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South London Memories: Was the servant involved in the death of widow?

The mother of three grown-up daughters – two living with her – is found strangled in her bedroom when only a domestic servant is in the house.
Nothing has been stolen. Was it a burglar disturbed by the widow, as police decided, or a relative wanting to profit from the will? Or was it the domestic servant who found her? Crime writer JAN BONDESON looks at the evidence of this unsolved 1898 murder in Blackheath.

Sixty-year-old Arabella Charlotte Tyler was the widow of William John Tyler, the late Secretary of the India-rubber and Gutta-percha Telegraph Works Company Ltd, of Silvertown, east London.

After her husband died in early 1897, she lived on in their elegant detached villa at No 67 Kidbrooke Park Road, Blackheath, just opposite St James’s Church – now split into several flats.

The large rear garden overlooked Kent County Cricket Ground.

Mrs Tyler lived in comfortable affluence, with her spinster daughter Maud and her recently widowed daughter Mrs Violet Huxham.

Mrs Tyler was waited on by her general servant Ann Gusterson.

On Sunday, August 13, 1898, Mrs Tyler had said she would rise at 5am the next morning, to do some hard graft in the garden.

Both her daughters were away, and Ann Gusterson was the only other person who slept in the large house.

On Monday morning, Gusterson woke at 6.30am. She was surprised to see the doors from the kitchen to the garden open. But Mrs Tyler was nowhere to be seen.

She lit the stove and prepared the glass of hot water that her mistress liked to drink each morning. But when the domestic entered Mrs Tyler’s room, she saw her mistress lying on the floor at the foot of the bed, in her night clothes.

Her face was livid, and her head thrown back. Realising she was dead, the servant ran out into the road and screamed for assistance.

Two workmen came to her aid, one of them going for the police and the other guarding the house, as Gusterson went for the doctor.

Dr Clifford declared Mrs Tyler had been dead several hours.

Her neck had strangulation marks from powerful fingers, her face was blue, and her eyes were starting.

This was clearly murder by strangulation.

The police saw marks that might indicate the murderer had tried to force large French doors to the dining room.

There were signs the intruder had entered the house climbing up trellis work from the porch to Mrs Tyler’s bedroom window.

Gusterson said her mistress used to leave her window open about a foot, due to the August heat. But Mrs Tyler had woken up and confronted the intruder, who had strangled her to death.

No 67 Kidbrooke Park Road, Blackheath, site of the unsolved murder of Arabella Tyler in 1897

There were open drawers in the bedroom, and signs some of the downstairs rooms
had been searched, but nothing valuable had been stolen.

The police suspected the intruder had intended to burgle the house.

They presumed the reason he had not stolen more was a large hayrick at nearby Manor Park Farm had mysteriously caught fire the same night, and the intruder had been alarmed by the sound of people running along Kidbrooke Park Road to extinguish the flames.

In the garden, several footprints were found, indicating the murderer had opened the kitchen doors to the garden and fled through the flower beds.

Scotland Yard detectives made plaster casts of the footprints.

The inquest begun on August 17, in the Kidbrooke Mission Room.

Mrs Tyler had told friends she was fearful of burglars, since the house was isolated.

Her son-in-law Samuel Childs said the house had plate valued at £220.

Gusterson seemed distraught and had to sit down giving evidence. Mrs Tyler had had only one visitor the day before the murder, the neighbour Georgina Jackson. The police surgeon Dr Cooper agreed Mrs Tyler had been strangled by a powerful intruder.

The inquest was adjourned twice.

Chief Inspector Conquest told the jury further time was needed. But when the
inquest resumed on October 12, the result was a damp squib.

The coroner announced there was not significant evidence to make out a case against any person.

The jurymen were not happy about this. One of them said that many a crime had been traced through the detective work of jurymen: they were not dummies, but should be allowed to question the witnesses.

The coroner reluctantly agreed. The juryman insisted he must ask the servant Gusterson some probing questions.

She denied having been visited by any sweetheart. The only person who had come to see her had been a female cousin.

She had been surprised to see the kitchen doors to the garden open. But clearly not surprised enough to investigate whether a burglary had occurred before she brought
her mistress her breakfast, the suspicious juryman retorted.

Nothing more came of this attempt to incriminate Gusterson. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.

There are three possible scenarios in the Blackheath Mystery. The police hypothesis: a burglar intends to rob No 67 Kidbrooke Park Road and inadvertently enters Mrs Tyler’s bedroom.

To prevent her from giving the alarm, he strangles her, before ransacking the house.

But would a burglar choose the hazardous route up to the first-floor bedroom, without knowing who was there?

Why go to the extremes of murdering Mrs Tyler, instead of just knocking her on the head? And why did the intruder not steal anything valuable?

In Mrs Tyler’s bedroom, two valuable rings were kept in an open drawer, but neither
was stolen. And it was remarkable that when the ‘burglar’ struck, none of Mrs Tyler’s daughters were in the house, and only one domestic.

The second scenario involves an old enemy of Mrs Tyler coming to settle the score with her, before doing his best to make the murder look like a burglary gone wrong.

Mrs Tyler’s daughters and remaining son-in-law denied she had any enemies, but would they have known everything about her past?

In the third scenario, Mrs Tyler’s son-in-law hires an assassin to murder her, to make sure that, through his wife, he gets a share of her wealth. The burglary was a cover-up and Gusterson an accomplice.

In her will, Mrs Tyler left a total of £5,869. But the son-in-law in question, Samuel Childs, who had married young Margaret Mary Tyler in 1891, appears to have been a respectable gentleman, who earned his income by more conventional means than murdering his mother-in-law.

Mrs Tyler had changed her will in September 1897, to leave the bulk of her estate to the three daughters.

What had the earlier will contained, and why did she change it? Might it have had anything to do with George Trevor Huxham, who died from what was supposed to be diabetes in 1895, aged just 33, after being married to Violet Tyler for just two years?

And why did Samuel Childs, when interviewed by a journalist just after the murder, claim that the cause of death had been heart disease?

The Blackheath Mystery would have been a match even for Sherlock Holmes. I suspect the case has a more adventurous solution than the burglar hypothesis favoured by the police.

It is a great pity that the police files on the case, which should have been kept at the National Archives, have been lost or stolen.

The murder house at No 67 Kidbrooke Park Road still stands, just opposite St James’s Church at the crossing with Wricklemarsh Road.

There is no longer any trellis work near the porch, leading to the first floor bay window.

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

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