The Napoleonic Wars were not long finished when 78-year-old John Smith found out his common law wife had taken up with a younger man. Crime writer JAN BONDESON describes what happened next in the latest of our series of 19th century South London murders.
In the County of Wicklow I was born’d
but now in Maidstone die in scorn
I once was counted a roving blade
but to my misfortune had no trade
women was always my downfall
but still I liked and loved them all
a hundred I have had in my time
when I was young and in my prime …
These doggerel verses were written by John Smith – a 78-year-old former sailor who had become a Greenwich Pensioner – as he was awaiting execution at Maidstone Gaol.
A strong, vigorous old fellow, hale and hearty in spite of his years, he had always been very fond of female company.
When Old Jack, as he was called, met an ageing floozie named Catherine Jones in a London brothel, he persuaded her to join him at Greenwich Hospital, where he got her a job as helper in one of the wards.
She was known as ‘Jack Smith’s Wife’ and the old man hoped she would remain true to him.
A woman from London to me came
she said with You I would fain remain
if you’ll be constant I’ll be true
I never want no man but You …
But ‘Catherine Smith’ did not adhere to her unconventional ‘marriage vows’. After residing with Old Jack at the Hospital for 18 months, she started ‘going out’ with a younger and more attractive pensioner. This made Jack furious, and on October 4 1822, he sneaked out to the ‘Cricketers’ public house in central Greenwich – yards from what is now the National Maritime Musuem and Greenwich University’s main campus. He asked the barman if he had seen his faithless Catherine but was answered in the negative. Still, old Jack remained at the pub, swigging from a jug of ale and clutching a sharp knife in his pocket.
And indeed, his brazen ‘wife’ soon came sauntering into the pub with her admirer, ignoring old Jack and ordering two glasses of gin. ‘You know I take it with peppermint!’ she admonished the barman, but as he was reaching for the peppermint-bottle, Jack sneaked up to his ‘wife’ and ended her life, as he expressed it:
then to the Cricketers he did go
to see if he could find her out or no
not long been there before she came in
with this same fellow to fetch some Gin
then with a Knife himself brought in
immediately stab’d her under the Chin
and in five minutes she was no more
but there laid in her purple gore …
‘You have killed me! You have killed me!’ poor Catherine screamed. Rather callously, the landlord of the Cricketers, who clearly was no proto-Samaritan, advised her to run to the Infirmary nearby, but she only got 40 paces before dropping dead. ‘You wicked old man, how could you do so rash an act?’ the landlord cried, seizing hold of Jack. ‘She had been with that fellow all night!’ the tough old pensioner replied.
On trial for murder at the Kent Assizes, Jack Smith told the court about his ‘wife’s’ unsatisfactory behaviour. He had challenged her when she came into the pub with her ‘lubber’ and ordered her favourite peppermint gin. Her only response had been to put her foot down hard on one of his corns. Infuriated, he had stabbed her in a fit of anger, and he hoped the court would show him mercy. The verdict was one of guilty, however, and Jack was sentenced to hang.
Awaiting execution, Jack wrote his own ‘Ballad of Maidstone Gaol’, the doggerel history of his life. It was rightly considered “truly astonishing that the mind of a man nearly fourscore years could, by any possibility, under circumstances so peculiarly awful, for a moment be so abstracted from his situation as to admit of so extraordinary a production.”
The Morning Chronicle published Jack’s poem in its enterity, as did the Newgate Calendar.
But still, old Jack was executed at Maidstone Gaol on December 23. He did not recite his poem on the scaffold, but merely remarked that women had always been his downfall.
The Cricketers pub at Greenwich lived on for many years after Jack Smith, the murderer poet, had been launched into eternity.
Remarkably, the old pub was still up and running as late as 2004, described as a popular watering-hole for local old men, who liked its cask ales on tap, and did not want to frequent the ‘touristy’ pubs. But since the old pub was not making a profit, it was closed a few years later. For a while, the murder pub was a glitzy gay bar, and it then became a ‘tiki bar’, although neither reincarnation lasted very long.
When I saw it in 2013, it was a fish and chips shop. Although admitting that the fish and chips on sale were not bad, Greenwich conservationists wanted the historic Cricketers to be converted back into a pub again, but this does not look like happening, since money tends to speak louder than conservationists. Today, Greenwich’s oldest murder pub is the ‘Goddards of Greenwich’ restaurant at what is today 22 King William Walk.
If we are to believe a mysterious character who calls himself ‘the People’s Poet’, the spectres of Jack and Catherine Smith were still haunting the old Greenwich fish and chips shop as late as 2013. They agree fully with the Greenwich conservationists about the sad fate of their favourite watering-hole. One night, when the Poet was passing by the former Cricketers, having ‘had a few’ at another establishment, he heard a croaking male voice exclaim:
Alas, my ghost now haunts this shop
‘Midst ‘taters, chips and fritter,
Instead of having one last drop
of good old John Smith’s Bitter!
At first, the Poet though he might be hallucinating, but a quivering female voice joined in:
Alack, old Jack, you murdered me,
to end my life in sin!
And now I must teetotal be
without peppermint gin!
The voices of the two ghosts then declaimed, at a very sorrowful note:
Our spectres quite transparent are,
we long even for Hell;
Instead of our nice saloon bar,
that dreadful fishy smell!
This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s Murder Houses of South London (Troubador Publishing, Leicester 2015).
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