Looking back on two murders that took place on the North London Railway line.
It is Thursday, the 8th of January, 1914.
At Mildmay Park station, an errand boy named George Tilman is waiting on the platform. He has completed his task and is going back to work. When the 4:14 from Chalk Farm arrives, he boards the train. He is sitting in a third-class carriage. The train heads towards Dalston. Fifteen minutes have passed since he got on the train. George is about to make a gruesome discovery…
Mildmay Park station closed in 1934 and was demolished in 1987. Today, you can spot where the station entrance used to be, by looking at the brickwork on the curve of Mildmay Park where it meets Mildmay Grove North, straddling the railway cutting below. The tracks leading towards Dalston are visible but there is no hint of the mysteries that unfolded there…
Back on that afternoon train in 1914, our errand boy, George, stoops down to re-tie his bootlace only to spot a small hand sticking out from under the opposite seat. And then he sees the body of a little boy. Terrified, he tries and fails to attract the attention of a porter. When the train stops at Haggerston, he flees in fright but manages to return and report the discovery to the Station Master.
The dead boy, aged five, was discovered to be Willie Starchfield, until then the only surviving child of John Starchfield, an Oxford Street newspaper seller.
The coroner’s inquest that soon followed found John Starchfield guilty of ‘wilful murder’, by strangulation, of his little boy. Medical evidence suggested the murder had been committed some time between 2pm and 3pm that day. The train had shuttled back and forth between Chalk Farm and Broad Street several times before young George Tilman spotted the dead body.
What of the boy’s mother? Ellen, who lived separately from her husband, had left Willie in the care of her landlady while she went out to look for work. Her two previous children had died from natural causes. Willie was, apparently, “all my life, my joy”.
Willie had supposedly been sent out on an errand by the landlady. Different reports emerged. One suggested that he had been with an older, taller boy, going towards Camden Town station, carrying a bundle of sticks in his hands. He had dropped some and was shouted at to “Come on!”
The testimony of railway workers up and down the line was crucial. Signalmen found cord on the line and recalled seeing a man bending over a girl in a third-class compartment on the 2:14 from Chalk Farm; a shunting engine driver at Camden Coal Yard recalled seeing a train pass between 2:30 and 3pm and spotting a man bending over and seeming to tie up a parcel. More was to follow…
A woman named Clara Wood stated that she had seen an older man leading a little boy by the hand and that he had been eating a piece of currant cake. Another witness, John White, who was called to support John Starchfield’s defence that he had been asleep in their lodging house until 3pm that day, then reported that he had seen a man and boy at Camden Town Station. And that he could identify that man as John Starchfield. Starchfield shouted, “It’s a lie!”
He was taken to Old Street Police Station and continued to protest his innocence.
At the time, John was receiving £1 a week from the Carnegie Hero Fund for taking a bullet in the stomach when tackling an Armenian named Stephen Titus. Titus was supposedly jealous at the attention the barmaid was bestowing on other men at the Horseshoe Hotel on Tottenham Court Road and opening fire, shot two women and wounded three of his pursuers before John and two others took him down on the street outside. Now accused of filicide, Starchfield claimed that people in league with Stephen Titus had murdered his son as an act of revenge for the incident in the Tottenham Court Road pub.
When the case came to court, the Judge recommended a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’. He was hugely critical of the process of collecting and verifying evidence that had been presented during the inquest. Witnesses had been allowed to correct their written evidence before signing it. A crucial witness, Clara Wood, could not categorically state that she had not previously seen a photograph of Starchfield, which would have enabled her to later identify him. Another witness attempted suicide during the trial.
Until his death in St Pancras Infirmary in 1916, John Starchfield maintained he was innocent.
Meanwhile, in June 1914, six months after her son’s death, Ellen was found wandering in Regent’s Park; she was arrested by a police officer for threatening to commit suicide.
Even when attending Willie’s funeral, Ellen, in her grief, had thought that perhaps her son could talk to her from the grave and reveal who had committed the crime. He had, after all, the night before his death (according to the Daily Mirror) woken from a dream or premonition, saying, “I was dying and you were crying.”
Other poignant details surfaced. Willie Starchfield had long, blonde curls, hence being mistaken for a girl by one of the railway workers who identified John Starchfield as the man leaning over ‘him’ in the passing train carriage. And at the autopsy, in his stomach, were found the semi-digested remains of a currant cake.
While John Starchfield was not ultimately convicted of filicide, evidence suggests it is a crime more likely committed by men and that victims tend to be five years old and under. Moreover, spousal jealousy is often a key motivation. John and Ellen were separated but we do not know the reason why.
But if John was not responsible, then who was?
Another case of filicide on the North London Railway line had occurred exactly 14 years and one day previously. This time the little boy was only three years old. And this time the accused – and convicted – was his mother, 36-year-old Louisa Masset. What made everyone so certain, in this case, that the accused was guilty?
Little Manfred’s battered body was found naked, apart from a black shawl, on the floor of a cubicle in the ladies’ lavatories at Dalston Junction Station. Next to him lay a brick.
Her evidence, that she had agreed to hand the child over to women called ‘Browning’ and paid them a fee to have him educated at a nursery, was not corroborated. The practice of ‘baby-farming’ was well-known; women would pretend to offer adoption or fostering services but then maltreat or murder the children.
Louisa also claimed to have met these women when visiting her son on Wednesdays in Tottenham. Although she lived rent-free with one of her sisters, Louisa’s illegitimate child was not welcomed by the family and she earned her own living, going out to work as a day governess. Meanwhile, from the age of three weeks, a Mrs Helen Gentle cared for the baby. She would be the person to identify young Manfred’s body.
It did not help Louisa’s case that she was an unmarried mother. Nor did it help that she was shown to have lied – in writing – about pretending to take Manfred to relatives of his natural father in France. Or that a locker containing a parcel of Manfred’s clothes and toy weighing scales was found at Brighton Station, where she had an assignation with a French neighbour, aged only 19. In the pockets of Manfred’s clothes were the remains of the sugar he liked to play at weighing.
Sugar and currants. Two little boys. Two working mothers, leaving their child in the care of other women. Two absent fathers. One accused parent found ‘not guilty’, the other parent destined to be the first person to be hanged in the 20th century.
While John Starchfield lived to insist on his innocence, Louisa Masset never admitted to any guilt. A petition by her family to consider the mitigation of ‘hereditary insanity’ was rejected. And yet we know that filicide is also motivated by psychosis. She was only reported to have said that the death sentence was ‘just’.
We would certainly consider the practice of sending a five-year-old child out on an errand – as was Willie Starchfield – as not only unfair but also irresponsible in 21st-century Britain. Also long gone is Mildmay Park Station – where George Tilman, the errand boy, boarded that train.
Ultimately, the mystery of who – or what – was responsible for these boys’ deaths may never be fully solved but hopefully, as the trains continue to run down the line towards Dalston, better understanding and prevention of the crime of filicide can make the suffering of young children a thing of the past.
You can contact Johannah Barrett about her forthcoming walks and talks in Mildmay and Newington Green via email at [email protected] or on Instagram at thepoetryguide. Find out more about upcoming guided walks in Islington and Clerkenwell at our website.