Denmark Hill, Camberwell near the turn of the century.
1888 is a year forever synonymous with brutality and murder. Between August and November that year the papers were to become obsessed with the failure of the police to catch the ‘Whitechapel fiend’, the man that has gone down in history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.
But the murders of the as yet undiscovered ‘Ripper’ were not the only killings in London that year, even if they were the most ‘newsworthy’.
In late May a man was brought before the sitting magistrate at Lambeth Police court, charged with murdering his infant son.
William Albert Pierrepoint, a 31 year old hammerman from Camberwell, was accused of killing Sidney Gilbert John Pierrepoint, a child just one year and 10 months old*.
The tragedy had happened on a Saturday evening as the Pierrepoints were leaving their lodgings at 158 Neate Street, Camberwell. As was often the case when a family left a small crowd had gathered outside. Some would have come to wish the couple and their children well, others to gawp, perhaps some even to revel in their neighbours’ misfortune. William Pierpoint was out of work, and seemingly had been for some time. The late 1880s were hard years for the British economy and the ranks of the out of work and underemployed grew, leading to protest rallies in Trafalgar Square and riots in Pall Mall. In 1888 the word ‘unemployment’ entered the Oxford English dictionary for the first time.
As the family carried their small collection of personal belongings into the street to pile onto a barrow and made ready to leave, William, already slightly the worse for drink, railed against the world and his landlord. Perhaps because they were behind with the rent the Pierpoints had some of their furniture detained; most significantly their bed.
This was too much for the hammerman who suddenly raised his infant son up high and, with a cry of ‘Patty, Patty, you shall be the victim’, threw it to the ground.
Stunned by what he’d done William stood there for a moment until the crowd became agitated. As they moved towards him and child a woman was heard to shout: ‘Don’t hurt him; he will have enough to answer for’. William fled and was picked up some time afterwards, even more drunk at the Little Wonder beer house nearby.
The policeman that arrested him said that he went quietly when confronted with the assault on his child. ‘I had no intention of doing such a thing’, he explained as he was led to the station. Interviewed by Inspector Webb at 11 at night Pierpoint must have realised the enormity of his situation and tried to defend himself. ‘No one saw me do it’, he said, claiming that the ‘child fell off my arm’.
In court before Mr Biron he said little except to repeat that the child’s death was not intentional. ‘I let the child fall’, he stated in the dock. The magistrate was unconvinced: ‘He did not let if fall, but dashed it to the ground’. William Pierpoint was first remanded and later indicted for murder and sent for trial at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey.
The case came on in July 1888 and there the Pierpoints’ landlady, Sophia Moon, gave the court a bit more context for the events of that fateful evening in May. By the 26 May William owed her 19s 6d, or six weeks’ arrears. She had asked him for this and he told he hadn’t anything to give her. He had piled the family’s belongings into a barrow but told her she could have all the furniture – ‘You can have the b_____ lot’ he said, and apparently said quite a lot more, none of which she was prepared to repeat in a courtroom.
He threw his key down and stormed off, his youngest child (Gilbert) in his arms. It was soon after this the then that the tragedy occurred. Despite William’s comment to the police there were witnesses that saw him throw his child to the ground. Eliza Howell, a leather dresser’s wife, saw it and later identified William to police at the beer house. Sarah Store also witnessed William’s actions, saying he was ‘dreadfully excited’ and had offered to hold the baby urging William to go and get the bed from upstairs.
She was insistent that that child had not fallen, William had thrown it down. Others witnessed this and so despite his not guilty plea, his agitated state of mind, and the fact that several testified to his usual good nature towards children, Pierrepoint was convicted of murder. The jury strongly recommended mercy but judge passed sentence of death on him.
William Pierrepoint did not hang for his son’s murder. On 22 July 1888 Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported that a respite had been received at Wandsworth Prison, where he was being held. Justice Hawkins, the trail judge, had added his name to that of the jurors in asking for clemency and it seems as if Pierrepoint’s sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment.
It’s a very sad story, all arising from the stress that poverty can cause, leaving one child dead, and depriving the other of his father and Mrs Pierrepoint of her husband. And all for the want of 20 shillings, or about £80 today.
Curiously, but not related, the name Pierrepoint is as associated with hanging as 1888 is with murder; from 1931 to his resignation in 1956, Albert Pierrepoint either assisted or was the lead executioner who hanged between 450-600 persons in his 25-year career. Of these 200 were war criminals executed as a result of the Nazi atrocities in WW2.
Writing in his autobiography, published in 1974, Pierrepoint reflected on the death penalty (which by then had been suspended):
… is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.
[From Morning Post, 28 May 1888; Daily News 29 May 1888; Ipswich Journal 31 May 1888; The Standard, 31 May 1888; Reynolds Newspaper 2 June 1888; Lloyds’ Weekly Newspaper 22 July 1888]
*soem reports say that ‘Sidney’ was 2 and half years old.