Thief returned to slay his wife

Why steal when you are married to a woman who is running a successful business and would one day inherit a house? There are so many questions concerning the criminal dealings of Henry Brown, of Linom Road, Clapham. Was it anger? A self-destructive streak? Or was he plain evil? Whichever it was, when he came back from his three-year sentence for theft, prison had not reformed him – as his unlucky wife and mother-in-law would find out, writes JAN BONDESON, in his latest telling of Victorian South London’s notorious murders.

Mrs Elizabeth Locke had married into a wealthy and respectable family.

For many years, she lived comfortably with her husband, a well-to-do draper, and their several children.

After Mrs Locke was widowed in 1880, her daughter Fanny suggested that they should move to London, where she wanted to set up a dressmaking business.

Although Mrs Locke was now 70 years old, she agreed to move to the Metropolis with her daughter. Fanny Locke’s dressmaking firm had considerable success, and she employed several needlewomen in her large workshop.

Both Mrs Locke and Fanny were prudent, parsimonious people, fond of various penny-pinching schemes.

Although they were very well off, they had several lodgers in the house.

One of them was a young man named Henry Brown, who described himself as a painter and decorator. He paid court to Fanny, and although she was 38 years old and he just 28, they got married in 1892.

Mrs Locke did not care very much for her new son-in-law, since he seemed idle in his habits and elusive with regard to his plans for the future.

Just a few months after the wedding, a constable knocked at the door, telling Mrs Fanny Brown that her husband was wanted by the police for stealing a pony and trap.

Henry was arrested soon after and sentenced to three years in prison.

The dapper Harry Brown at his trial.

The following day, a troop of bailiffs came to the Brown family home and removed all the furniture, which the miscreant had procured “through the hire system”.

Chastened by these dismal experiences, Mrs Locke and Fanny Brown moved to another house, No. 14 Linom Road, Clapham.

Fanny concentrated on her dressmaking and stayed away from wicked men.

Three years went by, as the two ladies lived contentedly at No. 14, and Henry Brown rattled the bars of his prison cell.

But in early November 1896, a surly-looking cove came knocking at Mrs Locke’s front door, asking”‘Don’t you know me” “‘Oh yes, it’s Henry!” the dim-witted old lady replied.

She let Henry into the house, where Fanny was “rather upset”’ at seeing her jailbird husband again.

Henry moved into one of the first-floor bedrooms at No. 14 Linom Road. He was gloomy and morose, and showed no inclination to look for paid employment.

He lamented that the furniture had been removed and blamed his wife for this calamity. He suggested to Mrs Locke that he should instead sell the front room chairs to raise some capital for unspecified “investments”.

But she firmly said: “Henry, I can’t see how you can sell them; I have been the landlady 18 months and I think you are in my debt!”

Henry looked very angry but did not press the point. Some days later, he asked Mrs Locke whether chemists sold poison without a label, a question the old lady was unable to answer.

A few days later, her tea tasted very bitter, and she vomited profusely.

The two timid ladies became increasingly apprehensive about what the sinister Henry was up to.

On November 9, Fanny Brown went up with her mother’s breakfast, saying: “Mother, I have had something in my tea, the same as you had last week”

Fanny looked very ill, and she soon ran downstairs to vomit. Old Mrs Locke, whose instincts of self-preservation were seriously defective, then drank thirstily from her own cup of tea!

It did not take long for her to experience the same symptoms. As she sat retching into the chamber-pot, Mrs Locke heard her daughter scream for help, but since the dose of poison in her tea had made her very ill, she was unable to run downstairs.

The milkman Samuel Matthews was just then coming up to the house, however.

He heard Fanny Brown’s outcry, and the sound of repeated heavy blows.

Through the stained-glass panels of the front door, he could see Henry Brown beating a recumbent figure with a large coal hammer.

The milkman knocked at the door and shouted: “Stop it! I shall know you again!” But the only effect was that Henry came up to the door and bolted it.

He then went upstairs, where he met Mrs Locke in the landing. He seized hold of the defenceless old lady and hammered away with a hearty goodwill, beating her until she was well-nigh dead.

Henry then went to his own room, barricaded the door with furniture, and stabbed himself in the chest seven times.

The milkman Matthews went to fetch the police, and two sturdy constables broke down the front door of No. 14 Linom Road.

Its three senseless inhabitants were all removed to hospital.

Fanny Brown soon died from her extensive head injuries. Mrs Locke’s life was more than once despaired of, but the old lady eventually recovered from the brutal beating she had received.

One of her fingers, which had been flattened by the heavy hammer, had to be amputated.

The murderer Henry Brown also recovered completely since none of his stab wounds had penetrated the chest wall.

Wandsworth Prison, where he was hanged in 1897.

He was fit to stand trial for the murder of his wife on December 14 1896.

The 86-year-old Mrs Locke gave evidence against him.

It also transpired that Henry Brown had been an inveterate thief all his adult life. From January 1885, when he had been 20 years old, until December 1896, he had spent 89 out of 144 months in prison, for repeatedly stealing horses and carriages.

The motive of the murder remained unclear: perhaps Henry suspected that his wife and mother-in-law had acted dishonestly about the furniture, or even denounced him to the police back in 1892.

More likely, the callous thief had planned to murder the two harmless women, steal their money, and sell the contents of the house.

Henry Brown was found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, and hanged on January 5, 1897 at Wandsworth Prison – the site of another 134 executions, between 1878 and 1961.

The murder house at No. 14 Linom Road still stands, although its front door, through whose stained-glass panels the milkman Matthews saw the murderer at work, has been replaced with one of more modern design.

This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s Murder Houses of South London (Troubador Publishing, Leicester 2015).

Main Pic: Linom Road, Clapham –the site of the brutal murder of Fanny Locke and the attempt to kill her widowed mother Elizabeth. Picture: PA

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