Why Staffordshire horse killings and hoaxes were probed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Strange goings-on, mutilated horses and cattle, a blizzard of malicious letters, hoaxes, and trickery. This was a case for Sherlock Holmes.

 A mugshot of George Edalji after his arrest.
A mugshot of George Edalji after his arrest.

The scene of the crime was the fields around the village of Great Wyrley, near Cannock. And the epicentre of the police investigation was the local vicarage where they got their man, the vicar's son.

It was a sensational case which saw George Edalji spend three years of a seven-year sentence behind bars.

But even at the time there was a suspicion that his conviction had more to do with the colour of his skin than the strength of the evidence against him.

On his release in 1906 he wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, in the hope that the famous writer could help him clear his name.

Sir Arthur was immediately convinced of George's innocence, and started a campaign to win him a pardon, while at the same time gathering evidence which he believed pointed to the real culprit.

The Edalji's home at St Mark's Vicarage as it looked in 1903.

The Edalji case is seen by many as a great British miscarriage of justice from the early 20th century, a wrong to compare with the more famous Dreyfus affair which became a cause celebre in France.

Now author and journalist Shrabani Basu, whose books include Victoria & Abdul, which was turned into a movie, has written a new book about the case called The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer.

"I had always been fascinated by the case of George Edalji and Arthur Conan Doyle's involvement in it," she says.

While there have been previous books about the mystery, she was able to take advantage of new material. In 2015 she discovered that a collection of letters written by Conan Doyle to the head of Staffordshire police, Chief Constable G A Anson, was being sold at auction.

They were bought by Portsmouth Library, and she was able to make an appointment to see them.

"Page after page of hate-filled anonymous letters lay in the boxes, directed at the family in the vicarage," she says.

After his release George set out to clear his name.

She says George was a victim of racism in a society that was ready to believe the worst of a 'foreigner', albeit one who was British-born.

His father was a convert to Christianity, the first Indian to have a parish in England, and his mother, before marriage Charlotte Stoneham, was the daughter of the vicar in Ketley, Shropshire.

Things started to go wrong for the Edalji family with the advent of anonymous letters, some malicious and threatening, and hoaxes, which began in 1888 when George was 12, and continued for several years.

Their evident local knowledge pointed to them being written by somebody within the community, and police became convinced that they were being penned by George, a quiet and socially awkward boy with few friends.

Then on February 1, 1903, a horse was killed in Cheslyn Hay. It was to be the first of a series of gruesome killings of horses and livestock in the area. As they continued, pressure grew on the police to catch the culprit.

The letters had put George, by now practising as a lawyer, on the police radar, and they arrested and charged him. Despite there being no witnesses, no 'smoking gun' evidence, and a thin circumstantial case, he was convicted.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took up Edalji's case.

After his release, Sir Arthur's agitation to clear George and 'solve' the case gained international interest and brought him into increasing conflict with Anson, the police chief.

Conan Doyle was like a terrier with a bone, and made some serious mistakes, but nevertheless George was pardoned over the horse maiming charge, but not for a charge connected with the letters, which meant he received no compensation.

An extraordinary aspect was that one of the letters turned out to have been written by the police themselves in an attempt to trick prime suspect George, and also Anson had laid a deliberate false trail for Conan Doyle to discredit the writer's inquiries.

Another was that cattle maimings were to continue in the Great Wyrley area for years.

Edalji – according to the book the correct pronunciation is Ee-dl-gee, with the accent on the first syllable – avoided Great Wyrley after his release, living in London, and was able to resume his career as a solicitor. After his father Shapurji died Charlotte moved out of the vicarage and went to live with her sister, Mary Sancta, in Coalbrookdale.

A scene from the courtroom.

George ultimately moved in with his sister in Welwyn Garden City. He died aged 77 on June 17, 1953. Maud fought unsuccessfully to the end for compensation for the humiliation and expenses the family had suffered. She died in 1961.

On one of the hottest days of July 2019 Shrabani went to Hatfield Hyde cemetery in Welwyn Garden City looking for George's last resting place. After hours of fruitless searching, she started pulling at the ivy and weeds from a bramble-covered grave.

Gradually the inscription was revealed: "George Edward Thompson Edalji, Eldest son of Rev Shapurji Edalji, Vicar of Wyrley, Staffs. Died June 17, 1953, aged 77. The strife is over, the battle done. Also Maud, sister of George, passed on December 4, 1961."

"In the end he died in semi-poverty with his lonely and inconsolable sister by his side," she says.

"He, however, left a legacy for the future, for others who may have been denied justice. His case led to the Criminal Appeal Act of 1907 and eventually the setting up of the Criminal Appeal Court.

"Perhaps that would be the single contribution of George Edward Thompson Edalji, the son of an immigrant, born in England, but always a foreigner."

"The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer" is published by Bloomsbury and costs £20.

Most Read

Most Read

Sorry, we are not accepting comments on this article.

Top Stories

More from the Express & Star

UK & International News