Having travelled to Rugeley and to Edinburgh in pursuit of Alfred Swaine Taylor for my book Fatal Evidence, it was time to go to London and Kent. He was born in Northfleet, Kent, on the banks of the River Thames in 1806, and eventually moved to London, where he stayed for the rest of his life (trips back and forth to inquests and trials across England notwithstanding).
I’d wanted to go on holiday to Edinburgh for ages, and was rather pleased that I could combine it with the writing of my book, Fatal Evidence. But what does the biography of a Kent-born English forensic scientist who lived most of his life in London have to do with Edinburgh, you ask?
Well… the story of forensic science in Britain starts in Edinburgh. Although medicine and science had been used to crack crime in Britain before, there was no formal teaching of ‘medical jurisprudence’ (the intersection of medicine and the law) in this country; the British had to look to the Continent. It was at the University of Edinburgh in 1789 that the first lectures in Britain had been given on the subject. Andrew Duncan, the first lecturer in the subject, had an uphill struggle to see his specialism recognised, despite his urging of its importance:
…to every medical practioner, who is liable to be called upon to illustrate any question comprehended under it before a court of justice.
The first professor of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh was Duncan’s son. It was only an elective course, rather than compulsory, and medical students just weren’t that interested.
In 1822, Dr Robert Christison, a 25-year-old Edinburgh native, took the chair and became professor of medical jurisprudence. His uncle helped him to the position but, despite such outrageous nepotism, Christison was actually very good at the subject. His background in both medicine and chemistry made him an ideal candidate – as did Alfred Swaine Taylor’s same background when a chair of medical jurisprudence came up at Guy’s Hospital in London.
One of Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s most famous cases was that of William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner. As I live in the West Midlands, Rugeley isn’t all that far from me, so I decided to pay the town a visit.
I felt rather awkward, because poor old Rugeley probably doesn’t want to be remembered for Palmer and his ‘orrible crimes. In 1856, as Palmer stood trial and the newspapers bulged with reports about him, journalists1)It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them. were dispatched to the unassuming market town to write lurid pieces about the locality. The Illustrated Times helpfully published a special supplement, full of Rugeley scenes – some of which you will see in this very blog. Members of the public visited just to see the place they’d read so much about. The local vicar had so many people trudge to his churchyard to see where John Parsons Cook, one of Palmer’s victims, was buried that he paid for a gravestone, bearing moralising quotations from Scripture: Enter not into the path of the wicked.
As the town hall where the inquests took place has been rebuilt, the first place connected with Palmer that we arrived at was the Talbot pub. This was where Cook was poisoned, and where he died.2)I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion. We couldn’t go in as the pub – last called The Shrew – has closed down. However, directly opposite was Palmer’s house. Not that you can see very much it of these days – in Palmer’s time it had a front garden, but eventually the front was extended out to touch the road, and it’s been divided into two shops. You can get round the back though, and that view hasn’t changed all that much.
I walked back and forth between the pub and the shops a couple of times, to get a feel for Palmer’s own journeys, back and forth between his house and the man he killed. It’s not a vast distance at all, being only the width of the road. I paused, and looked up at the window of the room where Cook died. After writing Poison Panic, where poisoning victims died in cottages that are either long gone or can no longer be identified, it felt very strange to be able to almost come to the exact spot where the crime had taken place.
My partner, who takes many of the photos in my books, photographed the streetscene, and it’s interesting to compare Rugeley in 2016 with Rugeley in 1856. It’s not quite as busy as it was, and I somehow doubt the Union flag bunting is there to celebrate the spot where a famous British murder took place. At least, I hope not!
Our next stop was the church of St Augustine, where John Parsons Cook is buried. A terrible sensation that I was intruding had haunted me since I got off the train, but once I saw that the information board outside the church actually tells visitors where to find Cook’s grave in the churchyard, I felt slightly less ghoulish for my interest.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them.|
|2.||↑||I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion.|
I need very little excuse to go to Edinburgh. I love it. I love it because it’s got loads of old stuff, it reminds me a bit of Granada (the old town with a castle on the hill, the new bits cascading away beside), and it is stuffed full of history, much of it involving coffins. And it’s quite a cheerful place, too.
I had never been to a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) conference before. In fact, I’d never been to weekend-long writers’ conference before, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I needn’t have worried, however, as everyone was really friendly.
I met up with Sarah Ward, who I’ve met before as she’s convener for the Midlands Chapter of the CWA, and is also great fun. I met for the first time the extremely affable Vanessa Robertson, an Edinburgh-based bookseller and author; and authors Leigh Russell, Kate Ellis and Paul Gitsham. And lots of other people too!
I’ve been rather busy over the last couple of months, zipping off to the Essex Book Festival for the Criminally Good Afternoon Tea, zooming off to the NEC for Who Do You Think You Are? Live, and then getting drunk in Edinburgh at the Crime Writers’ Association conference.
I was at Who Do You Think You Are? Live on two days. The first, I was dressed as Helen Barrell, the librarian who writes books about Victorian crime. I signed copies of Poison Panic at Pen & Sword’s stall, bought some acid-free storage equipment (that excited me quite a bit, because I am a massive nerd), and went my rounds of the stalls. Thanks to the good people of Peterborough & District Family History Society, I discovered two new ancestors – the parents of my 4 x gt-grandmother Susan Jones. I never thought I’d get anywhere with her background, assuming that anyone called Jones would present insurmountable problems. But no – her surname was actually quite unusual in Peterborough at the time, and I was delighted to find out that Susan, who was born in about 1813, was the daughter of a farrier in the Scots Greys! Did he go to Waterloo, I wonder, and did he shoe Ensign Ewart’s horse? I helped out at the “Ask an Expert” stall – I’ve always loved pointing people in the right direction to find out more about their family tree.
It’s a week until Britain’s biggest family history fair, Who Do You Think You Are? Live, kicks off at Birmingham’s NEC.
There’s a wealth of family history societies, genealogy companies, and DNA-testing businesses hoping to catch your eye, and there lots of talks and workshops and goodness knows what else for you to sample.
If you’re planning to seek out some help with the trickier corners of your family tree, make sure you bring print-outs or even original documents.
I’ll be there on two days.
Friday 7th April
- 2.20pm – 3pm: I will be giving two “Ask an Expert” sessions. My areas are old handwriting, wills and (no surprises here) Essex!
- (And when not doing that I’ll be buying archival storage materials and checking out the CDs that the family history societies have to offer)
Saturday 8th April
- 11.15am-12pm: my workshop session Turn your family tree surprises into a book will be taking place in Theatre 2. I’ll be talking about resources you can use to enrich your research, and the many way there are to share your writing.
- 12pm-2.30pm: I’ll be at the Pen & Sword stall (number 290), where you can ask questions about my talk, and… well… let’s just say there’s books available to buy. Lots of them.
- 3pm-4pm: I’ll be giving three “Ask an Expert” sessions.
Sunday 9th April
- Collapse into an exhausted heap.
In the 1950s, my grandad was a Special Constable, working the streets of Southend-on-Sea. He told me that he’d often be approached (perhaps “set upon” is more accurate) by gangs of drunken women, and when he came home from his shift, my grandma would be furious at the lipstick he was covered in. Drunks are one thing, of course – poisoners quite something else, and that was my subject for the Essex Book Festival’s Criminally Good Afternoon Tea at Southend’s Park Inn Palace Hotel.
The tea was part of the Golden Age of Crime Weekend, so you could stay in the elegant Park Inn Palace, overlooking the longest pleasure pier in the world and, amongst many things, you could enjoy a talk by Sophia Hannah on Poirot, there was Simon Brett,1)Somewhat ironically, I was at his crime-writing masterclass at Birmingham Literature Festival last year! Frances Fyfield, and Jill Paton Walsh discussing Dorothy Sayers, you could pit your wits against other Golden Age of Crime boffins at the quiz night, and new crime writers (Fiona Cummins, Aga Lesiewicz, David Young) were talking about their books. And there was also… me.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Somewhat ironically, I was at his crime-writing masterclass at Birmingham Literature Festival last year!|
Sunday 12th March 2017, 3pm-4.30pm
What: Essex Book Festival 2017. Criminally Good Afternoon Tea. In the county where the poison panic took hold, we’ll eat scones and I’ll tell you about the lives of Sarah Chesham, Mary May, and Hannah Southgate.
Where: Park Inn Palace Hotel, Church Road, Southend-on- Sea, SS1 2AL
Entry fee: TBC. Booking details to follow.
Saturday 8th April 2017, 11.15am-12pm
What: Who Do You Think You Are? Live. Workshop: “Turn your family tree surprises into a book.”
Where: NEC, Birmingham.
Entry fee: Workshops are £2 in advance, or £3 on the day. There is a ticket required to enter Who Do You Think You Are? Live as well. Book in advance.
A perfect chaser for the talk by Walter Iuozzolino, he of Walter Presents, had to be the talk given by crime drama writer-creators Hans Rosenfeldt, of Swedish/Danish production The Bridge (Bron/Broen), and Ed Thomas, writer-creator of Welsh/English crime drama Hinterland (Y Gwyll). Walter curates subtitled drama, but what goes into writing – and indeed, creating – dramas which are filmed in two languages? This fascinating talk was hosted by Lisa Holdsworth, who has written for New Tricks, Robin Hood and Midsomer Murders, amongst others.
The annual Birmingham Literature Festival is run by Writing West Midlands, offering a programme of events about the written word – talks with writers, and workshops. This year, I attended something a bit different – a talk by screen-curator, Walter Iuzzolino, the real person behind Channel 4’s Walter Presents.
First of all, yes, Walter is a real person. Perhaps I am so jaded by the fakery of modern life that I thought, cynically, that he didn’t actually exist, and was just a marketing construct to put a human face and personality on Channel 4’s world drama picks. There he is in the trailer, a bespectacled, whippet-like figure, watching lots of DVDs – he’s watched 1,000s of hours of telly, to pick only the best for Walter Presents. But how can he watch all that telly and retain a physique like that? And yet, it slowly dawned on me that Walter is a real person – so when I found out he was talking at the BLF, I wanted to know more.