In October 2008 this website carried an article about the brutal murder in March 1879 of Julia Martha Thomas, who lived at 2 Vine Cottages on Richmond Hill. Her killer was a convicted fraudster, thief and hard case called Kate Webster who Julia Thomas had recently taken on as a maid. Just out of prison, Kate had been looking for easy pickings all over this area. She threw over one position with the Mitchell family in Teddington because, as she said later, “They didn’t have anything worth stealing”… but Julia Martha Thomas did. Just 6 weeks after engaging the maid Julia Martha Thomas had mysteriously disappeared and Kate Webster was walking around in her clothes and jewellery.
At the time nobody knew how Kate Webster had murdered Julia Thomas but it soon became clear how she had disposed of the body. Two days after Julia was last seen alive Kate Webster, wearing a very smart silk dress and carrying a heavy Gladstone bag, went to see some friends, the Porters, in Hammersmith. She told them that an aunt had left her a house and all its contents. Did they know anyone who might help her dispose of it all? As the Porters considered the question Kate went for a walk, taking the Gladstone bag with her. When she returned the bag had gone. Later that evening the Porter’s young son, Robert, helped Kate carry a heavy box down to Richmond Bridge where Kate said someone was coming to take it from her. As young Robert walked away he heard a loud splash as something heavy hit the water.
The box was recovered the following morning from the Thames at Barnes by a coalman who was horrified to find inside some female body parts, apparently boiled. The police couldn’t take the case further as without the head it was impossible to identify the remains. For the police and the press the case of the headless boiled body in a box became the “Barnes Mystery”. Although the police didn’t have positive proof that that body in the box was that of Julia Thomas their further investigations - including the grisly discovery at 2 Vine Cottages of an axe and a large copper tub containing fatty deposits - suggested that Mrs Thomas had been battered to death, chopped up and boiled down. On 28th March 1879 they arrested Kate Webster, took her to Richmond Police Station and charged her with murder.
The ‘Barnes Mystery’ remained unsolved until October 22, 2010, when workmen excavating the site of the old ‘Hole in the Wall’ pub on Richmond Hill uncovered a female skull. The West London Coroner Alison Thompson asked police officers from Richmond CID to investigate the identification of the skull and the circumstances of its owner’s death. Finally on July 5th 2011 after months of investigation and radiocarbon dating the Coroner was able to positively identify the skull as belonging to Julia Martha Thomas. She was also able to record a verdict of unlawful killing, the cause of death being asphyxiation and head injury. Chief Superintendent Clive Chalk, Richmond’s Borough Commander, said;
“This is a fascinating case and a good example of how good old-fashioned detective work, historical records and technological advances came together to solve the Barnes mystery.”
A few minutes before 9.00am on the morning of Tuesday 29th July 1879 Kate Webster was lead from her cell at Wandsworth Prison to the “Cold Meat Shed” as the execution room was known, accompanied by the Under Sheriff, the prison governor Captain Colville, the prison doctor, two male warders, a priest Father McEnrey, two female wardresses and William Marwood the public executioner. In the execution shed Webster was quickly pinioned, a white bag placed over her head followed by the noose. Stepping back Marwood then released the trap sending Kate on an 8 feet drop to eternity. Her last words were “Lord, have mercy on me.” Marwood received £11 for his work.
Earlier that morning Kate Webster had reportedly said to Father McEnery, “I alone committed the murder of Mrs Thomas. I pushed her down stairs and strangled her,” matching exactly the asphyxiation and head injury reported as the cause of death by the West London Coroner 132 years later.
The story has one last grisly twist. After the execution the Victorian commentator Henry Mayhew met a boy who knew Kate Webster. A few days after the murder she had offered the boy and his mates some food with these words…
‘Ear you lot, I’ve some good pig’s lard ‘ere an’ you kids shall have it free of charge… so don’t go saying that ol’ Kate never gives you nothink.’
Then she gave the boys two big bowls of lard and hunks of bread.
‘Eat it all up now, me dears, it’s good for you an’ when you’ve finished you can sell them bowls an’ all.’
And that was the end of Julia Martha Thomas, butchered and boiled into bowls of lard.
– from Martyn Day
Credit: The picture of Julia Martha Thomas is from Richmond Local Studies Collection.