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On Sunday 29th May 1887, in the first-floor flat of 29 Great Windmill Street in Soho, twenty-year-old Amelie Pottle had a "little accident" with an oil-lamp which would lead to her slow and painful death. But was it a mishap, or a murder?
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations, to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
The location of 29 Great Windmill Street, W1, is where the black triangle is - the one in the middle of Soho. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, such as West London, King's Cross, etc, access them by clicking here.
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.
Credits: The Murder Mile UK 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.
SOURCES: Sadly, there was no police file in the National Archives, so I used the original transcripts of the court case at the Old Bailey, the Coronor's Court file, local knowledge and several other sources, which also included:
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
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 and beyond the West End.
Today’s episode is about an accident with an oil-lamp, an everyday mishap which was so common in Victorian London, that it was listed as one of the highest causes of unintentional death in the home. The deceased even admitted that it was all her fault. So where was the murder?
Murder Mile is researched using authentic sources. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details. And as a dramatization 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 99: The “Accidental Death” of Amelia Pottle.
Today I’m standing on Great Windmill Street in Soho, W1; two streets south-west of the bludgeoned sex-worker Jacqueline Birri, one street west of the stabbed hostess Camille Gordon, one street south of the sweet-natured ‘Ginger Rae’, five houses north from The Unfortunate Mr Johnson, and two streets west of the tragic death of eleven-month-old Richard Higgs – coming soon to Murder Mile.
Situated just off Piccadilly Circus, Great Windmill Street is a gloomy one-way road used by taxi-drivers as a sneaky cut-through to whizz from Shaftesbury Avenue to Oxford Street without being asphyxiated by the rush-hour smog. Back in the 17th century when Soho was a hunting ground, this small hillock known as Windmill Field was named after a wooden windmill which stood at its top end. But like many parts of a bustling city like London, over the decades, as the people change, so do the places.
Back in the 1980’s, at the peak of Soho’s sleaziness, as a seedy side-street still living off the reputation of the defunct Windmill Theatre - where mucky-macked men watched tastefully posed nudie ladies in a ‘tableaux vivants’ with both eyes jutting out of their heads and one eye peeping out of their pants -Great Windmill Street was smut from top-to-bottom, as each business was listed like this; pub, porn palace, sex club, pub, sex club, sex club, brothel, porn palace, sex club, brothel, brothel, brothel, primary school, brothel, pub, pub, theatre, brothel, brothel, pub. And yes, I said primary school.
Today, being barely three hundred feet long, although recently gentrified, it still packs in a lot for such a little street; being full of swanky cocktail bars, traditional boozers, slightly pretentious clothes shops for hipsters who love to show-off that they have no genitals, and only one lap-dancing club where a slew of very heterosexual lads pay for the privilege of getting a boner whilst sat next to their buddies.
Near the top sits 29 Great Windmill Street; a three-storey flat-fronted brown-bricked terraced house built in the mid 1700’s; it’s simple, basic and forgettable. Just as it was in the 1880’s, today it has a shop on the ground-floor and accommodation above, and although these flats are much sought-after today, they were once lodgings for Soho’s most impoverished in a place of poverty, sadness and death.
As it was here, on Sunday 29th May 1887, that twenty-year-old Amelie Pottle had a little accident with an oil-lamp which lead to her slow painful death. And yet, it wasn’t a mishap but a murder. (Interstitial)
The life of Amelia Pottle was short, tragic and unremarkable.
She was a nobody, a nothing, just one of thousands of working-class immigrant girls living in Soho whose pitiful little life took place in an anonymous slum more than one hundred and thirty years ago; she was raised in poverty, died in pain, dumped in a pauper’s grave and she was forgotten.
The only reason we know about her life is because of her death, and the only reason we know about her death is because her injuries made it newsworthy, as the pain she endured became a grisly hook for an insatiable media with a few columns to fill… and nothing more. You may ask “why should I care? I didn’t know her and I’ve got nothing in common with her”, but you do. Amelia’s story is a poignant tale as resonant today as it was the day she died, but it’s not about death. It’s a very everyday story about love, trust, abuse and how far someone is willing to go to protect the person they love.
Amelia Pottle was born in 1867, although the day and month we don’t know, as on different records she was listed as Amelie, Emily and even Eliza, although it could also have been her middle name, as being so common, there were six Amelia Pottle’s in and around the West End during that era.
The likelihood is it wasn’t her real name, as with the parish records inaccurate, her birth details missing, her death certificate wrong and having arrived and died before the 1881 and 1891 census, as she had only lived in London for a few years, according to locals, she wasn’t English but French.
As many immigrants did, it’s likely that she anglicised her birth name to blend-in, so although Emily or Amelie could have been correct, as an English name, Pottle may have been a misspelling of the French names Poulin, Poitile, or perhaps as a nod to her hometown of Poitier? But that we shall never know.
Knowing almost nothing about her life prior to her seventeenth birthday, we don’t know why she left France, why she came to England, where her family were, or who (if anyone) she was running from. But with no loved-one’s to visit her in hospital, to attend her trial, or to lay flowers on her grave, with her meagre belongings claimed by her uncaring boyfriend, we can only assume that she was alone. In truth, as an immigrant girl, no-one cared when she was alive, and three years later, she would die.
By 1887, aged just twenty, Amelia Pottle had become a shadow of the girl she once was. It is said, with dreams of being a dancer, she was lured to the West End and its burgeoning theatreland. Set at the back of Shaftesbury Avenue, twelve years before the Windmill Theatre was built as a picture-house for the latest films by Mutoscope & Biograph, Great Windmill Street was encircled by the Trocadero Music Hall, Dr Hunter's Anatomical Theatre, the First London Pavilion Music Hall and the stage doors of The Lyric theatre. But as close as she may have got to her dream, her life would become a nightmare.
Although a mystery, her physical description tells us everything we need to know about Amelia.
According to locals, she was an ordinary girl of an average height and weight, who walked with a slight limp in her left leg, which flared up during the cold winter months, but whether it was caused by illness or injury is unknown. Her hair was brown and tangled, her eyes were blue and bloodshot, her pale skin was a sickly pale yellow with mottled purple bruises, and – although her stick-thin arms and legs were as skinny and brittle as autumn twigs - with a large scar across her belly and a plumpness about her midriff, this told the sorry but all-too-familiar tale of a woman whose absent children had either been placed in a workhouse, far from their unfit mother, or that none of them had survived.
She spoke French with a French accent, her German was good and her English was passable, but being unable to read or write, she hadn’t the skills or the education to pull herself out of poverty.
As many women did, with blistered fingers, Amelia took on piece-work, working long hours for short pay, stitching decorative accessories for the garments she could never afford to wear, to be used by the tailors on Berwick and Wardour Street, and sold in the fashion stores on the nearby Oxford Street.
Life was hard. Some days she ate and some days she didn’t, but forced to make that choice whether to live or die, what she could earn in a day by sewing, she could make more in an hour by selling sex.
For at least the last two years of her life, Amelia Pottle had been a sex-worker, a ‘street walker’ as she was known, who sold her body for pennies in the local haunts of Regent Street and Leicester Square, and brought her many punters back to her squalid little lodging, limping passed the endless lines of adoring fans outside of the packed theatres where her dreams were now nothing but a faded memory.
She sold sex to eat, she ate to live and - to forget her life - she drank, which she paid for with sex. It was a vicious circle of which she would never escape, but with some level of sex-work undertaken by at least one third of woman in that era, she was lonely, but she was not alone. With a pitiable story, like so many women, the misery of her life was not uncommon; she would be born, she would work, and she would die. Joy would be fleeting; dreams would be only dreams and hope was a lost cause.
The best thing in her life was that she loved to be loved and wished one day to be married, but with only a string of short-term lovers, in August 1886, during one of her boozy sessions in a local pub, she met the man she would love, loathe and would defend with her very last breath. (Interstitial)
Franz Schultz was a nobody, but unlike Amelia, he was once a somebody… or so it seemed.
Although a mystery, his physical description tells us everything we need to know about Franz Schultz. According to locals, the thirty-two-year-old German arrived from Bremen half a decade earlier, having settled somewhere in the East End with a woman and several children, only now he was alone.
Fuelled by an intense pride; his voice was gruff and Prussian, his pals were all Germanic, he never anglicised his name (although he was also known as Josef) and as a fervently political man, it is said he was once a teacher, but whatever he taught, it was no longer of practical use. He was too stubborn to give up, too angry to go home and too useless for manual labour, so with nothing but his education, he earned a pittance as an interpreter… only his command of the English language was pitiful.
Being tall, broad, bearded and bespectacled, looking like an academic, he wasn’t a powerful man, but he could be loud, frightening and imposing. A passionate bookworm with a fiery temper, a selfish streak and uncontrollable emotions which swung from happiness to anger to tears in an instant.
Maybe once he was something, but now, he was nothing; a failure, a leach and a drunk from dusk-till-dawn; with a slurred rhetoric, a threadbare suit and a foul mood clouded by booze, who stumbled from pub-to-pub all along Great Windmill Street - angry at a system which had failed him - from the Stone public house at number 50, to the Catherine Wheel at 45, from the Duke of Argyll at the top, all the way down to the Red Lion pub, where forty years earlier, the great Karl Marx had outlined the Communist Manifesto, just five doors down from where he would live at 29 Great Windmill Street.
Amelia Pottle and Franz Schultz were two failures bound together by desperation; she was a hopeless dreamer in search of a happy life and her forever lover, where-as he was a homeless drunk. Amelia was trapped in a bad relationship, in a bad place, with a bad man, but she always had hope.
In October 1886, after a week together, Amelia & Franz moved into a small shabby lodging at 29 Great Windmill Street; with a communal yard out back, a water-tank in the cellar, a cess-pit shared by the four streets and on the first floor, a cramped sparsely-furnished room with a stove for heating, water by the bucket, a coarse horsehair bed for sleeping (and sex-work), and the only light was by oil-lamp.
Amelia worked hard to provide them both with a home, food, furniture and drink. And where-as she only drank to steady her nerves, to drown her sorrows and to get herself through another rotten day, he drank himself into oblivion. She provided everything for their lives and (she hoped) their future, she presumptively called herself Mrs Schultz. And where-as he provided nothing, but a big mouth, an angry face and – as a supposedly principled man - an intense jealousy anytime he saw her with another man. In his eyes, she was a whore and he hated it, but he didn’t have a problem living of her earnings.
Over the next few months, as much as Amelia tried to make peace, pick up the pieces and stitch back together the ragged fragments of their disintegrating romance, Franz would never back down. Their love was gone, their fights were bitter, and of the few personal possessions of hers he hadn’t smashed in a drunken rage, what pieces she had left, he would pawn-off to buy himself some more booze.
Their first-floor room so often echoed to the sounds of screams, squeals and smashes, that the other tenants often ignored it, as although Amelia gave as good as she got, she often came off worse.
Her sickly pale skin was now a kaleidoscope of abuse; her blue and bloodshot eyes were lost behind two puffy black lumps, the fresh red welts on her back blended-in with the day-old purple sprains and the week-old yellow sores, and - with her stick-thin arms weak, her belly sore from being kicked, the mottled bruises down the length of her limping left leg made her more likely to stumble and trip, and with her fists swollen and her fingers fractured - she was now more prone than ever to “mishaps”.
The days when he felt enough pity to stop the beating had passed. What held his anger back was that she was his meal-ticket, and he knew was that the more he beat her, the worse she looked and the less she earned. So, if he kept on thumping her, he knew nobody would pay to fuck that.
After every brutal and sustained fight, with her body too woozy to feel the pain and her face so swollen it absorbed the punches, having fled to the safety of the communal yard, under the windows of several prying eyes, to keep the peace, it was always Amelia who apologised, blamed herself and when asked what had happened, she always lied to protect the man that she would love with her dying breath.
Sunday 29th May 1887 was an ordinary day. For the wealthy, they rested. For the devout, they prayed. And with three breweries perched at the top of the street, for many locals, it was an excuse to booze. But for Amelia? She worked. The cupboards were bare, the rent was due and she was struggling.
Burdened by a multicoloured mess of blotchy lumps, her battered face could no longer command the twelve shillings it once could, and – even in the dark and at a discount – it would fail to raise any punter’s passion, so Amelia had returned to piece-work while her bruises healed. Hours were long, pay was short and her work-rate was slow, as stitching was impossible with her fingers so swollen.
Luckily, Amelia still had a regular customer who (no matter what) would visit her lodging every Sunday. He was never named in the court records, perhaps because of his status, all we know is he was young, decent and polite. He was a little lonely but he treated her well. And as an admirer of hers, he often treated her to something special, whether a wild flower, a love poem, or (as a rarity amongst the poor) a fresh tomato from the Berwick Street market, or sometimes a citrus fruit. Each fleeting visit was brief, but afterwards, buried in the midst of her mangled face, she could be seen to crack a smile.
At 5pm, on the coarse horse-hair bed in her first-floor lodging at 29 Great Windmill Street, Amelia and her admirer were engaged in sex. On a bedside table, by a glass oil-lamp, lay ten shillings as payment. It’s unknown whether she charged him less because of the way she looked, or because she liked him, but (for that brief moment) he was a little ray of joy in her miserable little life…
…a life ruined by Franz.
While Amelia had been working, Franz had been boozing, and having been booted out of several pubs for spouting his angry political rhetoric, now he was drunk, broke and in need of more money.
Staggering down Great Windmill Street, stumbling into number 29 and banging his way up the wooden stairs, on the first-floor landing, he stood silent and seething, as inside he heard Amelia making money.
(Squeaking bed/sex) He knew what she did, how she did it and how much she charged, as not only did he contribute nothing to their food or rent, but to him; every pump was a pint, every suck was a shot and every fornication was a flagon. So, no-one really knows why it angered him so much this time.
Having heard the squeals, screams and smashes, Theresa Marshall, a matronly Prussian woman had thundered down from the floor above. Seeing the door hanging off its hinges, the young man hurled out and the couple bitterly cursing one another, being furious - not only at Amelia’s infidelity having shagged another man, but being even angrier at how little she had charged him - before Franz could belt Amelia with the hard back of her broken wooden chair, Theresa had stopped him.
Disarmed and alarmed by this strong-willed woman, who tossed aside the chair-back, Theresa ordered Franz to shut-up, calm down and to go to bed. And for the rest of the evening, he was silent. (Silence)
A few hours later, from her death-bed and through the pain of her last gasping breath, Amelia Pottle who presumptively called herself ‘Mrs Schultz’ would insist that what happened next was an accident caused by her sore fingers, a fumbled oil lamp and that it was all her fault. But we know that it wasn’t.
At roughly 1:30am the next morning, 29 Great Windmill Street was once again awoken by an almighty fight with furniture breaking, a single oil-lamp flickering the angry shadows as Amelia was beaten black and blue, and over it all, the gruff Germanic bark of obscenities like “dirty beast” and “you are whore”.
With the tenants so used to her screams, many simply curled-up and waited for the inevitable to blow over, as a tearful Amelia would flee to the safety of the communal back yard, and under the scrutiny of the neighbour’s windows, she would apologise, he would calm down and silence would return.
Only this time, it didn’t.
Dressed in nothing but a red flannel nightdress, a stark shade which mirrored the blood which seeped from her busted nose, as Amelia’s bare feet hammered down the wooden stairs, screaming the whole house down with the words “Murder!” and “Police!”, behind her followed a furious Franz, his enraged face illuminated by the single oil-lamp and - in the dark of the unlit passageway, a few steps before the sanctuary of the back yard - neighbours heard the smashing of glass and a never-ending scream.
The night was dark and the lamp was broken, but somehow the whole back yard was bathed in a bright orange glow, as if the sun had mistimed a new dawn. Struggling to adjust to this blinding light, the tenants heard no song-birds, only the screams of a young girl being burned alive, as with only the flailing of her terrified arms and legs to be seen, Amelia was enveloped by an intense ball of fire.
Sunk to his knees and sat beside her, every time that Franz tried to extinguish the inferno, the panicked flapping of his hands just fanned the flames, as when he touched her, her hair sizzled-up into tufts of black ash and her nightdress fizzled as it melted into her bare skin, which came off in thick red clumps.
Dampening her slightly down, as Franz scooped-up Amelia in his arms, the disintegrating remnants of her clothes, hair and skin littering the floor, as he carried her down into the cellar to dowse in water her scorched body, she was heard to whimper “take me to the hospital; I will say that I did it myself".
Hand-cranking an old water-pump, filling a bucket and hearing it hiss as the cold liquid hit the burning skin of the blackened and charred woman, again she pleaded “Please. I am dying. Take me to the hospital. I will say I did it”. But instead, he dithered, filling a second bucket, pump-after-pump.
Moments later, as a stranger had shouted “Police!”, hearing the distant sound of a police whistle and the murmur as crowds congregated outside, Franz changed his mind. And with her nightdress burned off, as well as much of her skin, having wrapped Amelia’s smoking and smouldering body in a blanket, he carried her out into the street, hailed a horse-drawn cab and took her to the hospital.
After an interminably long thirty-minute journey, from Soho to Fitzrovia, over a series of cobbled and bumpy roads, Amelia finally arrived at Middlesex Hospital. Collapsed and barely conscious, a porter carried this unsightly steaming lump inside; her hair was gone, her features unrecognisable and – from her face to her feet - her purple and yellow bruises had all been replaced by a red and black mottling.
Seen by the house surgeon (Dr Hedley Bartlett) her condition was described as “dangerous” and it was feared that she may not survive the night, but even before she was led in, Franz’s excuses had begun.
To anyone who would listen – from the cab-driver, to the porter, to the surgeon and to the neighbours – he would forcibly argue his side of the story, angrily insisting against all evidence that “she did this”, “she threw a lamp at me”, “we burn, we both burn”, and although he only returned to the hospital once - to see if she was dead - it was clear that he didn’t care about her, he only cared about himself.
At 3:40pm, that day, Inspector Edmund Burke arrested Franz Schultz for the violent assault of Amelia Pottle, to which he said almost nothing except “very well… is she dead?”. At 9pm, barely alive, used her last breath to make a statement to the Police. But by 10pm, having suffered more than 50% burns to her head, face, limbs and most of her torso, Amelia died of her injuries. (End)
The Police investigation was simple, as although Franz would try to bribe several onlookers to change their story by gifting them some of his dead girlfriend’s personal affects, and with his sole defence being that she had accidentally tipped the oil-lamp over herself whilst in bed, all of the witnesses and all of the evidence – from the screams to the scorch marks, from the broken lamp to the paraffin residue, not a single thread of which was found in the bedroom – would find his guilt irrefutable.
At the Coroner’s inquest held at the Marlborough Street Police Court on the 3rd June 1887, instead of trying him for the lesser charge of violent assault, the jury returned a guilty verdict for manslaughter, and the case was committed to a criminal trial, with the possibility of a death sentence looming.
Held at the Old Bailey on the 27th June 1887, just four weeks after her death, thirty-two-year-old Franz Schultz was tried for the wilful murder of twenty-year-old Amelia Pottle.
His defence was farcical, the evidence was damning and with single every eye-witness recounting the incident, the many times he had mercilessly beat her, and assassinating his character by describing him as “a drunk”, “a bully” and “a pimp”, a unanimous jury should have found him guilty of murder and watched as his pathetic little body dangled from a rope, with his neck snapped. But they didn’t.
One witness would change everything, and she wasn’t in court that day, or even alive. To the Police Inspector and the hospital surgeon, keeping a promise from her death-bed, Amelia had made a statement that it was all “an accident”, that it was “her fault” and with that, Franz Schultz (the man who she loved and one day hoped to marry) was found innocent of her murder. Upon his release, he pawned off her personal belongings for booze, and that was the last time he was ever seen.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
After the break, I shall tell you all the secrets of life, that’s if the secrets of life all involve tea, cake, coots and lots of waffling. Before that, a big thank you to my new Patreon supporters who are Len Adams, Roisin McGettigan and Matt Munnery. I thank you all. With an extra thank you to Sharon Brereton for the very kind donation. I know that now and the days ahead are hard for everyone, so I really do appreciate all of your support for this small independent podcast, whether as a Patron, by sharing the podcast with your pals, or by giving it a nice review on your favourite podcatcher.
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.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour 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", one of The Telegraph's top five true-crime podcasts and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
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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