An old man’s ‘revenge’, with echoes of the Ratcliffe Highway murders

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In October 1843 Thomas Rowe was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House Police court. The Lord Mayor sat, as did the City’s aldermen, as single magistrates just as Police Magistrates did across the rest of the metropolis. On most days they dealt with the full gamut of summary offences and pretrial hearings, listening to cases of petty theft, fraud, disorderly behaviour and assault. But on this morning, Friday 6 October, a much more interesting (and serious) case was opened in the Mansion House.

Rowe, a 77 year-old former servant, was accused of attempted to murder his employer – a wine merchant named Thomas Waller. The incident had occurred at around nine o’clock that morning.  Thomas Lock, another of Waller’s servants, had opened the door to his former work colleague Rowe, with a ‘halloa’ and commented that he hadn’t seen him for some time. This was because Rowe had been dismissed some three week earlier after an argument with the wine merchant. Now he asked if he might have a word with Mr Waller and Lock went off to see if his boss would see him.

The 61 year-old wine dealer told him that he would; ‘I have nothing particular to say to him, but let him come in’, he said. Rowe was shown in to the counting house and Lock left him. Then five minutes afterwards he heard the sound of a pistol fire and a cry of ‘Rowe has shot me!’ from his master. He rushed in and put himself between the shooter and his victim, then moved Rowe out into the passage while he attended to the injured man. Rowe made his escape past a frightened serving girl and the beadle was called.

Inspector Waller (no relation to the wine dealer) was soon on the case and sent ‘officers in all directions’ while he acted on information and hailed a cab to pursue the would-be assassin in the direction of Bow. He caught up with and Rowe quickly surrendered. He made no attempt here, or later before the magistrate, to deny what he had done so it really only fell to the justice to determine why he had tried to kill the merchant.

‘What reason had you for committing this dreadful act?’

‘I could not live with nothing but misery before my eyes’ replied Rowe. Having served his master faithfully for 24 years he felt he was owed more loyalty from the wine merchant. After ‘serving him morning, noon, and night, at all hours, I could help thinking it was like transporting me to a foreign country. I had no one to help me’.

Whatever the cause of his dismissal it was devastating. With no wife and children that he said were unable to support him, and no savings or means of employment, Rowe was throw on the scrap heap and all that society offered him was the workhouse and, eventually, a pauper burial with no known grave. It must have been a desperately depressing and frighting future for an elderly man who had probably worked all his life.

Nevertheless the Lord Mayor was horrified:

‘The idea of firing pistols at a man because it did not suit him to employ you is horrible beyond everything’.

Rowe was stony faced: ‘My Lord, Mr Waller is a very rich man and he could afford to employ me easily enough’.

So the motive for the attack was revenge and Rowe was taking no chances of failing in his mission. He had two pistols  (in case one misfired) and a dagger as back-up because, as he put it, ‘that was a thing that wouldn’t miss fire’.

How long had he had these weapons, the magistrate wanted to know.

‘I have had them for 30 years’, Rowe explained. ‘I bought them to protect myself at the time of the murder of the Marrs in Ratcliffe-highway’.

The defendant was referring to the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 when two entire families had been brutally murdered in the space of a week in East London. The case gained national headlines and highlighted the ineffectiveness of the capital’s policing in the years before Peel’s 1829 reform. The murderer was caught (although some doubt remains as to whether he was the right man) but he never went to trial. The body of John Williams was found hanging in his cell before he was formally committed to a jury trial. William’s corpse was then placed on a cart, with the murder weapons alongside his head, and he was paraded along the Highway before being buried at a crossroads and a stake driven through his heart.

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Having heard from the doctor that examined and treated the injured Mr Waller and from the policeman that searched the scene of crime for evidence (and picked up the offending bullet), the Lord Mayor asked Rowe if he anything further to say. ‘No, my Lord, I have nothing at all to say’. Since the wine merchant was still recovering from his injury (which it was hoped was not fatal) Rowe was remanded for a week.

When the case came before an Old Bailey jury much was made of Rowe’s infirmity and poor mental health. In the end this was what saved him. He had made no attempt to deny his actions at any stage. William Cook, a surgeon that specialised in ‘diseases of the mind’ testified that he had known Rowe for very many years and had seen him deteriorate. When asked by Rowe’s counsel what the effect of his dismissal from service would have been he answered that he thought it quite possibly could have tipped him over the edge. Rowe had complained of ‘a swimming in the head, and dizziness about the eyes’ on several occasions, the jury was told.

Thomas Rowe was acquitted on the three counts he was charged with: namely ‘feloniously assaulting Thomas Wilier […] and shooting off and discharging at him a certain pistol loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, and wounding him on the left side of his body, with intent to murder him.—2nd COUNT, stating his intent to be to maim and disable him.—3rd COUNT, To do him some grievous bodily harm.’

It was also revealed in court exactly why Rowe had been dismissed. Mr Waller had deemed him unfit to continue on account of his age and mental state. Waller told the Old Bailey that ‘when I gave him notice I said, “Your faculties give way, you don’t know what you are about”.’ He gave him a guinea and a week’s notice. After 24 years of service, a week’s wages and a guinea was not a lot of reward for his loyalty. A week later Rowe sent a letter to his former master (written by Rowe’s son) pleading for help but ignored it.

Rowe was found not guilty on the account of being insane; however, no one doubted he’d acted as charged. The asylum beckoned for Thomas Rowe, if anything a worse outcome than the workhouse, or a public execution.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 07, 1843]

 

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