Our Cambodian correspondent Bob Couttie is back, only this time Bob has donned his English cloak of mannered respectability. In this colorful recounting of the 1924 Byfleet murder of Alfred Poynter Jones by the nefarious Frenchman Jean Vaquier, Bob provides a delightful snapshot of the 1920s.
by Bob Couttie
Murders in small sleepy towns have their own special fascination. In a big city homicide case the killer, victim, and locations are usually remote ‘others’, numbers with names; murders in a small town have real names and places, they’re close up and personal no matter how long ago they happened. So it was with my first murder, which I came across in what I generally call my ‘home town’ – the little English village of Byfleet, Surrey.
Byfleet has various claims to fame: for science fiction aficionados it features in HG Wells’s War of the Worlds and was the hometown of Jacqueline Pierce, the actress who played Servalan in the classic cult TV series Blake’s 7; Celebrity watchers will know that Robert Bolt and Sarah Miles lived there and that the grand house featured in Downton Abbey is the village manor house, and they will possibly know that key scenes in the Adventures of Robin Hood TV series of the late 1950s were filmed here; historians know of its name check in the Domesday Book, the early written records of the 8th century; racing enthusiasts will recognise its name in connection with the historic Brooklands Race Track, the world’s first purpose-built track, the building of which boosted the village’s population with thousands of Irish labourers; and, aviation fans will know it for the Vickers aircraft factory – my step-grandfather worked on the Vickers Vimy that carried Alcock and Brown on the first transatlantic flight.
For those fascinated by murder and mayhem it is known for the classic murder of the owner of the Blue Anchor Hotel on the morning of 29 March 1924. These were the great years in the annals of murder, when the gentility of the middle classes hid inflamed passions and animal instincts beneath a veneer of politeness. The Blue Anchor Murder had it all: a bankrupt, unfaithful wife; a florid, egotistical, infatuated Frenchman; dubious financial dealings, and a sleepy out-of-the way village undisturbed by much except the roar of the mighty motorised four-wheel beasts on the racetrack.
Brooklands Race Track, nearly 4 kilometres of banked concrete, played a role in the murder of the victim Alfred Poynter Jones who had married Mabel Theresa in 1902. The couple had two children, an 18 year-old son and a 15 year-old daughter. Mabel ran her own successful catering businesses, Ye Old English Catering & Confectionery Co. and a cafe called The Chalet in Kingston High Street in Surrey, which she had started while Alfred was serving in the army in World War One.
Her nemesis was a cafe called The Paddock at Brooklands Race Track. She had a contract to provide the catering but the venture failed, and by the end of 1923 she was bankrupt to the tune of four thousand pounds, at the mercy of creditors and under intense stress that led to a nervous breakdown.
It was in August of 1923 that Alfred Jones bought the Blue Anchor Hotel in Byfleet, Surrey. He paid 800 pounds for the business, which matched 800 pounds that was inexplicably missing from his wife’s account, although Mabel Jones was later to firmly deny that she had paid for his purchase of the business. He seems to have been a party person, certainly a drinker, enough of a tippler for fatty tissue to gather on his liver – he was drinking himself to death. After a heavy night he would take a dose of a proprietary tonic called bromo salts from a metal-topped blue-glass bottle dissolved in a half tumbler of cold water.
The bottle was kept on the fireplace mantlepiece in the hotel’s bar-parlour.
In January 1924 Mabel Jones’s doctor recommended that she go to France to recover from her nervous breakdown. On a package holiday she went to the Hotel Victoria in Biarritz on the French Atlantic coast. While there Jean Vaquier, a 45 year old radiotelephony expert with a rather magnificent beard and moustache introduced himself over dinner. He spoke no English, she spoke no French. At his suggestion she bought a dictionary so they could converse.
On 16 January Mabel Jones went to Pau to see the rather grand chateau where the French king Henry IV was born and Marie Antoinette tended the gardens in the Summer. She then visited Lourdes, she might have taken some of the allegedly miraculous water from its famous grotto. From each place she sent postcards to Vaquier, which he kept.
Vaquier also sent a letter in French to Mabel which she destroyed because, she later stated, she couldn’t read it.
It was about 18 January when Mabel returned to Biarritz and their relationship began in earnest. It was then that Vaquier discovered she was a bankrupt and on his suggestion they moved to cheaper accommodation at the Hotel de Bayonne in a nearby town, St Jean De Luz. That they lived — in the terms of the day — as ‘man and wife’ was later admitted by Mabel and there was the evidence of the hotel bill with meals for two every breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Their romance was interrupted by an urgent telegram from Alfred Jones asking his wife to return. Alfred had been sick and wanted to go to the seaside town of Margate to recuperate.
The lovers exchanged gifts and Vaquier accompanied her to Paris by way of Bordeaux. While in Paris he picked up a model of a sausage-making machine he’d patented which, he told Mabel, he would try to market in England. She recommended that he stay at the Russell Hotel.
On 8th February Mabel returned to the Blue Anchor. Vaquier followed the next day and put himself up at the Russell, which overlooks a pleasant square of the same name. Sometime over the next couple of days he spoke to Mabel by telephone with the help of the hotel clerk who acted as interpreter.
How early Vaquier laid his plans for murder is unknown but on 12 February he sent a telegram to Mabel at the Blue Anchor:
“Arrived from Paris on business. Shall be very pleased to see you at Hotel Russell and to meet Mr. Jones. Perhaps you will inform me what evening.”
Was the mention of Mr Jones designed to allay suspicion regarding Vaquier’s relationship with Mabel? Or did he seek sight of his prey?
It was about now that Vaquier began buying chemicals from a pharmacist, a Horace Bland of W. Jones & Co. in Southampton Row. He claimed he needed them for his radio experiments. Strychnine was among the chemicals. The law required that he sign the poisons book which he did in a false name, ‘J. Wanker’ or ‘Vanker’. His familiarity with colloquial English was clearly nominal at best.
Vaquier had already decided to murder Alfred Jones and to use a particularly nasty poison to do it.
Mabel met Vaquier at the Russell and their relationship as, ‘man and wife’ continued. In those days most hotels refused to allow a couple who were not married to each other to occupy the same room for fear of being charged with running a house of ill-repute — in other words, a brothel. Mabel booked her own room but co-habited with Vaquier.
One morning a chambermaid surprised them in Vaquier’s room and said to Vaquier:
“You have no business to have anyone here.” He muttered something in French, and Mrs Jones told the chambermaid, “It is all right; I am his wife.” After the chambermaid had left Mabel turned to Vaquier and complained that he had put her “in a nice position”. In Brit-speak he had made things awkward for her.
Alfred Jones left Byfleet for Margate on 13 February and Mabel took the opportunity to visit Vaquier again.
She returned to Byfleet and Vaquier followed the same day, minus his luggage. He claimed he had sold his patent for 500 pounds and asked to stay at the Blue Anchor. He returned to London the next day having borrowed 14 pounds from Mabel to pay the bill at the Russell – 9 shillings and two pence – with the rest going into his own pocket and he returned to the Blue Anchor the same day.
The final piece of this love triangle was put in place when Alfred Jones arrived back from Margate on 17 February. He was still ill and took to his bed for the next two weeks complaining of ‘congestion of the lungs’.
Vaquier and Mabel arranged to go to London on 3rd March and spent their last night of passion again at the Russell Hotel before returning to the Blue Anchor.
By now Alfred Jones was drinking heavily and there is evidence of at least one major argument between him and Mabel although the reason was unclear. Vaquier repeatedly took the opportunity to beg Mabel to leave her husband but she refused, although not directly, perhaps hoping not to hurt his feelings, telling him:
“Why not wait a little while until my business is settled.” A straight ‘no’ night have saved her husband’s life.
Over the next few weeks Vaquier paid no bills at the hotel and on one occasion asked Alfred for money. Mabel told her husband not to loan the cash.
The relationship between Alfred and Mabel may have been rather unusual for the time. She had complained about his treatment of certain women at the hotel and said that they both lived as they pleased. Oddly, when Vaquier, Mabel and Alfred dined together, Alfred would often leave the two lovers to their own devices and others noticed a great deal of affection between Mabel and Vaquier.
Mabel and Vaquier’s physical relationship had cooled and Vaquier appears to have become a liability to Mabel. He had met her at her most vulnerable, become hopelessly infatuated and had had a holiday fling, but was now a grave threat to her marriage and her shell of middle class respectability. But in Vaquier’s mind all that stood between him and happiness with Mabel was Alfred.
He bided his time until the night of 28-29 May.
Alfred held a party on the night of the 28th. The next morning Vaquier’s behaviour drew attention.
Normally he would make himself coffee and drink it in the hotel’s coffee room. On the morning of the 29th he sat himself in the bar-parlour, immovable. Cleaning staff urged him to go into the coffee room so they could get on with their cleaning. He refused. The fire was not yet lit and it was quite chilly, so Vaquier put on an overcoat. Hoping to get their message across, the cleaning staff left the door to the outside open. Vaquier closed the door, went back to his chair and wrapped himself in his overcoat more firmly.
Shortly after the bar opened in the morning at 10.30 am Alfred went to the bar-parlour next to it and took the blue bottle of bromo salts from the mantlepiece. Vaquier and Mabel were present. Alfred took a teaspoonful of the bromo salts and mixed it into a half-glass glass of cold water.
Normally the mixture would fizz vigorously and a foam would form on the surface of the solution. This morning it did not.
Alfred swallowed the solution and almost immediately exclaimed: “God, it’s bitter” and spat some out.
Strychnine is the most bitter of poisons. Its deadliness comes not from any indetectability but in the swiftness and certainty of its actions.
Mabel poured some of the contents of the blue bottle into her hand and tried a crystal or two on her tongue:
“Daddy, they have been tampered with.”
Going to the kitchen Mabel put the bottle in a drawer and prepared some salt and warm water which she gave to Alfred. He was immediately sick, as was the intention, but it may have masked the early effect of strychnine poisoning – vomiting.
Alfred went to the lavatory and again threw up.
One of the hotel staff suggested giving him tea and soda and set about preparing it. Alfred drank it down and complained of feeling numb and cold.
Mabel called for help and two members of the hotel staff, with Vaquier’s assistance, carried Alfred to his bedroom while Mabel called a doctor, Dr Frederick Charles Carle, who later gave evidence of being called by telephone to aid Mr Jones, from a phone outside the bedroom door.
By the time the doctor arrived with a policeman Alfred’s muscles were contracting and his eyes were bulging. There could be no mistake: this was strychnine poisoning.
Mabel went back down to kitchen to fetch the bottle from the drawer. It had been moved. When she gave it to the doctor he poured out the contents into his hand – just a small amount of water. The bottle had been washed clean.
Alfred died about 11 o’clock, half an hour after he had taken the fatal dose. It would have been an unpleasant way to go – his mind would have been clear to the end. In took time for Mabel to accept that he was dead.
Mabel had no doubt who had killed her husband. That evening, in front of him, she burnt a picture of them that had been taken in Biarritz. Vaquier got the point and responded with a note in strangled English that he understood that she was accusing him of murder. A day or so later she told directly:
“You have assassinated Mr Jones.” He allegedly responded, “Yes, Mabs, for you.”
“I would have killed you if I knew you would have done a thing like that,” she claims to have replied.
On 25 April Alfred’s body was buried at the nearby cemetery beside St Mary’s church.
At the suggestion of the police Vaquier moved to the Railway Hotel in nearby Woking, conveniently opposite the police station, while the investigation proceeded.
The bottle, tumbler, spoon and some remains of the blue bottle contents that had fallen on the carpet tested positive for strychnine.
In those days, when a murder case ended with the death of a guilty party at the end of a rope, the case was sensational. A picture of Vaquier appeared in a newspaper which was seen by Mr Bland the pharmacist in London. He recognised Vaquier as the man who had signed the poisons book for a purchase of strychnine under a false name.
Vaquier was arrested, without fuss, by Superintendent Boshier, at the Railway Hotel on 19 April. He was questioned for two hours then charged with murder.
To add to the thrill for newspaper readers Alfred’s body was exhumed at midnight under tight security on 25 April. To add to the interest the famous pathologist Bernard Spilsbuty was present, always a good sign for readers and a bad sign for the guilty, although, as we shall see in a future post, he was also responsible for the hanging of innocent people.
A hearse carried the body to a mortuary in nearby West Byfleet about a mile and half away. The building was locked and had to be forced open. Once inside Spilsbury carried out one of his more than two hundred autopsies. He found the hands half-closed, suggesting that they had been that way in death. The lips, fingernails and toenails showed a lot of lividity, a symptom of strychnine poisoning. The body itself was reddish brown suggesting that it had been livid, reddened, before death.
Then there was the hypostatic staining on the back of the body, a phenomenon that occurs when blood settles in the body after death. It, too, was livid.
At the end of the examination Spilsbury packed Alfred’s small and large intestine, brains, liver, kidneys , the spinal cord, blood from his chest and the remaining urine from his bladder into glass jars which in turn were placed in two bags and carried away for examination.
Given what was in the organs and estimated left-overs, Alfred had taken four times the killing dose of strychnine.
Vaquier’s trial at Guilford Assizes took just five days and the jury deliberated for 90 minutes. The trial was open to the public and many women attended, some carrying sandwiches to nibble on in the event of an extended hearing.
Vaquier protested his innocence, claimed that he’d had no relationship with Mabel Jones, fingered one of the hotel staff as the murderer, claimed that Mabel had been having an affair with the solicitor handling her legal affairs, and that it was the solicitor, a complete stranger, who had asked him to buy the strychnine and make the false entry in the poisons book.
The defence failed to establish reasonable doubt. The judge, Justice Avory, donned a black cap and announced the final sentence:
“It is my duty to pronounce upon you the sentence which is prescribed by law for this wicked and detestable crime. That sentence is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution, that you be there hanged by the neck until you be dead, and that your body be afterwards buried within the precincts of the prison wherein you shall have been last confined before your execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”
Shouting and fighting Vaquier was manhandled from the dock. Several appeals failed to change the verdict.
Jean-Pierre Vaquier was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on 12 August 1924. His last words were, ‘Vive La France.”
Mabel Theresa Jones’s bankruptcy meant that any assets that went to her from Alfred’s estate went to pay her debts. It wasn’t enough. On 12 December 1925, as a widowed single mother with two children to support, no assets and no prospect of acquiring assets, no means of support and a ruined reputation, she paid just five pounds sterling to a court in Kingston, Surrey to be discharged from bankruptcy.
For her the holiday fling continued to be nightmare.
(Thanks to Jim Allen of the Byfleet Heritage Society for assisting with research)
Click here to view a delightful slideshow of Byfleet in that begone era: http://www.byfleetheritage.org.uk/album%202.htm
Click here to view other posts by Bob Couttie:
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