The U.K.’s first murder case solved by a fingerprint.


Albert Ernest Stratton (age 20) and his brother Alfred (age 22) became the first men in Britain to be convicted of murder based upon fingerprint evidence.  These two young men, both of whom were known to the police, were convicted of the murder of 70 year old Thomas Farrow.  They also killed his wife, 65 year old Ann, but this charge was not proceeded with.  Thomas Farrow managed Chapman’s Oil and Colour Store at 34 High Street Deptford in south London and it was known that on Monday he would hand the shop’s previous week’s takings over to Mr. Chapman in a brown paper packet.  On this occasion this amounted to some twelve pounds.  On Monday, March the 27th 1905, at around 7.00 a.m. Mr. Farrow responded to a knock at the door and opened it to find a young man on the doorstep.  He attacked Mr. Farrow and beat him to death with a blunt instrument.  The two also similarly beat Ann Farrow who died five days later without recovering consciousness.  Both had severe head injuries.  The crime was discovered at 8.30 a.m. when the shop’s errand boy, William Jones arrived for work.  He immediately saw that the shop had not been opened and tried the door finding it locked.  He summoned assistance and was able to gain entry, making the grim discovery of his boss’s body in the sitting room and Mrs. Farrow in the upstairs bedroom.  The police were immediately called and took charge of the scene. Sgt. Albert Atkinson was the first to arrive and noticed an empty cash box on the bedroom floor, together with two face masks homemade from lady’s stockings which it appeared had been fashioned in the shop.  Sgt. Alfred Crutchett and Inspector Hailstone arrived a little later.  Sgt. Crutchett carefully moved the cash box using pieces of paper to avoid getting his own prints on it.

Scotland Yard was bought in, with Chief Inspector Frederick Fox and Assistant Commissioner Melville McNaughton leading the investigation.  McNaughton had been active in setting up a finger print department at Scotland Yard and had been a member of the Belper Committee in 1900 that had examined the use of fingerprint evidence.  He removed the cash box for detailed examination.  It was found that there was one usable print on one of the draws.  Inspector Collins, chief of the finger-print department compared the print to those of the Farrows and Sgt. Atkinson but it was not theirs.


Meanwhile witnesses were being traced.  The Stratton’s were seen leaving the shop around 7.15 a.m. and Alfred was positively identified by two witnesses, Henry Littlefield and Ellen Stanton.  Two other persons saw Mr. Farrow at his shop door around 7.15 a.m. with obvious serious injuries.  Hannah (aka Annie) Cromarty, Alfred's girlfriend, was interviewed on Sunday the 2nd of April by Chief Inspector Fox and told him that she did not know whether Alfred had stayed with her all night on Sunday the 26th of March and was fully dressed when she got up. She also said that he had asked her for a pair of old stockings and that he had got rid of his overcoat and shoes after the crime and that she noticed an odour of paraffin on his clothes.  There was sufficient evidence for a magistrate to issue arrest warrants for the brothers.



On the 2nd of April, Detective Sergeant Frank Beavis arrested Alfred Stratton at the King of Prussia pub in Albany Street, Deptford and took him to Blackheath Road police station.  Alfred told Beavis that he was in bed until 9.15a.m. with Annie Cromarty at 23, Brookmill Road.  Albert was arrested the following day in Deptford High Street by Inspector Hailstone.  Both brothers were fingerprinted and Inspector Collins was able to get a match to the right thumb of Alfred Stratton.  An inquest into the deaths concluded on the 20th April, with the coroner’s jury returning a verdict of willful murder against both prisoners.  The Strattons were remanded in custody to stand trial at the Old Bailey on the 2nd of May.

On April the 3rd, milkman Henry Jennings and his young assistant, Edward Russell, failed to pick out either of the brothers at an identity parade at Blackheath Road police station, as the two men they had seen leaving the Farrow’s shop on the morning of the 27th.



William Gittings was the assistant gaoler at the Tower Bridge Police Court and was on duty on there on the 18th of April, where the brothers were in adjoining cells.  Albert beckoned to him and he went to the cell door where Albert asked "How do you think I shall get on?". Gittings replied, "I do not know". Albert said, "Is he listening?" meaning his brother in the adjoining cell to which Gittings replied "No, he is sitting down reading a newspaper" to which Albert responded, "I reckon he will get strung up, and I shall get about ten years. He has led me into this, he is the cause of me living with a woman.”  Gittings reported the conversation to his superior but no written note was made as it was not deemed to be a confession.



The two day trial at the Old Bailey opened on the 2nd of May before Mr. Justice Channell with Mr. Muir and Mr. Bodkin the prosecution team.  Mr. Rooth and Mr. Curtis-Bennett appeared for Alfred Stratton, and Mr. Harold Morris for Albert Stratton.  Both brothers pleaded not guilty.  The evidence for the prosecution was as outlined above.  In all they called over forty witnesses to testify.  Kate Wade, Albert’s girlfriend stated that he was not with her on the night of the murder, although he usually stayed with her. The witnesses who saw the two men leaving the Farrow’s shop on the morning of the murder all described them as wearing the same clothes.


The fingerprint evidence was presented by Detective Inspector Charles Collins who stated that the print on the cash box was made by Alfred's right thumb. Detective Inspector Charles Steadman, the head of the Finger Print Department confirmed Collins’ findings.  The method of reading fingerprints was explained to the jury and the similarities of the one on the cash box to Alfred’s thumb print clearly demonstrated to them. Take a look at this photo of the prints and see if you can see the eleven similarities that were demonstrated to the jury.

The defence called Dr. John Garson, who had trained the two policemen, to refute their evidence.  However Mr. Muir challenged Garson over two letters he had written offering his services to both the defence and prosecution before he had even seen the thumb print.


Messrs Rooth and Morris put up a spirited defence of their clients, with Mr. Rooth claiming the case against Alfred was purely speculative and that fingerprint evidence was unreliable.  He further pointed out that there were no witnesses to the actual killings.  Alfred gave evidence and claimed that it was “a put up job” and that he had never been in the Farrow’s shop.  He also claimed that Hannah Cromarty had made incriminating statements in revenge for his ill treatment of her.


Mr. Justice Channell summed up in a very impartial fashion and cautioned the jury about relying solely on the fingerprint evidence, although he noted the similarities in the prints.  He also cautioned them about Albert’s alleged statement in the Police Court cells.  He was less than impressed by John Garson’s letter offering himself to both the prosecution and the defence as an expert witness and said he made an “unreliable witness”. 

On the second day of the trial the jury retired at 8 p.m. and took two hours to find them both guilty.

Mr. Justice Channel placed the black cap on his head and sentenced both brothers to death, telling them “The sentence of the Court upon each of you is that you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and that there you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your souls.  The chaplain intoned “Amen”. They were removed from the court and returned to Wandsworth prison to await execution.

A full transcript of the trial can be found here and a court artists drawing of the brothers here.



This took place in Wandsworth’s original execution shed (known as “the cold meat shed”) at 9.00 a.m. on the 23rd of May and as it was a double execution John Billington was given two assistants, Henry Pierrepoint and John Ellis.  Albert Stratton weighed 172 lbs and was given a drop of 6’ 6” whilst his lighter brother Alfred was given a drop of 7’ 6” as he weighed 147 lbs.  In Albert’s case the drop was sufficient to cause fracture dislocation of the neck but in Alfred’s case, although there was dislocation of the neck, there was also evidence of asphyxia.  Both men had been given significantly longer drops for their weights than specified in the official 1892 table of drops (4 feet 10 inches and 5 feet 8 inches respectively) but even so it was not sufficient to break Alfred’s neck cleanly.  The LPC4 form for Alfred, a copy of which I have, mentions the signs of asphyxia but does not mention whether there was any visible struggling.



Dr. Henry Faulds was the first European to publish a paper on the use of fingerprints in the identification of criminals. He had tried for some years to get the police to recognise the value of fingerprint evidence.  Faulds, although he wasn’t called by the defence, had concerns about the Stratton case and the use of a latent print as a crucial piece of evidence.  Latent prints, as found on the cash box, can be incomplete, distorted or unclear, unlike those taken by a fingerprint specialist at a police station. 


The Fingerprint Branch of the Metropolitan Police was created in July 1901 using the System of Fingerprint Classification devised by Sir Edward Henry who in 1901 was appointed Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, head of the Criminal Investigation Department.  By 1905 it had some 80,000 prints on file.  Henry had formulated his system in India where he had been Inspector General of Police for Bengal Province and South Africa before he returned to England.  He was the author of a book entitled "The Classification and Uses of Finger Prints" and had given evidence to the Committee set up in 1900 under the chairmanship of Lord Belper to establish a better method of identifying criminals from crime scene evidence than the Bertillion or Anthopometric systems currently used that measured the suspects physical characteristics. 

The first conviction in England that relied on finger print evidence was that of  Harry Jackson in 1902 who had left his prints on newly painted windowsill during a burglary.


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