Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast #61 - The Senseless Killing of Charlie Chirgwin
Nominated BEST TRUE-CRIME PODCAST at British Podcast Awards 2018 and iTunes Top 50. Subscribe via iTunes, Spotify, Acast, Stitcher and all podcast platform.
Welcome to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, set within one square mile of the West End.
On Thursday 14th November 1872, the life of Charlie Chirgwin was ended; he was an innocent who wasn’t stabbed, beaten or shot; but his last few hours alive were decided by rules, red-tape and petty revenge, and yet Charlie would never know that, as he was only fourteen weeks old.
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations (and I don't want to be billed £300 for copyright infringement again), to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
For your enjoyment, here's a short video showing you where The Strand Union at 36 Cleveland Street is/was and the St Giles Workhouse on Short's Gardens. These videos are only one minute long and is a link to youtube, so it won't eat up your data.
I've also posted some photos to aid your "enjoyment" of the episode. These photos were taken by myself (copyright Murder Mile) or granted under Government License 3.0, where applicable.
Ep61 – The Senseless Killing of Charlie Chirgwin
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within London’s West End.
Today’s episode is about the cruel and senseless death of Charlie Chirgwin; an innocent who wasn’t stabbed, beaten or shot; but whose last hours alive were decided by rules, red-tape and petty revenge, and yet Charlie would never know that, as he was only fourteen weeks old.
Murder Mile is researched using the original police files. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details, and as a dramatisation of the real events, it may also feature loud and realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there.
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 61: The Senseless Killing of Charlie Chirgwin.
Today I’m standing in Short’s Garden’s, WC2; two streets east of the wife-beating baker Alexander Moir, one street south west of the mysterious murder of lonely spinster Daisy Wallis, and one street north of the unsolved murder of Russian Dora – coming soon to Murder Mile.
Situated between Shaftesbury Avenue and Long Acre, Short’s Gardens is an odd one-way street at the back of Covent Garden, mostly used as a cut-through by cabbies, brickies and Uber Eats (that pointless service for lazy feckless halfwits who are one step away from needing an app to wipe their own ass).
Surrounded by a queasy excess of funky barbers, crazy cafes, flip-flop boutiques and (possibly) a falafel museum, this side of Short’s Gardens staunchly refuses to evolve. It’s a tree-lined street lost in a 1970’s time-warp; with window boxes full of pampas-grass, pavements full of white dog-poo and a laundrette full old dears dreaming about the good old days of spam, rationing and syphilis. So if you think that prawn cocktail, vol-aux-vents and cheese cubes on sticks is the height of chic, this place is for you.
On the eastern corner of Short’s Gardens and Endell Street is Dudley Court; six-storey brown-bricked block of flats with a convenience store on the ground floor, a mix of council and private flats above and balconies above full of bike bits, carpet cut-offs and part-dried underpants. And like most awful architecture, it was clearly designed by a clumsy child who had a seizure whilst playing with Lego.
Now entirely demolished, on this site once stood the St Giles workhouse; a brutal unforgiving place, where the borough’s sickest, poorest and most destitute were sent to work, to live and often to die.
As it was here, on Thursday 14th November 1872, in the grounds of the workhouse, that the life and death of fourteen week old Charlie Chirgwin was decided by petty superintendent. (Interstitial)
Being just a baby, very little is known about Charlie…
...his mother’s name was Eliza, but it could have been Elizabeth; she was possibly from Penzance and was born sometime in or around 1847, making her twenty-four years old. But being one of London’s forgotten paupers living below the poverty-line, her life was deemed too unworthy to record, so eking out a hand-to-mouth existence and never knowing how she would feed her family from one day to the next, the only evidence we have of her pitiful little life is through the death of her baby boy.
For Eliza, life was tough.
As an only-child with both parents dead, her only family was a disabled aunt and a young cousin living in a cramped one-roomed lodging in Crown Street (Soho). Although illiterate, having worked since the age of five and trained as a waistcoat hand; with no regular income and no home of her own, her days were spent struggling to raise four-pennies to pay for a night’s lodging, shuttling between rugs on relative’s floors, shivering in icy-cold doorways and begging to be admitted to the workhouse.
So endemic was poverty in the 1800’s that each borough within walking distance of Soho had its own workhouse, including The Strand Union and St Giles. Funded by the local council and managed by the church; although they were built to feed, clothe and shelter those less fortunate, the workhouse was more like a pauper’s prison where the impoverished were punished simply for being poor.
As a last refuge for almost eight hundred people, each workhouse housed an unholy mix of the city’s desperate; including the disabled, the diseased and the dying; the pregnant, the pitiful and the putrid; the imbeciles, the vagrants and the inmates, whether young or old, male or female, senile or insane.
The only difference being which ward you entered and how (if at all) you left; as the Casuals ward took in anyone too poor to pay for a night’s lodgings, the Workhouse was deemed a debtor’s prison for those sentenced here by the court, and the Infirmary was for the ill, the infectious and the incurable.
In long dark halls, lines of pale expressionless faces sat in strict silence, forced to endure menial tasks like unpicking oakum – a thick twine hardened with black tar, so tough it made their fingers bleed, so hard it made their thumbs swell - for sixteen hours a day, and all to pay for their keep. In return, their meals were a watery slop, their beds were old and lumpy, and their care was inhuman. But for many, born and raised in the workhouse, this miserable little life was better than living on the streets.
Aged 19, Eliza gave birth to her first child Mary in the lice-infested filth of the St Giles workhouse. Aged 22, her second child William was born in the pitiful squalor of the St Pancras workhouse. Aged 23, Eliza married the children’s father (William Jerrard) and with the two having decided to start a new life in America, for once, Eliza had high hopes and big dreams…
…but with her passage denied, as her new husband boarded a ship bound for Chicago and waved her goodbye, Eliza was left behind clutching their few possessions, a seven year old girl, a four year old boy and a large swelling in her belly. A few months later, living in abject poverty, her third baby was born in the cold and rancid filth of the St Giles workhouse – a little boy, who she would call Charlie.
Charlie was a happy baby; a cheeky little bundle of joy who cuddled but cried very little. Although he was born a little undersized - being blessed with a loving mother (who only being slight herself) would sooner starve than see her children go without – Charlie was well-fed; his tiny little limbs and chubby little belly wrapped in a thick layer of baby fat to protect him from the harsh winter ahead, as being raised in a workhouse, the life expectancy for a child under five was less than one in twenty.
With no home, no money and no father, just three months into his short life, Charlie would be dead… but he wasn’t starved, poisoned or even beaten. No, the death of this quiet little boy would be even more senseless, even more tragic, and it was all because of a man called George Cannon.
But he wasn’t a maniac, a killer or a sadistic paedophile…
…33 year old George Cannon had no criminal record, and although he claimed to be a good Christian, he had an un-Christian attitude. Being short and portly, George was a haughty little jobsworth, who as assistant superintendent at the St Giles workhouse, he had just one job to do – to receive all voluntary admissions at the Casual’s ward - providing beds, warmth and food for mothers and babies.
The rules were simple; if a space was free and the person wasn’t rude or drunk, the bed was theirs.
Except feeling righteous with an ounce of responsibility, hopped up on his own self-importance and high on his own hint of power, George felt it was his divine right to decide who slept there, who ate there and who stayed warm and dry – as his one job made him feel like a God over the poor.
On 17th October 1872, Eliza arrived at the Casual’s ward of St Giles. One bed was free; but being tired, hungry and unsteady on her feet, George called the Police claiming she was drunk. With the Police unwilling to charge her as George’s claims were unfounded, with no other option, he gave her a bed…
…but on his terms. By the morning, Eliza would have to pick a full half-pound of oakum.
So instead of sleeping; being gripped with worry, and with two young children at her side and a two-month old at her breast, although her thumbs were badly blistered, she spent the night pulling apart coarse tarred rope, until weak with exhaustion, she nodded-off. With the oakum unfinished, George put a black-mark against her name and Eliza and her children were booted out of St Giles.
It may seem like a rather petty and even childish act, but this is where the senseless death of Eliza’s little boy began… and one month later, he would be dead. (Interstitial)
The eight years prior had been the wettest on record with the winter seeing a year’s rainfall in four months; the harvest was soggy, the economy was rough and disease was rampant. With the weather bad, business was bad, and with her fingers bruised and blistered, as the nights barely rose above freezing, although broke, Eliza’s hands shook so much she couldn’t sew a button on a single waistcoat.
That week, little Charlie had a cold. It wasn’t anything serious, just a sniffle and a cough which was on its way out, as his loving mother had swaddled him in long woollen clothes and snuggled him next to her warm heaving chest, as he suckled on her nourishing milk. The worst of the cold was over.
On the night of Wednesday 13th November, with her cousin away, Eliza slept in the modest comfort of her aunt’s one-roomed lodging on Crown Street in Soho. It wasn’t much, but it was warm and dry.
The next night, with her cousin back and unable to scrape together four pennies for a night’s lodging, Eliza and her children headed out to the nearest workhouse, known as The Strand Union.
Crown Street to Cleveland Street is half a mile, it should have taken no longer than twelve minutes, but with a fierce storm brewing, as Eliza battled to shield her babies from the stinging rain and bitter icy wind, protected from the cold but not the wet, their thick woollen clothes soon became sodden.
Having left just after a quarter passed six, Eliza arrived at 36 Cleveland Street at a quarter to seven.
With log fires blazing, tea brewing and a stew on the stove, the warmth of the Strand Union workhouse was welcoming, as the heat tingled their frozen limbs. Greeting them at the door, Mr Keller, the relieving officer of the Strand Union stated that as they stood there, dripping and shivering, with pools of water forming around their feet, “it was as if someone had dragged them out of the Thames”.
And although the family was desperate, the news was not good - the wards were closed.
With the casual ward shut and the workhouse locked down, even though the infirmary stayed open for the chronically ill, with none of them being sick, no beds were free.
Thankfully, rules had been set which stipulated that any casuals The Strand Union could not accept would be received by the St Giles workhouse, and - seeing Eliza and her babies as a priority - Mr Keller handed Eliza an order to confirm this. It read; “to the Master of the St. Giles's workhouse. Admit Eliza Chirgwin and three children, Mary, William and Charles. Signed G. Keller, assistant relieving officer".
With a signed order in her hand, a surplus of beds at St Giles’ and being stone-cold sober, Eliza would have no problem finding shelter that night, especially as George Cannon was very aware of the rules.
Having received his orders four weeks prior, he sent a letter to the Board of Guardians. It read; "I beg to inform you that I commenced last evening receiving casual paupers from the Strand workhouse. Trusting that you will kindly take into consideration the extra amount of duty which I now perform, and that a salary increase would be forthcoming. I remain your obedient servant, George Cannon".
His letter was sent on the 12th, but so far, he had not received a reply.
Cleveland Street to Short’s Gardens is just shy of one mile, it should have taken no longer than twenty-five minutes, but battling a brutal headwind, icy blasts of arctic show and their soaked woollen clothes beginning to freeze on their shivering skin, although they were forced to stop twice, hearing a familiar wheeze from Charlie’s chest, Eliza ploughed on, desperate to get them all warm, dry, fed and a bed.
With their legs like lead, their faces flushed red-raw and the children’s tears dangling like icicles, even though they had barely one hour to reach the workhouse before the heavy wooden gates were shut, through strength and determination, Eliza arrived at the Casual’s ward of St Giles at half passed seven.
The doorbell clanged.
The family waited.
The gate unlocked.
Stood before them, all short and portly; his beady little eyes like a blanket of fresh snow soiled by dog-shit, his lips pursed like an old toothless hag sucking a lemon and the hairs of his flared nostrils hanging like rows of unused nooses, illuminated by a single flickering candle… was George Cannon.
Although a good few inches shorter than Eliza, peering along the length of his upturned nose, through spectacles which precariously perched on his nose’s tip, he still managed to look down on her, as around his neck, a crucifix hung, as if Jesus himself would absolve him of his sins.
Glaring at the bedraggled shadows, George nasally snorted "you want a night's lodging?", as stood in the bitter icy rain, Eliza meekly stammered “yes”, her lips too cold to form anything more, as she handed him the order with a shivering hand. Snatching it, George slowly read all twenty-two words, a look of distain at this letter which superseded his own mighty authority. All the while, his corpulent wife stood behind him, shovelling fistfuls of food into her fat sweaty face.
Holding the order by his fewest fingers, George huffed “well… come in then”. And as the ward’s door opened, the warmth of the log-fire, the smell of a hot meal and a sense of relief swept over them, as for that night at least, Eliza and her family were safe.
Or they should have been.
To George Cannon, the name Eliza Chirgwin wasn’t synonymous with a struggling mum in dire need of his help, she was an obstinate insult on decent society who had flatly refused his demand to pick a half-pound of oakum, and with a black-mark against her name, this haughty little jobsworth had one simple rule to abide by; if a space was free and the person wasn’t rude or drunk, the bed was theirs.
Eliza hadn’t drank. Eliza didn’t swear. Eliza wasn’t rude.
As Eliza entered the gate; with her icy hands shaking and her rigid lips too cold to properly say “thank you”, being too weak to stand, Eliza stumbled a little – a single misstep over the base of the gate.
George barked “Oh! You are drunk again, are you?", Eliza pleaded "No, I am not", but her pleas fell on deaf ears as George decreed “stand here you drunken beast” and sent for the Police. Behind him, his vulgar wife screamed "that's right, lock her up", spitting food from her frothing bloated mouth.
And as Eliza stood there, too meek to argue back, too weak to stand her ground, as her broken little family stood there crying, shivering in sodden frozen clothes, Charlie’s little lungs began to rasp.
At 8pm, PC Samuel Kemp was summoned to the St Giles’ workhouse to arrest an abusive drunk.
With no drunk in sight and the only obscenities spat by the seething superintendent and his abusive spouse, as Eliza cradled her weeping babies, a baffled PC Kemp asked "Mr Cannon, you are surely not going to charge this woman with being drunk?", George rebuked “I shall do so". Drenched himself, PC Kemp said "but you are surely not going to send those children out on a night like this?", to which George barked "I surely shall, and you will take them to the station". But PC Kemp flatly refused.
Bristling with rage at the Constable’s impertinence, George spat “Fine, for failing to take charge, I shall report you”. PC Kemp was a married man with two children of his own, and unwilling to risk his career over something so trivial, he begrudgingly trudged the frozen family another quarter mile to Bow Street Police Station. George Cannon in tow, rubbing his hands with glee at his petty victory.
And yet again, the tiny lungs of little Charlie wheezed.
With Bow Street being a Police Court, as was the rules, Eliza stood in the dock, accused of the charge of being ‘drunk and abusive’; two screaming children about her feet, a suckling baby at her breast.
Seeing the charge as unfounded, with PC Kemp on her side and Inspector Usher stating of Eliza “I never saw a more humble or harmless woman", as George vociferously argued about why this woman must be charged, the Police took pity of the family, their fate at the mercy of this petty little man.
And as the nasty little legs of George Cannon sped back to St Giles, throwing aside his papers and files to seek out a minor clause in an Act of Parliament which decreed, by law, that they charge her for the little known crime of “acquiring lodgings using a false name” - the name in question being Jerrard, her married name – as Inspector William Usher fought Eliza’s case, his Sergeant fed the family with hot tea and toast, as they sat by the fire, Mary and William asleep, Charlie’s chest now rattling.
At 9pm, Inspector Usher had the family examined by Dr Mills, the Police Surgeon. Although cold and malnourished; Eliza, Mary and William were well, but Charlie was not. Being swathed in soaking wet wool and exposed to bitter winter winds for the last three hours; with his pale skin trembling, his tiny limbs icy cold and the whistling of his little chest being a dire indication of bronchitis, Dr Mills wrote an order admitting Eliza and her children to the nearest workhouse, outranking George Cannon.
Accompanied by Constable Scutt and clutching a doctor’s order, Eliza and her babies were forced to slog another quarter of a mile, through a torrent of freezing rain, from Bow Street Police Station, until they returned back at the Casual’s ward of the St Giles’ workhouse.
Once again, the doorbell clanged.
Once again, the family waited.
Once again, the gate unlocked.
As stood before them, all short and portly; his arms folded like a locked gate, his nostril flared like a furious bull and his little beady eyes like full-stops, George Cannon barked “she’s not coming in here, she’s drunk”, as at his side (having lied to him) was the assistant surgeon of the workhouse.
Being only a Constable, incredulously PC Scutt asked "you will not take her in?", but the answer was clear as George sneered “no”. With the nearest workhouse being the Strand Union (whose wards were shut), George snorted “take her away then”, as once again, he turfed the wet, cold and shivering family out into the darkness. And with another one mile slog ahead, before he slammed the gate shut on them forever, George retorted "make her walk, she’s more than able to”.
With Charlie weak and pale, as a matter of urgency, PC Scutt hailed a horse-drawn carriage, and with the family huddled under a dry blanket, their shivering faces shielded by a canopy, they rode back to The Strand Union at 36 Cleveland Street, where their journey had begun.
Seeing Charlie’s pitiful state, Mr Keller, the relieving officer of the Strand Union took them straight to the infirmary. Eliza, Mary & William were given dry clothes, hot tea and warm beds, and as her rasping baby was attended-to by the nurses, broken with exhaustion Eliza wept “bless you, God bless you all”.
Given just the basics that any human requires - food, warmth and medicine – the little boy soldiered on for three more days, but with his lungs too weak and unable to feed, on Sunday 17th November 1872, fourteen week old Charlie Chirgwin died. (End)
Examined by John Angus, medical officer of the Strand Union; he stated, although an undersized baby, his body was plump, his organs were healthy and with his slight cold almost cleared, being exposed to a bitter winter wind, in wet clothes, for four hours, Charlie had succumbed to bronchial pneumonia.
George Cannon was tried on 16th December 1872 at the Old Bailey, under the charge of manslaughter, which he denied and pleaded not guilty.
With emotions running high, Mr Justice Quain asked the jury “not to allow feelings of humanity to run away with your judgment and make the prisoner the victim of a system, as the real offenders are those who had authorised to send paupers from one union to another, no matter what the weather”.
After a short deliberation, being certain that that it was his selfish and petty actions which exacerbated the baby’s death, George Cannon was found guilty of manslaughter. And although the judge was eager that this act should be a warning to others, he sentenced him to prison… for just twelve months.
Eliza’s baby had lived for less than three. Charlie Chirgwin was a healthy little boy, and although raised in abject poverty, being blessed with a loving parent, against the odds, he may have survived. But the death of Charlie Chirgwin was cruel and senseless; he was an innocent whose last hours alive were decided by rules, red-tape and the petty revenge on a mother who only wanted a bed for her babies.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
Don’t forget murky milers, stay tuned for extra goodies after the break, but before that, here’s my recommended podcasts of the week; which are Moms & Murder and Murderific. (PROMO)
A huge thank you goes out to my new Patreon supporters, who are Graham Sillars, Stella Singer, Tina Korteland, Barbara Johnson and Suzanne Fox, with a thank you to old Patrons and retuning patrons, who are enjoying the new goodies, such as location videos, crime scene photos (exclusive to Patreon), a weekly ebook of the unedited Murder Mile script, and a handwritten thank-you card from me with Murder Mile badges, stickers and an official “murky miler” badge. Ooh.
A big thank you this week to Molly, Aaron and the gang from the University of Idaho, who booked a private Murder Mile Walk. It was lovely to meet you all and thank you for being amazing.
Next week’s episode is a two-parter, and you will receive both parts that day, so don’t delete one of them thinking it’s a mistake. It’s a very different episode to what you’re used to, so get ready.
Murder Mile was researched, written & performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
Credits: The Murder Mile true-crime podcast was researched, written and recorded by Michael J Buchanan-Dunne, with the sounds recorded on location (where possible), and the music written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Additional music was written and performed as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0.
The music featured in this episode include:
Additional sounds featured include:
Horror Gate - https://freesound.org/people/Tomlija/sounds/109710/
Metal Keys - https://freesound.org/people/lux244/sounds/200269/
Doorbell - https://freesound.org/search/?q=pull+doorbell&f=&s=score+desc&advanced=0&g=1
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER ***
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, therefore mistakes will be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken. It is not a full representation of the case, the people or the investigation in its entirety, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity and drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, therefore it will contain a certain level of bias to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER ***
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tor of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British podcast Awards 2018", and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk
Heartbreaking stuff, rest in peace Charlie
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Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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