Clerkenwell Police Court was crowded on Monday, 18 February, 1856, when two prisoners were charged with the murder of a young girl – the Islington Murder, as it came to be called.
Some of the spectators were neighbours of the prisoners, others would have come because of the grisly story in the previous day’s paper – and then there were the usual gawkers who just enjoyed a good courtroom drama.
The police court was in Bagnigge Wells Rd (now King’s Cross Rd). It was demolished later in the 19th century, but here’s a sketch of the beginning of a typical day there in 1883:
Here by ten o’clock in the morning assembles a motley crowd, consisting by far the greater part of women, some who have come to see the “fun,” just as they would go to any other public entertainment… There is plenty of room for the Magistrate, and for counsel, reporters, and witnesses; but as much cannot be said as regards the accommodation provided for such of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects as may choose to avail themselves of their right to be present. The space set apart for this purpose may be, perhaps, a little larger than the interior of an ordinary omnibus; and, if like the vehicle mentioned, it were decently provided with seats, would comfortably contain fifteen or twenty persons. As everybody is compelled to stand, however, with close packing and tight squeezing, the box will hold as many as thirty…
“Silence!” Justice occupies the judgment seat.”
A wonderful picture-gallery the mind of a metropolitan magistrate would be, supposing it retained an impress of all the odd types of civilised humanity that are constantly cropping up before him for his contemplation. (From Mysteries of Modern London)
But today the drama was much more exciting than the usual parade of thieves and drunks. Today there was a murdered child and a foreigner. What true Victorian could fail to be horrified – and thrilled?
London’s Standard newspaper again printed the story:
A very thick foreign red moustache? Short in stature? Obviously dodgy characters.
You’ll have noticed that they call Celestina ‘Celestria Somner’. This is one of several inconsistencies in newspaper reports of the story. But perhaps the journalist was scribbling down the details in great haste and hadn’t had the time, or inclination, to check his facts.
It’s more interesting, perhaps, that the Sommers ‘appeared quite unconcerned’.
Then it was time for the police to give their statements. Inspector Hatton of the Metropolitan Police’s N (Islington) Division said that he and Sergeant Edward Townsend had gone to 18 Linton Street (where the Sommers lived) at about half past four on the previous day.
A girl of about 14 opened the door. The policemen walked along the hall and saw Celestina Sommer coming up the kitchen stairs. When she saw them, she asked: “What do you want?”
Insp Hatton said: “We will tell you after we have looked into your cellar.”
“Good God! What do want to do that for?” Celestina said.
Then Charles Sommer came out of the parlour and all five of them went down the stairs to the kitchen.
Sgt Townsend got a light and went into the cellar. Soon after he came out and said that the body was there. Insp Hatton went to look:
Celestina and Charles ‘declined’ to say anything, or ask the inspector any questions. At the time, prisoners conducted their own defence and had the right to query the prosecution witnesses.
Then Sgt Townsend gave his statement. It’s slightly different from Hatton’s, but they agree on the main details. He said that the two policemen had gone to Linton St at about four. They asked the servant girl what her master and mistress’s names were. I’ll let the Standard take up the story:
Sgt Townsend then went back to Linton St to search the house. In the bedroom, upstairs at the front, he found ‘an old black gown, with spots of blood on it’. Someone had tried to wash the blood out. Then he and ‘the surgeon’, who hasn’t been mentioned before, went down to the cellar and saw that the door was ‘spotted with blood’. There were also ‘marks of blood’ on the kitchen door and a spot on the servant’s pillow.
That was the end of Townsend’s evidence, as reported in the paper.
The magistrate, William Corrie Esq (1806-81), a solicitor and barrister, asked the Sommers again if they had any questions.
The court then went on to hear the evidence of the Sommers’ servant girl. Because it’s very long, I’m going to cover it in my next post.
But before then, I’ve got some photos to show you.
This week I went sleuthing with my camera to Linton St, scene of the murder.
18 Linton St no longer exists. The houses from nos 26-2 have been demolished. In its place is a newly-built terrace of houses, part of many rebuilding projects that stretches along Regents Canal.
The modern no 18 is even newer than the Sommers’ house was when they moved in.
Here’s a map from 1868 showing Linton St as it would have been at the time of the murder. I’ve marked where no 18 would have been – more or less – with an appropriately blood-red dot.
I love the details on this map – you can even see the separate terraces. It’s by Edward Weller and is thought of as one of the best maps of the mid-19th century, and certainly the largest. If you enjoy old maps as much as I do, the website’s well worth a visit.
Here’s the end of the original Linton St houses that would’ve been near the Sommers':
And I’ll end with a peek into nearby basements to give you a flavour of the murder scene. Though I haven’t been poking around cellars, and many of the basements have been converted into what look like pleasant flats.
* Picture credits:
Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
1850s Peeler: Hoodinski, via Wikimedia (public domain)
Weller’s map of Linton St: Mapco
Photographs of Linton St: © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2015. If anyone wants to re-use them that’s fine, if you ask me first! And attribute them, with a link, please. See copyright policy in the right-hand side bar