For many years, Mr James Peckham had been landlord of the Oakfield Tavern, situated at the crossing of St James’s Road and Oakfield Road, Croydon.
In 1886, when he was 47 years old, he married the wealthy widow Sophia Thomson, who was 18 years his senior, and settled down in a semi-detached house at 4 Quadrant Road, Thornton Heath.
This was an ill-conceived move since the marriage seems to have been cursed from the start. Both the Peckhams were fond of drink, James more so than his wife.
James was also fond of spending money, whereas his wife was very parsimonious.
They were constantly at loggerheads, particularly when drunk. The only respite for poor Sophia came in 1891, when James was admitted to Cane Hill Asylum, where he spent 18 months suffering from ‘melancholy mania’.
But James Peckham emerged from the asylum as angry and mean-spirited as ever.
In spite of his 18 months of forced abstinence from alcohol, he drank harder than ever after returning to the family home, and his temper suffered as a result.
The neighbours at No. 6 could hear the Peckhams quarrelling furiously, and James threatening to shoot his wife. This was no idle threat, since the former publican had access to a loaded shotgun, among other firearms.
On January 2 1893, the Peckhams were at loggerheads as usual. Alice Aldous, servant to Mr Veale who lived at No. 6, was fearful that James might injure his wife.
She could hear tongs smashing against the kitchen furniture, and moments later, the now 71-year-old Sophia was forcibly thrown out of the house, still holding some formidable-looking tongs.
When Alice Aldous went out to comfort her, she saw that apart from a swollen and bloody nose, Sophia seemed unharmed.
She asked to be readmitted to 4 Quadrant Road, but James twice replied ‘If I let you in, I’ll murder you!’
In spite of this dire threat, the foolhardy old woman, whose instinct of self-preservation was clearly not in good working order, once more went into the house. Moments later, an explosion was heard.
Fearful that James Peckham had shot his wife, Alice Aldous ran to fetch a police constable.
But it turned out that Police Constable George Windus had also heard the shot. When he came trudging up to the house, James Peckham stood outside, dancing a jig. ‘I have shot my wife!’ he shouted to the police constable. ‘Surely not?’ the startled constable asked him. ‘I have, my bonny boy!’ shouted James, who appeared very exhilarated.
He showed the constable into the kitchen, where Sophia’s lifeless body was lying on the floor.
A large part of her head had been blown off by the gunshot, and she was quite dead.
Indicating the shotgun, James said ‘I shot her with the right barrel, and the other barrel is loaded!’ There had been two other people in the house at the time of the murder: the lodger Louisa Woodhams, and Sophia Peckham’s imbecile sister.
At the coroner’s inquest on Sophia Peckham, Louisa Woodhams and Alice Aldous gave evidence about James’s drunken ways. He had often been shouting threats to injure or murder his wife and kept his arsenal of rifles and shotguns ready for use.
It is remarkable, even by the standards of the time, that a person recently committed to a lunatic asylum for 18 months was allowed to keep firearms and a plentiful supply of ammunition.
When asked for the motive of murdering his wife, James replied that it had all been an accident: the gun had gone off by mistake.
At the Guildford Assizes, several people testified as to James’s fierce and angry temper, his fondness for firearms, and his strange and unreasonable behaviour.
Once a man had been held at gunpoint at the house and forced to execute an infantry drill until he nearly dropped from fatigue.
It was found that James Peckham had committed the murder in a state of insanity, and he was incarcerated in Broadmoor.
He became a very difficult patient, known for his truculence and his foul language. A sturdy, corpulent man, nearly six feet tall and weighing 16 stone, he was a force to be reckoned with when seriously annoyed.
Broadmoor records indicate that James Peckham remained a patient for 20 years, before succumbing to diabetes in 1913.
The murder house at 4 [now 10] Quadrant Road still stands, although another house has been built in its large side garden. James Peckham’s old pub, the Oakfield Tavern, was pulled down not long ago.
This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s Murder Houses of South London (Troubador Publishing, Leicester 2021).
Main Picture: James Peckham shoots his wife, from the Illustrated Police News, January 14 1893. Note the sketches of the murder house and the old pub
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