The Murder Of Edward Stelfox

How the Stelfox shanty may have looked
How the Stelfox shanty may have looked

Edward Stelfox was born in the north of England and arrived in Cardiff in 1849 with his wife Hannah, when he was 29 years old. He was a foreman for a building contractor involved in building the Menai Bridge on Anglesey. But Edward was a man with ambition to run his life his own way. A public house gave him a steady income and allowed him to try his hand at other things. His third pub was the Marquis of Bute Hotel in Bute Road where he was living in 1858 with his wife Hannah and their youngest daughter.

Then Stelfox bought a boat and became a fisherman but he did not always endear himself to the local seafaring community and was beginning to make himself a few enemies. He tried his hand at ship owning with a leaky old tub and contracted to the council to remove wrecks from the dock approaches by blowing them up with dynamite. But beneath the layers of these legitimate trades there lay some persistent gossip that Edward Stelfox was not averse to making a shilling or two wherever he could. He was twice brought before a court, the first time for assault and the second for stealing a case of dynamite, but he was not convicted on either occasion.

Stelfox's life became entwined with that of John Webber who came from Stowford near Bridgewater. Webber, a well travelled man who had spent some adventurous times in Australia and America where he dug for gold in the California gold rush. According to stories he told friends, he was once shipwrecked on an uninhabited island with six other men. They were forced to eat their dog to survive. Webber landed in Cardiff in 1866 when he was 54 and returned to fishing, the trade of his youth. He kept a little shop selling fresh fish and In time became well known and well liked in the docks. He often drank in the Museum Tavern in South William Street, a pub previously kept by Edward Stelfox. Webber bought a fishing smack with his cousin and set about earning a modest living. However, after his cousin met an untimely end when he took part in a pigeon shooting match, he met Stelfox and from the outset the two men had an uneasy, not to say quarrelsome, relationship. Occasionally, they worked together though Webber was more the accomplished fisherman. At one time, it was said that they employed an itinerant Spaniard as a hired hand and there was a great deal of speculation as to his fate when he suddenly disappeared. It was generally believed there were many secrets between Stelfox and Webber, not shared by the world at large. Shortly before the tragic climax to their relationship Webber was telling closest friends that he was expecting a lot of money from Stelfox and there were persistent rumours they were involved in a bit of smuggling on the side.

Much of the time though they were in competition with each other and there were many tensions, especially over fishing. Stelfox had secured the fishing rights to the Roath Fisheries, the stretch of foreshore between the docks and the Rhymney River. Webber had been in the habit of beaching his fishing smack, the Wem, on the foreshore and selling fish in competition to Stelfox. This irritated Stelfox intensely because he was paying rent for the privilege and Webber was not. He had previously been to the Bute Trustees, who owned the foreshore, to complain about Webber and others who were poaching fish there. When Webber once again anchored his smack in sight of a shanty owned by Stelfox, ready to beach it on the next spring tide. some of the beaching planks mysteriously disappeared from the smack

In November 1874, at the age of 54, Stelfox had suddenly left the Marquis of Bute Hotel and his family, to live in the shanty he had built on the foreshore. It was a lonely tract of moorland and a dark and gloomy place remote from any other habitation. He took with him Annie James, a young, good looking, woman who had been his wife's servant. The shanty was a wretched stone cottage with just two ground floor rooms. Outside was a fish hut, a fowl hut and a pigsty and a rough painted iron sign- “Fresh fish, shrimps and ginger beer.” It was a squalid scene projecting abject poverty and loneliness.

On the morning of Monday the 13th March 1876, Edward Stelfox rose about 6.30am. Soon afterwards, Thomas Sellick arrived with some fish and both men went into the fish hut to weigh it. Sellick lived nearby and was a fisherman working for Stelfox. Soon after 7am John Webber arrived and was clearly upset; he was carrying a double-barrelled gun. Stelfox was in the fishing hut when he was confronted by Webber, who accused him of removing the planks from his fishing boat. Stelfox denied it but Webber seemed intent only on one thing. He raised the gun to his shoulder as Stelfox cried out- “Don't shoot me Jack.” But maybe the anger built up over years proved too much and Webber fired, hitting his victim in the side. Stelfox staggered across the 6 feet or so to the cottage, stumbled inside and fell to the floor. Alerted by the shot, Annie James came running in from the bedroom and hurriedly locked the outer door before cradling Stelfox in her arms.

Outside, Webber went to the kitchen window where he smashed two panes of glass with the muzzle of the gun. He pushed the gun through the broken window, took aim and fired the second barrel at Stelfox, hitting him in the groin. Stelfox the fisherman lay dying. Annie James pleaded for her life saying- “John please don't shoot me.” Webber did not harm Annie, nor Sellick, who had witnessed everything, even when Sellick tried to get the gun off Webber. The murderer eventually walked calmly away and just yards from the cottage, he met an acquaintance, 20 year old John Dunn, to whom he gave the gun and asked him to take it to his house. He told Dunn what he had done and a few minutes later he approached Bute Dock Police Constable George Seddon near the East Dock and gave himself up. He told Pc Seddon that he had fired two shots at his victim. He was taken to the police station and was charged by the officer with the slaying of Edward Stelfox.

As word of the shooting spread, Dr. Pratt went to the shanty and found Stelfox lying dead. People soon gathered at the Marquis of Bute Hotel to pass on the grisly news to Stelfox's wife. Webber's landlady, Mrs. Lewis, took a pot of coffee to him at the police station at 10am and was appalled to see him behind bars. But he calmly asked her for ham and eggs because he was hungry. Meanwhile, public excitement was beginning to grip the town. When the prisoner was taken in handcuffs from the docks to the town police station, crowds of on-lookers lined the streets and hundreds of people began gathering outside the police station and the town hall.

Rumour and gossip swept the streets. Most of the docks people sympathised with Webber and gave little care about what had happened to Stelfox though some claimed Webber had told them he intended to kill Stelfox 'cleanly' days or even weeks previously. The washerwoman from the pawnbroker's shop was telling all and sundry that Webber had surrendered the pawn ticket to reclaim the gun on the previous Saturday. Police were called to a disturbance outside Webber's house in Adelaide Street where local women were arguing and fighting over the affair. But the prisoner John Webber, a grey bearded, weather-beaten seafarer, was brought before Cardiff Magistrates that afternoon and the case against him began. It continued the following morning when he was committed to stand trial at the next assizes.

Stelfox's body lay where it had fallen on the floor of the fish house for several days and officers from the Bute Dock Police were detailed to mount a guard. It was a gruesome scene with a pool of blood between the fish hut and cottage, blood on the floor of the kitchen and in the filthy sink in which the crockery also lay. A large crowd of rowdy and lewd elements gathered outside and joked and laughed as if on a day out. The crowd grew as the day wore on, never mind that a man lay dead on his kitchen floor a few feet away. The hanging fishnets, the fowls, the pigs and the smell of death surrounding the wretched shanty only added to the dismal scene and to the baying crowd. Thomas Sellick and poor Annie James, who had already witnessed a great deal of horror that day, were all but stripped of their self-possession.

George Hardy did the post mortem examination on Stelfox at the fish house on the day after the killing with several others in attendance. It was found that Stelfox had been shot in the chest and the upper thigh, either of which wound would have been sufficient to kill him. The body remained in the evil house for two more days before it was taken to the Marquis of Bute Hotel. The verdict at the inquest was one of murder; the funeral took place on Saturday the 18th March on a day of biting wind and snow flurries but it did not stop the crowds from turning out. About fifty Foresters led the funeral procession in front of the hearse and three coaches and a succession of seedy looking cabs. All around the procession swarmed a moving hoard of idle and ragged children. Crowds lined every street and disorder might be expected as a matter of course. The funeral crowd this Saturday was no exception including a short round of fisticuffs between two gentlemen in serviceable corduroy. The procession wound its way to the New Cemetery where the body was interred.

The trial at Glamorgan Spring Assizes at Cardiff was held before the Judge Sir William Grove. It opened and concluded in one day- the 5th April 1876. Webber pleaded Not Guilty to the wilful and malicious murder of Edward Stelfox. He did not deny the killing but his counsel maintained that at the time his actions were those of a lunatic and he had not been responsible for them. William Partridge told the court that he was a fisherman working for Webber, and he owned the gun that was used to kill Stelfox. He regularly shot wild fowl on the moors but being short of money before Christmas, he had pledged the gun at a pawnbroker's shop some three months earlier. John Webber had then bought the pawn ticket from him for two shillings and sixpence.

Webber was around 64 and was an old man for his years. He was described in court- “John Webber sat meek, haggard, the face fringed with a grizzly beard of black and grey; the mouth overhung with a heavy moustache; dressed in a very old pilot jacket with a blue guernsey underneath, a red scarf around his neck; his hands nervously twitching the sides of the dock.”

The jury returned about 1.30pm after retiring for just ten minutes. They were unanimous- Webber was found guilty of wilful murder. After donning his black cap, the judge sentenced him to death in the following terms-
“It is my duty now to pass upon you the sentence of the law which is that you will be taken from hence to the place of execution and there hung by the neck until you are dead and your body buried within the precincts of the gaol to which you were last removed.”
The prisoner stood leaning on the desk, breathing heavily for a few seconds, and was then removed.

According to the ordinary rule, three Sundays must pass between the verdict and the execution. The date for John Webber's hanging at Cardiff Gaol was therefore set for Tuesday 25th April 1876. A few days before, an appeal for remission of the capital penalty was made direct to the Home Secretary on the grounds of the prisoner's age and his previous good character. It included a petition signed by 150 people but it was turned down. At 7.30 on the morning of the execution all trains were stopped on the Taff Vale Railway line and Crockherbet Station (now Queen Street Station) was closed to prevent the public from seeing the scaffold that had been erected in the prison yard. Policemen were stationed on the railway embankment to prevent the curious from gaining a vantage point. (Even in quite recent times it was not unknown for the police to be called to what is now Queen Street Railway Station, to dissuade people on platform 3 from shouting messages to friends or relatives who are inmates of the prison.)

At 7.45am the bell on St John's church began to toll and it continued until 8.15. At 8am the prisoner was taken to the scaffold and without any undue delay, the executioner moved swiftly to the side and pulled the lever to open the trapdoor. The executioner, a man named Marwood, had travelled from Bristol fresh from having performed his duty two days earlier and the rope he always used frequently attracted offers from people wanting to buy it but would not be tempted to part with it. John Webber went to his death quietly and calmly and a black flag was run up over the prison. A crowd of two to three thousand people outside let out an audible involuntary groan as the flag was raised. Public opinion was largely on the side of John Webber who was considered to be a gentle old man who had been goaded too far. The phrase 'Poor John Webber' was on everyone's lips. In reality though, the old adventurer was not so poor- in his will he left a small fishery and two cottages in Stowford near Bridgewater as well as £500 to his brother's son.

After the fuss died down, Thomas Sellick took over the dismal shanty and the fishing rights along the foreshore on behalf of Stelfox's widow, Hannah. But the hovel and outbuildings were swept away a few years later when the Roath Dock was built. The site where it had stood lies where the landward wall of the Roath Dock is now. Within a few years of the murder of her husband, the widow Hannah Stelfox retired from the hotel and took rooms with Henry Fewings and his family at 26 Maria Street. Curiously, Henry Fewins, was one of the two Cardiff Borough police constables who had tried to save Bute Dock Policeman John Scudamore from drowning in the feeder canal in 1858. Fewins had by now transferred to the railway police and it is an intriguing twist that the widow of a murdered fisherman come maritime wheeler-dealer, was now living with a policeman and his family.