In the third of our series of unsolved Victorian South London murders, rheumatologist and crime writer Jan Bondeson tells the tale of the ghost of Eliza Grimwood, who may have been the victim of a French serial killer in 1838
When that intrepid ghost-hunter, Mr Elliott O’Donnell, was making some inquiries about London’s haunted murder houses in the 1890s, he found an old street hawker named Jonathan who had been a boy at the time of one of London’s most notorious unsolved murders: the brutal ‘ripping’ of the beautiful young prostitute Eliza Grimwood at No. 12 Wellington Terrace, Waterloo Road, back in 1838
Jonathan’s mother, who had known Eliza and her boyfriend William Hubbard, used to say that the former was “as tidy a looking girl as was to be found in the ‘ole neighbourhood.”
A Mrs Glover, who used to visit somebody lodging in Hubbard’s house, had twice seen Eliza Grimwood’s ghost, dressed just as she had been in her lifetime, making the bed in the murder room.
People in Wellington Terrace saw the ghost looking out through the ground floor window so often that they got used to it, and were not alarmed by its presence.
Wellington Terrace has been compared with the Curse on Mitre Square, the site of one of the Ripper crimes, and with No. 22 Wyndham Road, Camberwell, where an entire family had been exterminated.
The area remained a seedy and rundown part of London. In 1905, the journalist Guy Logan wrote: “No. 12, Wellington Terrace, is daily passed by thousands who have no idea that it was once the scene of a most mysterious murder.
There Eliza Grimwood, fair and frail, was cruelly done to death by a male fiend whom she had permitted to accompany her home from the Strand Theatre .”
On May 26, 1838, Eliza Grimwood went to the Strand Theatre, a well-known place of assignation among the better class of London harlots.
She was met by a young, well-dressed foreigner, who spoke excellent English with a French accent. He looked like a respectable gentleman’s servant.
They seemed to be the best of friends as they travelled across Waterloo Bridge in a cab, laughing and joking together.
A witness saw them arrived at No. 12 Wellington Terrace at just after midnight. When Eliza’s servant Mary Fisher let them into the house, the foreigner hid his face from her and hastily walked into the parlour.
The other four people in the house were Eliza’s boyfriend William Hubbard, the commercial traveller William Best, the prostitute Mary Glover and the servant Mary Fisher.
The following morning, Hubbard found Eliza murdered in her bedroom, with her throat dreadfully cut and her abdomen violently ‘ripped’.
There was uproar. Newspapers were full of the ‘Waterloo Road Horror’.
The murder investigation was led by Inspector Charles Frederick Field, who knew Eliza as the Countess, because of her handsome appearance, elegant clothes and proud bearing.
As he later told his friend Charles Dickens, “When I saw the poor Countess, lying dead with her throat cut, on the floor of her bedroom, a variety of reflections calculated to make a man rather low in his spirits, came into my head.”
Either ‘the foreigner’ had murdered Eliza, seemingly just for the fun of it, or Hubbard was guilty. A purse full of gold guineas had been stolen, but Eliza’s jewellery had been left.
Eight florins, apparently given by her visitor, had also been left in the room.
Inspector Field managed to track down the cab man who had driven him and Eliza to No. 12 Wellington Terrace.
Hubbard was a prostitute’s bully who was partially supported by Eliza’s earnings. He resented Eliza’s regular customers, many respectable, particularly William Osborne, a Birmingham sword-cutler who was going to take her to the Epsom races.
But there was no blood on Hubbard’s clothes, except some splashed onto his trousers in his mad dash to get out of the murder room, nor was there any trace of the weapon.
All Hubbard’s shirts were identified, and they were all free of blood. And could Hubbard, who was clearly a creature of modest intellect, have committed the murder without alerting any other person, or leaving any clue?
An anonymous letter was received from a John Walter Cavendish claiming to be Eliza’s client for the night of the murder, and saying Hubbard had bullied him and thrown him out of the house. The bricklayer was arrested.
While Hubbard was in custody, Eliza’s three brothers had posters pasted up all over London saying Eliza’s belongings would be sold by auction at the house. When the doors were opened, there was a tremendous rush for admission, including a number of well-dressed gentlemen and ladies.
Many halted to admire the bloodstained floorboards. The bidding was brisk for Eliza’s chairs and sofa, and particularly for her fine mahogany chest of drawers. The deceased’s bed attracted even fiercer bidding, since it was liberally marked with blood.
The furniture sold for £64, Eliza’s watch and jewellery for £80. Buyers had to leave through the back, before the angry mob outside, waving their auction catalogues and demanding entry, could be let in to see the murder room.
One grabbed the bloodstained carpet, proposing to cut it up into smaller fragments to sell it to the mob outside.
In 1845 a private soldier named George Hill confessed to the murder to get away from the military. My conclusion would be the same as that of Inspector Field, namely that the foreigner did it.
Inspector Field marvelled at the culprit’s ability to avoid detection. It was almost as if he had committed murder before.
The Swiss valet François Benjamin Courvoisier was awaiting execution in Newgate, for the murder of his master Lord William Russell in 1840, and wanted to confess to the murder of Eliza Grimwood, although his uncle persuaded him to
Author and amateur criminologist George R. Sims had heard Courvoisier had wanted to confess to two unsolved murders – Eliza in 1838 and barmaid Eliza Davies in 1837.
Some circumstances link Courvoisier to the unsolved murder of clockmaker Robert Westwood in 1839.
His former employer testified the Swiss valet had arrived home late one night, panting and bedraggled, so there was speculation he had committed a murder.
Courvoisier fits the description of the foreigner – his height, build, features and clothing; and of the young French boyfriend of Eliza Davies. He would not be the only example of an opportunistic serial killer, who murdered men for the sake of profit and women out of sexual sadism.
Rumours soon spread that Wellington Terrace was haunted by Eliza Grimwood’s restless spirit.
Hubbard did not dare to move back. The landlord reduced the rent considerably.
Numerous applicants looked over the house, but no one rented it. It stood empty until 1843, when it was taken by a German wine merchant Adolphus Feistel, who might not have understood all the fuss.
In 1844 and 1865, with address changes, 12 Wellington Terrace became No. 27 Waterloo Road and respectable tradesmen lived there.
Old Waterloo Bridge was demolished in 1936 and in 1939, the murder house was no longer listed in the Post Office directory.
Although some older houses in Waterloo Road remain at the corner with Exton Street, nothing remains of Wellington Terrace.
If the ghost of Eliza Grimwood has not been exorcised by constant noise from the vehicles in Waterloo Road, the clatter from the trains on their way to Waterloo railway station, and the revel of the jolly young students, then it would gaze in horror at the Southbank Centre and the National Film Theatre, and that curious contraption, the London Eye.
This is an edited and extra-illustrated extract from Jan Bondeson’s book The Ripper of Waterloo Road (History Press 2017).
Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ
Former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing recently: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.