Because Mondays are MURDER...

Monday, 9 June 2014

Murderous Monday - Men Who Kill - John Owen/Jones/Jennings - The Denham Massacre

At eight o'clock on the morning of August 8th 1870, at Aylesbury Gaol, John Owen met his marker at the end of William Calcraft's rope for the horrific murder of Emanuel Marshall, his wife, sister, mother and three of Marshall's children.

John Owen had been born in Byfield, Northamptonshire on 3rd June 1832 to John Owen, a tailor, and his wife Elizabeth Bush.  He first appears on the 1841 Census aged nine years old, living with his parents, elder sister Caroline, and brother George and younger sister Elizabeth.  In 1851, eighteen year old John is an apprentice Blacksmith working for and living with Thomas Mason in Byfield, Northamptonshire.

Emanuel Marshall had been born in 1836 in Hillingdon, Middlesex, to William Marshall, a gardener, and his wife Mary.  Shortly after Emanuel's birth his family moved to the village of Denham in Buckinghamshire. 

The six year old  Emanuel can be found on the 1841 Census living with his parents and elder siblings in Cheapside Lane, Denham, Buckinghamshire.  In 1851 Emanuel is working as a shop boy.  William Marshall passed away sometime between 1851 and 1860. 

In 1860 in Suffolk Emanuel married Charlotte Sparke.

On the 1861 Census the newly wed couple can be found living with Emanuel's widowed mother Mary at her home in Cheapside Lane.  Emanuel is now working as an engine fitter.  Emanuel and Charlotte had four children together, Mary Charlotte born in 1861, Thirza Agnes born in 1864, Maude Gertrude born in 1866 and Francis William born in 1868.

In 1870 Emanuel was the blacksmith for the village and a well liked and respected man.  Emanuel's sister Mary Ann had returned to the family home and was due to marry George Amor on 24th May.  everything seemed well, until a shocking discover on 22nd May 1870 at the Marshall family home.  Police Constable Charles Taverner was called to the scene and reported:

"I went to the house and found the doors open.  I found two bodies - the wife and the sister - lying just inside the door and the sister's feet towards her head.  A petticoat covered them.  About two feet from them was a sledgehammer... this was covered in blood.  Then I went into the wash house and found the bodies of the three children.   I found an axe... also covered with blood.  There were extensive wounds on all the heads of the bodies... I found the body of Emanuel, the father, in the forge, lying flat on his face, with his hands stretched out.'

Little Francis William had survived the massacre as he had been staying with relatives to make room for his aunt Mary Ann's return for her wedding.

A thorough search of the property was executed and a rather odd discovery made, a set of blood splattered clothes not belonging to anyone in the family were found.  A pair of boots, trousers, a coat, a cord jacket and vest, a slop (a loose fitting smock or tunic), a deer stalker's hat and a red and white checked neckerchief.  Police Constable Taverner had seen a man wearing clothes exactly like this the previous morning whilst on duty.  The stranger had made an odd remark about seeing a man threatening to throw his wife into the canal before asking for directions to the Marshall's home.

It was also found that the drawers of the bureau had been opened and Emanuel's silver pocket watch was missing.

St Mary The Virgin, Denham Village
where the Marshalls were laid to rest
  © Copyright Jack Hill and licensed for
reuse under this
Creative Commons Licence

Superintendent Thomas Dunham arrived from Slough later that evening and took charge of the investigation.

A few witnesses remarked on seeing a man in the area wearing clothes they believed to be Emanuel's.  One witness, Emma Simpson, initially mistook the man for Emanuel when she came across him on the road coming from the Marshall home.  However the police had very little else to go on and finding the murderer seemed impossible. 

A lucky break came in the shape of Charles Coombes, a bricklayer from Uxbridge, who had become increasingly suspicious of his new acquaintance and his behaviour, so much so that reported his suspicions to his employer.

Charles had shared a lodging house with his new acquaintance he knew as Jack, and had been offered a silver pocket watch by him.  Charles declined the offer and Jack pawned it.  According the Charles on the day of the murders Jack had left the lodgings house and returned much later, 'attired quite differently,' along with a silver pocket watch.  Jack explained away his change of clothing by saying that he had been to visit his brother who had given him his clothes and the watch.

Jack, or John Owen was eventually arrested at the Oxford Arms, Silver Street, Reading.  Superintendent Dunham recalled, 'I went into the kitchen, which was behind the house, and there were about a dozen men and women there.  Coombes at once pointed out Owen.'  Upon being recognised John Owen said, 'I never murdered man, woman, or child.'  Superintendent Dunham then said, 'You are charged with murdering seven people, among them Emanuel Marshall.'  John Owen replied, 'I have not murdered anyone but I know who did.'  It was pointed out to John that he was wearing the murdered Emanuel's boots and some of his clothes.  All John said was, 'That may well be.'

Silver Street, Reading, Berkshire c1891

John Owen was searched and pawn tickets where found on his for a silver watch like the one missing from the Marshall's home and the deceased Emanuel's waistcoat.  Both pawnbrokers used identified John Owen as the man they had dealt with.  John was taken to Reading Police Station before being taken to Slough by train.  A thousand people lined John's route to Reading Station, where they hissed at him.

On Wednesday 24th May 1870, John was brought before magistrates at Slough Police Station where it was found he had a long history of criminal activity, mainly theft in and around London.  Emanuel Marshall's sister in law, Mary Sparke identified the clothes and boots that had been found on John Owen at the time of his arrest as those her brother in law had owned.

John was committed to trail on 21st July 1870 at Aylesbury before Judge Baron Channell.  John pleaded not guilty.  Several witnesses testified to having seen John in the area at the time of the murders and to the fact he was wearing Emanuel's clothes and boots.  Witnesses where also able to testify that goods stolen from the Marshall home where pawned in Reading and Uxbridge.

It surfaced that John had been previously employed by Emanuel, but bore him a grudge as he felt he had been underpaid for his work. 

The defence tried to argue that there was no real evidence linking John to the murders and just because a person was wearing the clothes of a dead man, it did not mean he had murdered him.  The jury was unconvinced and found John Owen guilty.

Aylesbury Gaol

There are rumours that John Owen asked to sleep in the coffin he was to be buried in the night before his execution and that he also threatened to punch  hangman William Calcraft in the face for not visiting him.

In 1881 the only survivor of the Marshall family, twelve year old Francis William can be found living with his grandparents machinist Loyal Sparks and Sophie his wife at 19 Rockingham Road, Uxbridge, Middlesex.  Sadly Francis was to pass away in 1886 aged only eighteen years.


  1. Very sad for all parties. Wonder if John Owen was really guilty; seven murders, leaving his clothes behind and wearing those of his victim including the shoes. It's more like the man had a death wish. I am particular interested in this murder case as I am following up a serie of Victorian murders that has the same pattern. In this case comes forward the wedding day on the 24th of May (Queen Victoria's birthday) and more details linked with what I have found. Probably no reaction on this one but like to contact the author to share information with.