Was Ipswich and Stonham Aspal girl Eliza murdered by a serial killer?

Eliza Grimwood is murdered - from the New Newgate Chronicle, 1863

Eliza Grimwood is murdered - from the New Newgate Chronicle, 1863 - Credit: Archant

Has a lecturer solved the case of a Suffolk woman involved in a mysterious 19th century murder?

A handbill announcing Private Hill’s confession - one of the red herrings that dogged the muder hunt

A handbill announcing Private Hills confession - one of the red herrings that dogged the muder hunt. 'The main image, wrongly showing Hill shooting Eliza Grimwood, had probably been lifted from some other broadsheet,' suggests Jan - Credit: Archant

The Ripper of Waterloo Road: The Murder of Eliza Grimwood in 1838, by Jan Bondeson, published by The History Press

About a decade ago, Dr Jan Bondeson bought via eBay a leatherbound set of the New Newgate Calendar – a rare-ish “penny dreadful” that came out weekly in the 1860s. It fed its readers lurid stories about heinous acts. One was the “Red Barn” murder at Polstead of Maria Marten by William Corder. But it was another case with Suffolk links that caught the eye of the rheumatologist and lecturer with a taste for historical crime.

The story of Eliza Grimwood was, he says, full of exaggerations and inaccuracies, but “rightly states that the Ripper of Waterloo Road ‘with fiendly [sic], devilish and horrible atrocity, had inflicted the most hideous and diabolical injuries to the body of the wretched girl, abusing it in a manner that dare not be described’.”

He’s spent 10 years investigating the unsolved 1838 murder and gathering material for his book – helped no end by the fact the leading police inspector’s diary has survived.

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Was the beautiful young prostitute a victim of a pre-Jack the Ripper serial killer – and has Jan correctly identified a murderer who was never charged?

If we think we have problems with fake news and internet-blown rumours, it’s nothing on newspapers and other publications in the Victorian era.

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Reports had Eliza down as the illegitimate daughter of a peer, or a woman whose sister had poisoned herself five years earlier, or even suggested Eliza found the corpse of Maria Marten while visiting a friend in Polstead! All, most likely, balderdash.

Her brother, Thomas, told police inspector Charles Frederick Field (a friend of Charles Dickens) the Grimwoods had for generations been respectable farmers in Stonham Aspal, east of Stowmarket. Eliza was probably born in 1807. When she was young, her father decided to become a bricklayer in Ipswich. “It is not known whether his wife and younger children came with him or if they remained at the farm,” writes Jan in his book. But the death of John in 1813 brought changes.

Eliza Grimwood’s bedroom, with the body - from the Weekly Chronicle of June, 1838.

Eliza Grimwoods bedroom, with the body - from the Weekly Chronicle of June, 1838. - Credit: Archant

“At the age of 15, Eliza left school and went into service with a gentleman who occupied a large property near Stonham Aspal. She became the maid companion of a lame young daughter of this family, and seems to have carried out her duties satisfactorily. But it would not be long before the young lady’s elder brother seduced her.

“When Eliza became pregnant, her seducer took her to London to have an abortion. This worthless young man gave her some money and left her behind in the metropolis, either because poor Eliza felt ashamed of returning to Stonham Aspal after her disgrace, or because he himself thought it would be good to be rid of her.

“But it did not take long for Eliza to discover that London life was far more exciting than her rather humdrum existence back in the village, and that her youthful good looks gave her considerable advantages in the metropolitan demi-monde.

“She became the mistress of a fashionable actor, and then of an army captain.” Her family apparently tried and failed to get Eliza (known as the Countess, because of her elegant clothes and proud way of carrying herself) to return to Suffolk. “Her poor old mother, still living back in Ipswich, missed her very much.”

Jan picks up the story on the evening of Friday, May 26, 1838. Eliza – wearing a fawn dress, dark shawl and blue bonnet with a flower in it – is at London’s Strand Theatre. “She speaks to some female friends belonging to the better class of prostitute, just like herself. Many of them are at the theatre for prearranged meetings with various regular customers. About fifteen minutes before the play is to end, Eliza spies a dapperly-dressed, foreign-looking young man, whom she was obviously planning to meet at the theatre…”

Eliza and “the Foreigner” meet when the play’s over, take a horse-drawn cab from outside the Spotted Dog pub, and go south over the Thames to her three-storey terraced home at Wellington Terrace, near Waterloo Bridge. They’re laughing, and “withdraw to Eliza’s bedroom to enjoy their guilty embrace”.

Later, it’s suggested, eight florins change hands. The Foreigner appears ready to leave but suddenly pulls out a short bayonet and stabs her in the back of the neck. There’s more violence, and a life ebbs away.

“He listens carefully for a while, to make sure he has not been detected. But all is silence, except that the murdered woman’s little spaniel dog, whose hearing is more acute than that of the other residents in the house, gives one or two barks before settling down.” The killer, one can imagine, takes off his bloody mackintosh and gloves, and puts them and the weapon in a bag. It seems his other clothes have escaped being splattered. The Foreigner slips away into the night, unseen and unheard.

It’s not until about 6am that William Hubbard – Eliza’s boyfriend and cousin, and only too aware of her “profession” – gets up in his first-floor bedroom. He’s a bricklayer and has to work… but finds the body in the back parlour Eliza used as a bedroom.

Jan Bondeson's book

Jan Bondeson's book - Credit: Archant

Hubbard staggers to the front door and cries “Murder!”

Jan Bondeson gives vast detail of the police investigation. Hubbard, “who could not deny that he had been partly supported by Eliza’s earnings”, is prime suspect, but there’s no evidence to suggest he’s guilty, “and his modest intellect was hardly capable of planning and executing what was in fact a perfect murder”. The killing was headline news. “The savage mutilation of the body, and the sheer mystery of the crime, put it in a class of its own among London murders.”

Inspector Field visited former clients of Eliza. “She belonged to the superior class of London prostitutes, charging at least half a guinea a night,” writes Jan.

“She had mostly catered to established ‘customers’, many of whom she had known for years. Some of these customers were noblemen, barristers and wealthy tradesmen. Many of them had been genuinely fond of her and mourned her death.”

Extensive searches were carried out and Field began checking which foreign ships were on the Thames at the time. There were red herrings and distractions – an unhinged man who claimed to know the killer, for instance, and a friend of Eliza’s who spun fanciful tales. The dead woman’s brothers were no fans of Hubbard, and much energy was spent investigating a fraudulent letter designed to frame him.

It was all a bit tawdry. For a fee, the morbid and excitable could pay to see Eliza’s spaniel at a pub. But there was no real progress, though not for wont of trying.

“Inspector Field’s police diary about the Grimwood murder investigation ends on 14 July 1838, just seven weeks after the murder was committed.”

Was that it? No.

There were further red herrings – and appearances of what was said to be Eliza’s ghost – but the trail had gone cold. However, Jan Bondeson suggests: “Was the Waterloo Road Horror the work of a serial killer, and was Eliza Grimwood perhaps not his first victim?” He points to unsolved murders in 1837, 1838 (Eliza) and 1839, “with vague rumours linking these three crimes”.

And then he mentions “the main suspect”.

Lord William Russell was living near Park Lane in his 70s. Among his staff was a Swiss valet called François Benjamin Courvoisier: the lord’s footman. It’s possible he was partial to “young ladies of dubious virtue”. Russell found him lazy and unreliable, and gave more than one tongue-lashing.

Anger erupted in 1840, when Courvoisier killed his master as he lay in bed, cutting his throat, though no murder weapon was found and the footman’s clothes were not splashed by blood. The following month, as Courvoisier awaited execution, The Times reported this foreigner also confessing to the murder of Eliza. Before long, it had retracted its claim, which had been based on information “from a source on which we were disposed to place full reliance”.

Not so fast, says Jan. Courvoisier “perfectly fits the description of the Foreigner”. And the description of the French “boyfriend” seen with Eliza Davies (one of those other 1830s victims) “and we may also speculate that he was one of the two murderers of Mr Westwood” (the third victim).

“The modus operandi was the same in all four cases of murder: Eliza Davies, Eliza Grimwood, Mr Westwood and Lord William Russell had all had their throats cut with great force.”

Jan argues: “Since the options to learn English in France or Switzerland were limited for all but the wealthy, the Foreigner must have been a resident of Britain, most probably London, for some time. How many young Frenchmen were there in London who could speak Italian, and also knew fluent English, and who perfectly matched the description of the Foreigner? Certainly not very many.”

Courvoisier hanged for Russell’s murder, before a crowd of about 12,000. Present was Dickens, “quite disgusted by the ribaldry, drunkenness and debauchery demonstrated by the mob”.

So, did Courvoisier really kill the girl who’d traded Suffolk for the capital? “I honestly think that he did.” An opportunistic serial killer, perhaps, “who occasionally murdered young women for perverted pleasure, and men for the sake of profit”.

n The Ripper of Waterloo Road, The History Press, £20

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