Today (October 12) in London History – Murder Mystery

One of the great London murder mysteries was set in train on this day, October 12th, 1678. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Let’s get weird. This is London. Remember our catchphrase? 

It’s certainly called for on October 12th. 

October 12th, 1678.

We’ve got a weird, unsolved murder.

We’ve got a weird victim.

We’ve got all kinds of weird goings-on.

And for all that, damn if this weird business 344 years ago isn’t important.

It led to the establishment of the first political parties in the British system, the Whigs and Tories. The Tory party being the other name for the Conservative Party. You look at the weird goings on with the Conservative party today – 2022 – you can shake your head and say, “I know where you weird lot came from.”

And it wasn’t just political parties. 

This weird murder led to a political crisis in which the right of succession in the royal family was questioned. It led to the growing anti-Catholic hysteria of 1678. It led to the further persecution – and some executions – of Roman Catholics. 

Even the names of the principals are weird.

You know how it is with London. Some London stories are so grotesque, once heard they’re with you forever. You can’t forget them even if you wanted to. For example, the killer statue in Parliament Square. It is simply impossible for me to go down there, look at that statue, and NOT think, that statue killed a man. That statue fell on the sculptor’s assistant and crushed him to death. In the long, lurid litany of horrible London moments, that one’s in my Top Ten. 

Well, as of today, October 12th, I’m now eternally condemned to calling Primrose Hill by its old name, Green Berry Hill. Eternally condemned to that for a really weird reason.

The weird names issue isn’t a one horse-race with this London story.

You got a middle name? Most of us do. Well, turns out that in 1678 almost no one had a middle name. I didn’t know that. Did you? That’s one of the specks of gold in the pan of this podcast. Note to self: find out when middle names became the order of the day.

Anyway, our main character – a fellow right up there in the pantheon of London weirdos – our main character had that mark of weirdness for those days: a middle name.

His full name was Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey.

He was English gentry. He was a London magistrate. He was the fifth son of his father’s second marriage. A marriage that produced 18 children. There were questions surrounding the mental health of his father. Certainly it appears to have decayed in his old age.

Edmund Godfrey’s hat trick of names was the result of his father’s combining the names of Edmund’s godfathers – John Berrie and Edmund Harrison and harnessing the two of them – a pair of horses – to the surname Godfrey.

What else? Well, Godfrey went to Westminster School. He was partially deaf. He was strait-laced and melancholy. He never married. It was believed that he was celibate. He loathed crowds. People found him odd, peculiar even. In a word, weird. 

A contemporary described him as “black, hard favoured, tall, stooping … and … commonly wiping his mouth and looking [up]on the ground.” 

He didn’t just look odd. His behaviour was odd. This is a real shocker. Well, it shocked his contemporaries. Would you believe, he hung out with men who were socially beneath him. He was often seen playing bowls in the company of footmen and ‘ordinary’ folk. Good heavens. What was the world coming to?

He was litigious. He tried to have the king’s physician arrested for debt. That was a mistake. The physician complained to the king and Godfrey was arrested. Did seven days in the cooler.

He was a man of contradictions. Really, no surprise that. His main interest in parish affairs was the problem of poverty. He championed charity and poor relief – and indeed made generous personal contributions to those causes. At the same time, he had a reputation for great severity against vagabonds and criminals. 

He became a magistrate. He was fearless. He once followed an absconding criminal into a plague house in order to seize the felon. He was an amateur sleuth. He was said to move about at odd hours of the night, a solitary figure who peered down alleys and lanes in search of misconduct. [Aside here: searching in alleys and lanes, that sounds like any number of London Walks guides.]

Anything else? Yes, I’m afraid he was a misogynist. In his words, “the Devil in woman had prevailed upon them to Debauchery.”

We have our man in view. What happened to him? And when? And where? And here we introduce a well-known name in English history. Titus Oates. Titus Oates was an English priest who fabricated the “Popish Plot”, a supposed Catholic conspiracy to kill King Charles II. In September of 1678, the man himself, Titus Oates, accompanied by a close acquaintance visited Godfrey, who was after all, the main man in the local civic authority. Apparently they confided in him. Even swore depositions about what was afoot. Godfrey’s response to being made privy to a supposed popish conspiracy was very strange. His response was pretty much a non-response– it was nervous and indecisive. It’s been suggested that someone in authority – perhaps the Duke of York himself, the future James II, who was a catholic, warned him off interfering in the affair.

It is clear that Godfrey felt he was on to a hiding to nothing. That any association with, any involvement in the plot – whichever way he broke, keeping quiet or blowing the whistle – would do him no end of harm. A rock and hard place dilemma.

And then he disappeared. On Saturday, October 12, 1678. He was last seen about three o’clock that afternoon. 

His disappearance caused a sensation. It was the talk of the town. Even that was puzzling. As somebody said, “What matter was it, that a justice of the peace did not dine at home, to raise such a hubbub as this?”

The whole affair smacks of wheels within wheels. Nearly three and a half centuries later, this is a London mystery that’s unlikely ever to be fully fathomed. What we do know is that Godfrey’s body was discovered five days later near Primrose Hill. He was lying in a ditch with his sword run through him just under his left breast. However it happened – it’s been suggested that it may have been a suicide – it certainly displayed the hallmarks of sincere swordsmanship. The sword had been thrust right through Godfrey, left to right. The business end of the sword was sticking out of the right side of his back a full seven or eight inches. Even at this distance I for one would say that argued a right-handed assailant.

Other crime scene clues. Godfrey’s coat was thrown up over his head and his hat and periwig were lying in some nearby bushes. No band or laced cravat was ever found on him. That was a minor mystery because the last people who saw him alive said he’d been wearing a large laced band went he left home. Finally, there were strangulation marks on his neck, believed to have been made by a cord or cloth. 

The Catholic community was blamed. Even though Godfrey was, generally, a liberal magistrate who in many respects was a friend to that oppressed minority. 

Godfrey became a poster boy for anti-Catholic forces. They pushed the line that he was a protestant martyr and that what happened to him was a crystallisation of the Catholic threat to the nation. 

A breakthrough of sorts – a highly dubious breakthrough – pitched up in November in the shape of a supposed informer. The informer, one William Bedloe, claimed that a Roman Catholic silversmith named Miles Prance was a party to the crime. And that Godfrey had in fact been killed at Somerset House and his body moved to Primrose Hill. Scared out of his wits – who wouldn’t be – Prance pointed the finger at three men. Prance said they’d killed Godfrey as part of a wider popish plot. That did the trick for Prance. And it did for the three men he’d named. They were tried and executed. Not that they were guilty, but that’s a minor detail. In fact, a few years later – several years too late of course for the three men who were condemned and executed – Prance changed his tune, withdrew his story. He was fined £100 and whipped from Newgate to Tyburn, where he stood in the pillory. That’ll certainly have been the worst day of his life. But here’s the thing: the three men Prance named were Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill. Some years before and for a long time, Primrose Hill went by a different name. It was called Greenberry Hill.

Now catch those names again of the three accused: Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill. Green, Berry and Hill. Sure enough, the old name for Primrose Hill was resurrected, came back into fashion for a time.

That the crime remains a mystery – was never properly explained, never solved – would on the face of it seem to be a full London repast in itself. That it’s topped up with that name business, that’s brazen-faced London for you – London unashamedly gilding the lily.

Well, I warned you – London’s weird – sometimes very weird.

And a Today in London recommendation: I’d say the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition. It opens next week – October 17th – at the Natural History Museum. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *