Date Of Execution: 16 Dec 1903
Crime Location: Long Valley, Aldershot
Execution Place: Winchester
Executioner: William Billington
William Brown and Thomas Cowdrey were convicted of the murder of Esther Atkins 35 and sentenced to death.
It was said that they murdered her with the intention of stealing her money on the night of 6 October 1903 near the statue of the Duke of Wellington at Aldershot after a night of drinking.
William Brown was a soldier in the Royal Scots Fusiliers based in Aldershot and Thomas Cowdrey was a jobbing labourer who worked in fields and bye-roads although he was also an ex-soldier.
William Brown and the other soldier had been seen drinking in the Crimea public house on the night of 6 October 1903, and it was said that when they had left they were seen following Esther Atkins who was a prostitute and then seen to overtake her at which point a civilian, Thomas Cowdrey, was said to have been following them.
They were said to have then all taken a cab to the Duke of Wellington statue where Esther Atkins was later found dead.
Her murder was reported by Thomas Cowdrey who went to see the police saying that he had seen the two soldiers kill her.
William Brown, Thomas Cowdrey and the other soldier were tried for her murder at the Winchester Assizes, but only William Brown and Thomas Cowdrey were convicted, the second soldier being acquitted.
It was said that the evidence was mainly circumstantial and hinged on the identification of the men as well as Thomas Cowdrey's statements, Thomas Cowdrey being described as a man of not strong intellect.
When the police arrived they found Esther Atkins dead in a copse near the Wellington Statue partially naked. They found her snuff box a few yards from her body which she used to keep her money in and a blood stained branch nearby.
It was noted that her shoes and stays had also been removed and that everything tended to show that there had been a violent assault made on her and her clothing torn from her body where it could be and where not torn, it had been rifled, with the object of those treating her in that way being to rob her of her money that she was thought to keep in her clothing.
A friend of Esther Atkins with whom she had lodged for 18 months said that she saw Esther Atkins in the evening with two Scottish soldiers wearing kilts.
Thomas Cowdrey said that he was walking down the High Street when he saw two soldiers with a woman and said that they asked him if he wanted to go for a walk up the street and he said that he would. He said that they went along the High Street and then up Station Road and when they got to the top of Station Road one of the soldiers had asked him to get a flask of whisky for a shilling. After he said he got a cab with them in which he got on the box, and said that the soldiers told him to ride as far as the turnpike. During the journey Thomas Cowdrey told the cab driver that the soldiers intended to rob Esther Atkins.
He said that when they got to the statue that the two soldiers went off with Esther Atkins and then 10 minutes later he heard the cry of 'Murder' and he at once went to the spot where the soldiers and Esther Atkins had gone and saw the soldiers beating Esther Atkins and hitting her with a belt. He said that when he went to pick up a pair of corsets one of the soldiers struck at him with the belt and he said that he struck at the belt with his fist.
He also said that when he first looked over the fence he had seen William Brown on top of Esther Atkins with his knee on her chest. He added that he saw William Brown with his belt in his right hand using it over Esther Atkins's head. He said that he then made a bolt for the stays when William Brown made a savage blow at his head which he struck off.
When a doctor went into the coppice where Esther Atkins was found he said that she was lying on the ground with her clothes torn from her face down on her knees. She had about eight wounds to her head all of which went down to the bone. There were also some other smaller cuts and when he opened her mouth some teeth fell out. He said that he thought that the wounds were probably caused by a hard instrument with a more or less smooth edge and said that the buckle end of a soldier's belt was a likely instrument to have caused them.
He also said that there were some lacerated wounds including one which started from the forehead and ran down to the corner of the right eye which went down to the bone and said that they could have been inflicted by a stick.
Also the lower parts of her arms and wrists were bruised indicating a fierce struggle had taken place and the doctor said that they were consistent with having been held by more than one assailant. The doctor said that Esther Atkins was a powerful woman and both of her hands had been held.
He said that when he removed the scalp he found that it had been separated from the bone by a diffused blood clot which indicated that great violence had been used.
He said that death was due to shock occasioned by her injuries and hastened by the severe struggle and blood loss.
Esther Atkins was described as being 5ft 7in tall and 35 years of age. She was a hard habitual drinker and the doctor said that that would have given her less vitality to withstand her injuries.
At first the two soldiers, William Brown and the other soldier, were arrested and Thomas Cowdrey had appeared relieved as though he had dodged a bullet saying that it was either them or him that would get the blame.
However, Thomas Cowdrey was found to have blood on him which he said he had got while helping the police pick up the body of Esther Atkins. He was also found to have had a pair of Esther Atkins's stays on him. When he was asked how he had got the stays he said, 'Oh, I was in the roadway, and it, amongst other articles of clothing, was thrown into the roadway. I was myself attacked by the two men'. The blood on his clothing was found to have run from his thighs to over his knees. However, he blamed that on the long grass when he was assisting the police to move the body.
William Brown was found to have had Esther Atkins's shoes with him.
All three of them had blood on their clothing.
When William Brown had returned to barracks at 12.15am he had asked for a towel to wash blood from his hands and produced a pair of woman's boots that he said he had stolen.
At the inquest where all three men were committed for trial for her murder the Coroner severely censured the cab driver who had driven the party to the Wellington statue after he had given evidence saying that he had heard Thomas Cowdrey say that the soldiers were planning on robbing Esther Atkins but had done nothing adding that if he had the tragedy could have been prevented.
The only evidence linking the soldiers to the journey to Wellington's statue was that of Thomas Cowdrey and the cabman who was said to have had poor eyesight and had only momentarily seen one of the men who he said was William Brown.
The defence for Thomas Cowdrey said that at no time had it been shown that Thomas Cowdrey had acted with the soldiers or had been seen with them before getting into the cab to share the ride. It was also noted that he had told the cabman that 'they' and not 'we' intended to rob Esther Atkins. The defence also noted that it was claimed that Esther Atkins had had £10 on her at the time but that the only statement at all that she had had any money on her at all was from Thomas Cowdrey who it was noted had been following her about all day.
It was also noted that when Thomas Cowdrey had got into the cab on the 'cold windy night' that the soldiers had shut the door of the cab on him and that he had been relegated to the box where he had spoken to the cab driver about his thoughts regarding the soldiers plan to rob Esther Atkins.
The defence for the two soldiers also noted that there was no evidence that either of them had been outside the South-Western Hotel, where the group were all said to have left from, and that if that was the case then it could not be shown that it was they that had got into the cab and had therefore it had been they that had alighted at the Wellington Monument as described.
It was also claimed that it was not believable that William Brown, apparently fresh from the perpetration of a foul murder would go back to his barracks from and say to a private there, 'I have got blood on my hands, lend me a towel', adding that there was no more wildly improbable a suggestion.
It was also noted that no one had identified the other soldier at any stage in the evidence.
After their convictions Thomas Cowdrey made an additional statement saying that he wished to tell the truth and claimed that it was William Brown and the other soldier that had murdered Esther Atkins. He admitted that he had been with her but said that he paid her a shilling and that she put it down her top and that William Brown had called him a 'B fool chum' for doing so. However, he said that he explained that he always paid for his when he went astray from his wife. He said that William Brown then asked Esther Atkins if she had any more money on her and told her that she was going to give it to him and but she refused and that William Brown then started to beat her with his belt, chopping at her head left and right. He said that he told him to stop else he would tell about him, but said that William Brown then struck him and that he had the mark to show for it.
He then noted that there was only blood on his trousers and none on his arms and noted that blood was found on the jackets of both soldiers but none on his and then asked what the jury must have been thinking to release the other soldier with blood on both his jacket and trousers.
At their execution as they were having the ropes and hoods put around their heads William Brown said 'Before I pass from this world I confess I helped to do it', and then Thomas Cowdrey said 'spare me five minutes to speak the truth. God help me in my innocence. I am going to heaven. Brown is the man who done it and has confessed', William Brown then said 'I helped'.
see National Archives - HO 144/734/113523
see Dundee Courier - Friday 27 November 1903
see Worcestershire Chronicle - Saturday 31 October 1903
see Hull Daily Mail - Tuesday 24 November 1903
see Aberdeen People's Journal - Saturday 19 December 1903
see Cheltenham Chronicle - Saturday 05 December 1903
see Leeds Mercury - Thursday 26 November 1903
see St James's Gazette - Wednesday 16 December 1903