The Ingrid Pitt Column: a grisly murder and pork dripping

In this week's column, Ingrid discovers that tales of gruesome murders of the past may be just around the corner...

When I was writing Murder, Torture and Depravity a few years ago, I thought I had wallowed in some of the most gruesome murders of the last two thousand years or or so. Then I was talking to the bloke who bought one of the two books that were sold (my mother bought the other), and he asked me why I hadn’t included the grisly deed done practically on my own doorstep. No problem with a reason. I just hadn’t heard about it. That in spite of the fact that from my bedroom window I can see exactly where the dirty deed was done.

It was 1897 and the world was recoiling from the repellent story of the undead Transylvanian aristocrat penned by Dubliner, Bram Stoker. But in a quiet little road in darkest Richmond upon Thames an equally repulsive story was unfolding.

Mrs Julia Thomas, recently widowed, was looking for a maid. She didn’t have a lot of money so was grateful when a woman turned up and was willing to work for peanuts. Kate Webster’s references were excellent (she had written them the night before) and Mrs Thomas grabbed her. What Kate hadn’t mentioned in her references was the fact that she had only just been released from prison.

The relationship didn’t work from the start. Neighbours later admitted that they had heard raised voices in the Thomas household practically from the day the new maid had arrived. Then there was silence. The grim reason for the apparent cessation of hostilities was to be revealed over the next week or so.

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Mrs Thomas unfortunately choose to upbraid the maid on some dereliction of housemaidenly duties when the fractious maid happened to have a meat cleaver in her hand. One swipe was enough to lop of the top of Mrs Thomas’s head. Fortuitously it happened to be Monday – washing day. In the outhouse the copper was already bubbling away so Kate used the chopper to good effect, dismembering her late mistress’s body. Talking amongst themselves the nosey neighbours did remark on the fact that Mrs Thomas did seem to be doing a lot of cooking. Kate supplied the reason. Mrs Thomas had gone to visit her son for a few days and she, Kate, was left with the task of cooking up a pig’s carcass and preserving it. A neat story which covered both the disappearance of her mistress and the constant smell of cooking.

When the body had been rendered down to a thick slurry, Kate creamed off the fat that had collected at the top of the copper, put it in a basin and nipped next door to the Hole In the Wall public house and sold it to the landlady, Mrs Heyhoe, as ‘Pork Dripping’. Bread and dripping sandwiches were very popular for the next week or so. Meanwhile the fragrant Kate was busily disposing of the harvest of bones collected in the copper.

These she spread liberally around the adjacent countryside and in the waters of the River Thames. All she had left was the head. She had to go to Hammersmith to meet a Mr Church, proprietor of the Rising Sun Pub, who was going to buy the house furniture. She took the head in her basket and dropped it into the river from Hammersmith Bridge. The following Monday, Church turned up with a wagon to clear the Thomas house. It was to be the murderous maid’s undoing. What she hadn’t realised was that the house was rented – furnished! And the owner Miss Beryl Ives, lived next door. She wasn’t at all pleased to see her furniture being loaded onto a horse and cart. The confrontation was so unexpected that Kate didn’t know what to say – so she did a runner.

Her original plan, with the money from the sale of the furniture, was to buy a ticket for America and disappear for good. Without the loot the best she could manage was a boat to her home town in Ireland. But a police investigation turned up the address in her home town and she was arrested. Kate Webster stood trial at the Old Bailey in July and was hanged a month later.

I walk passed the Hole in the Wall every day and I always get the nauseating picture in my head of the happy customers tucking into chunks of new bread covered in ‘pork dripping’ – and enjoying it.

Sandwich anyone?

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Catch up with Ingrid’s last column here. And she’ll be back next Tuesday with more!