South London Memories: Hacked to death with scissors

In 1881, the Lambeth labouring man Charles Henry Burgess married a young local lass Mary Kate Bowers.

Soon, they had a daughter named Harriett and a son named Robert. But Charles Henry Burgess died only four years later, in 1885 and Mary Kate was alone with two children to support.

She worked as a needlewoman and mantle-maker, earning just enough money to keep poverty from the door.

In 1892, she married a seedy bloke named Arthur Waknell, who worked as an assistant in Messrs Parking & Gotto’s shop. They did not get on particularly well after the wedding, and Mary Kate began to suspect that Arthur had married her because she was expecting an inheritance.

This suspicion turned out to be well-founded – as soon as Mary Kate’s elderly aunt had died, and the inheritance had been banked, Arthur left his job and spent the money.

He beat Mary Kate up if she refused him money for drink. He ruled the household with an iron fist – but when the money was nearly all spent, he left and went back to work.

Once more, Mary Kate Waknell was alone with her two children. But by now, Harriett was able to find a situation as a servant, and Robert became a shirt-cutter at a factory.

Since Mary Kate was fearful that the cad Arthur would track her down she frequently changed lodgings.

In early 1900, the now 42-year-old Mary Kate Waknell was living in two basement rooms at 44 Water Lane, Brixton.

The kitchen doubled as the bedroom of her son Robert, and her own bedroom as her
mantle-making workshop. But Robert noticed she did little work. Instead, she often went out in the evenings, flashily dressed, and returned home late at night with a ‘gentleman friend’.

Water Lane

On the evening of Friday May 11 1900, Robert came home after a long day at work, and ‘banked’ his weekly earnings of eight shillings with his mother, who allowed him fivepence a day for his train fare and lunch.

Mary Kate had arranged for them to move to new lodgings in Lime Street the following week.

She went out late in the evening. The exhausted Robert went to bed and slept soundly all night.

On Saturday morning, he found his mother lying dead on the floor, with multiple
deep stab wounds, and a large pair of scissors in her chest.

The police were promptly called. Robert suggested his mother was prostituting herself. Police suspected she had picked up some gentleman friend in a pub and brought him back home for some ‘fun’.

But this particular ‘gentleman’s’ ideas of fun had been more in the line of those of Jack the Ripper.

He had seized the scissors Mary Kate had been using in her mantle-making business, and stabbed her again and again.

It was remarkable neither Robert, next door, nor the other three families living in the house, had been woken up by a scream or the sound of a scuffle.

One newspaper said a man had been arrested on Monday, May 14, due to bloodstains on his shirt-cuffs, but nothing more came of this.

Arthur Waknell briefly became a suspect. But he gave himself up to the police and provided a solid alibi for the night of the murder. His account of his movements was so satisfactory that he was not even detained by the police.

At the coroner’s inquest, the police had to admit defeat – all their exertions to track down the murderer had been in vain.

Mary Kate’s killer had clearly been let into the basement rooms at 44 Water Lane without a struggle, making it likely that she had let her customer in herself.

She had a black eye, so he might well have felled her with a blow and then stabbed her with the scissors in a frenzied attack.

He had then stolen her paltry savings of a few shillings and let himself out through the front door. As the police said: “The assailant left not a single vestige of evidence which could be followed up, and the officers engaged in the case freely confess they are without a clue.”

It is possible the murder was the handiwork of some disciple of Jack the Ripper, intent on murdering a prostitute just for the fun of it.

But surely, such an individual should have brought with him his own murder weapon, instead of making use of the large scissors left in the room.

If profit had been the motive, the culprit had been inept, choosing a middle-aged part-time prostitute who was herself as poor as the proverbial church mouse.

There are also some suspects closer to home. What if the cad Arthur Waknell had really hated his estranged wife, and paid some rough of his acquaintance to murder her, making sure beforehand that he himself had a rock solid alibi?

And what about Robert? Had he perhaps been ashamed of his mother’s immoral life, and decided to murder her?

It would have been easy for him to sneak into her bedroom after the customer had left, and stab her to death with the scissors.

He convinced the police detectives with his candour, and his obvious horror on discovering his mother had been murdered, but some adolescents are clever actors.

The sole reminder of this intriguing, and little-known, Brixton murder mystery is the house at 44 Water Lane.

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


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