John Tawell “The Man Hanged by the Electric Telegraph”.



John Tawell was born in 1784, the second son of Thomas Tawell who was a shopkeeper in Aldeby in Norfolk, where John grew up.  Tawell attended the village school for some seven years and afterwards entered service with a Quaker lady who ran a general store at Pakefield near Lowestoft in Suffolk.  He was to spend the next five years there and during this time also joined the Society of Friends (Quakers).  Whilst in this employment he struck up a deep friendship with Joseph Hunton who introduced Tawell to the crime of forgery.  Hunton was hanged at Newgate for this in 1828.

Around 1804 Tawell moved to London and worked in a large drapery store in Whitechapel.  Here he met and later married a lady named Mary by whom he had two children.

In 1814 he was convicted of forging a £10 bank note for which he was sentenced to death but had his sentence commuted to 14 years transportation to Sydney, Australia.  He worked as an assistant in the convict hospital.  In this capacity he was very highly respected and in 1820 he was granted a ticket of leave (freedom) but chose to stay in Australia where he ran a successful chemist’s shop and Mary and the children emigrated to Sydney to be with him until the whole family returned to England in 1831 and bought a house in Southwark in London.  Mary became ill and died in 1838.  Tawell employed Sarah Hart to nurse Mary and after her death the couple formed a relationship. He had two children by Sarah.  She moved out of the Tawell home and lived in a cottage in the Salt Hill area of Slough in Berkshire that Tawell paid for.

In 1841 Tawell remarried to a Quaker widow but still continued the relationship with Sarah Hart. Tawell still practised the Quaker faith and regularly attended their meetings.

In the early 1840’s Tawell was suffering from varicose veins and took a remedy called Scheele's Prussic Acid.  Prussic acid is better known as hydrogen cyanide and is extremely toxic.  (In gaseous form it was used in gas chamber executions.)  Here is a drawing of John Tawell in his characteristic Quaker jacket probably done by a court artist.


The crime.

Around 6 o’clock in the evening of Wednesday the 1st of January 1845, Sarah Hart’s neighbour, Mary Ann Ashley heard a scream from Sarah’s house She sensibly summoned a constable and they went to investigate.  She observed a man dressed as a Quaker emerging from her home who appeared to be confused and trembling.  She had seen this man earlier that afternoon and he now made off at a brisk pace towards Slough.  Mary and the constable entered the house and found Sarah lying on the floor groaning.  Mary fetched her neighbour, Mrs. Barrett and also called a surgeon, Mr. H Montague Champneys, who bled Sarah.  A few moments later she was dead.  On the table was the remains of a glass of stout, together with half a bottle of the same beverage.  These were taken for analysis.



The vicar of Upton, the Rev. Edward Champneys accompanied his cousin, the surgeon, to Sarah’s house and then went to Slough station where he observed a man in Quaker garb boarding the 7:42pm train to London Paddington.  He informed the station master who offered to telegraph Paddington so that the police could be informed in time to arrest the man. 

The Great Western Railway had experimentally introduced a two needle Cooke-Wheatstone telegraph for communication between Slough and Paddington stations in 1843.  However this system could not deal with the letters J, Q and Z. and had to substitute G for J, K for Q and S for Z.  Thus the message sent from Slough to Paddington actually read :





The operator at Paddington had a problem understanding what a KWAKER was and asked for the message to be re-sent.  The police were informed and Sgt. William Williams observed Tawell leaving the train at 8.20 pm. and followed him.  In fact Tawell was not arrested until 1 pm. the following afternoon by Williams and Inspector Wiggins.  Tawell told them he had not been in Slough the previous day and that he was innocent.


Sarah’s inquest was held at the Three Tuns public house in Salt Hill.  Surgeon Champneys detected the smell of prussic acid on her.  He autopsied her body and sent the stomach contents to Mr. John Cooper, Analytical Chemist and Lecturer on Medical Jurisprudence, along with the bottle of stout and the glass found at the scene. The bottle was found to contain cyanide. The police discovered that on the day of the murder, Tawell had purchased 2 drachms of Scheele's Prussic Acid from a chemist in Bishopsgate Street, London.  Tawell was present at the inquest and was remanded in custody after it.



Tawell’s trial opened on Wednesday the 12th of March 1845 at Aylesbury County Hall before Baron Parke.  A huge number of people thronged the Market Place trying to get a seat in the public gallery.  Mr. Sergeant Byles and Mr. Prenergast prosecuted with Mr. Fitzroy Kelly, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Gunning defending.  Tawell, by now aged 61, pleaded not guilty.

Mary Ann Ashley recounted the events surrounding Sarah’s death.  She was cross examined by Mr. Kelly as was Mary Barrett.  Henry Gratten told the court that he had sold Tawell a ticket to Slough at Padington Station for the 4 pm. train to Slough on the 1st of January.  George Lewis, a post boy at Salt Hill recalled seeing Tawell on the same day.  He had known him for two years or more.  Other witnesses, including the Rev. Champneys, gave evidence of identification of Tawell and confirmation of his whereabouts on the day in question. 

Mr. John Cooper gave evidence on his tests of the stomach contents, bottle and glass and his finding of at least one grain of prussic acid in Sarah’s stomach.  He was cross examined by Mr. Kelly as to the effects of that quantity of prussic acid.  Henry Smythe of bankers Barnet & Hoare testified that on January the 1st, Tawell’s bank account was overdrawn as it had been on previous occasions recently.

Mr. Fitzroy Kelly opened for the defence, the main plank of which was that the case against his client was purely circumstantial and that there was no evidence to prove that Tawell had actually administered the poison.  He explained away the purchase of Scheele's Prussic Acid as simply being a remedy for varicose veins.  He also called witnesses to attest Tawell’s good character.

Baron Parke began his summing up on the third day of the trial, Friday the 14th of March.  He re-affirmed the cause of death but told the jury that it was for them to decide whether the prisoner had administered the poison or whether Sarah had taken it herself.  He also pointed out the fact that Tawell had lied to the police about not having gone to Slough on the 1st of January.  The jury took just half an hour to return a guilty verdict and Baron Parke sentenced him to death.



John Tawell, wearing his distinctive Quaker coat, was hanged by William Calcraft at 8 am. on the 28th of March 1845 on the “New drop” gallows erected in front of County Hall in Market Square, Aylesbury. The Buckinghamshire County Gaol was immediately behind the County Hall.  Some 10,000 people were estimated to have watched the event.  Tawell was brought out by Calcraft and a warder around 7.45 and was seen to tremble violently as he climbed the steps to the platform.  Once on the trap door Calcraft drew the white hood over his head and allowed Tawell to kneel in prayer for a minute or so before assisting him to his feet and placing the noose around his neck.  It was reported that there was no chain to attach the other end of the rope to so there was a delay while Calcraft lashed it to the beam. At length the drop fell and Tawell was seen to be greatly convulsed, taking several minutes to become still.  After hanging for the regulation hour the body was taken down and immediately buried in a pre-dug grave in the Gaol.

At least five broadsides were published about this case. Click here to see one.



Tawell made a full confession to the chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Cox and its contents communicated to the press by the Governor of Aylesbury Goal.  He stated that he had murdered Sarah to prevent his wife finding out about his affair and not for monetary reasons.  He also wrote to the Governor thanking him for his kindness to him during his time in the prison.



The two telegraph instruments from Slough and Paddington were presented by their maker, Reid Brothers, to the Science Museum in London in 1876 where they are preserved.  Photo here.


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