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The forgotten Walworth murder of Emma Oakley

The vicious murder of a young woman in Walworth in the late 1800’s shows just how much women were judged by a society were men ruled supreme. Delving into old murder cases Walworth historian Neil Crossfield unearths the tragic life of Emma Oakley and her killer.

Shortly after 4pm on Wednesday 29 June 1892, shots rang out in the parlour of 81 Grosvenor Park, Walworth, leaving a young woman mortally wounded. The eighteen-year-old victim was Emma Oakley.  The assailant was her lover, 22-year-old, John James Banbury. They had only known each other for a few short months but Banbury had killed her in a fit of jealousy.  Papers reported that they were ‘living together as man and wife’ but the exact nature of their relationship is unclear.

It is difficult to know for sure but at several points it is implied that Emma may have been a sex worker. During cross examination, Emma Foster, who also lived in 81 Grosvenor Park, said that she was not aware that Emma Oakley ‘walked the Strand’. The West End of London, especially the area around the Strand was infamous throughout the Victorian period as a place where prostitution was widespread.

The initial inquest was held at Newington Coroners Court. Emma’s father was called to give evidence. Henry Oakley, a coachman from South Kensington, said that Emma had been born in Kensington around 1873 and that her mother had died three years ago. He had seen her the night before she was murdered, saying that she was in good health and had said that she was doing well. Again, jurors made insinuations about her profession. Oakley reported that his daughter had once been in service but had not had a position for some two and a half years. The jurors continued to question Oakley about why he hadn’t troubled to ascertain what his daughter was doing, to which he replied that he thought she was old enough to look after herself. This inquest returned a verdict of wilful murder and the jury also added that her father was deserving of censure for his ‘unmanly conduct towards his child’.

The 1891 census a year earlier shows her lodging at 16 Grosvenor Street, Walworth, with a carpenter named Thomas Lacy and his family. Her occupation is described as a ‘mantle maker’.   Her landlady at 81 Grosvenor Park described her as a dressmaker. While we may never know her true employment status, in Victorian England the euphemisms ‘seamstress’, ‘mantua maker’ and the like, were often used for women who were engaged in sex work. Despite the often-repeated trope that the Victorian era was one of extreme prudishness and respectability yet in reality, prostitution was rife. It is impossible to ascertain exactly how many women were engaged in sex work in Victorian London, but some contemporary commentators suggested it could be up to 80,000. However, this figure is now thought to have been over exaggerated. The harsh financial reality for women in the late 19th century was that sex work could often be the only option to keep them out of the workhouse, so it is little wonder that many so young women gravitated towards this out of necessity and as a means of survival.

Banbury had been born around 1870 in Camden Town. The Penny Illustrated Paper reported lurid details about his early life, noting that he had been an apprentice carpenter, but had been so vicious and unmanageable that his indentures were cancelled. Banbury was then sent to stay with family friends in Australia. Life ‘down under’ was just as chaotic and it is alleged that he was sentenced to eighteen months solitary confinement for assaulting and almost killing an old lady.  Once leaving prison, he gained lawful employment as a clerk in a tramway office but was soon embroiled in the embezzlement of a large sum of money. He had hidden out in the Australian bush for some time before returning to London in September 1891 to collect the inheritance his late father had left him.  By all accounts this was several hundred pounds and Banbury appeared to be gambling and living an extravagant lifestyle. A photograph of the couple shows the pair very smartly dressed in the latest fashion.

Miss Emma Oakley, and James Banbury taken from National Archive

The criminal trial was held on 23 September at the Old Bailey, where the evidence revealed the sad sequence of events.  Around 2pm on the afternoon of the murder, Banbury got into a hansom cab at Bridge Street, Westminster. Coincidentally, the cab driver, Henry Briggs from Camberwell, was his brother-in-law. He asked him first to drive to the Southampton restaurant on Chancery Lane where they both ‘took some refreshment’. When they had finished eating, Banbury asked him to drive to the Walworth Road, where Briggs said Banbury had a third glass of gin in the Grosvenor Arms. The cab driver was asked to wait for a couple of minutes as he wanted to be taken to Victoria Station.

81 Grosvenor Park today

Banbury had then gone to 81 Grosvenor Park and murdered Emma. Neighbour Emma Foster, recalled that while in the washhouse, she heard strange noises in the house and had gone to investigate. She recognised Banbury, as he had stayed there with Emma on several occasions over the last few weeks. She had spoken to him, but he made no reply and left.   Walking into the parlour, she noticed a strong smell of gunpowder and saw Emma, laying on the floor, partially dressed. She was still alive at this point and Dr John Parrot of 32 Camberwell Road was called for. However, by the time he arrived, Emma had died. Dr Parrot noted five bullet wounds. It was apparent that Emma had been shot in the back when she had opened the door to Banbury.

Around five minutes later, Banbury had walked back to where the cab was parked and now asked Briggs to drive him to Charing Cross Station.  When they got there, Banbury said “get down and have a drink, as I am going to leave you. I have shot a girl.”   Knowing he had a reputation for lying, Briggs just laughed at him. However, when they went into a pub in Villiers Street, Banbury told Briggs that his story was true and that “I loved her and made up my mind that no one else should have her.”  Later Banbury had told a friend that he had become jealous when he had seen her coming out of a public house with two men, wearing only a dressing gown. In a rage he had then gone off and bought himself a revolver.

The pair went back to the cab at Charing Cross when Banbury produced the gun with which he had killed his lover. Briggs snatched it off him and Banbury begged that he gave it back, even offering him £50 to do so.  They had fought briefly until their scuffle was broken up by a station porter. They then had got back into the cab but Banbury jumped out in Waterloo Place and vanished.   Knowing the unreliability of Banbury, Briggs still didn’t believe him and thought little more of it.  The next day he heard about the murder of Emma and took the gun to Carter Street police station, reporting Banbury’s strange confession the previous day.

Banbury was arrested shortly before midnight, at 6 Brewer Street, Pimlico. Two officers from the Metropolitan Police L division, then based at Carter Street, Detective-Sergeants William Leonard and William Brogden saw the suspect arrive at his rooms just before 11pm. Thinking he could be armed, they forced entry into his room and restrained him.  He was described as being dazed and had evidently been drinking.  At first he denied all knowledge of the shooting but had the foresight to tell the officers “I am not such a fool to incriminate myself. I am educated. You have your business to do and must do it.”

When all the evidence had been heard at the trial, the judge, Justice Collins, summed up and sent the jury off to consider the case. Two hours later, they returned to the court room with a guilty verdict but with a recommendation that mercy should be given on account of the accused’s young age. However, it was also at this time that the Foreman of the jury revealed that two jurors were deaf and had not heard all of the evidence, the other jurors having to relate this to them. Understandably, the judge was none too happy about this and had no other option but to dismiss the jury and hold a retrial a couple of days later.  Once the evidence had been heard for a second time, the jury returned another guilty verdict but this time with no appeal for clemency to be shown. Banbury was sentenced to death.

Though the perception is that the Victorians had a far more brutal attitude towards capital punishment, three petitions, containing nearly 2000 signatures, had been sent to the Home Secretary asking for a reprieve. His supporters argued that he was ‘unhinged’ at the time due to ‘intemperate habits’ and that the murder was not premeditated. The Home Secretary set up a special medical inquiry, panelled by doctors from Broadmoor Mental Asylum who concluded that Banbury was not insane and therefore the execution could go ahead.  It was said that, whilst thankful of his supporters’ efforts, Banbury had expressed little hope that his life would be spared. He was executed at Wandsworth Jail at 9am on the morning of Tuesday 11th October 1892.

On the day before, he had said emotional farewells to members of his family and friends. He had gone to bed around ten o’clock that evening, but had not slept well.  He had eaten little of the breakfast provided for him. The chaplain, a Reverend Pigot, had entered his cell around 8am and prayed with the condemned man. Banbury expressed remorse for what he had done and hoped for forgiveness.  The ‘passing bell’ which signified an imminent execution began to ring around a quarter to nine.  Dressed in a light grey suit and brown boots, he was led to the execution room next door to his cell, where he shook hands with prison officials, thanking them for the kindness they had shown him. His hands were bound, a hood placed over his head and a noose placed around his neck. The executioner, Billington, had calculated that a 6ft drop was needed and when the gallows lever was pulled, death was said to be instantaneous.

Following the post execution inquest, members of this jury were taken on a tour of the prison. Whilst in the cell in which Banbury had spent his last hours, they noticed that he had left a large piece of bread from his final breakfast.  The Singleton Argus, an Australian newspaper, reported that on seeing these macabre remnants, ‘there was a scramble among the jurors’ to grab them as a relic of the proceedings, with the bread being ‘speedily broken up and taken away by those who had managed to grab a piece’.  This was just another of the many twists in this very bizarre case.

Several times in the weeks leading up to the execution, Banbury had maintained that he had no recollection of the events when he killed Emma. It was evident that he had been drinking heavily on the day of the murder and had become jealous when he had seen the woman he loved with other men, but this cannot excuse his behaviour. Victorian London was an extremely violent place and unfortunately it was often the women and girls who bore the brunt of this violence.  It is revealing of Victorian attitudes that rather than just focusing on the dreadful death of a vulnerable young woman, the possibility that she may have been working as a prostitute was raised, as if this was a contributory factor in her murder.

Emma Oakley was the tragic victim of a brutal jealous lover but what we know about her life suggests that she was as much a victim of poverty and the conditions which many young women experienced in late Victorian London.

Banbury was buried in an unmarked grave within the grounds in Wandsworth Gaol, but sadly it is not known where Emma Oakley was laid to rest.


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