One lodger was sent to prison for kidnapping guttersnipes; the next a drunkard who hit his wife and was beaten to death. Thomas Preston, of Starmer Street did not have much luck with his tenants, writes JAN BONDESON in his latest story of Victorian South London murders.
In 1888, the year of Jack the Ripper, house decorator Mr Thomas Preston held the lease of the terraced house at No 10 Stanmer Street, Battersea. Since it was larger than the other houses in the street, Mr Preston let two first floor rooms.
In 1888, that lodger was John ‘Taffy’ Dennison, 65, from Wales. The Prestons were concerned Dennison invited young boys up to his rooms.
A barrel-organ was badly played, and the boys sang hymns as well as they could.
The Prestons thought their lodger a most sinister cove. But Taffy said he was just practicing with his band of juvenile musicians. Taffy Dennison put an advertisement into several newspapers, saying “Boys (respectable) wanted, to sing a little. Not over 14. Wages 10s to 12s. a week.”
After some tuition at Stanmer Street, Taffy took his troupe on tour to the ports of Kent. The boys sang with a barrel-organ and a sign “We are orphans, and get our living by our music.”
At Dover Castle, the band sang to the soldiers of the garrison. The tour went on to Portsmouth, Hyde and Tunbridge Wells. The bandmaster regularly sent backward or recalcitrant boys back home and received new recruits.
Although the boys could make 30 shillings in an afternoon, they each received only threepence a week. But after Taffy had returned to London, angry mothers confronted him, claiming that he had abducted their sons.
When he refused to give them a penny, the mothers went to the police and the newspapers. ‘Charge of Kidnapping Boys!’ exclaimed the Morning Post of May 7 1888.
Some mothers provided evidence their sons had been forcibly abducted.
Taffy had unwisely failed to destroy a diary that exposed the full extent of his dishonesty.
He was carted off to prison. The respectable Prestons must have feared it would a struggle to get another lodger.
But Mr Frederick St John, 33, moved in right away, with his wife Alice. Another native of Wales, he did not know about the recent notoriety of No 10 Stanmer Street.
The recipient of a generous allowance, he did no work at all and drank much more than was good for him.
He often quarrelled angrily with his wife, Alice, and the arguments sometimes ended in blows. But this did not result in their eviction – they paid their rent with commendable regularity.
The 1891 census lists the occupants of No 10 Stanmer Street as Thomas and Catherine Preston, their four children, Frederick and Alice St John, aged 36 and 40 respectively, and two labouring men.
In March and April 1896, Frederick St John drank harder than ever. He could empty 10 bottles of whisky in a week and spent much of his time in bed.
In the evening of April 9, the Prestons heard their lodgers quarrel angrily. The following morning, Alice St John came knocking at the Prestons’ bedroom, exclaiming ‘Teddy is dead!’– the name she called her husband.
Mr Preston found the lodger lying dead in his bed, with his face and head much bruised and swollen. Mrs St John, drunk and dishevelled, exclaimed ‘Oh, my poor Teddy! I wish he was alive!’
Dr W.H. Kempster found the head of the deceased had been battered almost to a pulp – it was almost twice its normal size. His body was bruised all over, so this was murder.
Alice was charged with murder. Post-mortem evidence showed Frederick had been strangled to death with considerable force, since the hyoid bone was fractured. Such an injury could not be the result of a fall, or of suicide.
A newspaper reporter described Alice as a tall, strong, unwholesome-looking woman, with a yellowish, pallid complexion.
There had been no other person in their rooms at No 10 Stanmer Street when her husband was killed. But in court, on June 10 1896, the Prestons gave evidence Frederick treated his wife cruelly when drunk.
But Alice St John had always been very kind to her worthless husband, they said. She came from a refined background and could speak several languages.
The night Frederick died, the Prestons had heard him cry out “Alice! Whisky! Whisky, Alice!”
Frederick’s brother Mr E.W. John, a solicitor, testified Alice would not benefit from her husband’s death. Thomas Preston said Frederick had been “a madman when in drink”, and had often spoken of committing suicide.
Even the normally severe Mr Justice Hawkins recommended the jury not to overlook Frederick’s violence towards his wife.
If the prisoner had accidentally caused her husband’s injuries protecting herself, she was entitled to an acquittal – which she got, even though the evidence was strong.
Could some relation of Frederick have arranged for Alice to murder him, and to disguise his death as an attack of the DTs – and bribed the Prestons to perjure themselves at the Old Bailey?
Most probably tall, strong Alice St John strangled her little Teddy to death with his feet drumming against the bedpost. But the Prestons had been very unlucky with their lodgers at No 10 Stanmer Street.
Did they insert ‘Welsh People need not Apply’ in their advertisement? Or perhaps they leave the rooms empty? These horrors are still all around us, if we unearth them.
This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s Murder Houses of South London (Troubador Publishing, Leicester, 2015).
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