens, expiring "on the ground", first.)

Penny Dolan said...

ps. Obviously I was talking about The Somnambulist!

Linda B-A said...

I agree with Michelle, the workman who managed to master his emotions well enough to fool the murderer has the makings of a very promising character. And as for the final paragraph of his statement, you're right, therein a whole novel lies...Research can unearth such tempting stories.

womagwriter said...

This would make a good true-life murder story too - in the style of Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Damnation of John Donellan. Someone tell one of those writers so I can read the book!

The Virtual Victorian said...

Well, perhaps I should investigate a little further...