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Justice for murderers was summary and often swift in Victorian times. Men and women would be sent to the gallows, sometimes on the the basis of summary and circumstantial evidence – and Old Baily trials were frequently over in hours or even minutes. But there was another side, with bureaucracy, the uncertainty of evidence and sometimes plain incompetence seeing killers walk free to kill again.
In the curious case of William Cronin, relieved to escape with the lesser sentence of manslaughter for a particularly horrible crime in 1897, justice did reassert itself – eventually. It would be another 28 years before he would hang.
The roots of the Cronin case were in the Great Dock Strike of 1889. It was a huge step forward for the strength of the trade unions, but with East Enders often desperate for work, it could set neighbour against neighbour. Solidarity was the key of course, with complete withdrawal of labour crucial to forcing the bosses to back down. Anyone who broke a strike was a scab or a blackleg, but for Henry Cuthbert, the father of a young family, going without his weekly wage (an uncertain one at that with casual labour and the dockyard chain system) was unthinkable. His family had to eat and so he kept on working.
On the night of 23 July, 1897, Cuthbert was having a drink at the Richard Cobden pub on Repton Street in Limehouse. Downing the last of his pint, he was accosted by Cronin, who worked on the coal tugs out of Limehouse, shouting ‘You’re the man that works on the wood boats?’ the 27-year-old demanded aggressively.
‘Anywhere to earn a shilling,’ Cuthbert replied, which simply enraged Cronin more. ‘You work for three shillings a day and others get five,’ he shouted. The unnerved Cuthbert supped up and headed for his 16 Carr Street home, close to where the canal fed into the Limehouse basin. His wife Eliza saw and heard an altercation on the street between Henry and Cronin. Shouting about the strike, he lashed out at Eliza, throwing her to the ground.
Things got much worse. The drunk and raging Cronin strode into the Cuthberts’ yard and picked up a spade. Stumbling into the kitchen to find the couple’s ten-month-old baby, also Eliza, in her cot. Shouting ‘First come, first served’ he struck the tot across the head with his shovel. That was one side of the story at any rate. By the time the case came to court, it would be much less certain what had happened.
Back in Limehouse, all the bravado had gone out of Cronin. A patrolling constable ran up and easily took him into custody. ‘All right guv’nor, they set on me first,’ mumbled the frightened Cronin. When the case came to Thames Police Court the next morning, Constable Pinchin reported that Cronin had also said: ‘I hope the child dies and I shall get hung’.
She did, but he didn’t. Little Eliza died at Whitechapel’s London Hospital a day later, and by the time Cronin again stood before magistrate Mr Dickinson on 30 July, he had been committed for trial on a charge of murder. He stood in the dock of the Old Bailey on 15 September 1897 in what seemed a hopeless case, but the prosecuting counsel were no match for Cronin’s barrister – the marvellously named EPS Counsel. Witness after witness came forward to muddy the waters. Cuthbert had attacked Cronin first with the spade, said one Henry Corcoran, who wondered if the child had been struck accidentally in the melee. Cronin meanwhile claimed he had never entered the house, rather confusingly claiming that, at the time, he had been with a Mary Farrow. The first story would have led to a verdict of accidental death; the second would have taken Cronin out of the picture entirely, but the jury appear to have fudged the issue, delivering a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder.
Manslaughter, of course, names the killer but removes the ‘malice’ or ‘intent’ element of murder, but from the distance of more than a century, this jury’s decision looks more like a verdict of ‘we’re not sure’ than ‘guilty but without intent to kill’. Still, Cronin was spared the rope and Justice Bruce started to examine the man’s previous record, including a conviction for assault. He sentenced Cronin to seven year’s penal servitude and shipped him off to Australia.
Where he might have remained. But in 1925, Cronin, now 54 and still working on the boats, was back in the East End. He was living with widow Alice Garratt at 126 Old Church Road in Stepney. It wasn’t a peaceful union. Neighbours often complained about the rows that spilled out into the street. On Friday 12 June, Cronin’s temper again got the better of him. Garratt’s scream of ‘murder!’ was heard by William and Rose Blanks, next door at 128.
William ran to 126 and found Alice, ‘her head hanging off’. Shocked he stumbled back to his home, and Rose came out to investigate – just as Cronin ran into the street, still carrying the razor. A brave passer-by, Charles Edmead, tackled Cronin to the ground, getting slashed with the razor as he did so.
Cronin made the same journey as 28 years before – from Thames Police Court to the Old Bailey. This time the jury had no doubt, not even leaving their box to deliberate before delivering the ‘guilty’ verdict. Sentence was handed down on 17 July 1925, with a defiant Cronin remarking to the judge: ‘Thank you sir. I am very glad you have sentenced an innocent man to death.’
Cronin appealed, claiming that Alice had been murdered in her bed (her children were asleep beside her) while he was sleeping. The Home Secretary demurred, letting the sentence stand. William John Cronin was hanged at Pentonville gaol on Friday 14 August.