Herbert Rowse Armstrong is the only solicitor hanged for murder in the UK. As with the case of Hawley Harvey Crippen, Armstrong poisoned his wife, he was dominated by his wife and was very slight in build. If Armstrong had not attempted the poisoning of a business rival, then the murder of his wife may have remained undiscovered.
Herbert Rowse Armstrong was born in 1870 at Newton Abbot, Devon. His parents were not particularly wealthy, and it was through the support of relatives that Armstrong obtained a good education and went to Cambridge University, where he was a spare Cox for the University Eight. He gained his law degree, and became a solicitor in 1895. He initially practised in Newton Abbot before moving to Liverpool.
While at Liverpool in 1906, Armstrong heard of a vacancy in the town of Hay, in Brecknock, where there was an opening for a managing clerk. Armstrong moved to Hay, and put some of his savings into the partnership. When Mr. Cheese, the oldest of two partners died, Armstrong succeeded to the practice.
Armstrong’s improved business circumstances allowed him to marry a friend from his Newton Abbott days: Miss Katerine Mary Friend, who was from Teignmouth. They moved into a house in a valley called Cusop Dingle, the stream in this valley forming part of the border between England and Wales. They had three children in as many years, before moving into a larger house in 1910, which was also located in Cusop Dingle.
Armstrong was a keen gardener, and was obsessed with eradicating garden weeds. He kept a stock of weed-killer, and used to buy arsenic and made up his own concoctions. His rather plain business premises in Broad Street, Hay, were part of a shop, the remaining portion occupied by a firm of estate agents. Across the street were the offices of Mr. Griffiths, who was also a solicitor. Mr. Griffiths was Welsh, as had been the late Mr. Cheese, whereas Armstrong was a stranger to this small, conservative town. However, the business was doing reasonably well and Mrs. Armstrong had her own income of £2000.
With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Armstrong who had previously been a member of the Territorials, was called up to the Army with the rank of Captain, and he was later promoted to Major. After a short posting to France, Armstrong returned to the UK which enabled him to look after his practice in Hay.
Meanwhile, his business rival Mr. Griffiths was becoming increasingly frail. Armstrong saw an opportunity to expand his business, and offered to amalgamate the two practices. But Griffiths had decided on other arrangements. Early in 1919, just after Armstrong left the Army, Mr. Oswald Norman Martin joined Griffiths as a partner. Martin had been invalided out of the Army after suffering a head wound which affected his facial muscles. At the end of 1920, Mr. Griffiths died.
Armstrong’s life at home was very different from the relative freedom he had enjoyed while in the Army. Armstrong, who was only just over 5 feet tall and 7 stones ( 98 lbs or 45 Kg) in weight, was dominated by his wife. Although she was a devoted wife and Mother, she treated her husband and children with a strictness which denied them many harmless activities. For example, Armstrong was only allowed to smoke in one room, and never outdoors, he was not allowed to drink alcoholic drinks (except in other people’s houses when he had a cold), he was rebuked in public by his wife for keeping servants waiting and she often called him away from some parties because it was his bath night. While Mrs. Armstrong was much respected in the local area, there was some sympathy for her husband.
During the period May 1920 and February 1921, a series of highly significant events occurred. While visiting London, Armstrong dined with a lady he had first met while he was in the Army stationed at Christchurch in 1915. In July 1920, Armstrong drew up a new will for his wife (or at least in her name), in which she left everything to him, with no provision for their children. He also made one of his periodical purchases of weed-killer.
During August 1920, Mrs. Armstrong’s physical and mental health deteriorated to such an extent that she was admitted to the Barnwood Asylum in Gloucester. During January 1921, at the request of both Mrs. Armstrong and her husband she was, she was discharged from the asylum and returned home on 22 January 1921. It was also during January 1921 that Armstrong made another purchase of a quarter of a pound of arsenic. On 11 January 1921, Armstrong made what was to be his last purchase of arsenic, at the chemist shop of his rival Martin’s prospective Father-in-law, Mr. Davies.
One month after she returned home, Mrs. Armstrong died on 22 February 1921. Her Doctor, Dr. Hincks certified her cause of death to have been heart disease, the result of a long course of rheumatism, and itself bringing about nephritis. She had also suffered from acute gastritis. Three days later, Mrs. Armstrong was buried in the churchyard at Cusop.
After Mrs. Armstrong’s death, life at Mayfield went on very much was before, but Armstrong was now master in his own home. He still had a housekeeper and a maid; his youngest child was at home, and he had the companionship of school friends during their school holidays. His practice had continue to develop, he was now clerk to the justices of Hay, Bredwardine and Paincastle, and in addition to these posts, he was hopeful of being appointed to a similar position with the bench at Talgarth. The only business worry was Mr. Martin, who was pressing Armstrong to complete the long overdue formalities arising out of the sale of property, in which there was the matter of £500 paid to Armstrong as a deposit. Although Armstrong had been left £2300 in his wife’s second will, which had been proved, Armstrong never made any substantial claims on the money, and it would have been enough to cover the debt owed to Mr. Martin.
Around the time that he was pressing for the completion of the property transaction, Mr. Martin was anonymously sent a box of chocolates at his home. Mrs. Martin ate some, and they were later produced at a dinner party held by Mr. and Mrs. Martin. One of the guests was taken ill, and after examination, it was discovered that arsenic had been inserted through holes pierced in the base of the sweets. Later, these holes were found to correspond with the nozzle of a weed-eradicator used by Armstrong.
Suddenly, professional relations between Martin and Armstrong improved, as the closing of the building sales seemed to be drawing to a close. On 26 October 1921, Armstrong invited Martin to visit his house for afternoon tea. During tea, Armstrong passed Martin a scone, apologising for using his fingers. The contracts and the £500 were not discussed, although Martin could have raised the subject. Later that evening, after returning home, Martin became ill.
Dr. Thomas Hincks, who had treated Mrs. Armstrong, called at the Martins’ house early the next morning. He found Martin in bed, with a severe bilious attack and a very rapid pulse. Dr. Hincks made daily calls to examine Martin, who was slowly improving, but he still had a high pulse rate. On 31 October 1921, Dr. Hincks sent a sample of Martin’s urine to the Clinical Research Association for analysis. A week later, when Martin had recovered sufficiently to return to work, the results arrived with Dr. Hincks. The report stated that the urine sample contained 1/33rd of a grain of arsenic.
Dr. Hincks knew that none of the medicines prescribed by him for Martin contained no arsenic. He had questioned Martin about the food he had consumed immediately before his illness started. He knew that Martin had eaten lunch on 26 October 1921, which had been shared by Mrs. Martin and their maid. Both these ladies were fine, and had suffered no ill effects. Dr, Hincks was struck by the similarities betweens Martin’s illness and the illness suffered by Mrs. Armstrong in the period leading up to her admission to the Barnwood Asylum. Dr. Hincks suspicions were raised when he contacted the Asylum, and doctors there confirmed that they may have also been misled as to Mrs. Armstrong’s physical ailments. Dr. Hincks them forwarded his concerns to the Home Office in London. Dr. Hincks kept his concerns to himself, although he did warn Martin.
The authorities eventually decided to take action on Dr. Hincks suspicions. But the investigations had to be conducted carefully. If Armstrong was guilty, they could not afford to alarm him. If he was innocent, then they could not afford to cause unnecessary scandal. The investigating police officers, led by Chief Detective Inspector Crutchett, went to Hay after dark and made discrete calls on Mr. and Mrs. Martin, Dr. Hincks and Mr. Davies (the chemist and Martin’s Father-in-law).
During this period, from Martin’s return to work until Christmas 1921, Armstrong made numerous attempts to invite either Martin, or Martin and his wife, to visit Armstrong for tea. Martin, who was aware of the police investigations, repeatedly declined the invitations. However, the situation was becoming strained. On one occasion, Martin sent an order across the road to the local cafe for tea and buns.
On 2 January 1922, Mrs. Armstrong was exhumed and the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury removed some samples before she was reburied. The samples were examined and found to contain 3½ grains of arsenic. On 19 January 1922, Armstrong was charged with the murder of his wife.
During the process of his 10 day trial in April 1922, Armstrong was kept in Gloucester Prison. Everyday of the trial, he was taken to court in Hereford. The Prosecution case was presented by the Attorney-General (Sir Ernest Pollock). Armstrong was represented by Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett. Armstrong selected Curtis-Bennett, a fellow Cambridge man, as “Cambridge always wins” Armstrong later stated. On the day before the trial started, Cambridge beat Oxford in the annual boat race by 4½ lengths. The trial judge was Mr. Justice Darling, who was hearing his last murder case after a 25 year career as a judge. He was 73 years old at the time of the trial, and the same small, slight build as Armstrong. Darling later said that the Armstrong case was one of the most interesting cases that he heard.
On the first day of the trial, 3 April 1922, a legal debate took place, with the trial jury removed. The legal argument concerned the admission of evidence regarding the poisoning of Martin. Although Armstrong had been charged with poisoning Martin, the case had gone no further. Mr. Justice Darling ruled that evidence regarding the Martin case could be admitted. He latter stated in his summing up ” … that the Defendant had arsenic in his possession and that he would use it to poison a human being”.
During the trial the defence claimed that Mrs. Armstrong had been suicidal, and that she had finally committed suicide by swallowing the arsenic which she had found that her husband had purchased to kill his garden weeds. This was countered by the Prosecution showing that Mrs. Armstrong was not capable of leaving her bed in the week before her death, and that she had said to her nurse on the morning of the day that she died: “I am not going to die, am I? Because I have everything to live for – my children and my husband”.
The lady who had first met Armstrong in Christchurch, and later in London three months after Mrs. Armstrong’s death testified for the Prosecution that Armstrong had spoken to her about marriage. Bernard Spilsbury testified that the amount of arsenic in Mrs. Armstong’s body could have only occurred through poisoning. Mrs. Armstrong’s own Doctor, Dr. Hincks testified that she could have administered any medicine herself on the day of her death.
It was to be expected that a well educated and professional man like Armstrong, who was also Worshipful Master of the Hay Lodge of Freemasons and a church-warden who read the lessons on Sundays, would testify in his own behalf.
After completing his testimony and cross-examination, Armstrong was about to leave the witness box when the judge asked Armstrong to wait, as he had some questions to put to Armstrong. The judge’s questions exposed the inadequacies of Armstrong’s earlier replies. It was presented in earlier Prosecution evidence that Armstrong had made up some twenty small bags of arsenic, as he stated to put into individual dandelion holes to kill these weeds. Now the judge asked why he had done this, when it would have been easier to pour the poison straight from the original packet into holes in the ground. Armstrong replied: “I really do not know. At the time it seemed the most convenient way of doing it.”
The judge continued by asking why Armstrong, who was a solicitor by profession, did not tell the police about this experiment. Why did Armstrong not tell the police earlier about the two packets found in his desk at home? The questions continued to be asked by the judge, and Armstrong was showing more signs of floundering, as the judge’s questions continued to hit home.
After the Prosecution and defence had been completed, the judge summed up the case for the 12 man jury; which was composed of 8 farmers, a fruit grower and 3 professional gentlemen. The judge stated that the possession of the two bags of arsenic in Armstrong’s desk, showed just possession of arsenic and nothing else. The main point was the state of Mrs. Armstrong in her last few days before her death at home. Mr. Justice Darling also reminded the jury that if it was wrong for him to have allowed the evidence of Martin’s poisoning, then this was a matter for the Court of Criminal Appeal should Armstrong be found guilty.
Armstrong was found guilty of the murder of his wife, and sentenced to death by hanging. On 16 May 1922, the Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed Armstrong’s appeal, ruling that Mr. Justice Darling was correct in his decision to allowed evidence regarding Mr. Martin’s poisoning to be presented by the Prosecution.
The day before his execution, Armstrong wrote the following letter:
30 May 1922.
My dear Matthews
My heart was too full today to say all I wished. Thank you, my friend, for all you have done for me. No one could have done more. Please convey also to all your staff my gratitude for the work they put in. No team could have worked more loyally or with more devotion to duty.
Ever your faithful friend,
(sgd). H Rowse Armstrong
On 31 May 1922, Herbert Rowse Armstrong was hanged at Gloucester Prison. The Executioner was John Ellis, who was assisted by Edward Taylor.
The Armstrong children were taken care of by an Aunt. The house was sold and its name changed. Mr. Martin eventually became a prominent solicitor in Hay-on-Wye. However, his health had been affected by the attempts on his life and the subsequent trial. He suffered from depression, becoming afraid of the dark. In 1924, Martin and his wife moved to East Anglia where he died shortly afterwards.