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Dark Echoes of Norwich's Past: The Tragedy of Martha Sheward, Murdered and Dispersed Across the City

In the annals of Norwich’s history, a chilling tale echoes through the ages: that of poor

Martha Sheward, whose life met a horrific and grisly end in 1836. Married to a man whose darkness knew no bounds, Martha’s life was cut short in the most unimaginable way – her throat slit and her body butchered, her remains scattered across Norwich by the man who had promised to love her before God. The tale of Martha Sheward is not merely a chronicle of a murder, but a story that speaks to the shadows that lurk within seemingly ordinary lives.

East Londoner William Sheward was 24 when he met Martha Francis, who at 38 was his

senior, a Wymondham girl born and bred. Martha took a job as Sheward’s housekeeper and love blossomed, with the pair marrying on October 28, 1836 and settling in Norfolk with Martha’s twin, Mary.

The couple moved where the work was and were soon in Norwich, where Sheward found

work as a tailor and lodgings in Ber Street. Their next move was to White Lion Street, where William set up his own tailoring business but trade was hard, and by 1849 he was bankrupt.

He then took a position with a Norwich pawnbroker called Mr Christie, depositing a huge

sum of money with him (especially considering his insolvency) for him to keep out of the

hands of his creditors…and his wife.

By now, the Sheward marriage was on the rocks. There were constant rows about money

and William continually sought solace in the arms of younger women. There were more house moves: to Richmond Hill and then to number seven Tabernacle Street which once stood close to Bishopgate and St Martin-at-Palace Plain.

On June 15 1851, the brewing resentment between man and wife came to a murderous

head as the pair argued once again about Sheward’s cash deposited with Mr Christie. Later, Sheward said: “On the 14 th June Mr Christie asked me to go to Yarmouth to pay £1000

to a Captain of a vessel laden with salt, to enable him to unload on the Monday morning.

She [Martha] said: ‘you shall not go! I will go to Mr Christie and get the box of money myself

and bring it home!’.

As William shaved ahead of his work assignment in the couple’s bedroom, he suddenly lost

his temper and, in his own words: “An altercation occurred when I ran the razor into her

throat. She never spoke after. I then covered an apron over her head and went to

Yarmouth. I came home at night and slept on the sofa downstairs.”

In the following week, number seven Tabernacle Street witnessed some terrible and horrific

sights: Sheward scrubbing the blood from the floorboards, burning all the blood-stained

clothes and removing any trace of the murder: apart from, of course, his wife’s body.

“The house began to smell,” he said, at his trial. A fire was lit in his bedroom, and Sheward began to hack at his wife’s body, cutting it into chunks: but – how do you solve a problem like Martha?

Sheward believed he had come up with the perfect solution: on a stroll through the

midsummer night, he began the process of scattering Martha’s body parts across Norwich,

hoping they would be devoured by animals. This became a grim night-time habit over the following week, grisly walks that gradually saw Sheward dispose of his wife on streets, in rivers and sewers, in woodland and even close to the marital home. To ensure the overpowering smell did not permeate the walls and reach outside, he boiled his wife’s body parts in a saucepan over the fire, admitting later that her head, feet and hands were the only “difficult” items to boil.

The first terrible discovery of part of poor Martha was made on June 21 1851: a Midsummer

Night’s Nightmare. Wood dealer Charles Johnson, 34, was walking from Trowse to Lakenham when his dog found a piece of meat on Martineau Lane and carried it back home. When he arrived in Lakenham, Johnson discovered that his dog had been carrying part of a hand with two fingers clenched over a thumb. Just 200 yards from where the fingers were found, a foot was discovered – both grisly finds were taken to the former police station at Norwich’s Guildhall and placed in a bucket filled with spirits to preserve the evidence.

A view of Norwich by M E Cotman. Date circa 1858

Within the next few days more of Martha was found. A piece of pelvis close to where the foot and hand were found, a fibula and some flesh in a field near Hellesdon Road, other remains as close as 300 yards to number seven Tabernacle Street. More remains were found in three open sewers, these too were taken to the Guildhall where Sergeant Edward Peck had the dreadful task of trying to construct a human jigsaw. Poor Martha’s remains continued to be found until July, when surgeons released details that the body was that of a woman who had been killed by someone who was neither a butcher nor a surgeon.

Critically, they estimated the age of the woman to be between 16 and 26. Martha’s relatives did not think to link the terrible crime to the recent disappearance of their loved one as she was, at the time of her death, 54. Sheward, meanwhile, had told them that his wife had run away to New Zealand, desperately looking for a previous sweetheart, a story that her friends and family found just plausible enough not to question too closely at the time. There was also the small matter of the police never finding a head – it is believed Sheward boiled it and broke it down.

Despite public appeals by the Mayor of Norwich and investigation by the police, there were

no significant leads: the local press didn’t help by suggesting that the dreadful finds were a

prank by medical students, which the medics of the city refuted, angrily.

In the months that followed the murder, Sheward moved from Tabernacle Street to St

Georges, but was thrown out when he was caught with women in his rooms. He went to the Shakespeare Tavern almost next door and then to another rented set or rooms in Lower King Street: by June 1853 he was, once again, bankrupt. Racked with guilt, he began to drink heavily and seek comfort in the arms of a string of women, one of whom – Charlotte Buck – he went on to have two children with in 1856 and 1859 and marry on February 13, 1862.

By 1868, Sheward was landlord of the Key and Castle Tavern at 105 Oak Street where he

lived with Charlotte and their children: but by the Christmas of that year, he had fallen into

a deep depression and said he needed to see his sister in London. Once there, he wrote to Charlotte to tell her he was “in trouble, of which you will soon learn”. It was New Year’s Day in 1869 when a drunken Sheward stumbled into Carter Street Police Station to confess to the murder of his first wife.

“I left home on the 29th December intending to destroy my life with the razor I have in my

pocket,” he told Inspector Davis at the station, “but the Almighty would not let me do it.

“I have killed my wife. I have kept the secret for years, but I can keep it no longer.” He signed a confession: “I, William Sheward of Norwich, charge myself with the wilful murder of my first wife. (Signed) W.S.”

When he was questioned in detail, he explained he had killed his wife, dismembered her

and deposited her across the city. He was asked where he had left body parts: “‘Oh, don’t say any more; it is too horrible to talk about…” he replied. “I went last night to a house in Richmond Place where I first saw my first wife; that brought it so forcibly to my mind that I was obliged to come to you and give myself up. They know all about it at Norwich”.

Within hours, Sheward was desperately trying to retract his statement, but Norwich police

and magistrates were already involved and on January 7, a warrant was issued for him to be

returned to Norfolk to stand trial. As the train carrying the prisoner arrived at Thorpe Station, a large crowd craned to see the man accused of one of Norwich’s most infamous murder cases. Taken in a blacked-out cab to stand before the magistrates at the Guildhall, Sheward was

finally reunited with Martha, albeit her earthly remains, still preserved in a bucket.

The police attempted to gather more evidence, visiting Tabernacle Street and removing

floorboards, but a lifetime had passed since the crime had been committed and they found

nothing: in the end, nothing more was needed than that New Year’s Day confession.

Sheward’s trial began on what would have been Martha’s 72nd birthday, March 29. In the dock, the accused looked frail: crippled with rheumatism, a little old man who looked incapable of the terrible crime he was charged with. But then the witnesses began to pour into court with their tales of finding grisly packages on the streets, sewers and heaths of Norwich, others recalling how Sheward had controlled his wife and kept her away from her family.

Martha's body was buried at the Guildhall. CREDIT: Siofra Connor

Many of the police officers who had originally investigated the case were dead, but a

surgeon, Dalrymple, gave evidence about the body parts brought to the Guildhall, including

“a piece of flesh with sandy-coloured hair attached to it” and “the skin of one foot wrinkled

as if it had been immersed in some hot fluid”. The surgeon noted that Martha’s remains had been exhumed from the Guildhall’s vault – then used as a coal cellar – for the trial.

Martha’s sister, Dorothy, gave evidence, saying that she had not seen her older sister for

more than 17 years and had not heard from her in that time. When she and her siblings were left money by an aunt, she sought out Sheward to ask her where Martha was and he told her: “Your sister can write to you if she pleases, she knows where you are.” She added: “My sister was several years older than me. She was a very light-complexioned person and had very beautiful golden-coloured hair which she wore in small curls.” The judge heard that Martha’s family had continually visited Sheward and pleaded with him to tell them where Martha was, but that he had told them: “I have done nothing with her. She left me quite penniless. She cared nothing about me.” Dorothy’s daughter Elizabeth told the court her mother had replied to her brother-in-law: “Sheward, you are a false man, my sister never left this country.”

Mercifully, Martha’s twin Mary had died before discovering the awful fate of her sister.

Mr Metcalfe Q.C for the defence claimed the accused was labouring “under delusions”

when he confessed, but it took the jury just over an hour to find Sheward guilty after his

two-day trial. When the judge sentenced him to death, he responded: “I have nothing to

say.” Taken to Norwich City Gaol, he would spend his last days in the infirmary. The gaol opened on the site of what is now the Roman Catholic Cathedral on the junction of

Earlham and Unthank Roads in 1826.

In the days that followed, a number of anonymous letters were published in London

newspapers and others arrived addressed to the Magistrates’ Clerk at Norwich, one said to

have been written by his second wife, Charlotte. At first, the letters asserted Sheward’s innocence, then begged for a commutation of the sentence on the grounds of the long interval that had elapsed between murder and trial. They were to no avail.

On April 13, Sheward made a full confession of his crime and gave detailed particulars of the

manner in which he had disposed of the body. Six days later, he saw Charlotte for the very last time and later wrote her a letter begging her for forgiveness and apologising for “drawing you into all this trouble and affliction”.

Sheward was one of the first prisoners to be afforded the dignity of a private execution held

behind the thick walls of the gaol on April 20 1869, the waiting crowd denied for the first

time of seeing the spectacle of a hanging. Regardless, a throng of 2,000 people arrived to wait for the black flag to be raised when Sheward had breathed his last. After praying for an hour with Reverend Wade, Sheward – by now unable to walk – was carried by Chief Warder Hall and Warder Base to a room where his arms were tied behind his back by executioner William Calcraft, one of Britain’s most prolific executioners.

Calcraft was renowned for his controversial use of the ‘short-drop’ hanging method in which

the condemned were slowly strangled to death rather than having their necks quickly

broken. This meant the condemned could take minutes to die, and Calcraft’s signature move was to dramatically pull on the legs or climb on the shoulders of the prisoner to hasten death – and entertain the crowds. Sheward would have been aware of this. As it happened, reporters who watched the hanging from inside the gaol wrote thatSheward’s “struggles were slight and brief”, perhaps Calcraft needed a crowd for a more theatrical spectacle. His body was buried close to where he died and is now covered by a house of God, rather than of correction.

Martha, meanwhile, had been buried at the Guildhall without ceremony many years previously, but her remains were blessed in 2019, by the Rev Fiona Howard, who was joined by Martha’s great-great-great niece, Sandra Francis. “I think God is outside time, so the prayers offered today will be received as if they were offered at the time,” said Rev Howard.


You can listen to our Norfolk & Norwich Festival podcast - Dark Tales from the Guildhall, where we discuss Martha's story below.


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