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The Camden Town Murder is perhaps one of the most celebrated unsolved murders in British criminal history which took place on the morning of the 12th September 1907 when a young woman known as Phyllis Dimmock was found with her throat cut in her rented rooms at St Paul's Road in Camden Town, North London.

The victim

Although known as 'Phyllis Dimmock', she was born Emily Elizabeth Dimmock on the 20th October 1884 at the village of Standon, near Ware in Hertfordshire. Her father William Dimmock was a salesman who spent his time travelling around the counties of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire running a market stall which sold cough sweets. Phyllis was run over by a horse as a child as a result of which she may have been a little 'simple minded'. In her late teens she was employed as a domestic servant and as a hotel chambermaid, before setting up home in 1906 with her boyfriend Bertram Shaw, firstly in rented rooms in Royal College Street later at St Paul's Road in Camden where they lived together as 'Mr and Mrs Shaw'.

Throughout this time Phyllis appears to have been in the habit of entertaining a succession of young men whom she met at one of the many public houses along the Euston Road. Since her common-law husband Bert worked as a chef on the Midland Railway and left home each day at 4.15pm and didn't return home until around 11.30am the following day, Phyllis was left free most evenings and nights to pursue her chosen lifestyle. She has therefore been often regarded as a prostitute, although whether Phyllis saw herself in that light is debatable.

The Murder

On the morning of the 12th September Bert's mother came to visit Phyllis. She knocked at the door of their rooms in St Paul's Road but received no response. Looking through the window she could see Phyllis lying on the bed, assumed that she was asleep, and settled down to wait. However when Bert arrived home from work, he immediately knew that there was something wrong, but since he had no key he went off to find a policeman. On gaining entry they discovered that Phyllis had been killed by having her throat cut from left to right, indeed the cut was so deep that her head had almost been severed from her body. It appeared that someone had used the wash basin to clean their hands of blood and one of Bert's razors had been left by the side of the bowl.

The rooms had been ransacked, and in particular Phyllis's postcard collection had been wrecked, but it did not seem as if anything had been stolen. The subsequent post-mortem examination confirmed her time of death at sometime between 3.00am and 6.00am on the morning of the 12th September, whilst the lack of any defensive cuts on her arms, together with the depth and severity of the wound, indicated that she had been attacked and killed most probably whilst she was asleep.

The Postcard

Phyllis, as was earlier alluded to, collected postcards, a fact that was to be of some significance in the case. Shortly after her death, her husband Bert was clearing out her belongings when he came across a postcard from Bruges that bore the message 'Phillis darling. If it pleases you to meet me at 8.15 at the (there followed a drawing of the rising sun). Yours to a cinder. Alice'. There was of course, no 'Alice' as such, this simply being a pseudonym adopted by the author in order to avoid arousing the suspicions of her husband, whilst the Rising Sun was the name of a public house on the Euston Road. The Police believed the postcard to be a vital clue and arranged for it to be reproduced in the News of the World of the 30th September as well as a number of other newspapers, in the hope that someone would recognise the handwriting.

A woman by the name of Ruby Young did indeed recognised the handwriting as being that of her former boyfriend Robert Woods, but, having discussed the issue with him, he persuaded her to keep quiet and to also provide him with an alibi (should it prove necessary) by saying that they had a regular meeting every Monday and Wednesday. However, Ruby couldn't resist telling her friend of this exciting development in her life, this friend passed the news onto another friend who happened to work in Fleet Street, and so the police came and paid her a visit.

The case against Robert Wood

As it happens the police investigation had already established the general principles that lay behind Phyllis's life without Bert. They had also established that Phyllis had spent the three previous nights in the company of a ship's cook by the name of Robert Percival Roberts. This Robert even testified that Phyllis had shown him the postcard in question and furthermore that she had commented, on receipt of a letter on the morning of the 11th September, on how similar the writing was to that of the postcard. According to Roberts this letter read:'Dear Phyllis. Will you meet me at the bar of the Eagle at Camden Town 8.30 tonight Wednesday - Bert.' However since Phyllis had promptly thrown the letter on the fire, the police were not able to confirm this from the charred remains they managed to recover.

Robert Roberts, who otherwise might have been suspected of the crime, claimed that he spent the evening of the 11th September at the Rising Sun with a friend named Frank Clarke, following which he had been in the company of one May Campbell, and thus had a secure alibi. Phyllis on the other hand, had been at the Eagle in the company of the aforementioned Robert Wood, and was last seen alive as the pair left the pub on the evening of the 11th September. According to Wood's own account of events, they had parted company on leaving the Eagle and he had gone directly home.

The police however found a witness named Robert McCowan who testified that he had seen a man leaving No 29 St Paul's Road at about 4.55 am that morning and claimed to be able to identify that man as Robert wood, thus contradicting Wood's account. In the circumstances the police felt justified in arresting Robert Wood and charging him with murder.

The trial of Robert Wood

Robert William Thomas George Cavers Wood was originally from Edinburgh but the family had come south following the death of his mother when his father George Wood found work in London. Until 1893 wood was connected with the Australian Medical Students Club where he earned a living producing medical drawings for students. He later found work at the Sand and Blast Manufacturing Company as a commercial artist, where he was promoted to the status of designer. As a single man with a secure salary Wood was comfortably off and was able to afford a week's holiday in Bruges during the summer of 1907, and spent his leisure time drinking on the Euston Road, which is where he met Phyllis Dimmock.

His money (or quite possibly that of his employers) enabled Wood to assemble a formidable defence team. His solicitor was Arthur John Newton, who made his name in the Cleveland Street Scandal and later went on to represent Hawley Harvey Crippen in another famous murder trial, and through Newton he secured the services of Edward Marshall Hall, who was soon to become one of the most successful and celebrated criminal barristers of his day.

Although much of the evidence against him was circumstantial, there was the testimony of McCowan which placed him at the crime scene at the time of the murder, as well as his own behaviour in seeking to establish a false alibi which appeared to clearly signal his guilt.

The defence countered by producing a neighbour of Wood's who claimed to have seen him arrive home at about midnight on the evening in question (as a keen fisherman he had been out in his garden collecting worms), thus corroborating the story that he had returned home that night. They also produced another witness named William Westcott, who had been returning home from work to St Paul's Road sometime before 5.00 am that morning and claimed to have seen McCowan. Since McCowan had not mentioned seeing Westcott this raised the possibility that McCowan had mistaken Westcott for Wood on the night in question. Since by that time it had become known that MacCowan was a paid police informant and that he had already changed his story once this served to discredit his testimony.

With reasonable doubt established, in summing up the case the judge stated that the prosecution had failed to prove their case and directed the jury to acquit. After considering the matter for fifteen minutes the jury agreed and returned with a verdict of 'Not Guilty'. Of course the trial had just the right mixture of illicit sex and brutal violence to attract considerable press coverage. The public gallery being packed throughout the trial, news of the acquittal is said to have resulted in scenes of public jubilation outside the court.

Who killed Phyllis Dimmock?

Given the circumstances of her life and subsequent death it seems most likely that Phyllis Dimmock was killed by one of many male acquaintances in a fit of jealous rage. The one person we can certainly exclude from consideration is her husband Bertram Shaw, since, as the police established back in 1907, he was in a railway dining car thundering through the countryside some distance from London at the time of his wife's death.

The fact that the rooms at St Paul's Road had been ransacked, and that the victim's postcard collection was disarranged, leading to the obvious conclusion that the murderer was searching for something, and that something being most likely the postcard from Bruges that led the police to Robert Wood in the first place. This would limit the range of suspects to either Robert Wood himself (seeking to remove an incriminating piece of evidence) or, alternatively, someone else who knew of its existence and was seeking to divert the police's attention by laying a false trail, such as Robert Percival Roberts, his apparently secure alibi notwithstanding.

Most commentators have this concluded that the most likely culprit was indeed Robert Wood, even if there appears to have been insufficient evidence to actually convict him of the crime.

Walter Sickert

Walter Richard Sickert is widely recognised as the foremost British painter of his time, whose talents place him in the same league as Turner and Francis Bacon. Having spent much time abroad in France and Italy, Sickert returned to Britain in 1905, where he later founded the Camden Town Group of painters, and at the time of the murder was living at No.6 Mornington Crescent in Camden.

Walter Sickert certainly had an interest in the seedier side of London life and the publicity given to the murder of Phyllis Dimmock inspired him to paint the Camden Town Murder series of pictures. This was a deliberately ambiguous sequence of paintings, exhibited with titles such as What Shall We Do for Rent? and L'Affaire de Camden Town, that can be viewed either as depictions of scenes of unremarkable domesticity or as something more sinister. Sickert attracted widespread criticism at the time for these paintings which were dubbed by many as 'pornographic', whilst since his death some have come to the conclusion that they should be seen as evidence of his possessing a disturbed personality.

For many years Sickert has been linked in various ways with the Whitechapel murders of 1888-1889 and the name of Jack the Ripper. It has even been suggested, firstly by Jean Overton Fuller in her Sickert and the Ripper Crimes (1990) but most recently and most publicly by the crime novelist Patricia Cornwell in her Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed (2002), that Walter Sickert and the Ripper were one and the same. In particular Patricia Cornwell went further and claimed that Sickert was also guilty of the Camden Town Murder, arguing that the Camden Town Murder series of paintings demonstrated a knowledge of the crime scene that could only be known to the killer, as well as containing a number of hidden clues that revealed his identity as Jack the Ripper. However despite the media attention given to Ms Cornwell's opinions, they have attracted little in the way of support, being generally met with incredulity and derision. (Even Jean Overton Fuller has flatly rejected the idea that Sickert was the Camden Town murderer.)

In truth there is no known connection between Sickert and Phyllis Dimmock or anyone else mentioned in the case. Neither is there any reason to suppose that the Camden Town Murder was linked the earlier series of murders attributed to Jack the Ripper. All the Ripper's victims were first strangled, which was not the case with Phyllis, neither was her body mutilated in any way despite the fact that the killer clearly had the time to do so should he have wished (and the Ripper was clearly a killer who did so wish). Whoever was repsonsible for the Camden Town Murder, we can safely say that it wasn't Walter Sickert.

SOURCES

  • John Barber, The Camden Town Murder http://www.johnbarber.com/CTM/intro.html
  • Stephen P.Ryder and Johnno See, Casebook : Jack the Ripperhttp://www.casebook.org/

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