Cardiff 1895

PC James Price is 33 years of age. He has seen it all and done it all. He has experienced the horrors of the Dead House and the terrors of the back streets but was soon to make a sensational arrest like no other before. It showed him, and all involved in this incident, that when making an arrest nothing is what it seems.

Love Lane was a tightly packed row of terraced houses to the north of Bute Terrace. It was an old street dating from 1835. It was often described in contemporary journals as ‘a wretched street’.

PC Price was teamed with PC Latham on this day to patrol the back streets of Bute Terrace to keep law and order. They would have to check the pubs for drunkenness, check the streets for disorder, and note the movements of criminals and prostitutes. They were armed with a standard stick truncheon and the most important part of their personal equipment, a whistle. Walking those streets, whether in the day or the dark shadowy nights, the whistle was a lifeline. No telephones, no vehicles, no immediate help. They were on their own.

At about 7:45 pm the officers were told by a runner of a domestic dispute occurring in Love Lane. In fact, they could hear something going on and when they entered the lane they saw people gathered outside number 12. The house had previously been occupied by the Collins family; a labouring widow and her offspring, but she was forced to move out. In their place was Mrs Ellen McCarthy (around sixty years of age) and several sons, two of whom who were engaged in a monumental fight outside the premises. The officers managed to separate Patrick and Dennis McCarthy and spent some time calming them down. The men were not easy to subdue. Hardened by their lifestyles and occupations, they would have been challenging adversaries for the constables if they had turned their attention on them. Luckily for PCs Price and Latham they did not.

Michael McCarthy was present but did not get involved, he had only returned from sea the day before from his employ as a fireman.

Patrick McCarthy had been in the British Army but was now labouring. He was described as muscular and a hard man.

Also involved in the dispute was the mother, Ellen McCarthy. She had been trying to separate them and stop the fighting but she withdrew to a safe place when the officers turned up, but not too far away. She was agitated.

Dennis and Michael were hardworking and gave a portion of their earnings to their mother to run the household. Patrick did not and the others did not like it.

The officers entered the little house and into a tiny room where, to use the old saying ‘there was no room to swing a cat’ would be highly justifiable. (This saying alluded to a ‘cat o’ nine tails’ (slang for a whip) in a punishment routine). It was November and the rooms would have been dark, if not black if the candles had been extinguished or knocked over.

Even after hearing threats made against the mother by Patrick McCarthy, Price and Latham left the house. Patrick was saying, ‘I’ll knock your head off’, and ‘I’ll break your head.’

Mrs McCarthy was excitable and worked-up by the sight of her sons fighting and her own efforts to stop them. A modern officer would have done things differently at that point, but in those days police were only too familiar with domestics with threats and counter-threats. It was par for the course and as with all potential problems familiarity bred contempt; the officers were not expecting to return. They did not have the refinements of 21st century technology either. They walked off.

A few minutes later, Ellen McCarthy came running after them shouting, ‘Policemen, policemen, he wants to knock my head off!’ or words according to the officers, to that effect. Price ignored the plea; she was trouble.

There may have been a conversation between the two officers as one might have recalled an incident months prior that occurred in the Town Hall police station. Patrick McCarthy had been arrested as a deserter from the army and his mother had come in to see him along with Dennis. A fight ensued and Sergeant Aplin, who was the charge sergeant at the time, had to calm them down and throw them out. It was noted by Sergeant Aplin and other officers that Mrs McCarthy was a very excitable woman, so excitable that her memory lived with them. It happens that way in the day-to-day life of a police officer: one incident or person stands out, and as far as excitability was concerned, it was Ellen McCarthy. It is more astounding to hear that Aplin thought she was so excitable she may die. She must have made an impression of him.

In Love Lane one would imagine Price and Latham were making their way to a safer place, perhaps for a cup of tea or something stronger. Fifteen minutes later a boy ran after them shouting, ‘Come back for God’s sake! They’re kicking the old woman.’

Both officers looked at one another and with a shrug of the shoulders returned. The thought was either of a hard and angry arrest, to prevent the altercation continuing, or to give them one more warning. What they encountered took them on a different course of action.

They entered the tiny downstairs hallway and along to the back scullery (kitchen). We do not know if they were carrying their oil lamps, or whether there was another source of light in the house, but they found Mrs McCarthy lying on the floor of the scullery; she was dead. She was in the arms of Dennis, who was extremely agitated.

They quickly examined her and found there were bruises on her lower legs. The officers immediately thought ‘murder’ and someone had to be arrested. It was Patrick who had been threatening her and involved most heavily in the fighting, so he was grabbed by the officers and told he was under arrest on suspicion of murder. A runner was sent to the police station to call out the detectives. It was the famous Detective Inspector Bill Scott who attending and took charge. (For more on Scott see The Cruel Streets Revisited.)

It was a narrow, muddy street and people lived cheek by jowl with each other. Doctors attended at the house had to push their way through a small crowd that had gathered outside. There was no obvious cause of death and the body was removed to the Dead House at Bute Street Police Station to await the arrangements for a post-mortem. DI Scott told PC Price to take his prisoner to the Town Hall cells.

Patrick McCarthy (above) appeared in Court and was remanded in custody. He was charged:

On the 20th November, 1895, at 12, Love-lane, did unlawfully kill and slay one Ellen McCarthy, his mother, by kicking her.

The morgue was situated in Maria Street at a side entrance to the station. It was new and already occupied by several deceased individuals. Doctors Downing and Millward had a good look at the body of Ellen McCarthy. There was a problem in finding the cause of death, it appeared it was not the external injuries that had anything to do with her demise. She was known to have suffered from fits and the doctors showed PC Price two plasters placed on her chest near her heart.

This caused a problem. It may have not been murder. Patrick McCarthy was brought up from custody and bailed to appear back in court the following day. The bail was only £5, which even in those days was not a lot for a potential murder charge.

Imagine the scene at 12 Love Lane when Patrick returned home and was greeted by his brothers. The welcome mat may not have been out nor was there likely be a kettle bubbling on the hearth in readiness for a family mug of tea. Perhaps he did not go home but spent the night somewhere else. We do not know.

It had seemed an open and shut case with all the evidence directed at the accused, Patrick McCarthy. He was a violent man, he had been heard to threaten injury to his mother by the officers, she was in fear of her life, then she was found dead. This soon after a violent incident in the street.

The following morning, 25 November, just five days after the tragic incident, Patrick McCarthy appeared before the Town Court. The charge against him was dismissed and he walked from the court a free man. Why?

Doctors mused that Mrs McCarthy was an excitable woman and it may have been exhilaration that brought on a seizure, which subsequently caused her death. They could find no other likely or provable cause of death.

‘Death by Excitement’ may not be a common post-mortem result and nor was it listed as such in this case as the death certificate stated natural causes.

ore information:

This tale of Victorian policing comes from Horrors of the Dead House. As a former police officer, John F. Wake brings his investigative expertise to the macabre true crime stories that haunt Cardiff’s streets.

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