South London Memories: Did he take the poison?

Would a respected up-and-coming lawyer marry a wealthy widow, take poison four months later and then tell her maid ‘I have taken poison’? Charles Bravo, of Balham, said nothing similar to anyone else in the three days it took him to die. A first inquest had an open verdict. But facts later emerged which forced a second inquest – and a very different verdict. ANTONY M BROWN writes how the case unfolded.

It is 1876. Queen Victoria is on the throne, Britain is the world’s economic superpower and Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone.

Balham, then a quiet suburb, is bound by swathes of open countryside dissected by the West London and Crystal Palace railway line.

Travelling south-east, past the Bedford Hotel and along Bedford Hill Road, there is a white building with fake battlements.

The Priory was then home to a newly-wed couple, lawyer Charles Bravo and his wealthy wife Florence, plus a dozen servants.

This picture of upper middle-class sensibility would have escaped history’s gaze were it not for dramatic events that year.

On April 18, Charles Bravo collapsed in agony. He had somehow ingested a rare poison, and despite the attendance of no less than six doctors, it exacted its horrific toll on his young body.

Dr Gully

By the third day, he was dead. His wife’s contention that her husband had committed suicide was supported by the testimony of Mrs Cox, her lady’s companion, who told the doctors that before his collapse Charles Bravo had declared to her: “I have taken poison, don’t tell Florence.”

But the lawyer’s friends and family insisted the hard-nosed, high spirited man would never have taken his own life.

The subsequent inquest returned an open verdict, and Charles Bravo was buried in Norwood Cemetery.

It was another two weeks before details of the mysterious poisoning reached the press.

They reported Mrs Cox had waited nearly five hours before telling doctors of Bravo’s confessional statement.

The inquest was exposed as a farce, with key witnesses not called and important questions left unanswered. Unlike everyone else in the household, Florence Bravo and Mrs Cox had not given written statements.

By early June, the two had provided their statements, in which Mrs Cox dropped a bombshell.

The Bedford Hotel

She claimed Charles had actually told her: “I have taken poison for Dr Gully. Don’t tell Florence.”

Dr Gully had been Florence’s lover before she met Bravo. He was married and more than twice her age.

Suspicions lingered that the romance might not have ended because he still lived in Bedford Hill Road, a few hundred yards from The Priory.

Mrs Cox’s bombshell provided a possible reason for Bravo to commit suicide – to chivalrously allow Florence to return to her supposed true love. But it also suggested a motive for murder: that Florence killed him for the same reason.

Because Mrs Cox had not mentioned this to the coroner, the initial inquest was quashed and a new one ordered.

Poisoned at The Priory by Antony M Brown

The second inquest was held over three weeks at the Bedford Hotel, 200 yards from the Priory.

Crowds gathered and the nation was hooked by the strange death and its salacious back story.

Florence was humiliated. Her affair with a man twice her age appeared to provoke more outrage than the fact she might have murdered her husband.

There were other suspects – Mrs Cox, who feared losing her well-paid position at the Priory; Dr Gully, the former lover; and at least one disaffected servant, sacked by Bravo only months before.

All were grilled at the new inquest, yet little light was shone on the case.

The second jury found Charles Bravo had been murdered by a person or persons unknown. Yet there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone, and the poisoning remains unsolved to this day.

Balham has changed considerably in 150 years since, but the Priory, the Bedford Hotel and Dr Gully’s house remain, casting long shadows over Balham’s scandalous past.

The household broke up after the inquest ended and the twice-widowed Florence moved away to Southsea, Hampshire.

She died at 33 of alcohol poisoning two years later in 1878.

Who really was in hot water?

The second inquest heard testimony from 40 witnesses. Arguably, the most important was Mrs Cox, who was a prime suspect because of her suspicious behaviour.

She claimed that after Bravo had called out for help, she rushed into his room and he immediately confessed to her about taking poison.

The housekeeper, Mary Ann Keeber, had stood by the open bedroom door.

In one of the most important exchanges of the entire inquest, George Lewis, the attorney acting for the Bravo family, wanted to know how Keeber had not heard the confessional, too.

Mary Ann Keeber

The following extract is taken from Poisoned at The Priory.

George Lewis fired a salvo of sharp questions at the witness. “Keeber had called you – was she not standing at the side of the open door?”

“I never noticed her.”

“When did you notice her?”

“She came with the hot water when I next saw her.

“She must have heard him calling for hot water, as I do not remember telling her to fetch any. I…” She hesitated.

“I may have told her, or she may have heard. I cannot say any more.”

If Mrs Cox had instructed Keeber to bring some hot water, the housemaid must have been standing by the bedroom door.

Lewis probed further. “Then you think she may have heard what took place in the room when you were there?”

Mrs Cox paused, her head tilted downward. “I don’t know that Mr Bravo was shouting loudly for hot water,” she stated hesitantly, contradicting her earlier reply that he had screamed out for it.

“He did not speak very loudly to me.”

The answer was evasive. Lewis pounced like a lynx. “This is what Mary Ann Keeber swore to this court.” He picked up a piece of paper.

“She said, ‘Mrs Cox rose and went into Mr Bravo’s bedroom. I stood at the door. Mr Bravo was then standing by the window. I heard him call for hot water, and Mrs Cox asked me to fetch hot water.’”

He replaced the paper on the table in front of him, and locked eyes with the witness. “Will you deny she was standing at the door?”

“I don’t know whether she was or not.”

The jurymen

Lewis was having none of it. “Was not Keeber in a position to know what took place?”

His words thundered around the billiard room as Mrs Cox wavered.

“I don’t know how soon she came to the door after me.”

Lewis looked at the jurymen. “That is your answer?” he asked with disdain. “Yes.”
“Was not Keeber in a position to hear what was said?”

John Murphy, Mrs Cox’s counsel, leapt up. “The witness has answered this question”
“I really must protest!” Lewis exclaimed to the coroner, barely containing his anger.

“Please prevent Mr Murphy from interfering at such a grave moment in my cross-examination of the witness.”

“Please sit down, Mr Murphy,” the coroner instructed. “The jurymen will draw their own conclusions at interruptions at such moments.”

Lewis would go on to act for Prince Edward, later Edward VII, and the defendants, when a lieutenant-colonel in the Scots Guards, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, sued for libel in 1891 – he had been accused of cheating in a game with the prince.

Lewis tried to keep Edward out of the court proceedings but failed – it became the first time an heir to the throne had appeared in court voluntarily since 1411.

Lewis’s clients won. He was knighted in 1893.

His great-great grandson, Toby Porter, is the news editor of the South London Press.


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