Technology has touched every part of society at some point, and police forces are just one of many institutions that have benefited from its riches.
Today we take the ease of calling 999 on our smartphones for granted, as well as the headsets used by first responders, the computers they use to log your location and details and the police radios needed to get someone on the scene quickly. The list goes on.
Back in 1845, however, things were a bit different. The Metropolitan Police didn’t even have cars yet (that would come in 1903), so technology wasn’t a consideration. At least, until January 1, 1845 that is, when police officers made the unprecedented decision to use a telegraph to send a message in pursuit of a suspected murderer.
The telegraph was used to describe the suspect, John Tawell, who was spotted leaving a cottage where his former lover, Sarah Hart, was living.
Tawell had started an affair with Hart after employing her to care for his sick wife, until the latter’s death in 1838. Tawell and Hart had two children together, but three years later Tawell met and remarried someone else. He sent Hart away to Salt Hill near Slough, where he’d make regular visits to pay a weekly allowance of £1 in child maintenance. But by 1843 Tawell was experiencing some financial difficulties and decided the best way to get his house in order was to kill off Hart.
On January 1, 1845, Tawell poisoned his former lover and fled quickly, but her neighbour Mrs Ashley could hear groans and decided to investigate. On finding Hart lying on the floor and frothing at the mouth, she raised the alarm and fast-thinking Reverend E. T. Champnes was among the first to respond.
He dashed to Slough station with a description of Tawell and managed to see the suspect as he departed on a train to Paddington at 7.42pm. The cleric wasn’t able to stop him, but what Tawell didn’t know was that Slough was one of a limited number of train stations with telegraph equipment.
This meant the station manager was able to send a message to Paddington, which read:
“A murder has just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker [sic] with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.”
A duty sergeant was then able to meet the train in time in plain clothes and follow Tawell to where he lived. The next day, Sergeant Williams – the duty sergeant - and Inspector Wiggins apprehended the suspect.
“I wasn't at Slough yesterday,” Tawell pleaded.
Little did Tawell know, but Sergeant Williams had been on board the bus he had taken after reaching Paddington - and Tawell had even mistaken him for a conductor.
“Yes you were sir, you got out of the train and got on to an omnibus and gave me sixpence,” Williams responded.
On March 12, 1845, Tawell was found guilty and sentenced to execution, which was watched by some 10,000 people.