The Waterloo Bridge Mystery

When I was researching the murder of Sophia Lewis I came across a couple of English newspaper cuttings that linked the murder to supposed aristocratic misbehaviour and the Waterloo Bridge mystery.

My first thought was that this was some nineteenth century conspiracy theory, but the articles did mention the cane found alongside the corpse.

Ken Oldis’s book on the Sophia Lewis murder, which I used as my principal source, also mentions the cane in the opening chapter but does not refer to it again, nor is it mentioned in any of the digitised newspaper reports on Trove that I looked at. Given the dubious nature of the trial proceedings, I’m guessing that the police conveniently forgot about it, as it incriminated one of their informers.

But that left the Waterloo Bridge mystery.

A quick google search revealed a a gruesome and unsolved mystery.

In October 1857, some boys in a rowing boat found a carpet bag with a rope attached on an abutment of Waterloo Bridge in London. When opened the bag contained bloodstained clothing and approximately 20 human body parts.

The Waterloo bridge of 1857 was not the same bridge as today – it was rebuilt in the 1930’s – and was a toll bridge operated by a private company with a turnstile for foot passengers and a toll keeper.

The bridge was notorious for suicides – Trollope’s Three Clerks contains several oblique references to this and the poet Thomas Hood published a poem in 1844 about the death of a prostitute who commits suicide by jumping from the bridge

John George Freeman has an anecdote of trying unsuccessfully to slip the toll keeper a Jersey penny on his way back home from Waterloo station after his trip to Jersey in the early 1870’s (in my edition the book says a Guernsey penny, but that is clearly a mistake – in the 1870’s Guernsey pennies had the Guernsey coat of arms, while Jersey pennies carried Queen Victoria’s head, albeit with the Wyon diadem head also used in Jamaica, and not the bun head used in England)

Back to the story.

The toll keeper on duty the night before the discovery of the bag was a Mr Etherington, who had previously been a policeman in A division of the Metropolitan police, remembered helping a woman to lift a heavy carpet bag over the turnstile at about 11.30pm.

It was surmised that the rope was used to lower the bag from the bridge to avoid attracting attention when it was dropped unsuccessfully into the Thames.

The inquest into the death revealed that the victim had been stabbed, the body violently hacked into pieces, and strangely had been cured in brine as one does pork. One of the medical experts at the inquest was Alfred Swaine Taylor, one of the early exponents of forensics.

There was no head among the body parts, making the body difficult to identify. The clothes had no identifying marks or manufacturers tags but crucially the socks were thought to be of German manufacture, and the collar of the shirt appeared to have been worn folded over the necktie, which was a fashion on the Continent at this time but not usually done in England.

The clothes were washed and put on show in the hope of someone identifying the victim. The landlady of the Prince of Wales in Kennington remembered a similarly dressed man of gentlemanly appearance who asked  for a room. When being told there were none available, the man asked if he could leave his bag and coat while he looked elsewhere.

The landlady said that the man then left in the company of a woman whose description matched that given by Mr Etherington, the toll keeper.

The man was also seen enquiring unsuccessfully about a room at the George and Dragon in Vauxhall. Both pubs were within ten or so minutes walk of each other, and it is assumed that he found a room elsewhere, as he later returned to the Prince of Wales to retrieve his coat and bag and paid the landlady sixpence (a reasonable and for that reason, memorable, sum – around £3 or a little over $A5 in today’s money).

Both pubs are around 40 minutes walk from Waterloo Bridge. While there are other bridges are closer to the location today, not all of them were in place in 1857, making Waterloo bridge a preferred crossing, especially for access to central London.

The victim was never identified, and the inquest concluded that a male person of unknown age had been murdered by a person or persons unknown.

Despite various apparent confessions in following years, no one has successfully identified the perpetrator or the victim, Perhaps the most likely suggestion is that there was a serial killer in the area, who chose foreign, and therefore unknown gentlemen, as victims and that normally the bodies were successfully disposed of in the Thames.

The fact that the body parts appeared to have been salted in brine was especially disquieting …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Murder of Sophia Lewis

In December 1856 a young prostitute, Sophia Lewis, was found murdered in her house in Stephen Street (now Exhibition Street) Melbourne.

Sophia’s throat had been cut, and her jewellery stolen, and the money she was reputed to keep in her house in a mix of bank notes and gold, gone.

The police surmised that she had been murdered by one of her clients.

At this point things become murky.

In 1856 there were an increasing number of Chinese migrants come to work on the gold fields. Mostly they were young men, some of whom may have had wives and children back in China, who came alone.

Even though many were hardworking, quite a number resorted to European prostitutes. Some prostitutes preferred the Chinese, as they were cleaner and better mannered than many of the European diggers, and Sophia Lewis was one of those.

Generally, in Victoria during the goldrush period, there were many more men than women, meaning that inevitably prostitution flourished.

There were various schemes to encourage female migration, as there were in New Zealand during the Otago goldrush, but prostitution was a fact of life in goldrush Australia.

Sophia Lewis’s murder occurred at a time of rising anti Chinese sentiment in Australia. They were seen as too culturally different and were feared due to their difference. Politicians such as John Pascoe Fawkner whipped up racist sentiment and proposed legislation to restrict Chinese migration.

The police arguably bungled the investigation. However, once an item of what might well have been some of Sophia Lewis’s jewellery turned up in Chinese hands they proceeded to basically frame Sophia’s last known clients for murder. They were of course Chinese.

So far so predictable. The trial and subsequent execution of two Chinese men was widely reported in the Australian press at the time. One of the men confessed to having been at the scene of the murder but not to participating in the killing, and named two other men, known police informers. He was at worst an accessory to murder.

Strangely, his naming of police informers was never followed up – the police needed a victim, and now they had one.

The other man was simply framed – wrong place at the wrong time.

Now, one of my interests is how news spread around the world at the time – remember this is 1856 – 1857 when there was no telegraph link between Australia and Britain, which meant that news travelled slowly between the two. The Crimean war had just concluded, and the great Indian Rebellion had yet to begin so I was interested to see if a sordid murder in a colonial city far away would make the British press in the same way that the much more sensational (and equally sordid) trial of Madeleine Smith made the Australian press.

As a first pass I used Welsh Papers Online as a proxy for coverage the British press, and let’s say that it hardly registered – by the time the news reached Britain it was competing with news from India about the rebellion – a basic search turned up only a couple of mentions, and none about Chinese involvement.

But the reports were themselves surprising – here’s an example from the Welshman and General Advertiser:

sophia lewis 2

and one from the Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser:

sophia lewis 1

both hinting at the involvement of an English aristocrat. Was this just a rumour at the time, or was there any basis in fact ?


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Coins …

Remember coins?

These funny round bits of metal that we used to use to pay for things. Now superseded by tap’n’go since corona virus killed the use of cash – and possibly never to return.

I can honestly say we havn’t used coins or notes since the start of lockdown,  I still have the eighty bucks I got out the Friday before the lockdown started.

Since the start of lockdown we have, of course migrated to cashless transactions even for the most mundane items, that and using the automatic payment terminals.

But what will we do when we can go travelling again?

Yes, it was a pain to end up with a handful of forints, kuna or ringgit at the end of a trip, but along the way they helped smooth things, leave tips for waiters, pay for parking (being asked to download a Croatian language parking app in Pula and link it to an Australian debit card was most definitely in the too hard basket).

When you travel you inevitably use coins, if only to avoid international transaction charges – while one might pay for a seventy euro dinner with a card, two coffees for four euros is a step too far.

Yes, you can get these international traveller cards spruiked by the banks – basically you prepurchase a whole load of pounds, euros or what have you and they put it on a card – just as you would go and buy foreign currency or travellers cheques back in the old days.

However, they’re not really the answer – the choice of currencies is limited – no ringgit, rand, forints or kuna to name but four. Some banks, such as ING or Citi offer debit cards with no international fees including atm fees if you put enough through them every month, but I doubt very much that an informal car minder carries a card machine – he wants five or ten dirhams cash to make sure that no one breaks into your car while you’re off enjoying yourselves.

And that’s it – in countries with large informal economies we’ll probably still have cash, notes and coins, and when we go travelling again we’ll have to start using cash again.

Samuel Pepys records that during the plague in London, shop keepers would provide a dish of vinegar for people to drop payment in and to receive their change – perhaps we’ll end up spraying notes and coins with hand sanitizer as a matter of course …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My life in computing – the early days

Nowadays computers are ubiquitous, but when I was a spotty teenager in the seventies they were rare and unusual beasts, often locked away in air conditioned vaults and ministered to by priesthood of strange specialists who  got the beast to do things by typing strange incantations on keyboards.

Machines on the whole ran in batch mode running one job after another – multiuser multitasking environments were a rarity.

There were few books about computers, and no one really knew anything, but universities were starting to produce graduates who had written code in a high level language such as Fortran or Algol, and the powers that were were beginning to think that programming might be a useful skill of sorts.

Nothing about hardware, architectures, databases (which hadn’t been invented) but programming.

So, in my final year of school I learned to write code on coding sheets (by hand, one character per square, each line a maximum of 72 characters).

These coding sheets were then taken to the local technical college, where they were typed onto punched cards by data processing operatives, run in batch mode, and the output and card deck sent back to you – if you were lucky it worked, if not it was another week to debug the code and try again.

All pretty crude, and involving delayed gratification, but I did learn enough to write some simple code in Algol and Fortran to read some numbers, add them up, average them and print the result.

A year later, at university, this turned out to be really useful. As part of mathematical methods they taught us Algol W. Again no interactive terminal time, but you could type your own cards on an IBM 029 card punch and submit your job.

If you timed it right, you could submit your job in the early afternoon and pick up your output around ten o’clock in the evening – actually the John Honey building doors closed at ten, and there was a bit of furious bike riding to get there from wherever by 9.55.

After then I didn’t touch a computer for around three years. Didn’t need to.

No such things as word processors or personal computers, essays were written on a typewriter, and a scientific calculator was good enough for data analysis, that was of course until my final year project which generated data, and data needed to be analysed.

Things had moved on – there were now these things called packages – we’d call them programs and applications that did all the grunt work for you, all you had to do was type in your data, write a control file for the package (read this file, run this analysis, print these results), and what’s more sometimes you could use an interactive terminal to submit and kick your job off. Luxury!

After uni, I was stupid enough to try a PhD. I could be cynical and claim that in the first year of Margaret Thatcher’s social revolution it was probably the best option for a newly minted psychology graduate with a specialism in psychophysiology and ethology, but I’d be lying.

I was in love with my subject, a complete and utter psychology geek, and I did it all for love.

Now psychophysiolgy includes data collection, such as heart rate and oxygen consumption.

Today a $40 no name fitness tracker will record most of the data required – I know, I’ve got one – but then it involved individual instruments. At the time most instruments had an analogue output to drive a pen recorder. If instead you had a compute read the output voltage once a second say, you could get some automated data capture going.

Put an individual in an experiment, you could see how stressed they got doing a stressful task, like press a combination of switches in response to a sequence of lights. Loud noise if you got wrong.

And as you would expect, people got better over time at the task, and their stress indicators would go down – they felt more in control.

Then of course you could be naughty, and because life isn’t predictable, sometimes tell them they had pressed the wrong sequence even when they hadn’t. Very effective way of inducing stress, and you could show that they were stressed by not getting accurate feedback – the less accurate the feedback, the more stressed.

All sorts of implications, including things like how best to design feedback systems – one of the things that went wrong at Three Mile Island was that there were too many flashing lights and sirens that went off confusing the operators, such that they didn’t realise that they might well be having a meltdown.

Well, after a few years my scholarship ended, and I didn’t finish my PhD. In retrospect I should have, but I needed to do some revisions to my thesis, and I couldn’t afford to pay the fees for an extension.

By that time I was working for a different university doing computer support for a field station, as well as managing survey teams.

Computer support was fun, everything from helping people with wordstar, writing programs to process and munge data – such as taking species count data and plot the diversity of the data on a 1km square grid – simple now, but in 1984 a blocky colour coded map was something else, and of course for bid data sets, uploading the data very slowly over a dialup modem and then logging in and running one of these dreaded batch jobs.

And then I got a proper job …


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Something that I didn’t know about Gateshead …

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere we’ve been watching Unorthodox on Netflix. I won’t rehearse the story here, but watching reminded me of something that I used to find  fascinating.

I used to live in York in England, and in the mid eighties and early nineties I used to travel back and forth to London to see friends or to go to business meetings.

I almost always used to go by train, and that meant going through King’s Cross station in London.

It got better in time, but in the mid eighties King’s cross railway station was distinctly seedy, dirty and decrepit, with prostitutes and drug addicts hanging around, propositioning you, asking for money, as well as other lost souls, who were simply the economic collateral in Margaret Thatcher’s social revolution.

Now I don’t know how it is now, I havn’t been through King’s Cross in twenty years, but then there used to be a row of big brick pillars at the end of the concourse before you went through to the train platforms.

For some reason, even if you had a reservation, they would never let you onto the train until about five minutes before it was due to leave, which meant that you had to queue if you were early.

It was quite organised, there was a separate queue for each train, and the queues were announced by them putting up big signboards on the pillars that from memory would read something like ‘Queue A 1800 York and Newcastle Platform 7’ .

Sometimes of course, if everything had gone to hell, and the trains were all hopelessly late, you would have to stand about in the concourse until they announced your queue, usually twenty minutes or so before departure.

Making you stand in a line of course made you a target for beggars and other miscreants such as pickpockets, but there was usually just enough in the way of security to keep things under control.

What used to fascinate me was that you would invariably see groups of young orthodox Jewish men – some really only teenagers – lining up with me for the York and Newcastle train – not the Leeds train – that was a different queue – and certainly not going to the orthodox communities in Manchester – that would of course mean a train from Euston.

I never knew where they went, except that it must have been somewhere north of York as I never saw any of them get off. I recognised them as members of one of the stricter orthodox sects as my friends lived between Upper Holloway and Tufnell Park stations in London and we would often see groups of orthodox men, identifiable with their furry hats, going to and from the synagogue on a Saturday – in fact we used to refer to them as the ‘furry hat sect’ to distinguish them from the older less strict Jewish men you saw who usually wore and old fashioned suit and a homburg hat on a Saturday for the synagogue.

Nowadays, when we stay overnight in Melbourne, we usually stay in a small hotel in the Jewish area around Balaclava Road – it’s cheap, it has free parking and it’s close to the train and tram, giving you the advantages of a central hotel without the cost. Sure in might take another ten minutes to get somewhere, but what’s the problem.

And despite being a Jewish area with Yeshivas and Synagogues, one never sees any of the furry hat sect – yes you see plenty of the less strict orthodox in their homburgs and black suits, but none of the ultra orthodox.

So, I had kind of forgotten about the ultra orthodox Jewish boys in King’s Cross station, puzzledly trying to respond to the prostitutes and beggars while waiting for the train.

That is, until we watched ‘Unorthodox’, and I was reminded of them.

Wikipedia is of course your friend, and it only took a few clicks to discover that as well as London and Greater Manchester, not to mention a shrinking orthodox community in Leeds, there is a large orthodox community in Gateshead, outside of Newcastle, which hosts an important orthodox yeshiva.

And immediately the mystery was solved – these young men were doubtless on their way to or from the yeshiva – and of course the reason I saw them was because my meetings in London were invariably on Thursdays – and of course as Sabbath begins at sunset on a Friday, in winter in England that would have meant them travelling on Thursday evening or Friday morning to reach their destination before sunset, the journey to Gateshead from London probably taking around four hours end to end …



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tennessee Fried Megapode?

megapode socks

Being a slightly silly person at heart, I recently bought myself some socks featuring Australian Bush Turkeys.

The designs not quite right – while admittedly I have what J once described as ‘short fat feet’ – the bush turkeys look well, a little too turkey like.

Bush turkeys are megapodes, and related (distantly) to jungle fowl. They are also both protected and a pest, with their habit of scratching up large incubation mounds of rotting vegetation, often these days in someone’s vegetable garden.

They are reasonably common down the east coast of Australia, but in the 1930’s they had been hunted almost to extinction, in part because they are pests.

Now it’s known that the first peoples of Australia enjoyed Bush Turkey – NITV’s food page still features a recipe for Bush Turkey and Mussel stew – albeit made with standard turkey these days, so did the early European settlers also try bush turkey?

In a word, yes.

Hannah Maclurcan, who published an Australian cookery book at the end of the nineteenth century, includes a recipe for bush turkey with that Victorian classic, bread sauce, so clearly people ate them.

Probably, since I’ve never tried eating one, the birds would be scrawny and tough and would ideally need to be hung first, or else chopped up and marinaded.

While it’s been said ‘when you cook a bush turkey in a pot, throw away the bush turkey and eat the pot’, I suspect that refers to a tough old bird put straight into the pot with no preparation.

So how did Hannah Maclurcan’s bush turkey taste?

She claimed:

 ‘a small bird, not much larger than a wild duck, with a breast like a pheasant and flesh as white. I have often served it as pheasant and people have not known the difference’

and that I think is the clue – treat it like a pheasant – hang it well,which would probably make it taste too strong for the twentyfirst century palate and smother it in a fairly well flavoured sauce, and that will render it edible – to a hungry nineteenth century traveller at least …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chartists and millenarians

A long time ago, like almost fifty years ago, I read Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millenium, which introduced me to the ranters and other European millenarian cults, which I found so weird it was fascinating.

Around the same time, I was in Oxford for the weekend and I saw a poster for a SWP organised commemoration of the Banbury Mutineers (this was the seventies after all when such things were more common) which introduced me to the primitive anarcho-communism of the Levellers, which of course appealed to my young and idealistic self.

Well, as one grows older, one leaves such things behind, but as part of my lockdown reading I’ve just finished Christopher Hill’s The world turned upside down, which I should probably have read forty years ago.

In this book, Christopher Hill discusses the growth of radical religious groups under the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth, and their influence on the more radical elements in the New Model Army, and the clawing back of power by the parliamentarian establishment.

A good read if you are interested in that sort of thing, and probably as boring as batshit if you aren’t.

One thing though that interested me was a comment in Hill’s concluding remarks that even as late as the early nineteenth century, the period of religious dissent under Cromwell, was celebrated as Oliver’s days in the area around Haworth, and that this may have influenced Charlotte Bronte.

The source for this was given as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte.

Now Elizabeth Gaskell’s father was a Unitarian minister, and in England at least, Unitarianism, like the Quakers, was a set of beliefs and practices that can trace their beginnings back to the period of religious dissent under Cromwell.

In other words, Elizabeth Gaskell was well placed to assess if there was a legacy of religious radicalism in the area.

The other thing which is interesting (to me ast least) was that this area was also known for several significant Chartist demonstrations in the 1840’s, and of course the British government shipped a good many of the Chartists off to Australia for riot, insurrection, machine breaking and other such crimes, some of whom ended up working in the goldfields and were involved in the fight for miners rights including not only the Eureka Stockade but also the Ovens Petitions, as well as the monster meeting at Madman’s Gully in August 1853.

It may seem a stretch to link seventeenth century religious dissenters to gold miners in 1850’s Beechworth, but it’s possily less of a stretch than it first seems …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment