10,000 gathered to watch Berkhamsted poisoner hang

The Red House. Berkhamsted
The Red House. Berkhamsted

As we continue to look back at some of the villains whose crimes have made their names notorious in Dacorum’s history, it’s time to turn to the case of John Tawell (1784-1845).

Berkhamsted was not the birthplace of this colourful character, but he had made his home in the town when his cruelty shocked the nation.

Tawell’s place in the annals of criminal history owes much to the fact that he was the first person arrested by means of the Morse electric telegraph, and also the first person known to flee the scene of his crime by train.

But before that he had a chequered history, to say the least.

Tawell was born near Beccles, in Norfolk, and worked for a Quaker widow who kept a shop in Pakefield, Suffolk.

He took to dressing like a member of the Society Of Friends, commonly wearing a long coat and a broad-brimmed hat.

In around 1803 he went up to London, hoping to work in the capital, and taking letters of introduction from Suffolk Quakers.

His future tendencies showed when he seduced, and then married, a servant called Mary, with whom he had two children.

This did not meet with the Quakers’ approval, and he compounded his villainy by forging a cheque drawn on Smith’s Bank.

For that crime, he was transported to Australia where he got a job in a hospital for convicts and earned his pardon in 1820.

His wife and sons joined him and he opened a small chemist’s shop, soon becoming a relatively rich man.

On returning to London in 1831, his sons died and his wife became so ill that he hired a nurse called Sarah Lawrence.

When his wife died in 1838, he met and married a Berkhamsted widow, Mrs Sarah Cutforth, who ran a girls’ seminary in the town.

Sarah was also a Quaker, and Tawell still dressed like one. The couple, who lived at the Red House, were seen as a law-abiding couple and Tawell was involved with the Mechanics’ Institute and other local organisations.

However, nurse Sarah Lawrence had by this time become his mistress and Tawell could not give her up.

He moved her secretly to Salt Hill, near Slough, where she changed her name to Hart. The couple had two children together and Tawell paid £1 per week towards their upkeep.

Something had to give, and on January 1, 1845, he bought two bottles of Scheele’s Prussic Acid, which contained hydrogen cyanide, and set off by train from Paddington to Slough.

Sarah Hart welcomed her visitor with open arms and ran out to buy a bottle of beer. She died a violent death that evening, fatally poisoned by her lover.

There was enough circumstantial evidence to point in Tawell’s direction and the local police sent a telegraph to Paddington Station.

The ‘man dressed like a Kwaker’ – there being no Q in the instrument – was duly arrested the next morning, having been followed home by a plain-clothes policeman.

The shocked people of Berkhamsted could not believe he was guilty, seeing it as a case of mistaken identity, and even set up a petition to have him freed.

But he was convicted of murder and when he was hanged at Aylesbury on March 28 that year there were more than 10,000 people reputed to be in the crowd.

The respectable folk of Berkhamsted could hardly believe that such a prominent resident could be so wicked.

Tawell is remembered today because of the arrest following the message by telegraph, which did much at the time to enhance the use of such a machine.

Ballads were also written about the whole sorry affair and so his name lives on…