It’s been almost 138 years since the cruel murder of Harriet Staunton, but it remains to this day to be one of the most infamous cases in the history of London. The Penge Mystery, as it has become known, caught the imagination of Victorian and present day audiences alike (the story has been brought back to the public's attention with the re-release of Elizabeth Jenkins’ novel Harriet in 2012). Walking down Mosslea road in Penge, it’s strange to imagine that it was once the site of a brutal case of murder and neglect. At the time of the murder, in 1877, the road was called Forbes road, but this was changed as result of the scandal that one small house brought upon London.

The victim of the murder was a woman named Harriet Staunton who had learning difficulties, leaving her vulnerable to the manipulation she would endure. Born Harriet Butterfield, she came from a wealthy family with an income of £5,000 a year (around £550,000 in today’s terms). It was this that first attracted the attention of Louis Staunton, her husband to be.

At the time, no help was given to people with learning difficulties and often they would be kept out of sight by their parents, but Harriet’s mother, Mrs Butterfield, believed in giving her daughter the opportunity to live life normally. It was unexpected when at the age of 33, Harriet received the attentions of Louis Staunton, who was only 23 at the time. Staunton was already known to the Butterfields due to the fact that Louis’s brother, Patrick, was already married to Harriet’s cousin, Elizabeth. Thinking that it was unlikely for Louis to want to marry Harriet for any reason other than her money, Mrs Butterfield was wary of Louis intentions and tried to halt their courtship. However, for Harriet, it was her first taste of independence from her mother and these objections only increased her longing for rebellion and staying with Staunton. It was less than a year later that the pair married. What Harriet was unaware of was that her husband, Louis was already in love with his sister-in-law’s sister, Alice, who was only fifteen. At the house where Harriet now lived with her husband and his lover, Harriet faced incredible struggles from people who considered her groans of pain and starvation to be mere annoyances. On the one occasion that Mrs Butterfield tried to see her daughter, she was warned never to come back, leaving Harriet alone. This was not yet the worst of it; it was not long before Harriet became pregnant with Louis’s child. For an abandoned Victorian woman with no sex education or so much as a helping hand, childbirth must have been as bewildering as it was painful. As for Harriet’s child, Tommy, it was a matter of months before he died of neglect. Childbirth had lead Harriet’s health to further decline. Just as she was on the verge of death, Louis and his brother Patrick moved her from Kent to a house on Mosslea road. It was here that Harriet finally succumb to starvation and sheer exhaustion. It was not long after she died that the media of the time became obsessed with the so-called ‘Penge Mystery’. With media being slower and more limited that it was today, there were fewer stories and the case of Harriet Staunton became world famous. The first stages of the investigation were held at a pub today known as the Hollywood East. Today, it seems incredible that this case could have had such a huge impact, not just on the people following the progress of the trial in newspapers, but also on the law system itself. As a resident of Penge, it seems surprising that one case of murder, however horrible, should get so much attention. It is also bizarre how little Penge has changed in almost 150 years; not only have the houses stayed the same but also the fact that the pub, the Hollywood East is still open today. Over a hundred years after her death, Harriet will be remembered as an innocent woman who's story will intrigue people for years to come.

Article by Rachel Honeysett, Sydenham High School