The Saffron Hill Murder (2) – Breaking News

Victorian Saffron Hill, looking south

Victorian Saffron Hill, looking south

London’s Saffron Hill lies on the borders of Holborn and Clerkenwell and runs northwards from Charterhouse Street – a narrow thoroughfare rising gently towards its crest before descending again towards Ray Street.  The more southerly and much the longer part of the street was called Great Saffron Hill to distinguish it from Little Saffron Hill (now called Herbal Hill), which referred to the downslope beyond the summit.  It was memorably the setting for Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist – “a dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen.  The street was … narrow and muddy, and the air … impregnated with filthy odours.  There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children”.  Peter Cunningham in his Handbook for London (1849) reported the area as so dangerous that when the clergy of St. Andrew’s Holborn visited it, they had to be accompanied by policemen in plain clothes.

The area was already becoming known as “Little Italy” from the increasing number of Italian immigrants settling there.  Although there were under 2,000 Italians in London at the time of the 1861 census, well over a third of them were living in this immediate vicinity.  By 1871 there were a thousand more.  These Italian arrivals were (and still are) almost invariably depicted as itinerant musicians, organ-grinders, and penny-ice vendors – but these were simply the most visible of them – in fact the majority were skilled or semi-skilled artisans working in wood, glass, plaster, mosaic, parquet, artificial-flower making (so popular in Victorian England) and other trades – “all stopping up tiny gaps in the London labour market”, as Professor Jerry White has it in his excellent London in the Nineteenth Century : ‘A Human Awful Wonder of God’  (2007).

The Italians were predominantly young men and there were occasional tensions as they caught the eye of the local young (and perhaps not so young) women.  Intermarriage was already not uncommon.  My first cousin (albeit at a few generational removes), Hannah Worms (1835-1923), grand-daughter of a refugee from the Judengasse In Frankfurt, had married Giacomo (James) Hippolito Traini (1826-1906) from Bergamo, an “artificial flowerist” of Cross Street (now St. Cross Street), off Saffron Hill, in a Church of England ceremony in March 1857.  The area was a melting pot.  One of the witnesses at the wedding was Pietro Bordessa (1826-1879), a well-known looking-glass maker, also of Cross Street, himself married to an Englishwoman and in a business partnership with an Englishman, George Eaton (1831?-1886), employing over thirty men.  Bordessa and his young English brother-in-law, as well as a number of his employees, all came to feature in the complicated murder mystery which had begun to unfold.

clerkenwell stanford 1862

Edward Stanford, 1862. ©

The “Golden Anchor”, evidently popular with English, Irish and Italians alike, stood at No. 59 Great Saffron Hill, towards the top of the rise on the eastern side, on the corner of Castle Street (now Saffron Street).  It had entrances on both streets.  Just east of there, the whole area had recently been gouged out and carved through to create the world’s first underground railway line – the London Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863 – still over-ground at this point and running north from Farringdon Station in parallel with the new Farringdon Road, still under construction.  This map from 1862 shows the cleared ground before the railway lines had been laid, with Farringdon Road labelled Victoria Street – a name not in the end adopted.  The freshly cleared ground behind the houses of Saffron Hill was known colloquially as “The Ruins” – an area which was to feature in the case.

The Ruins, Farringdon Road. © British History Online.

The Ruins, Farringdon Road. © British History Online.

Next door to the “Golden Anchor”, at No. 1. Castle Street, was a small cottage with a large yard behind it, backing on to the pub.  The tenant of both cottage and yard was my great-great-great-grandfather, Solomon Worms (1806?-1883), known as Sol or Saul.  At that time in his life, then in his late fifties, he was a dealer in second-hand building materials.  We might dress it up and call it architectural salvage nowadays, but the yard was essentially a junk-yard, piled high with timber at the time of the murder – no doubt much of it from the cleared houses of “The Ruins”.  I shall call him Saul in the following account – that is how he was referred to in the newspaper coverage of the time.  Both he and his yard also had parts to play in the unfolding saga.

"gouged out and carved through". © British History Online.

“gouged out and carved through”. © British History Online.

The newspapers had lost no time at all in picking up on the story of what had happened at the “Golden Anchor” on the Monday evening of Boxing Day, 1864.  By the following morning there were almost identical reports in the London Daily News, the Globe, the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, the Morning Advertiser, and even the Banner of Ulster, all of which had gone to press before news had come through of Harrington’s death in the early hours of that Tuesday morning.  These were picked up on and repeated almost verbatim in newspapers all across the country over the coming days.  The reports can only have come directly from a police briefing.  Right from the outset an official narrative had been framed from which it later became almost impossible to escape.  There was no doubt at all in the mind of the police of the guilt of the young Italian, Serafino Polioni or Pelizzioni – and none of the earliest newspaper accounts contained even a hint of caution in naming him as the murderer.

A slightly more detailed report came later in the day from the London Evening Standard.  I reproduce it in full as it introduces many of the names which were to figure so largely in the newspapers in the coming weeks and months as the uphill battle began to overturn that original narrative.  The verdict had to all intents and purposes already been settled.  To the authorities it was an open-and-shut case.  Only the formalities remained to be gone through.



“Last night the neighbourhood of Saffron-hill was thrown into a state of great excitement by a report that a dreadful murder had been committed.  On the police proceeding to the spot they found that four men had been stabbed at the Golden Anchor public-house, corner of Castle-street, kept by Mr. Frederick Shaw.

London Evening Standard, Tuesday 27th December 1864.

London Evening Standard, Tuesday 27th December 1864. © British Library Board.

From inquiries that were made it appeared that on Saturday night some Italians were ejected from the house for making use of abusive language, and last night some of them entered the tap-room for the avowed purpose of having revenge.  Whilst there they abused some Englishmen, broke the seats, and were proceeding to further acts of violence, when Mr. Shaw went the door and called in Detective Fawell, 425 A, but before he got to the tap-room loud cries of murder were heard.  On Fawell going to the tap-room he found an Italian of the name of Sarsfini Polioni, picture-frame maker, struggling with some men.  At that moment Alfred Ribbeck [i.e. Rebbeck], the potman, said he had been stabbed by Polioni, and blood was flowing from his right side.  Fawell took the man into custody, and he then ascertained that the prisoner had stabbed three other men, named Michael Harrington, Charles Bannister, and William King.  

The man Ribbeck was found be so dangerously stabbed that he was at once conveyed to the Royal Free Hospital, Gray’s-inn-road.  Mr. J. D. Hill, the resident medical officer, said that the wound was so dangerous that the man was not expected to live, on which Inspector Potter, and Acting Inspector Baldvile [i.e. Baldock], 1 G, attended with the prisoner, and Ribbeck pointed him out as the person who had stabbed him.  The prisoner betrayed not the slightest contrition, and treated the matter with the greatest indifference.

Before the prisoner was removed from the Royal Free Hospital information was brought that the man Harrington was dying in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and upon proceeding there it was found that he had been stabbed very badly in the stomach, and that his bowels protruded.  This unfortunate man also pointed out the prisoner as the man who had stabbed him, but although his dying deposition was taken, Harrington said that would not sign the paper, as he freely forgave the prisoner, and he hoped God would too.

Harrington has since expired.

The other two men stabbed by the prisoner were attended to at the Royal Free Hospital, but although their wounds were very deep they were not considered of such a dangerous nature as to detain them in the hospital”

London Evening Standard, Tuesday 27th December 1864.

Briefly to make some introductions: resident at the “Golden Anchor” were Frederick Shaw (1837?-1909), landlord.  Fred Shaw has sometimes been taken to be a rather distinguished Detective Chief-Inspector of that name who had retired in 1856.  This was not the case.  This was a much younger man of the same name, but until eighteen months or so before the present events he had been a police constable, based at Clerkenwell police station.  He may well have been the Chief-Inspector’s son – there is some evidence to suggest so – but whether this was so or not, the landlord of the “Golden Anchor” obviously knew, was friendly with, and was a former colleague of many of the local constabulary.  He had only become a publican on marrying Eliza Hannah Wells (1837-1921) in June 1863 – she and her father David Wells (1799?-1874) ran the “Golden Anchor” and she herself was the licensee until transferring the licence to Shaw in the October after their marriage.  They had a child, Frederick Wells Shaw, in early January 1864.

Just twenty-two years of age, the potman and general factotum at the public house was Alfred Rebbeck (1842-1897).  Alf Rebbeck was part and parcel of the furniture at the “Golden Anchor”, having been born and brought up there in the 1840s and 1850s, when his father was the licensee.  Badly wounded in the affray, he miraculously survived to become the most significant of all the witnesses.  Once the affair was all over, in February 1868, he married a woman who lived next door to the pub – Catherine Worms (1827-1889), my great-aunt, the eldest daughter of Saul Worms.

For the police: Richard Fawell (1831-1889), who arrested Polioni or Pelizzioni at the scene of the crime, seems to have worked in this immediate area throughout his career, before taking an early pension.  He was known locally, somewhat pejoratively, as “Flash Charley”.  He was in plain clothes on the evening of the stabbings and on his own account he just happened to be passing by at the time.  His superior, Inspector Thomas Ambrose Potter (1828?-1875), was to become one of the most controversial figures in the case.  He left the Metropolitan Police not long afterwards to become head of the London & South-Western Railway Police.  An active freemason, he died at Cannon Street Railway Station in 1875.  George Baldock (1826?-1898) was originally from Staffordshire, but knew the area well having served as a policeman there since at least 1851.  He reached the official rank of inspector before retiring in his fifties.

The other victims: Charles Bannister (1844-1912) was a young man of twenty, a stationer (later a jeweller), still living at home on Back Hill with his widowed mother.  His hand had been badly gashed and he lost the use of a finger when a surgeon was compelled to remove a knuckle.  William King of Leather Lane, was a bone-button manufacturer.  He was in the pub with his wife Maria King on the evening of the incident.  Both were to become key figures in the subsequent trials, but I have been quite unable to identify them further.  Initial reports that King had also been stabbed appear to have been either exaggerated or erroneous, as this appears not to have been referred to again.

The young medical officer John Daniel Hill (1837-1875), just twenty-seven, became one of the most respected surgeons in London before contracting erysipelas (St. Anthony’s Fire) after attending cases in the hospital in April 1875.  He died within a fortnight, leaving a widow and an infant son.

To be continued …

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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