In September 1897 the newspapers reported ‘a shocking tragedy’ at Kilburn. In the early hours of Saturday the 11th, and after an evening spent drinking, James Harris killed his wife Annie and tried to kill his seven-year-old daughter May. He also assaulted his son, 10-year-old William and then attempted suicide. Annie died, but the children survived and Harris was later sentenced to be hanged for his crimes.
James Harris was born in Buckingham around 1864. He came to Kilburn and worked for John Wicks, a local builder who lived in Hawthorn Villa a detached house just north of Kilburn Brewery. Today this would be on the Kilburn High Road close to Dyne Road. Here he met John Wicks’ eldest daughter Annie, or Mary Ann. She was about eight years older than James and when she became pregnant they were married at Holy Trinity Church in Kilburn on 2 June 1879.
James said he was of full age, but in fact he was about 16. They had five children but three died in infancy. The two who survived were William and May, both born in Kilburn. After staying with John Wicks at Hawthorn Villa, they lived at various addresses in the neighbourhood and by 1891 they were all sharing one room at 35 Palmerston Road. By 1897, the family had moved to number 30 and James Harris had then been employed for five years as a platelayer on the nearby Midland Railway. He seemed happy in his work and had an allotment garden by the railway line.
30 Palmerston Road was a three-storey terraced property in a generally respectable working class neighbourhood, but sanitation was poor and most properties were split between several families. Over the years Palmerston Road gained a bad reputation and featured frequently in reports by Hampstead’s Medical Officer. There were many manual workers among the street’s residents: labourers, shop workers and servants, with some employed by local businesses such Kilburn Brewery or working on the buses, as there was a large bus depot in the road. In 1897, three families shared number 30; the Harris family lived at the back of the house in one room on the second floor. The 1901 census shows five households of varying sizes in the property, a total of 20 people.
It seemed that the Harris’s home life had been unhappy and turbulent. In fact, the family’s behaviour was so objectionable that the landlord had given them notice to quit, having received complaints from other tenants in the house. Annie and the children were subjected to beatings by Harris but the violence escalated to another level the night of September 11th.
James Harris’s neighbour George Brown had returned to No. 30 around 10pm and wanted to go to bed but met Annie Harris on the stairs. She said she was scared of her husband, fearing he’d batter her when he returned home. Brown waited up until Harris came in. He judged Harris had been drinking but he certainly wasn’t drunk. When the two men went up to the family’s room, Brown saw ten-year-old Willie but no one else. Annie had hidden herself and May in the toilet on the landing. Willie was sent out for beer by James who seemed upset because there was no food, until Brown pointed to some fish on the table, which William had brought.
After having a drink, James went to ask Annie to come back to their room. When she refused, James took an axe and split the door panel, forcing Annie out of the WC. After another drink he accused Annie of being unfaithful with his brother and punched her in the face. Brown managed – with some difficulty to disarm Harris, who picked up first a chopper, then a wooden mallet and lastly a knife, rushing at Annie, saying he would ‘chop her bloody head off and knock her bloody brains out.’
Brown remembered Harris saying, ‘Annie, between this and five o’clock to-morrow morning I will kill you stone dead.’ ‘Now the light is growing dim, now is the time the deed must be committed.’ As he was restraining Harris, Annie said, ‘George, if he wants to do it, let him do it.’ Harris gradually became calmer and said he’d go to bed, but made no move to do so. Instead, he sat with his feet on a chair and his head in his wife’s lap. Brown stayed until he was certain that Harris was asleep, even waiting outside the door for a while. Then, as he put it, ‘Harris seemed all right, so I went to bed.’ He was woken by a violent knocking at his door around 4.45am. There stood the two Harris children. The little girl’s face was covered with blood but the boy seemed unhurt and he said: ‘Oh, Mr Brown, do come up, father is killing mother and cutting his own throat!’
Brown went to find a policeman, calling up neighbour Mr King on the way. When they rushed upstairs they found the Harris’s door was locked and broke it down. Brown described the scene:
We then saw a fearful sight. The woman was lying in a pool of blood, with her head nearly cut off, and the man was lying across her. His throat was cut in a dreadful manner. Everything in the room had been knocked about, showing there had been a desperate struggle for life on the part of the woman.
Amazingly, Harris was unconscious but still alive.
The children were taken to Hampstead Workhouse at New End where they were visited by a reporter. He was impressed how well they recalled what had happened. William, poorly clothed, neglected and very dirty, proved to be a good witness. But given his young age and upbringing, the following statement shows signs of being edited.
I remember everything that took place on Friday, because my mother had been crying very much, and had been saying to me and my sister that she wished that she was dead, and that she would soon be ‘done for.’ My father, although he said he was a teetotaller, was very far from being so, and although many people thought he had taken nothing intoxicating for five years, they were quite wrong. For a very long time he had been drinking heavily. His treatment of my mother was awful, and time after time – I know I am only a little chap, but so it was – I have been the means of preventing him doing her a serious injury; not by my being able to by my strength to do so, but by begging him not to hurt her.
William said he was particularly scared that night, because his father had taken a chopper to have it sharpened, ‘and it was this with which he finally hit my mother and went for May and me.’
William claimed his father was drunk when he came home. The children tried to sleep as James and Annie kept up their violent and noisy quarrel: ‘Father kept hitting mother and did not leave off, although she cried very much.’ Eventually things got quieter and his mother climbed into bed with her children.
William was woken by a dreadful scream. His father had hit Annie with the chopper and then set about William, hitting him on the back, arm and head.
I think he thought he had settled me, for he turned and hit my sister three terrible blows, and then looking at mother, who was screaming, said, “I’ll do for the lot of you, and you first.” He struck her three times under the ear with the chopper and at last she fell out of bed and lay in front of the fire-place with only her petticoat on her.
Fortunately James had hit his son with the flat side of the blade and the boy was badly bruised but otherwise unhurt. William managed to get past his father, unlock the door, grab his sister and go downstairs for help but on the way he dropped the key. Here William’s story is a little at variance with George Brown. William said that Mr King came upstairs and tussled with his father who was trying to find the key to lock them out.
William’s closing paragraph makes sad reading.
My mother told us, on her last birthday, that she was thirty-four and that she was “tired of her life.” My father was always cruel to us and I and May are all the children that are left out of five that my mother had. But father was always beating us.
The reporter also spoke to May, whose head was heavily bandaged. Clearly in shock, she had blotted out the climax of the night’s horrors as her memories stopped before the attack began. ‘I saw mother wring her hands and say: “It is all over.” After that mother locked me in a cupboard and said, “Do not move, or your father will kill you.” I stopped there for a very long time.’ She said she was released by her brother on Saturday morning.
James Harris was taken before the magistrates on October 16th, accused of having murdered his wife, attempting to murder his daughter and trying to commit suicide (which then was a crime). Harris had inflicted a serious injury to his neck and throat: ‘He presented a pitiable sight, and was so weak and ill that he had to be carried into the court.’ The magistrate was surprised Harris had been discharged from hospital so quickly. Medical opinion was that he would never speak again. Harris was remanded and sent to gaol.
At his second court appearance on November 6th, it was suggested that because Harris still could not speak he could write down his answers, but it transpired he could neither read nor write. The magistrate questioned whether it was actually possible to put Harris on trial, as he was unable to instruct his solicitor, let alone plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ But on balance he decided to proceed with the evidence. A doctor told the court that James was unlikely to regain his speech but might be able to whisper.
A workmate said James believed his wife was having an affair with his brother George, who had stayed with the family for a few months when he came out of the army. When George Harris said this was untrue, James became very agitated but could not speak. William Young, a stableman, lived in the room next door to the Harris family. He testified that on the night of the September 10/11, he was disturbed by noises from their room. It eventually went quiet around 3am, but he was woken around 4.45am by Mrs Harris yelling, ‘Mr Young, Mr Young, murder!’
As Young bravely opened their door, Willie and May rushed past him. Mrs Harris was sitting on the side of the bed and her husband was searching for something near the coal-box. Young beat a hasty retreat and went to Mr King’s house, a couple of doors away, where he was joined by George Brown and they all went to find a policeman. William also gave evidence, saying he was woken by his father hitting his mother and May with a chopper.
When James Harris appeared at the Old Bailey on November 22nd, the question of his ability to stand trial was again discussed as he couldn’t communicate with his solicitor. The judge asked the jury to decide, adding that if they thought Harris was unfit, to also determine ‘if the incapacity is by reason of his own unlawful act.’ The jury answered ‘yes’ on both counts. Harris was asked if he was guilty or not guilty and shook his head. He also managed to say ‘no’ but this was only audible to someone standing immediately besides him.
The trial was adjourned until January 12th 1898. The picture then painted of James was a positive one – a hardworking teetotaller, a family man. A couple of workmates testified that James had told them he was leaving Kilburn, because his brother and wife were ‘too thick.’ George said his brother James was kind to his children and his wife but again denied any ‘improper intimacy’ with Annie. Several witnesses said James had been teetotal, only ‘giving way to heavy drinking’ shortly before the night in question. It’s hard to balance these opinions with those expressed by young Willie Harris. Could the boy have exaggerated? Maybe James was a hard working man, driven to drink by his belief his wife had an affair with his brother, resulting in weeks rather than years of mistreatment of Annie and his children.
The jury held James Harris responsible for his actions and found him guilty. However, they must have believed the character evidence, as they added a strong recommendation for mercy. Harris was sentenced to death but reprieved a week later: ‘He showed signs of intense relief when the news was conveyed to him that he was not to die.’ He would have been imprisoned or held in an asylum, but no records have surfaced of what happened to him after the trial.
Annie Harris was buried at Hampstead Cemetery on Fortune Green Road on September 18th 1897. During the trial, it was reported that William Harris was a pupil at the Westminster Union Industrial School in St. James’s Road, Tooting. This was a workhouse school and presumably he had been sent there by the Hampstead authorities. In the 1901 census, May – now 11 – is shown as a visitor with George Plant, a stoker at a refuse destructor, and his family in Oldham. George Plant, like James Harris, was born in Buckinghamshire, so he may have been a friend or distantly related.
In just a few moments this horrific murder destroyed a family.