British Executions

Conrad Donovan

Age: 35

Sex: male

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 13 Dec 1904

Crime Location: 478 Comercial Road, Stepney, London

Execution Place: Pentonville

Method: hanging

Executioner: William Billington


Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan were convicted of the murder of Matilda Emily Farmer 65 and sentenced to death.

They had robbed Matilda Farmer's newsagents at 478 Commercial Road, Stepney, London and left her tied up and bound resulting in her asphyxiation on 12 October 1904.

However, the evidence against them was described as having been wholly circumstantial.

Matilda Farmer had lived at the shop for 40 years. Initially her parents had run it after which her brother ran it and when he died 4-5 years earlier she took over its management.

The newsagents had once been the principle newsagent in the district and had employed a dozen or so boys delivering papers across the area. However, as Matilda Farmer had grown older her prosperity had dwindled and she only had one boy delivering papers at the time she died.

It was commonly thought that she had amassed a significant sum of money and that she had it hidden in her house and that it was thought that that was the reason she was robbed.

It was said that the robbery had been carefully planned and that more than one person had gone into the shop and then seized Matilda Farmer and taken her upstairs where she was bound and gagged. It was noted that the upstairs area was private and that Matilda Farmer never allowed anyone to go up there and that it was thought that her jewellery had been on display up there.

It was thought that Matilda Farmer had struggled during the robbery as the banister on the stairs had been broken as she was taken up.

Whilst it was accepted that robbery had been the motive based on the rumour that Matilda Farmer had a hoard of wealth in her room, the fact that none was found when the police arrived and none was traced, led the police to think that the robbers had got clean away with it all. However, after the arrest and conviction of Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan the owner of 478 Commercial Road made preparations to have the property repaired and for three weeks painters and decorators worked there but it was not until a Friday morning after three weeks of work that a painter that had been at work in the room that Matilda Farmer was found in found a section of the flooring that was loose and that upon inspection he found a tin box and a black leather bag that appeared to have been where they were found for a long time, neither of which were locked and within which was found a large amount of jewellery.

Her sister who ran a newsagents on Whitechapel Road said that Matilda Farmer lived alone in the shop premises and that she last saw her 5-6 weeks before her murder when Matilda Farmer came to see her at her shop. She said that she was a very secretive woman and didn't know how much money she kept in her house. She said that Matilda Farmer expressed fear about living in the house and when she last saw her said that if she stopped in the house much longer she would be sure to be murdered. The sister said that Matilda Farmer had previously been assaulted in her shop some months earlier when a man had struck her over the head with a handkerchief containing stones and other things. However, the man was disturbed when a customer came into the shop and he ran off. However, it was later noted that the man’s description matched that of Charles Wade.

Matilda Farmer was last seen by a messenger from a wholesale newspaper agency that had delivered her a bundle of newspapers at 5.56am, handing them to Matilda Farmer herself at her front door.

It was said that she had been murdered sometime between then and 6.33am when her errand boy arrived and found her false teeth and one of her shoes lying in the shop.

The errand boy, an 11 year old boy who worked for Matilda Farmer, said that he had been working for her for five months and that his times were 6.30 to 8.45am and 6 till 9pm and that part of his duty was to deliver papers. He said that when he generally got to the shop each morning he would usually find Matilda Farmer up and the papers ready for him to take out and would start his rounds at 6.40am.

He said that he left the shop at 8.30pm on Tuesday 11 October 1904 and that Matilda Farmer was at the time standing behind the counter. He said that he later went past the shop at 10.30pm when he saw Matilda Farmer at the shop door and that she had said 'Ain't you abed yet?', and that at that time there was no one in the shop. He said that he then went home and on the following day at 6am he got up and had a cup of tea and then went to the shop getting there at about 6.33am. He said that when he got there her shop door was open and he went inside but Matilda Farmer wasn't there. He said he called out for her but got no reply. He then saw some false teeth near the flap in front of the entrance and then saw a soda water bottle and a tumbler on the floor behind the counter. He then saw Matilda Farmer's shoes on the floor near the counter flap and the morning's papers on the floor, untied, by the counter.

He then sold fourpennyworth of papers, opened the shop and took the shutters down. Shortly after a man who had worked for Matilda Farmer came along and the errand boy told him that he hadn't seen Matilda Farmer yet and the man said 'Perhaps she may have killed herself'. The errand boy replied 'Very funny'. Then an errand boy from the stationers came by and he told him that he hadn't seen Matilda Farmer and the stationer's errand boy went off and told the stationer who then came by to ask after Matilda Farmer and when the errand boy told him that he had not seen Matilda Farmer the stationer went off and got the police.

The stationer had gone to find a policeman and found one walking along Commercial Road and told the policeman that no one had seen Matilda Farmer and that she hadn't taken her papers in. The policeman then went to the newsagents and saw the errand boy. He said that the gas in the shop parlour was alight but not full on. He said that when he then went into the front room on the first floor that he saw Matilda Farmer lying across the foot of the bed face downwards. He said her wrists were tied behind her and that he at once cut the string with his pocket knife and turned her over onto her back and found that she had a gag in her mouth. He said that he felt the faint beat of her heart but said that he didn't think that she was breathing and so he sent for a doctor. He said that he didn't do anything to resuscitate her.

The errand boy then gave the policeman the top part of the false teeth and the lemonade glass and bottle which he had found on the shop floor. A broken pince-nez was also found. He said that he also noticed the rail at the bottom of the stairs was broken and that it looked freshly done. He said that the shop looked in its usual state as he would imagine it and that the parlour was untidy but he didn't think that it was disturbed, but said that the bedroom had been turned upside down and the contents of the drawers had been turned onto the floor.

Medical evidence stated that Matilda Farmer had died over an hour before the doctors had arrived.

Later an 18 year old fish curer who lived on Old Church Road said that he knew Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan (aka Joseph Potter) by sight but not by name. He said that on 11 October 1904 he had been on nightwork and at about 6am on the Wednesday morning 12 October 1904 he went to Gosling's Coffee shop in Commercial Road and had some refreshments. He said that he was there about 10 minutes and when he came outside he walked along Commercial Road westwards going as far as Matilda Farmer's shop where he stopped just outside until 6.25 or 6.30am which was his usual custom. He said that he did so because a tram came by which was overloaded. He said that the doors of the shop were shut and the shutters were up. He said then, between 6.25 and 6.30am he saw Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan come out of the shop. He said that Charles Wade came out first followed by Conrad Donovan. He said that they both had newspapers in their hands and that Conrad Donovan left the door open behind him. He said that he saw Charles Wade stop about 16 feet from him and drew Conrad Donovan's attention to something in a newspaper with his finger and that they then walked off towards Stepney Temple at the corner of Portland Street where they stood for a few seconds and then after Charles Wade motioned with his hand they both walked off towards Poplar.

The fish curer said that he didn't see anything more of them after that and that he then went and stood at the corner of Old Church Road where he stood until 6.45am when he saw the errand boy go into Matilda Farmer's shop, saying that he saw the boy go in and then saw him come out about 5 minutes later and take down the shutters. Soon after he met two men and he told them what he had seen and he then went home and went to sleep. He later got up at 10am and his mother told him that Matilda Farmer had been murdered and he told her what he had seen. He then went back to work at 10.30am and told a man at work what he had seen. He said that on the Friday, 14 October 1904, at 10am a police inspector and sergeant came to see him at work and he told them what he had seen. He said that he hadn't gone to the police because he was afraid of Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan and their friends. He said that his friend at work had urged him to tell the police what he had seen but that he didn't know that the friend had himself gone to the police to tell them that he had told him what he had seen.

Later on the Sunday, 16 October 1904 the fish curer said that he went to Arbour Square Police Station where he was shown 14 men and picked out Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan as the men he had seen coming out of Matilda Farmer's shop.

Meanwhile, on 15 October 1904 the police had been keeping watch on the property at 587 Commercial Road. A policeman said he saw Charles Wade go in at 11.40am and then at 12.15pm saw a woman go to the door and look up and down the street and then speak to Charles Wade who was behind the door. He said that Charles Wade then came to the door and then shut it. Then 2-3 minutes later the door was opened by the woman who looked up and down the road and all round before turning to beckon Charles Wade to come out. He said that Charles Wade looked greatly agitated and that he then ran across the road and jumped on a car going eastward. The policeman said that he followed him but lost him near Limehouse Town Hall.

The next day the policeman said he went to the first-floor front room of 83 Grosvenor Street at 6am and knocked on the door and heard the woman ask 'Who's there'. He said 'Police, open the door'. The policeman said that when he entered he saw Charles Wade and said 'Wade, get up and dress yourself' and Charles Wade replied 'Alright'. The policeman said that he expressed no surprise.

Later the police went to 47 Church Road and found the front door open and went in and found Conrad Donovan in bed with a woman. They told him to get up and get dressed and took him to the police station. When he was charged with murder he said 'You have done a bloody fine thing this time, I will do my utmost to disprove it. This is a bloody nice thing. Ain't it?'

Soon after they were both identified by the fish curer who immediately walked up to them and picked them out without the slightest hesitation.

When the men were arrested the police searched their rooms but found none of the missing jewellery.

However, shortly after, on 18 October 1904, a man called in at a police station in Ann Street, Worthing and confessed to the murder. He was described as a sickly-looking man and poorly clad and to have been an inhabitant of Whitechapel. He had gone in to the police station and asked to speak to the inspector, stating that he wanted to give himself up for something serious. After being cautioned he then made a statement that read:

I state that I belong to Whitechapel, London. On the morning of Wednesday, 12th October 1904, between the hours of 5am and 7am, I entered Miss Farmer's shop in Commercial Road, Stepney, and strangled her. (The sergeant there then called his attention to the serious confession he was making and the man said that he was quite aware of it and that it may be used in evidence against him).  I was in the company of a man at the time. The man took hold of her throat, and both of us took her upstairs and laid her on the bed. She then appeared to be in a faint. We then searched the drawers and found 37s 6d in money, which we shared between us. We then went to London Bridge Station, where we parted. I promised to meet the man at Brighton. I came to Brighton through Redhill and arrived on Friday, the 14th inst. I did not see the man at the place where I promised to meet him. I then came to Worthing, and arrived here on the 15th inst, about 12am. I have been staying at a public house, I think it is called the Swan, for the last two nights. The man is well known to the inspector at Leman Street'.

When investigations were made the inspector from Leman Street identified the man as an expert and notorious pickpocket who he had previously seen sentenced to 15 months ' for watch stealing, noting that he also had convictions in Brighton. He said that the man was American-born but had practically lived in Whitechapel all his life. Enquiries were made at the Swan In but it was found that he had in fact lodged two nights at the Volunteer Inn in Woking.

Inquiries were also carried out by a Daily Chronicle representative in Brighton who identified the man that the been referred to there, but he denied all connection with the matter, stating that he had once gone to school with someone with the same name and that he had previously live when a boy with an aunt in the vicinity of Matilda Farmer's shop.

However, nothing more of the confession is known and it is assumed that it was false.

It was noted that the evidence showed that Matilda Farmer had been murdered between 5.56am when her newspapers were delivered to her and 6.33am when the errand boy arrived.

However, the only question was whether it had been Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan that had murdered her.

It was heard that Charles Wade had been a customer of Matilda Farmer and that about a year earlier he had had a conversation with her nephew and ascertained that Matilda Farmer had lived at the shop alone. It was further noted that Matilda Farmer had the reputation in the neighbourhood of having saved a great deal of money and had kept it in her house.

The landlord of the Royal Duchess beer-house, which was almost opposite Matilda Farmer’s shop said that in April 1904 he had noticed two men, who he identified as Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan watching Matilda Farmer’s shop on several Sunday evenings. He said that their conduct aroused his suspicions and that as a result he asked a friend of Matilda Farmer to warn her which he did.

It was further noted that on 4 May 1904 at about 6.30am, Matilda Farmer had been assaulted by a man whom she described the same day to the police and whose description corresponded to that of Charles Wade. She had said that she didn’t know his name, but had described him as a customer who had recently come out of prison, which it was noted Charles Wade had just done. It was heard that he had struck her on the head with a bag of sand, but that she had screamed and he had decamped.

The landlord of the Royal Duchess beer-house further saw Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan watching Matilda Farmer’s shop on 9 October 1904 between 9 and 11pm, it being noted that they were again seen at the same time and place by a painter on 11 October 1904 although he did not come forward with his evidence for a month and five days.

On 12 October 1904, the day of the murder, it was found that Charles Wade, who had been living at 83 Grosvenor Street in Stepney, had been called at the unusually early hour of 5.10am by his landlord who said that he left the house at about 5.45am. The landlords evidence on that point was also confirmed by another witness, but she later withdrew her statement.

Shortly after Matilda Farmer opened her shop at 6am, the woman that said she had seen Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan outside Matilda Farmer’s shop on 9 October 1904 said that she saw them close to her shop again.

The fish curer next said that he saw Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan  leaving her shop between 6.25 and 6.30am, each carrying a newspaper in their hands, stating that he knew them and was suspicious and stood outside the shop until the errand boy arrived, noting that no other persons other than them  left the shop in that time.

It was further noted that there was some suspicious movement on the part of Charles Wade in attempting to escape the surveillance of the police on the following Saturday, and that when he was arrested that he had turned pale and had trembled, although it was further accepted that that didn’t count for much.

However, it was noted that the damning fact was that they could not give any explanation of their movements on the morning in question. It was said that they were beyond all reasonable doubt seen at the times and places mentioned by the two witnesses that had seen them at the shop on the morning, both witnesses being described as men of excellent character, with one of them being previously acquainted with them, having lived on the same street with them for a year and ten months. It was further noted that if it had been possible for them to have explained their presence near the shop on any theory consistent with their innocence that they would certainly have done so.

At the trial the jury convicted Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan of the murder on the evidence given and the judge said that he had no doubt whatever that the conviction was right.

When the prosecution summed up they stated that it had been proved that Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan had been near the shop on the night prior to the murder, that the landlord had woken Charles Wade up at 5.20am on the morning of the murder, that a witness had seen both men near the shop at 6am on the morning of the crime and that they were both seen leaving the shop at about 6.20am.

However, the defence stated that the evidence for the prosecution was not sufficient to convict the men for the mere crime of robbery. The defence noted that although Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan were seen near the shop that there was nothing unusual about that as they both lived nearby and asked whether it was likely that they would commit a murder in the neighbourhood where they lived and were well known.

It was noted that the evidence had been circumstantial, but during the summing up the judge told the jury that it was a mistaken idea that it was dangerous to convict on circumstantial evidence, adding that circumstantial evidence ‘is often safer and more potent and reliable than direct evidence’.

The jury spent ten minutes coming to their verdict.

When the verdict was returned, Charles Wade sprang to his feet and rushed to the end of the dock and shook his fist violently at the counsel for the Crown, crying out in a voice vibrating with passion, ‘If I had only five minutes with you I would do for you!’.

It was further noted that following the trial no further material evidence came to light and that all that was known tended to confirm the correctness of the verdict. It was additionally noted that Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan  were confirmed criminals who had previously been guilty of crimes both of dishonesty and of violence.

It was further noted that a petition addressed to the Secretary of State and letters written by Conrad Donovan  strongly confirmed their guilt. It was said that the letters made no real profession of innocence, and merely talked about the affair as a ‘mystery’ that could be explained if he was not ‘bound’ by a ‘vow’.

In part the letter had read: ‘You know what not another living soul on earth knows, the vow I am under restrains me from altering my position, so now I will say no more about what no living person must know at so dear a cost, but never mind, they will get no information from me. I would sooner pay the penalty. No one knows what I know, and that is good enough for me to know’.

It was also said that the petition could hardly have been written by an innocent man, it being a criticism of certain points of evidence without any protestation of innocence and ended with a somewhat significant postscript in which Conrad Donovan argued that the evidence did not prove an intention to murder, saying, ‘it is quite plain that no one could have premeditated murdering that poor old lady, it is quite plain it was an accident as much as the case of Kingsley’. It was said that the statement indicated a plea that could possibly be put forward by or on behalf of Charles Wade and Conrad Donovan at the last moment.

The police report stated that it could be urged that assuming that it was they who had caused  Matilda Farmer’s death, that they had no intention of killing her, but had only meant to bind and gag her and carry off her money and that her death was accidently caused by the gag.

It was said that such a statement was not inconsistent with the evidence and could possibly have been the truth but added that Charles Wade did have a motive for murdering her as Matilda Farmer knew him by sight and could have identified him. However, it was noted that if it had been their intention to murder her then the question was raised as to why they had gone to the trouble of tying her hands and gagging her. As such, the police report stated that it seemed probable that the murder was not premeditated and just conceivable that it was an accident.

However, it was stated that even if that were true, that it was not necessary to point out that, even if it were so, that it did not alter the character of the act with it being stated that if any person killed another person in the course of a robbery, whether intentionally or unintentionally, then it was murder and that the matter hardly altered in any way the real character of the murder.

The police report concluded by stating that the judge had called it ‘an atrocious murder’ and that it seemed desirable that the extreme penalty should be exacted.

It was noted that the jewellery found in Matilda Farmer’s home was much less valuable than was expected, with a large number of rings being set with imitation stones and other articles being somewhat antiquated. A list of the jewellery later found under the floorboards in the tin box and leather bag consisted of:

Tin Box:

  • Four gold broaches.
  • One gold ring.
  • One gold watch and chain.
  • A silver watch.
  • A necklace.
  • Four pairs of earrings.
  • One broach.
  • Four gold seals set with stones.
  • Two gold keys.
  • Silver pen holder.
  • Silver pin.
  • Silver pair of scissors.
  • Gold toothpick.
  • Pair of pincers.
  • Pearl necklet.
  • Silver thimble.

Leather Bag:

  • Three gold brooches.
  • Five pairs of earrings set with precious stones.
  • Gold locket.
  • Four gold rings.
  • Three gold broaches.
  • Gold chain.
  • Two bracelets.
  • Silver button-hook.
  • Two silver tablespoons.
  • Nine silver desert spoons.
  • Five silver teaspoons.
  • Ten silver forks.
  • Two mustard spoons.
  • A jet chain.
  • Two jet bracelets.

Conrad Donovan was also known as Joseph Potter and had been a sailor.

Charles Wade had been a labourer.

They were executed at Pentonville by William Billington on 13 December 1904.

see National Archives - CRIM 1/96/1, HO 144/774/123885, HO 144/774/123885

see London Daily News - Thursday 13 October 1904

see St James's Gazette - Tuesday 22 November 1904

see Derby Daily Telegraph - Tuesday 06 December 1904

see Illustrated Police News - Saturday 10 December 1904

see Worthing Gazette - Wednesday 19 October 1904