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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 20 March 2008
Mystery of little Willie Starchfield
Unsolved Murders in Victorian & Edwardian London. By Jonathan Oates Order this book

EVERYONE knows about the tragic ­disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the brutal murder of Milly Dowler, but few know about the mysterious death of little Willie Starchfield from Hampstead Road.
It happened almost 100 years ago, but even with the passing of time it’s impossible not to feel immense sympathy for the parents, family and friends trying to cope with such a sudden, unexplained and devastating loss of a loved one.
The story of little Willie is chronicled in a new book by Jonathan Oates, Unsolved Murders in Victorian & Edwardian London, a grim but fascinating collection of terrible deeds from the late-1830s to just before the Great War.
Willie was a good boy who was happy to run errands for his family. One afternoon he ran an errand for his mother and was never seen alive again. Willie, who was not quite six years old, was described as rather striking with shoulder-length brown curly hair.
He was found several hours after going missing at 4.30pm on January 8, 1914, in a third-class rail carriage between Mildmay Park and Dalston Junction. He had been strangled.
Police tried to trace anyone who had seen the little boy. An Italian youth said he thought he’d seen him in the company of an older boy walking towards Camden Town station.
A few days later, police received more reports of sightings on the day Willie went missing. A bus driver said that a foreign-looking man pushed a boy onto a bus at Kentish Town.
A conductor on the Hampstead and Charing Cross railway line saw a man with a child slung over his shoulder board a train at Goodge Street.
As in many cases of child murder, Willie’s parents were themselves implicated initially. His mother was alleged to have told someone in a pub that “she would have to get rid of her boy before she had another child”. His father, John, a news­paper seller in Tottenham Court Road, was identified by several ­witnesses. He was a man of rough character who treated his wife badly. While drunk, he had hit her and had also stolen money. The couple were separated at the time of Willie’s murder.
Mr Starchfield was arrested and brought to court. But the witnesses were unreliable and Mr Starchfield was eventually released after it was felt that he had no motive for killing his own child. Nor was there any evidence.
One theory advanced was that Mr Starchfield met his son on the train by accident and cajoled the boy into coming to live with him. When Willie refused Mr Starchfield lost his temper and strangled him.
Mr Starchfield died not long after in St ­Pancras Infirmary, always protesting his innocence. The death of Willie was never satisfactorily explained and sadly the killer never found.
Dr Oates includes 20 similar horrific real-life stories from history, including a headless body found in bag at Waterloo Bridge; the pregnant maid who was bludgeoned to death; the shooting of a night watchman at the Café Royal, and the case of Frances Coles, the Whitechapel prostitute who may have been Jack the Ripper’s final victim.
Dr Oates paints a ­picture of the corrupt and brutal side of life in the Victorian city. His catalogue of crimes sheds light on the lives of the victims and summons up the ruthless, sometimes lethal character of London itself. Even so, the number of killings in the capital was low by modern standards.
There were 198 ­murders, which include abortions (about 10 per cent of the total), in 1896-1905. This compares favourably to the 475 murders from January 2004 to September 2006 in modern London. Of the earlier murders, 19 were unsolved.
At the time of writing his book, Dr Oates says that no one had been charged with 72 of the modern murders, though in most cases investigations are ongoing.

Unsolved Murders in Victorian & Edwardian London. By Jonathan Oates.
Wharncliffe Books £12.99.

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