James Greenacre was one of 19th century London’s most notorious murderers.
The story behind his gruesome crime begins on the Regent’s Canal, which was built between 1812 and 1820 as a means of linking the Grand Union Canal to the River Thames.
A dreadful discovery
On the eastern stretch of the Regent’s Canal, where it winds its way through Mile End, is Jonson Lock- named after the poet and playwright, Ben Jonson.
It was here, on the 6th January 1837, that a shocking discovery was made…
On that chilly day, a coal barge was at a standstill.
The crew were waiting to use the lock, but they’d encountered a problem- an unknown object was jamming the gates.
In the 1830s, such an issue would’ve been commonplace. One can only imagine the amount of rubbish that clogged canals at the time, from old boots, bones and clay pipes, to discarded opium bottles and rotting animal carcasses.
Due to the amount of debris he regularly encountered, the lock keeper, Matthias Ralph, was armed with a special tool called a ‘hitcher’ which was essentially a long pole with a hook on the end.
As Ralph attempted to fish out this particular item, his initial thought was that it must be a dead dog.
However, as a pair of ears emerged above the murky waterline, both he and the barge crew reacted with horror… for there, on the end of the hitcher, dangled the severed head of a woman.
This grisly find was taken to the Charnel House (also known as a ‘Bone House’) which was located in the churchyard of St Dunstan’s Stepney.
It was initially assumed that the the decapitation was the result of a horrific accident in which the as yet unidentified woman had been dragged through the lock after falling into the water.
However, when a local surgeon named Dr. Birtwhistle stepped in to examine the head, his conclusions pointed to something far more sinister.
“I have this day examined the head of a woman with dark hair, 40 or 45 years of age” he wrote in his report.
“The face is disfigured with bruises, lower jaw fractured, cheek lacerated as from a blow; the head is cut off in a very dexterous manner, near the fifth vertebrae, sawn through in a rough manner, not like a surgeon would do it”…
The plot thickens
In 1837, policing in London was in its infancy: there was certainly no organised detective squad to speak of.
Having said that, an Inspector named George Feltham, who was based at a police station on Hermitage Street in Paddington, soon came to hear about the head.
The case was of great interest to him because just over a week previously, another body part had been found on his patch.
This part was a female torso, discovered beside the towpath on the far western stretch of the Regents Canal. It had been spotted on the 28th December 1836 by a bricklayer named Robert Bond who was working on a group of new houses close to the waterway.
In this instance, the body part was found in a sack, beneath which lay a pool of frozen blood; it was this shiny red puddle that had captured Robert’s eye.
The sack, which also contained an amount of sawdust, had been stashed beside the towpath and hastily covered with a stone slab, apparently taken from the construction site.
At the time, the area around this part of the canal was known as Pineapple Gate- named after a toll booth which, in turn, took its name from a local pub. Today, it sits on the edge of Little Venice.
The awful jigsaw comes together
Figuring there was a strong possibility that the two body parts were related, arrangements were made to bring the head and torso together.
Once this was done, it was clear- due to the rough way in which the victim had been hacked apart- that the parts did indeed match.
Once this had been ascertained, Dr Birtwhistle had the head preserved in a pickling jar in the hope that the victim could eventually be identified.
The torso meanwhile, was given a low-key burial in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Paddington.
The final piece of this grim jigsaw was discovered on the 2nd February when two labourers named Edward Brooks and James Page were pruning trees on Coldharbour Lane, close to present day Loughbrough Junction in Brixton.
The two men were alerted by their dog, who began barking at a bramble covered ditch.
When they waded in to have a look, James and Edward spotted a large sack. A hole had already been torn in the sack’s side, revealing that it contained a pair of severed legs.
The two startled men quickly alerted nearby Brixton police station, to where the legs were taken and placed inside a wooden box.
It was reported in the Times that, after close examination, the toenails of these disembodied limbs “appeared to have been recently cut and trimmed.”….
Three body parts- or rather four, considering the legs were a pair- had now been discovered at locations spread around the east, west and south of the city; Paddington, Mile End and Brixton all being relatively rural areas at the time.
Unsurprisingly, this dreadful trio of finds soon made the newspapers.
In doing so, the story caught the attention of a gentleman named William Gay who lived on Goodge Street.
By now it was March, and William hadn’t seen his sister, Hannah Brown since Christmas.
Even though the two hand’t been on the best of terms, William’s concern had been growing and so, fearing the worst, he asked to see the preserved head which was being held in Paddington Workhouse, just off of the Harrow Road.
Upon doing so, William confirmed that the head was indeed that of his sister; one of the tell-tale signs being a torn earlobe which Hannah had once received in an accident.
Following this positive identification, Inspector Feltham stepped in to interview Hannah’s other friends and family.
It was ascertained that Hannah had been working as a washerwoman at the Middlesex Hospital which was once located in the area now commonly known as Fitzrovia.
Hannah had also lived onsite; on Union Street (now Riding House Street) which backed on to the hospital’s northern perimeter.
Hannah’s friend and roommate, Elizabeth Corney stated that she’d last seen Hannah on Christmas Eve.
That day, Hannah had quit her lodgings and sold all of her furniture at the behest of a mysterious man who’d arrived to pick her up in a coach. Hannah told Elizabeth that she would be marrying this stranger the very next day.
When Elizabeth was confronted with the pickled head at Paddington Workhouse, she too confirmed it was indeed that of Hannah Brown.
Also questioned was Mrs Davis- whose first name also happened to be Hannah- of Bartholomew Close, Smithfield.
Mrs Davis knew Hannah well, as the missing woman had once lodged with her sister-in-law.
Like Elizabeth Corney, Mrs Davis was also very much aware of the hastily arranged wedding- her daughter was due to act as bridesmaid, and it was Mr Davis who’d been asked to give Hannah away.
The Christmas Day wedding had been scheduled to take place at St-Gile’s-in-the-Field’s Church on the eastern edge of Soho, with a reception in the nearby Angel pub; both of which still stand today.
Hannah’s Brown’s elusive fiancé turned out to be 42 year old James Greenacre.
According to an account later penned by his own hand, James Greenacre was born in Norfolk.
At the age of 19 he moved to London and, using his family’s farming connections, had begun working as a grocer in the parish of St George, Borough.
During the course of his life, Greenacre had been married three times- and all three of his wives had died.
Although mortality rates were of course far higher back then, this is a figure which, with our modern hindsight, does ring alarm bells, especially considering Greenacre pocketed an inheritance in each case.
“The first” wife Greenacre said, “was the daughter of Charles Ware of the Crown and Anchor Tavern, Woolwich. She died suddenly of “a putrid throat.”
His second wife was the daughter of a John Romford, who Greenacre described as being a “considerable land owner in Essex”. This woman died from a brain fever, which Greenacre said be believed was “brought on by exerting herself” whilst riding on horseback.
His third wife- the only woman he named- was Miss Simmonds of Long Lane, Bermondsey. Her death was due to Cholera,
Over the years, James Greenacre had also mastered carpentry, and he used this skill to accumulate an impressive property portfolio.
By 1837 he he owned 13 homes in south London, all of which he claimed to have built himself.
Three of these were cottages on Jane Place, off of the Old Kent Road and the other ten were dotted around Bowyers Lane- which is now known as Wyndham Road- near Camberwell Green.
The Elizabeth Siddal connection
Interestingly, one of the families James Greenacre rented to were the Siddals who, in the 1830s, had a young daughter named Elizabeth.
Elizabeth apparently had fond childhood memories of Jame Greenacre, calling him a “good-natured neighbour, who would on occasion help her toddling steps over a muddy or crowded crossing.”
The true nature of James Greenacre
Unsurprisingly, James Greenacre was also keen to paint himself as the perfect gentleman. In his brief autobiography, he claimed he’d always treated his tenants with great respect, and that he also “abhorred” pubs, “and the babble of drunken men.”
Those who knew Greenacre however told a completely different story.
They described him as a violent man who liked to boost his ego by telling tall tales.
It was said, for example, that he’d bragged about being one of the Cato Street conspirators- the Cato Street Conspiracy being an infamous, failed plot which had occurred in 1820 when a ruthless group planned to murder the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool along with his entire Cabinet.
Greenacre claimed he’d made a bold escape when the conspirator’s hide-out was tracked down and raided…
James Greenacre arrested
On the night of Saturday 25th March, Inspector George Feltham made his way to James Greenacre’s home address which was number one St Alban’s Street, Lambeth.
Today this area is covered by the China Walk Estate.
Armed with a warrant and accompanied by other offices, Feltham rapped on the door.
Greenacre answered in his bed clothes. He was extremely irritable and very reluctant to allow the police into his abode.
Once inside the property, Feltham and his colleagues found a 35 year old woman named Sarah Gale in Greenacre’s bed. It transpired that Sarah was Greenacre’s mistress.
Between them, they had a four year old son who was also present.
In the hallway stood a number of large trunks, all packed and ready. The police had arrived just in time; the group were due to set sail for Hudson Bay, Canada the very next day.
When searched, the trunks were found to contain items of jewellery and clothing which had belonged to Hannah Brown. A pocket watch was also retrieved, which Sarah had attempted to hide when the police entered her bedroom.
Marylebone Magistrates Court
James Greenacre and Sarah Gale were taken to Hermitage Street police station, Paddington where they were held in separate cells.
Within just a few hours of his arrest, Greenacre attempted to take his own life by hanging himself with his neckerchief.
He was discovered by guards who swiftly cut him down and revived him- to which Greenacre reputedly said, “I don’t thank you for what you have done, I would sooner have gone off.”
On Monday March 27th 1837, James and Sarah- who held her young son in her arms- were taken to Marylebone Magistrates Court (also known as Marylebone Police Court), then based on Marylebone High Street, for a hearing.
They travelled in separate Hackney Coaches, with Inspector Feltham and other officers on guard.
The case had caused a sensation, and an estimated 4 to 5 thousand people congregated around the court in Grotto Passage and Paradise Street (now Moxon Street) to catch a glimpse of the group as they arrived.
So dense was the crowd, that shopkeepers were forced to pull their shutters down, whilst constables fought to hold back the mob.
Once inside the court, Greenacre betrayed little emotion and leant on the dock’s railing throughout the hearing, apparently weakened by his recent suicide attempt.
Sarah meanwhile was described as calm and wearing a “Green cloak, with a white straw bonnet, trimmed with blue.” She continued to hold her child, who remained silent, as they sat in the dock.
It’s probable that the child, whose name was never mentioned, was most likely extremely traumatised as it later transpired he’d been present in the small cottage whilst Hannah’s dead body was cut up; indeed neighbours on Bowyers Lane stated they’d heard a child “Crying violently” throughout the Christmas period.
James Greenacre's version of events
Despite claiming he didn’t know who Hannah Brown was at the time of his arrest, Greenacre admitted in court that he had indeed intended to marry her.
Sarah, he said, was an employee; his cook, and the intention had been for her to leave once the marriage to Hannah was sealed.
Greenacre also conceded that he’d been present when Hannah died within one of his properties known as Carpenters Buildings, although he was adamant it had been accidental.
According to Greenacre’s version of events, he’d been led to believe that Hannah was in possession of a considerable amount of money, and they’d sat down together to discuss their future finances.
However, late on that Christmas Evening, Hannah had grown extremely drunk, leading her to admit that she did in fact own nothing. Hannah admitted this, Greenacre said, with a “feigned laugh” whilst she rocked back and forth on a chair.
“As I am determined to adhere strictly to the truth” he said, “I must say that I put my foot to the chair, and she fell back with great violence against a chump of wood that I had been using; this alarmed me very much and I went round the table and took her by the hand, and kept shaking her, but she appeared to be entirely gone.”
This story, as Greenacre himself would later admit, was pure fabrication.
Hannah did indeed have a substantial amount of cash saved- around £400, which is approximately £20,000 in today’s money. She’d initially been saving this in order to achieve her ambition of opening a small pastry shop, and there’s no doubt Greenacre wanted to get his grubby hands on this money.
However, Greenacre’s original plan was to take the money and run- with his true lover, Sarah Gale- to Canada.
Hannah’s murder appears to have occurred in a moment of fury, the exact reason for which has never been clear.
There are two possibilities.
The first is that, due to technicalities or reluctance, Greenacre wasn’t immediately able to access Hannah’s funds, and so struck out in frustration.
The second is that, whilst Hannah Brown and James Greenacre were at Carpenters Buildings, Sarah Gale turned up unexpectedly with her son. The revelation that Greenacre already had a lover and a child would have no doubt resulted in some heated argument, in the midst of which Hannah was bludgeoned to death.
Trial at the Old Bailey
Following their hearing at Marylebone Magistrates, James Greenacre and Sarah Gale were remanded in the Middlesex House of Detention- also known as Clerkenwell prison.
The following month, they were hauled to the Old Bailey for their trial which, in those days, stood beside the dreaded Newgate gaol.
The trial, which took place in early April 1837, lasted two days, and had the prosecution claim that Greenacre had deliberately murdered Hannah whilst in a rage at Carpenters Buildings, and that Sarah Gale was fully aware and therefore an accessory to the deed.
At the trial, it was reported that Greenacre appeared far more pale and dejected than at his Magistrates hearing, whilst Sarah Gale “trembled violently.”
On the 12th April it took the jury just 15 minutes to find the pair guilty.
Sarah was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, Australia for the rest of her natural life.
Greenacre meanwhile was handed the death penalty.
After donning his somber black cap, the judge informed the condemned man that “Generations yet to come will shudder at your guilt”…
James Greenacre comes clean
Resigned to his fate, James Greenacre penned a confession in his cell whilst awaiting execution.
In the letter, he admitted he had indeed killed Hannah- by striking her around the back of the head with a rolling pin.
He then described how he’d disposed of the body after cutting it up.
The head- which he described as his “dreadful load” was the first to go.
After wrapping it tight in a large, silk handkerchief he’d left Carpenters Buildings and boarded a passing Omnibus, balancing his dubious load upon his knee without raising any suspicion.
After crossing London Bridge, the Omnibus terminated at Gracechurch Street.
Greenacre walked a short distance to Cornhill, where he caught another omnibus; this one trotting out towards Mile End. After disembarking at the end of the route, he’d tossed the head in the Regent’s Canal.
Second to go were the legs which he did not have travel far with; Camberwell and Brixton being neighbouring areas.
As for Hannah’s torso, he’d packed that in a sack and then thumbed a lift on a wagon up to the Elephant and Castle.
Once there, he’d hailed a Hackney Cab which he got to take him to Edgware Road, with the torso hidden beneath his seat throughout the duration of the journey.
Upon arriving at his destination, Greenacre snuck down to the canal path and bundled the sack beneath the large paving slab under which it was later discovered.
The execution of James Greenacre
James Greenacre’s public execution took place outside Newgate prison on the 2nd May 1837.
An estimated 20,000 people turned out to bear witness, with many pitching up the night before in order to secure a decent view. So dense was the crowd on the day that some people fainted, and there were fears others would be crushed.
Amongst the mob, hawkers pedalled merchandise inspired by the atrocious crime, including exaggerated and gruesomely illustrated accounts and ballad sheets.
One popular tune on sale was entitled Sarah Gale’s Lament, the opening lines of which read
“As I walked down by the walls of Newgate,
I thought I heard a female say,
I am doomed my days to linger,
In the land of Botany Bay”
Also available, it was reported were “penny sandwiches and Greenacre tarts for those who had stomach to digest and pay for such dainties.”
Sadly the recipe for a Greenacre tart has been long lost, so one can only guess as to what it consisted of…
As he approached the scaffold, James Greenacre offered no final words and, according to an account in The Times he died almost instantly… although “one convulsive grasp of the hands was observed…” as he dangled from the hangman’s noose.