Yesterday I visited South Croydon. It was disappointing to discover that the Victorian villa where in 1928-29, three members of a close, suburban family died in agony from arsenic poisoning had been destroyed, replaced by a ugly block of modern flats.
The Birdhurst Rise Poisonings still remains one of the most fascinating crimes of the 20th century.
Between 1928-29 three members of a close, suburban family died in agony from arsenic poisoning. Police found no real motive for the crime and no solid evidence to bring the killer to justice.
It is hard to imagine now that the tough, multicultural town we know today was once a gentle London suburb, inhabited by solid, middle-class families whose values and fortunes formed the fabric of the country. If you visit this southern part of Croydon, evidence does still exist in the remaining Victorian villas, lining the leafy streets. (Sadly, most of these once elegant, imposing homes are now somewhat shabby and turned into multi occupational dwellings.)
Number 29 Birdhurst Rise was where the drama played out. The Sidney’s were a respectable, affluent family. Violet Emelia Lendy married Thomas Sidney in 1884. They produced three children Grace, Vera and Tom before their marriage collapsed, but Thomas continued to provide generously for his family and Violet and her children continued to live comfortably.
On Thomas’s death, the three children each received the sum of £5,000, a small fortune in those days. It was then that Violet moved to 29 Birdhurst Rise.
When eldest daughter Grace married Edmund Duff a man 17 years her senior, the pair took up residence in 1926 in nearby South Park Hill Road, taking with them a lodger, Marie Kelvey, she died there a year later.
The First Victim
Two years later Edmund was taken ill after returning home from a fishing trip. Despite being an exceptionally fit man for his age he was prone to exaggerate ailments but a doctor was called out nevertheless, who found little wrong with him.
During the night Edmund suffered bouts of sickness and diarrhoea and his condition worsened. A Dr Binning was called out this time and he found Edmund writhing in agony and mortally ill. Between 11 and 12pm that night, Edmund died.
Grace was reported to be hysterical at the news of his death, ‘screaming and kicking her legs’. To Dr Binning the cause of death was a mystery and it was only now that he considered the outlandish possibility of poisoning.
An inquest was held on 2nd May 1928. Grace Duff took the stand to recount events leading to her husband’s death. Tearful and hesitant, she was treated sympathetically.
The proceedings were adjourned for a month, pending the results of the medical investigation. Later that day an official called at the house to ask Grace if she kept any poison. She showed him a tin of liquid weed killer, which was kept in the cellar. The official removed a sample.
When the inquest resumed on 1st June, the pathologist Dr Bronte, told the court that Duff’s body was free of poison and offered an explanation into Duff’s agonising death. It was caused he claimed by a heart attack, conceivably brought on by sun-stroke sustained on Duff’s fishing trip. ‘One can quite exclude the possibility of poisoning.’
Death by natural causes was recorded and Edmund Duff was finally laid to rest.
Poor Edmund did not rest in peace for long. Twelve months later it was ordered that his body be exhumed.
To be continued……