Explore the world of domestic service in Britain from 1800 to 1950

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


Today, I'm delighted to be hosting a guest post by the wonderful Angela Buckley, who specialises in writing about Victorian crime. While domestic servants frequently found themselves on the wrong side of the law, they were often victims too. Angela tells us the story of Manchester servant Sarah Jane Roberts and her unsolved murder. 

The Mystery of the Murdered Maid

At about 9 pm on 7 January 1880, Sergeant Lever rushed into Old Trafford police station to report a ‘dreadful murder’. He informed Superintendent James Bent, of the Lancashire Constabulary, that the event had taken place at the home of Richard Greenwood in Harpurhey, an industrial suburb in the northeast of Manchester. The superior officer travelled immediately to the house, where he discovered 19-year-old maid, Sarah Jane Roberts, lying in a pool of blood, with several ‘fearful’ wounds to the head. There were no signs of a struggle but her right forearm bore a mark, presumably from being raised in self-defence.

The householder, Mr Greenwood, had been absent from the house, when the crime was committed, and his wife had been in bed. Superintendent Bent made his way up to Mrs Greenwood’s bedroom where he found the elderly woman sitting by the fire wrapped in a blanket. She explained to the officer that she had been ‘dangerously ill’ and bed-ridden for some time, but that she had managed to get up that day.

After tea, at about 5.40 pm, Mr Greenwood, aged 70, had left the house after receiving a letter enquiring about the possibility of renting a piece of his land. He had arranged to meet the sender of the message in the Three Tuns public house nearby. Mrs Greenwood was left alone in the house with her maid, Sarah Jane. Both the women had been sitting by the fire when Sarah Jane rose from her seat to go downstairs to wash the tea things.

Market Street, Manchester
Whilst she was gone, Mrs Greenwood heard a knock at the door. She then heard the sound of two people’s footsteps passing through the hallway and into the kitchen. As she listened, the kitchen door slammed shut. Mrs Greenwood assumed that the visitor was a friend of the young woman’s. A few minutes later she heard a terrible scream. Thinking that the maid may have stepped too close to the fire and her clothes had caught light, the invalid ran downstairs, past the closed kitchen door and into the street, where she called for help.

Originally from Oswestry, Sarah Jane Roberts had been working for the Greenwoods for about a year. Mrs Greenwood could not speak more highly of her, praising the maid for her ‘steadiness, truthfulness, and attentiveness’. There was no obvious motive for her brutal murder, no clues at the scene and no weapon. Superintendent Bent launched an investigation ‘to unravel the mystery’.

'Laying and Lighting a Fire', Illustrated London News (1893)
The letter received by Richard Greenwood turned out to be a ruse and when he arrived at the public house, no one was there. By the time he had returned home, Sarah Jane Roberts had died. She hadn’t been killed instantly and when help had arrived, she had still been breathing faintly but she did not survive long.

The police issued handbills to other forces around the country, offering the substantial reward of £100, to anyone with information leading to an arrest. One line of inquiry pursued the possibility of a burglary, although nothing was stolen from the house. Another suggestion was that Sarah Jane might have been killed because she refused to submit to ‘undue familiarities’. There was no evidence of any romantic entanglement.

As Superintendent Bent and his colleagues continued their work, they were inundated with ideas from the general public, including ‘a great many ladies’ who offered to ‘throw light on the matter’ through dream analysis, spirit-rapping and séances. Mediums came forward saying that they had seen Sarah Jane and her attacker. When a copy of the mysterious letter was reproduced in the local newspapers, so-called handwriting specialists were keen to give their ‘expert’ opinions as to the perpetrator’s character. Superintendent Bent later commented: ‘I sometimes wished myself entirely outside of the country.’
'Maid of All Work' from Living London, 1900
Pressure mounted on the police and, in desperation, Superintendent Bent even agreed to have the victim’s eyes photographed in an attempt to catch her killer. The day before her funeral, the police lifted the coffin lid and took images of the corpse, in the hope that the figure of the murderer would appear under the examination of a powerful microscope. Despite the image being magnified to the size of half a sheet of notepaper: ‘there was nothing visible which would furnish the slightest evidence as to the features of the murderer’ (Manchester Courier, 16 January 1880).

Throughout the course of the investigation, several individuals confessed to the crime, including a licensed pedlar from London, a labourer from Stockport and even a soldier stationed in Bombay, whose confession was made ‘in a drunken frolic’. Ten years later, 31-year-old John Williams was arrested in Chicago. He had been living with his parents in Harpurhey at the time of the murder and his confession turned out to be merely a ploy to gain free passage home.

Superintendent Bent remained convinced that he knew the identity of the killer, but he did not have sufficient evidence to gain a conviction. The murder of Sarah Jane Roberts remains a mystery to this day.

A big thank you to Angela for writing such a fascinating post! Please get in touch if you know any more details about the Sarah Jane Roberts case or if you have any theories about the murderer...

Angela writes about Victorian crime and is the author of The Real Sherlock Holmes (Pen and Sword). You can find out more about her work at www.angelabuckleywriter.com or on her Facebook page, Victorian Supersleuth