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Not What He Seemed

John Tawell of Berkhamsted – the ‘Quaker’ poisoner

John Tawell was a successful and honourable man. At 61, he and his wife, Sarah, shared a ‘Quaker-lifestyle’ of outwardly respectable disposition. They lived in Berkhamsted, and could be seen in town in their Quaker clothes and talking Quaker speech, albeit both had been expelled from the movement on their marriage. John Tawell was so righteous he might have been regarded as above the law.

But he was not above the law, and though his earlier standing as a Quaker probably saved him from the gallows when he was a young man, a quarter of a century later he would hang for the cold-blooded murder, by poisoning, of his secret mistress, 30-year old Sarah Hart.

Born in Beccles, Norfolk, Tawell had worked as a salesman in Lowestoft before moving to London. He learned a trade as chemist and druggist and, somewhere along the line, the art of forgery. In 1815, he was convicted of forging a Bank of England note at Uxbridge, a capital offence in those days. It would not do to hang a Quaker, so he was sentenced to 21 years transportation to Australia.

Fortunately for Tawell, his chemist’s qualifications stood him in good stead, and he was set to work in the convict hospital. This, together with good conduct, led to the granting of a ‘ticket of leave’ after only three years. He opened his own chemist’s shop in Sydney and married, and after some successful and fortuitous speculations came out very well after escaping the noose first time around. In fact, transportation led to him making his fortune, a rarity surely, and in 1831 he returned to England.

It is unclear whether his wife died in Australia, or after accompanying Tawell to England at their home in Berkhamsted. Whichever, Tawell lived at the Red House, on the town’s main street. He tried to regain his ‘official’ standing with the Quaker movement, but failed, hardly surprising for a convicted felon. He dressed and acted Quaker ways nonetheless.

It is unclear whether Sarah Hart came to the family home to nurse his sickly wife, or as a servant, but she went into service at the Tawell home nonetheless. She may have aspired to be the next Mrs Tawell; indeed, she became pregnant by him, whereupon she was dispatched to London where she lived, and Tawell visited to pay her an allowance. When a second child came on the scene she moved to a cottage in Bath Place, Slough. Tawell, who married Sarah Cutworth, continued his covert visits whilst maintaining his righteous ‘Quaker’ lifestyle.

It wasn’t as though paying her an allowance was a problem. But when Sarah Hart made their ‘arrangement’ official by taking out a court order for maintenance for her and the children, she presented Tawell with a problem. For now our pillar of society was open to discovery and a subsequent fall from his esteemed position. He would have to do something about this risk, and he did.

On New Year’s Day, 1845, John Tawell paid Sarah a visit. She was delighted, and went to buy some porter. They spent time together at the cottage, and between six and seven that evening he was seen leaving by a neighbour, Mary Ann Ashlee. Mary Ann thought she had heard the sound of moaning and a stifled scream, and she left her house to investigate, taking with her a candle. She was on her garden path when she saw Tawell. She would have believed Tawell, resplendent in his Quaker garb, was the man whom Sarah had told her brought her allowance, as indeed he was. He brushed past her without a word, and hurried off.

Mary Ann found Sarah Hart on the floor in her cottage. She was moaning and gasping pitifully for breath. She ran for help, but she and a neighbour were unable to even give Sarah a drink of water. The Reverend Champnes, a local vicar, attended also, but Sarah died in agony where she lay.

There were two glasses on the table. One glass was empty, the other contained some porter. Those present realised Sarah had been poisoned, and the Rev Champnes sent for the local constable who tried but failed to nab Trawell before he reached the railway station. A messenger was dispatched and Tawell was seen to board the 7.45 train.

The superintendent at Slough railway station, being informed of the facts, sent a message by electro-magnetic telegraph to the station master at Paddington. It read: ‘A murder has been committed at Slough, and the suspect was seen to take the 7.45 train. He is in the garb of a Quaker…’ The telegraph, being new-fangled, had no letter ‘Q’, so the message read ‘Kwaker’. It was the first time in Britain the telegraph was used to trap a murderer.

At Paddington, Sergeant William Williams was waiting, and on sight of Tawell he decided to follow him. Wearing a civilian coat over his uniform, he caught the same bus as Tawell to the City, where he followed his quarry to a coffee parlour, then to a lodging house in Cannon Street. Why the officer did not arrest him at Paddington isn’t clear, but his initiative in taking up surveillance was first class. In any event, Tawell was arrested by the City of London force the next morning. One can imagine his surprise. ‘You must be mistaken, my station in life places me above suspicion,’ he said.

At first, Tawell denied ever being to Slough, or knowing Sarah Hart. Then he admitted knowing her, saying: ‘That wretched woman was in my service for over two years. She was a bad woman. She said she would make away with herself if I didn’t give her money. When I told her I wouldn’t give her any she threatened to do for herself. She held a small phial over a glass of stout and said, “I will, I will”. Then she poured something from the glass and drank it. Then she lay down on the rug and I walked out’.

Sarah had indeed ‘poured something from the glass and drank it’. As the post mortem would show, she had consumed over one grain of prussic acid, contained within her drink, a fatal dose. The issue was now clear, and would remain so throughout the trial of John Tawell: did he spike her drink, or did she commit suicide by drinking poison deliberately, put there by her own hand?

Prussic acid is a hydrocyanic acid, a ‘potent, rapidly acting poison’.
Symptoms of prussic acid poisoning can occur within 15 minutes: excitement, rapid pulse, muscle tremors followed by laboured breathing and collapse.

Tawell’s wife and the good citizens of Berkhamsted knew what they believed. John Tawell a murderer? A man of such importance, such high poition in the community a poisoner? Never. It was all a mistake. Fortunately for justice, theirs was not the decision that would decide the guilt or otherwise of John Tawell; that would lie in the hands of the jury at the Aylesbury Assizes.

The trial took place that March. Not surprisingly, it generated great interest: a ‘Quaker’ on trial for murder! But hadn’t he kept a mistress? And wasn’t he a qualified druggist – someone who would know about poisons? These were new revelations, as was the evidence of a chemist of Bishopgate, London, who said on the day of the murder Tawell had called at his shop and asked for two drachms of prussic acid ‘for his varicose veins’. Then a friend of Sarah’s told the court that a few months before Sarah had been sick after drinking porter, after a visit by Tawell, the implication being he had tried to poison her then.

Tawell told the court nothing, as the law in those days forbade accused persons to testify on their own behalf; it was assumed they would say anything, including lies, to secure an acquittal. But Tawell’s lawyer, Mr Kelly, had much to say, suggesting Sarah Hart, who had eaten an apple, had somehow devoured prussic acid from apple pips. This nonsense earned him the nickname ‘Apple Pip Kelly’, which might have been well deserved. Then he read out an emotional plea, which brought tears to his own eyes if not the jury’s.

Reading out a letter written to Tawell by his wife just before the murder, Mr Kelly ended with Mrs Tawell’s words, “My loved one, the year has opened with a lovely day. I hope it is an omen of the future which awaits us”. ‘Could any man, after receiving such a letter, commit an act which would make his wife a widow?’ asked Apple Pip Kelly.

The judge seemed to think so, for he told the jury that ‘on the day Sarah Hart was poisoned Tawell had poison in his possession and on the following day he did not’. Murder or suicide? Murder, said the jury.

On 28th March, 1845, John Tawell was hanged at Aylesbury before a crowd of over 2,000. But not before he wrote down a full confession to the crime of murdering Sarah Hart, and trying to kill her the previous September. Until that time, his wife remained loyal, refusing to believe her husband was a murderer, proving that people, even those you know intimately, are not always what they seem.

As for Tawell, his hanging was ‘botched’. He was of slight build, and the hangman did not allow sufficient ‘drop’; instead of Tawell’s neck breaking he took ten minutes to slowly strangle to death. A cruel but fitting end, you might think, for the man who murdered Sarah Hart. The electro-magnetic telegraph used to entrap him, having earned its place in history, was put on show to the public at a shilling a head.

See Also:
Electronic Captures