Strange how some people keep things to themselves? William Sheward way back in the mid 19th century was like that……..kept things very much to himself. In fact, this William never, ever breathed a word during those eighteen years about murdering his wife!……….He never even thought to mention that, after he had cut her throat, he chopped her up into small pieces!………..and would you believe it – he finally scattered her bits around the streets of Norwich!
All this is true – and we are not the first to have uttered words on the subject…… and we will not be the last. Versions of this tale have gripped the imagination of people for the last 150 years, ever since the court case and the moment the newspapers-of-the-day sensationalised events. This tale is certainly gruesome in its content, and for that reason it comes with a serious ‘Health Warning’, particularly for anyone with a sensitive disposition – don’t even begin to read it!
For everyone else, what follows is based on reports of the case and such other sources as have been unearthed. The end result will be a reminder to those who may have already come across this tale, but have forgotten at least some of the details. For those who are completely unaware of William Sheward, turn the page and read on.
Where it all started:
During the early 1830’s, William Sheward lived east of London towards Greenwich, although he had some connection with Richmond Place Walworth. He was aged 24 years, of small stature and employed either as a pawnbroker’s assistant or a tailor of some unknown description – no one seems to be quite certain; but, employed he certainly was.
Whilst in Walworth he met Martha Francis who was much older than he, she being 38 years of age and said to be ‘small with golden curls’ and having been born and brought up in the small Norfolk town of Wymondham. Martha became Sheward’s housekeeper somewhere near Greenwich and was to marry him in London on the 28th October, 1836. For reasons that have never been explained, neither were settled in the great metropolis and within two years of their wedding, in 1838 to be exact, the two uprooted and returned to Wymondham, lodging with Martha’s twin sister, Mary Bunn. Work appeared not to be easy to find for William who was a restless type to say the least; some would say that he was also ‘a quiet and inoffensive man’!
Inevitably this meant that he and Martha would move house and job quite frequently. Their first was from Wymondham to Norwich where there were better choices of employment and one would suppose – better prospects. It was said that, on moving to Norwich, Sheward did find a job as a tailor and lived in Ber Street. Certainly in 1842 he appeared to be well settled there – but not for long however. In fact, it was within a short time afterwards that the couple moved to White Lion Street. It was from there that Sheward tried setting up his own tailoring business but, unsurprisingly perhaps, it failed in 1849 and he was declared bankrupt. From the position of insolvency, he went to work for a Norwich pawnbroker by the name of a Mr Christie with whom he was also to deposit a healthy sum of £400; the presumption here must be that he wanted to keep the money out of the hands of his creditors – and Martha, his wife. Later Sheward was to say:
“In November, 1849, I placed a box of money containing £400 in Mr Christie’s possession, for him to take care of it for me. In the year 1850 and to June, 1851, I drew from that box £150, during which time my wife wanted me to bring the box home. Mr Christie asked me if he might make use of the money. My wife seemed determined to fetch the box herself. I knew he (Mr Christie) could not give it to me”
Martha, was none too pleased and the couple’s long-established pattern of rows were set to continue apace; clearly their marriage was an unhappy affair. Money was certainly one aspect of their problems, but not the only one. The age difference between the two of fourteen years, plus, was clearly another, as seen by Sheward’s constant search for love affairs with younger women. There was also his track record in the employment field which was nothing short of abysmal – but on all fronts he kept trying.
Breaking Point – Then it Happened!
Two further house moves followed, first to Richmond Hill, near to the Southgate Church Alley and then to No.7 Tabernacle Street, which used to be at the western end of Bishopsgate – note this address! Even there, the pattern of their quarrelling continued at seemingly ever-increasing pace; be it about money, William’s multifarious dalliances or jobs. Inevitably, everything came to a head at Tabernacle Street and that was on Sunday, 15th June 1851. Martha could not have picked a worst moment to be involved in yet another confrontation with her husband for the circumstances were all wrong – if only she had realised!
The previous day, Saturday 14th, Sheward was preparing to travel to Great Yarmouth; again, in his own words:
“On the 14th June. Mr Christie asked me to go to Yarmouth to pay £1000 to a Captain of a vessel laden with salt, to enable him to unload on the Monday morning. On the Sunday morning, the 15th, I was going to Yarmouth on the above errand. She (his wife) said “You shall not go, I will go to Mr Christie and get the box of money myself and bring it home”.
It was at this point when William Sheward clearly lost it – and Martha was foolish enough to be standing too close to William as he shaved in preparation for his journey to Yarmouth:
“An altercation occurred when I ran the razor into her throat” (some say it was a pair of sissors – either way) “she never spoke after. I then covered an apron over her head and went to Yarmouth. I came home at night and slept on the sofa downstairs.”
By the next Sunday evening, Sheward had cleaned the house and burned all the blood-stained clothes, both his and those worn on the Saturday morning before. On the Monday he went to work as normal, as a pawnbroker’s assistant, but left off at four o’clock and returned home because in his words “the house began to smell”. He lit a fire in the bedroom and commenced to cut up Martha’s body. This went on until “half-past nine when I took some portions and threw them away, arriving home at half-past ten”. This pattern of activity continued throughout the week during when, and in order to prevent the possibility of neighbours picking up on strange odours, he boiled the parts. Through future common consent, these parts would be judged as crudely cut up, hacked and sawed into small pieces; the head, hands and feet being the only ‘difficult’ parts to find their way into a pot which was kept boiling on the open fire until the job was done. Everything thereafter was cooled, placed in a bucket and, over numerous trips over several days, Martha’s bits were distributed around the streets of Norwich.
The discovery of the first of Martha’s body parts was on the following Saturday, 21 June 1851. Charles Johnson, a thirty-four-year-old wood-dealer and son of a church minister, was walking his dog from Trowse to Lakenham when his dog picked up what he thought was a bone or a piece of carrion on Martineau Lane. On closer inspection back home he saw that it was part of a hand with two fingers clenched over a thumb. Some 200 yards from the spot where the hand was discovered a foot was picked up. Both items found their way to the Police and a further ‘random’ search of the area took place. Back in those days there was no thought of ‘securing the area’ and carrying out a systematic search. The following day, Thomas Dent and his dog came across a piece of pelvis further down the same lane. More body pieces were found over the next five days, including a fibula in a field near Hellesdon Road by a Samuel Moore and a few pieces of flesh by PC John Flaxman. More were found in the same area by a Mr Carter and Mr Cory, also in a field along what is now Heigham Road and at Alder Carr at Trowse Eye, Bull Close and even as close as 300 yards from No7 Tabernacle Street where Sheward lived. When further body parts turned up at places that had already been covered, it was clear that the killer was still making his deliveries around the City!
A John Sales was employed in clearing out the three open sewers, called ‘Cockeys’, in Bishopsgate, which is a continuation of Tabernacle Street where Sheward lived in an area named St Martins-at-Palace in Norwich. A ‘cockey’, by way of explanation, is Norfolk colloquialism for a stream over which (in this case) would have been a large iron grate and provision below for a sink. It was in one of the three sinks along Bishopsgate where John Sales discovered blood and deposits. Mr Charles Walter Sales, senior, “a scavenger of Norwich” helped his son to load the contents on to his cart and deposited the same in Bull Close where, refuse was thrown. Next day Constable John Sturges inspected the waste soil and found yet more bits and pieces, principally a woman’s breast and entrails; he took them away. Back at the station, it was Police Sergeant Edward Peck’s grim task to construct his own jigsaw by trying to put together as many of the discovered parts as was possible.
The search for further remains was continued after the 26th June 1851 when a piece of skin and muscle was discovered on Saturday, 28th, followed by some intestines on the 29th and a hard substance thought to be a thigh-bone and part of a female breast on Monday, 30th. The last discovery was made on Wednesday the 2nd July 1851 when some bones were found. Later, three surgeons examined the remains and seemed to have got everything correct, such as sex and that the perpetrator was neither a surgeon nor butcher. However they did not, at that stage at least, get the age right, opining that the female was between 16 and 26 years. This information was included on a poster issued to the public:
Whilst the inevitable few applications were received about females missing, they were all influenced by the mis-information from the medical profession of an age between 16 and 26 years. No one thought that they would be so far out in their estimations – poor Martha was 54 years of age! On top of all this, a great many theories were expressed in an attempt to explain the macabre discoveries, and the Press created further confusion by making sensational mis-statements in their newspapers. The Times and the local Norwich Mercury did their utmost to sensationalise everything and even ‘pointed the finger’ (please excuse the pun!) at medical students for playing pranks. The medical authorities rose to the bait all too easily and complained bitterly to the newspapers about ‘bringing the medical profession into disrepute’.
Inquiries got nowhere and no one linked Mrs Sheward’s unexpected disappearance with the horrific finds. William Sheward said that his wife had ran off to New Zealand to find a former lover and his plausible story was believed because the couple’s rows were well known amongst their few friends, coupled with the knowledge that apparently, according some unconfirmed comments, Martha too had quite a chequered past – one would suppose that murder was not included! There were also two other more important reasons why nothing was suspected. The police did not link the body parts with Mrs. Sheward, the head was never recovered and the police had no idea that Mrs. Sheward had been murdered.
The year of 1851 continued on its inevitable way – beyond the murder, the continued enquiries, and the Press speculation. To say that Sheward was calm during this time must have been wrong. Being the sort of person he was, as taken from descriptions, other people’s opinions and his own behaviour, he would have been on an extreme edge. Not least when his brother-in-law wanted to tell Martha about an inheritance, but Sheward abruptly brushed him off. Also when Martha’s twin sister, Mary Bunn, died in November 1851, Sheward refused to attend the funeral, adding that ‘he was sure Martha couldn’t either’. Sometime later, he moved out of No 7 Tabernacle Street (now the western end of Bishopsgate) and rented three unfurnished rooms from a John Bird in St Georges, Middle-Street, but within 12 months was thrown out when he was caught with more than one woman in his rooms. One of these women was to become the second Mrs Sheward a few years later. But, for the moment and from the pavement of his former lodgings in St Georges, William Sheward temporarily moved to the Shakespeare Tavern further along St Georges before finding another set of rented rooms in Lower King Street (St Peter Permountergate). It was from here where he carried on in business as a pawnbroker, lending money on goods and plate. It was while he was living in this neighbourhood that Sheward’s drinking was first observed.
Sheward’s restlessness, together with whatever misguided aspirations he may have held, meant that he was destined never to be successful in business. A bankruptcy notice in The Jurist of 4 June 1853 described him as ‘a pawnbroker of Norwich’. True to character, it would seem, Sheward took increased solace in drink and in his quest to cultivate a string of lady friends around Norwich, while keeping up his relationship with the girl found in his previous rooms in John Bird’s house in St Georges. Her name was Charlotte Maria Buck with whom he eventually lived and sired two children, one in 1856 and the other in 1859. It was not until the 13th February 1862 that William Sheward eventually married Charlotte at the Norwich Registry Office in King Street. From then on Charlotte witnessed first-hand Sheward’s journey further downhill, not just with his heavy drinking but also his tendency to talk in his sleep – but, apparently, never to reveal the time in 1851 when he had disposed of his first wife.
Sheward also aged prematurely following his second marriage and began to show early signs of rheumatism and of becoming increasingly consumed with guilt. Almost 18 years passed, during which time Sheward said absolutely nothing then, in 1868, he changed his employment to become the landlord of the Key and Castle tavern at 105 Oak Street, Norwich where he also lived with his family – but not for long however. Over the Christmas of 1868 and towards the New Year Sheward’s depression became so bad that he said he needed to go to London to see his sister; Charlotte thought that would cheer him up. But, then he wrote to her to say that he was ‘in trouble of which you will soon learn’
The Beginning of the End:
On the 1st January 1869 Sheward, apparently the worst for drink, went to Walworth Police Station to confess to the murder and disappearance of Martha Sheward in 1851. He was met by Inspector Davis to whom he said “I want to speak to you; I have a charge to make against myself……It is for the wilful murder of my first wife at Norwich”. When asked if he had given due consideration to the very serious nature of the charge, Sheward added. “I have…. I have kept it for years, but can keep it no longer. I left home on the 29th December intending to destroy my life with the razor I have in my pocket.” He further explained, as he handed the razor to Inspector Davis, that he had intended to commit suicide at the Steamboat, near Chelsea; but, ‘the Almighty would not let me do it’. At that point Sheward broke down sobbing and continued to speak in broken sentences at the end of which he said that the Inspector could take his charge in writing. Inspector Davis noted that Sheward was ‘quite sober‘ as he dictated his confession which he willingly signed before being placed in a cell for the night.
“I, William Sheward of Norwich, charge myself with the wilful murder of my first wife. (Signed) W.S.”
The following morning Sheward said that he stood by his statement, then confirmed that he had killed his wife on the 15th June 1851, then cut up her body – parts of which was still preserved with spirits of wine and stored at the Guildhall, in Norwich. When asked where the body parts had been found, Sheward pleaded:
‘Oh, don’t say any more; it is too horrible to talk about’……I went last night to a house in Richmond Place (Street), Walworth, where I first saw my first wife; that brought it so forcibly to my mind that I was obliged to come to you and give myself up……. they know all about it at Norwich”.
Two days later, Sheward tried to retract his confession but most of the detail submitted seemed to tally with facts obtained from Norwich and he was remanded in custody and placed in Horsemonger Lane Gaol in London.
Then on 7 January 1869, the London magistrates decided to return Sheward to Norwich to face trial. The prisoner and escort party travelled by train and were met at Thorpe Station by a large crown. There Sheward was transferred to a shuttered cab and taken to give a deposition to the magistrates at the City’s Guildhall. After following advice to reserve his defence, he was further charged with murder and committed to the Assizes. Between then and his trial, the police had the difficult task of gathering all the available evidence together. Forensic and medical methods were far more limited than they are today and, because of the time span, many witnesses had either died or had forgotten the circumstances. The police even ripped up the floorboards of No.7 Tabernacle Street but found nothing, and had to pay the owners £3 compensation for the privilege.
Between the 13th and 26th January 1869, Sheward was re-examined by the magistrates followed by his indictment for murder at the Assizes on the 29 March – the day when Martha would have been 72 years of age had she lived and kept herself together! Understandably, the history and publicity surrounding this case ensured that the Court was packed with spectators. It was said at the time that many seemed surprised that such a little old man, crippled with rheumatism, would be capable of committing such a horrible crime. When proceedings began, there were no shortage of tales from witnesses who remembered that they had found bits of flesh and bone; that Martha was controlled by her husband and secluded from the rest of the extended family; and when she vanished he was 39 and she was 54 ‘he being in the prime of life and in the zenith of his passions, she past the heyday of life and passion’. At the end of a two-day trial, it took just one hour and 15 minutes for the Jury to find Sheward Guilty! – to which he responded ‘I have nothing to say’. Following the pronouncement of the death sentence, Sheward was taken to Norwich City Gaol where he spent his remaining days in the infirmary because of his rheumatism in both ankles, there he composed his final confession. On 19th April he saw Charlotte for the last time, prompting him to write a letter to her and their children, asking for forgiveness and apologising for ‘drawing you into all this trouble and affliction’.
His was the first ‘private’ execution in Norwich, to be held behind prison walls and with no members of the public present except for members of the Press. The stipulated execution date was 20th April 1869 when Sheward prayed with Reverend R Wade for an hour before being carried, in fear and agonising rheumatic pain, by Chief Warder Hall and Warder Base to an anti-room to be pinioned by the executioner, William Calcraft. The execution party then continued on to the scaffold where the Executioner carried out his duties – the way he normally carried them out. Calcraft was known for his ‘short drops’ which normally resulted in the majority of his ‘clients’ strangling to death rather than having their necks broken. That day, the Press reported that ‘his struggles were slight and brief’ so, maybe, Calcraft had measured out a little longer rope and Sheward’s neck snapped cleanly. Outside the Prison gates the crowd of 2,000 were there to see the black flag raised, signalling that the execution was done.
William Sheward dropped from life to follow his wife, Martha Sheward into history. One could imagine the impossibility of the two ever being reconciled since she left this earth ‘in little pieces and all over Norwich’ and, without a head! William would never have recognised her. In any case, it is unlikely that he would have said anything!
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All George Plunkett photographs are by kind permission of Jonathan Plunkett