How telecoms helped police catch a murderer for the very first time - in 1845

The two telegraph instruments from Slough and Paddington were presented by their maker, Reid Brothers, to the Science Museum in London in 1876 where they are preserved.
John Tawell at his trial
Cooke and Wheatstone's two-needle telegraph as used on the Great Western Railway

The Criminal Quaker


Sometimes called, ‘The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable.’

 The telegraph was only eight years old when, in 1845, it played a crucial role in helping railway police arrest John Tawell for the murder of his former lover Sarah Hart. It was the first arrest ever made using technology.

 Technology has touched every part of society at some point, and police forces are just one of many institutions that have benefited from its riches.
Today we take the ease of calling 999 on our smartphones for granted, as well as the headsets used by first responders, the computers they use to log your location and details and the police radios needed to get someone on the scene quickly. The list goes on.
Back in 1845, however, things were a bit different. The Metropolitan Police didn’t even have cars yet, so technology wasn’t a consideration. At least, until January 1, 1845 that is, when police officers made the unprecedented decision to use a telegraph to send a message in pursuit of a suspected murderer.     Jamie Harris

The development of the electric telegraph

By 1845 the electric telegraph was established as a means of communication by the railways. The telegraph instruments in use were developments of the Cooke-Wheatstone five needle telegraphs first demonstrated in 1837

John Tawell

In  1838 John Tawell’s wife Mary became ill and he employed a young nurse, Sarah, to care for her. Mary died in the same year and Tawell began an affair with Sarah which resulted in the birth of two children.

Three years later Tawell met and married a Quaker widow, Mrs Cutforth. He moved Sarah into a cottage at Salt Hill near Slough and paid her a weekly allowance of £1 in child maintenance.

By 1843 Tawell was in financial trouble. He needed to reduce his outgoings and decided that the best way to do that was to murder Sarah.

The murder

On January 1, 1845, Tawell purchased two bottles of Steele’s Acid, containing the poison prussic acid. He caught the train to Slough and went to see Sarah.

During his visit, he managed to lace her beer with the poison. (Some people believed he used cyanide, while others argued that it was impossible since the surgeons who examined her body didn’t detect any signs or smell or cyanide)  A short time later her next door neighbour Mrs Ashley heard loud groans through the party wall. Once Tawell  had left the house she went to see if Sarah was alright. She was not. Writhing on the floor and frothing at the mouth were not good signs. Mrs Ashley quickly raised the alarm but Sarah died before the doctor could arrive.

Fortunately Reverend E. T. Champnes was among the first to respond to Mrs ashley’s cries and he dashed to Slough station with a description of Tawell. He was just in time to glimpse the suspect as he departed on a train to Paddington at 7.42pm. The reverend wasn’t able to stop him, but what Tawell didn’t know was that Slough was one of a limited number of train stations with telegraph equipment.

This meant that the station manager was able to send a message to Paddington, which read:

“A murder has just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker [sic] with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.”

Describing the suspect proved a challenge to the telegraph operator as the machine did not use a letter ‘Q’ and the phonetic ‘kwa’ was used instead.


The chase

At Paddington, the message was passed to the duty Sergeant, William Williams. He “put a plain coat over his police dress” and met the train as it entered the station.

Tawell alighted the train and caught the New Road omnibus, with Sgt Williams following closely behind.

Williams sat in the conductor’s seat of the bus and opon reaching Prince’s Street, Tawell handed the Sergeant his fare, mistakenly, believing him to be he conductor.

Williams calmly followed him to his lodging house in Scott’s Yard, before returning to Paddington. The following morning he and an Inspector Wiggins of the Metropolitan Police went in search of the murderer.

They found him at the Jerusalem Coffee House, and arrested him for the murder of Sarah. Tawell protested saying: “I wasn’t at Slough yesterday,” but Sergeant Williams replied: “Yes you were sir, you got out of the train and got onto an omnibus and gave me sixpence.”

On March 12, 1845, Tawell was found guilty and on Friday, March 28, 1845, just before 8am, a crowd of 5000 strong gathered in front of Aylesburys’ County Hall (now the Crown Court) to witness his execution


Londoners referred to the telegraph wires as ‘them cords that hung John Tawell’.

From that day, John Tawell became known as “The Man Hanged by the Electric Telegraph”.



Murder and the telegraph                          King’s Collections Sites

How telecoms helped police catch a murderer for the very first time – in 1845      Jamie Harris

 Murder of Sarah Hart by John Tawell       British Transport Police
The telegraph and the murderer               By Carol Baxter
John Tawell (1784-1845)                  

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