Fingerprint saw brothers hanged for brutal murders

When two elderly shopkeepers, aged 71 and 65, were attacked on the premises in 1905, it looked like it might be hard to find out who killed them. Two notorious miscreants lived nearby – and the prostitute they pimped said they suddenly had more money overnight. But the new science of fingerprints was used for the first time in Britain to help bring the brothers to justice, writes JAN BONDESON in the latest of his series of notorious South London murders.

Thomas and Anna Farrow were an elderly couple who tended Mr George Chapman’s oil and colour shop at No 34 Deptford High Street.

Although Thomas was 71 years old in 1905, and Anna 65, they both beavered away with commendable industry, keeping the small shop open from 8am until 9.30pm, helped by their younger assistant William Jones.

On the morning of March 27, 1905, when William Jones came trudging to work as usual, he found the shop door locked.

He walked over to one of Mr Chapman’s other shops nearby, returned with another assistant, and entered the shop through the back door.

To his horror, he found Thomas Farrow lying dead in the parlour, murdered by a series of heavy blows to the head.

Mrs Farrow was lying in bed, unconscious and badly injured by a couple of hard knocks to the head.

The rifled cash-tin of the shop, which had obviously been handled by at least one of the murderers, was carefully examined for fingerprints by the police.

Aside from the lack of forced entry, it was clear that the Farrows had been attacked separately.

The discovery of two black masks fashioned from stockings, left at the scene, indicated that [at least] two men were involved.

Since the Farrows were in their night clothes, the police had speculated that Thomas Farrow had been deceived into opening the door in the middle of the night.

He was immediately attacked but was still able to pursue the robbers, although they knocked him down again, killing him.

His assailants went up to the upstairs flat, attacked Mrs Farrow, located the cash box, and fled with the money.

For a while, there were hopes that Mrs Farrow would recover consciousness, and be able to describe her assailant, but the harmless old lady died on March 31.

A photograph of the Chapman murder shop

Instead, the police got hold of some important leads. Two independent witnesses had seen the brothers Albert and Alfred Stratton in Deptford High Street the night of the murder.

These two were well-known local young roughs, certainly capable of violent crime.

They were both prostitute’s bullies, living off the earnings of their ‘lady friends’.

It turned out that Alfred had been ‘running’ a certain Hannah Cromarty, who claimed to be pregnant with his child.

This state of affairs had not prevented him from taking a generous proportion of her immoral earnings, or disciplining her using his fists.

When Hannah was questioned by the police, she sported a black eye, administered by Alfred the day before the murder.

At midnight, she had heard Alfred speaking to some person outside, saying ‘Shall we go out tonight, or leave it for some other night?’

The following day, after the murder, he had cleaned his trousers using paraffin, and put blacking on his brown boots. All of a sudden, Alfred also had plenty of money, purchasing food, coal, and even a daily newspaper.

When the two Strattons were arrested, they seemed as tough as ever. After being ‘nabbed’ in Deptford High Street, Albert calmly said ‘Is that all?’ when he was charged with the murder of the Farrows, and the theft of their savings of £13.

The idea that a fingerprint could be useful to identify a murderer seemed very droll to the two Strattons, but the print on the cash-box matched Alfred’s thumb exactly.

As the police kept accumulating evidence against the two young ruffians in custody, Albert became apprehensive.

Fearful of a long prison sentence, he asked the assistant gaoler what he thought of his chances, but this individual did not hazard a guess.

After checking that his brother was not listening, Alfred then said, rather callously, ‘I reckon he will get strung up, and I shall get about 10 years!’

The murder shop at No 34 Deptford High Street in 2011. It is today home to a small newsagent’s business

This unwise blabbering to the gaoler did not do the Stratton brothers any good when they were on trial at the Old Bailey for the wilful murder of Thomas and Anna Farrow.

The evidence against them, which included the thumbprint on the cashbox, seemed rock solid.

They were found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed at Wandsworth Prison on May 23, 1905.

Not many people know that the rather nondescript shop at No 34 of the busy Deptford High Street is a memorial to a sordid murder for profit, which led to the first murder trial in Britain where fingerprint evidence played a crucial part.

As for poor Hannah Cromarty, who had bravely given evidence against the two murderous ruffians, she turned out to be pregnant with Alfred Stratton’s child.

After she had suffered a miscarriage, there was a good deal of newspaper sympathy for her, and the author George R Sims made an appeal to the charitable Londoners to have her sent to Canada to start a new life.

Sims was later dismayed to find that Hannah had quickly returned to Deptford, where she was arrested by the police after making a disturbance outside the murder house at No 34 Deptford High Street. This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s Murder Houses of South London (Troubador Publishing, Leicester 2015).

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