This now almost illegible tombstone is the only visible reminder of one of the most notorious and still unsolved murder cases of the 19th century. It ruined reputations, destroyed great families and most of the chief suspects lie in unknown, unmarked graves such was the shame in being connected with it.
It’s the last resting place of Charles Delaunay Turner Bravo who died of antimony poisoning on 21 April 1876 aged 30. It took him nearly 3 days to die an agonising death as the poison was so lethal. The memorial was erected by his sorrowing mother who died a year later of grief. I first saw it on a guided tour of West Norwood when the guide indicated it and mentioned the name. It’s now set back from the path and jostles for space with the other memorials and monuments that have grown up around it as if hiding it. In fact I had to wait until the winter die-back to be able to avoid the clinging embrace of long barbed tentacles of brambles and have a closer look. I could just about see his name on the memorial but the stone surround that was originally around it has long since collapsed.
This is the story of one of the notorious cases of the 19th century set against a background of money, womens rights or lack of them, and society’s punishment for those who transgress the rules.
It began on the night of 18 April 1876 after the Bravo household had retired for the night at the Priory on Bedford Hill near Balham. At this time it was surrounded by fields and all would have been quiet. Suddenly the night was disturbed by Charles Bravo, the head of the household, shouting ‘Florence! Florence! Hot water! Hot water!’ before collapsing and vomiting. 2 doctors were then called to the scene and so events began. He had, as was his custom, drank water from his jug before retiring but on this night someone had added 30-40 grains of antimony, a deadly poison which is derived from tartar emetic. Antimony has no taste in water and is an unusual method of killing someone. It began by eating its way its way through his intestines which virtually disintegrated and his stomach. After 3 days his central nervous system began to fail and Bravo knew that he was dying. He managed to make a will in his wife, Florence’s favour which was witnessed by one of the doctors and the butler before being pronounced dead at 5.20am on 21 April.
It was a long and painful death and the post-mortem gave the cause of death as ‘heart failure from the effect of the poison on his central nervous system’. Incredibly it was first considered to be a suicide but I would have thought that there are far less painful methods. However the police soon decided that it was murder and soon began looking for suspects. These were:
Florence his widow: She and Charles had married on 7 December 1875 at All Saints Church Kensington and it has been rumoured that she may have already been pregnant as the marriage was brought forward and she had a miscarriage very shortly afterwards. It hadn’t been a happy marriage as she had already fled to her parents after 3 months alleging domestic abuse. She had had quite a colourful and somewhat provocative life prior to her marriage. Florence had been widowed before after her first husband, Captain Alexander Ricardo died in a Cologne hotel room of alcoholism in 1871 after 6 years of marriage. She had persuaded him to give up his Army career and he struggled to establish another one before taking to the bottle. However he left her £40,000 which was a huge sum when the average working man earned £30 p.a.
Unusually for the time, she was now an independently wealthy woman and soon established her own household at The Priory. She met Dr James Manby Gully when she took the ‘water-cure’ at his hydrotherapy clinic in Malvern. He had known her family for over 30 years and was the celebrity doctor of his day with several famous clients including Tennyson. He was in a miserable second marriage to a Mrs Kibble who was 17 years older than him and from whom he was legally separated. Nevertheless he and Florence embarked on a scandalous affair which made them notorious throughout the neighbourhood. Gully took a house on Bedford Hill Road, Orwell Lodge, which was conveniently near The Priory for secret trysts. As a result Florence was ostracised by local society as people refused to call. However she considered Gully to be ‘the cleverest man I have ever met.’ But she still yearned to be part of society again and after Gully performed an abortion on her the affair ended.
The only way that she could be admitted back into society and be reconciled with her parents was through marriage. She and Charles were introduced by Mrs Cox, her companion who knew his family. There has been a suggestion that he was a fortune hunter and certainly no gentleman would have considered marrying someone with her reputation. It was a marriage that proved to be a disaster.
Mrs Jane Cox – She was a widow with 3 young sons at school and was employed by Florence as her ‘lady’s companion’ at The Priory. Mrs Cox had married in Jamaica and had returned to England after her husband had died. She had been privy to Gully and Florence’s affair and local shopkeepers had refused to serve her. She had jet black hair and an olive coloured complexion which had led to rumours that she had ‘coloured blood.’ She was facing dismissal by Bravo who was on a mission to reduce household expenses and she was poor to say the least. She didn’t want to be unemployed and destitute. There was also her behaviour during Bravo’s protracted death agonies. She told one doctor that he had swallowed chloroform whereas Bravo recovered consciousness long enough to refute this and instead claimed that he’d taken laudanum due to pain in his lower jaw. Mrs Cox then confused matters more when she told the second doctor, Harrison Royes Bell, that Bravo had also told her that ‘I have taken poison don’t tell Florence.’ One wonders if Bravo was in any fit state to confide this and it sounds as if Mrs Cox was trying to create a cover-up. She had also received a bottle clearly marked ‘Poison’ from Dr Gully after he’d vowed never to speak to her again.
Griffiths – the coachman – He had already been dismissed by Bravo two weeks before the wedding and as a result had lost his tied cottage. Griffiths had been heard making drunken threats in the Bedford Hotel on Bedford Hill in which he claimed that Bravo would be dead within a few months. He kept antimony in the coach house to which the entire household had access. A series of very insulting anonymous letters were received at The Priory over Christmas in which Charles was accused of being a fortune hunter and these stopped after Griffiths took a job in Kent.
Dr James Manby Gully: He was never a serious suspect although if Bravo had died then perhaps his affair with Florence could resume. He publicly denied any involvement in the murder.
And what of Charles Bravo himself?
He was born in 1845 and was the only son of Augustus and Mary Turner. Augustus died when Charles was small and Mary married a wealthy merchant, Joseph Bravo, who was 15 years older than her. He’d made his money from fruit and tobacco and was well-off. After studying at Kings College, London Charles was called to the bar in 1868 and took on his stepfather’s surname when he was 23. But he wasn’t well off and was merely ‘jogging along’ on £200 p.a. This wasn’t the life that he craved.
Both he and Florence had something that the other wanted – she had money and he could give her respectability. Florence confessed all of her affair with Dr Gully pre-marraige and Charles admitted that he had supported a woman who had had his child in Maidenhead for 5 years.
But money was already an issue between them prior to marriage as Florence had invoked the right to keep her fortune after marriage. Until 1870 this would automatically have gone to Bravo but now women could keep any assets they brought into the marriage as long as a legal settlement confirming their intention to do so had been ratified in court prior before the union had taken place.
When Charles discovered this he had threatened not to go through with the marriage so she compromised by giving him The Priory’s lease and its furnishings, make her will in his favour and in return she would retain control of her money. Already he seemed to be after her money and displaying his domineering, ruthless side. However Bravo was determined to be in charge and decided to reduce household expenses by dismissing staff which Florence hated. It was also a subtle way of controlling her by getting rid of a support like Mrs Cox and her horses which she loved.
The first inquest was held on 28 April 1876 and concluded that Charles had died from the effects of poisoning but did not know who administered it. This was considered unsatisfactory. The stage was now set for the second 5 week public inquest which would change the lives of Florence, Dr Gully and Mrs Cox forever.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated
Part 2 – ‘Her lean and senile seducer’ – the second Charles Bravo inquest and its aftermath
Death at the Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England, James Ruddick, Atlantic Books, 2001
Dr Gully, Elizabeth Jenkins, Michael Joseph 1972