Nick Thorne in­ves­ti­gates the no­to­ri­ous mur­der of bar­ris­ter Charles Bravo in Vic­to­rian Bal­ham

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Nick Thorne in­ves­ti­gates the no­to­ri­ous mur­der of Charles Bravo in Vic­to­rian Bal­ham.

It was 1876 and a young bar­ris­ter even­tu­ally suc­cumbed, over a few days, to a lethal poi­son­ing. He died at his home, The Pri­ory in Bal­ham, and there were a num­ber of sus­pects there who may have mur­dered him, even though he had in­sisted, when ques­tioned, that he had taken the poi­son him­self. The list of those im­pli­cated in­cluded his wife; her older friend, a doc­tor; a lady’s com­pan­ion; and the coach­man. None were ever con­victed.

It was The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News of 19 Au­gust 1876 that drew me into the story. Re­search­ing the case on TheGe­neal­o­gist, I found a re­port re­veal­ing that a sec­ond in­quest had been held into Mr Bravo’s death, and I im­me­di­ately wondered why. This sec­ond coroner’s jury had de­lib­er­ated for about two and a half hours be­fore re­turn­ing the ver­dict that ‘the de­ceased Charles De­launey Turner Bravo did not com­mit sui­cide - that he did not meet with death by mis­ad­ven­ture; but that he was wil­fully mur­dered by the ad­min­is­tra­tion of tar­tar emetic, but there is not enough ev­i­dence to fix the guilt upon any per­son or per­sons.’

The au­thor­i­ties even of­fered £250 for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to the con­vic­tion of the mur­derer or murderers, a sum equiv­a­lent to at least £21,000 in to­day’s money. Another re­port, in The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News of 20 May 1876, showed that the vic­tim’s wife, Florence, had ear­lier of­fered her own re­ward of dou­ble this amount for some proof of the sale of an­ti­mony or tar­tar emetic.

Want­ing to find out more, I searched for the ‘Bravo In­quest’ on TheGe­neal­o­gist. This re­turned an artist’s sketch of the coroner’s court, and the cross ex­am­i­na­tion of a Mrs Cox, in a sup­ple­ment to The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News ( ILN) on 5 Au­gust 1876.

The ac­com­pa­ny­ing ar­ti­cle told me that the at­ten­tion of the na­tion had been grabbed by the re­opened in­quiry into what was be­ing called ‘the Bal­ham Mys­tery’. The ‘mys­tery’, as the ILN ex­plained, was this: Charles Bravo had be­came ill af­ter din­ner one Tues­day in April 1876, and he suf­fered greatly un­til the Fri­day, when he fi­nally ex­pired. The first coroner’s in­quest re­turned a ver­dict that the de­ceased had died of poi­son­ing - an­ti­mony - but it could not say how it came to be in his body. There was a pub­lic out­cry in the pa­pers - and some new ev­i­dence from Mrs Cox, Mrs Bravo’s com­pan­ion, led to an ap­peal be­ing made by the At­tor­ney- Gen­eral to the Court of Queen’s Bench. The Lord Chief Jus­tice, pre­sid­ing there, di­rected that the coroner should hold another in­quest with a new jury, and it was a sketch of this gath­er­ing that The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News had pub­lished. Packed into the bil­liard room of the Bed­ford Ho­tel at Bal­ham were, among oth­ers, the coroner, the jury, the At­tor­ney- Gen­eral and many no­table QCs.


Co­pi­ous re­ports, found in the pages of The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News, re­veals the back­ground to the mys­tery. The Bravos had met in Brighton and been mar­ried for only a short time be­fore the vic­tim suc­cumbed to the poi­son. A search for their mar­riage in TheGe­neal­o­gist’s records finds it reg­is­tered in the district of St Ge­orge Hanover Square in 1875. At the time, the bride was the young wi­dow of a Cap­tain Ri­cardo. He had de­serted her prior to his death in Cologne in 1871, af­ter which she had en­tered into a scan­dalous re­la­tion­ship with Dr James Gully, who ran a wa­ter treat­ment spa in Malvern. Both Florence and her first hus­band had been pa­tients of the good doc­tor, as had Charles Dar­win and Al­fred Lord Ten­nyson. Press re­ports on the in­quest, show that Mrs Bravo was ques­tioned in the court about her in­ti­macy with the doc­tor; this re­la­tion­ship had caused her well-to- do par­ents to cut her off.

The new tes­ti­mony from Mrs Cox ex­panded on what the dy­ing Charles Bravo had said to her. The pa­per ex­plained that she changed her tes­ti­mony from what she had told the first in­quest. Mrs Cox now as­serted that, on be­ing called to the vic­tim’s room, Mr Bravo had de­clared to her, “I have taken poi­son for Dr Gully. Don’t tell Florence!” This seemed to point to sui­cide - a re­sult that was to be re­jected by the jury. The com­pan­ion re­vealed to the court that the young cou­ple had quar­relled over Mr Bravo’s ‘in­tem­per­ate habits’, and that there had also been a num­ber of anony­mous let­ters that linked Mrs Bravo to Dr Gully, so caus­ing the de­ceased to feel jeal­ous of their neigh­bour

(Gully lived near them in what was then still Sur­rey).

Sev­eral the­o­ries abounded that Charles Bravo was ac­tu­ally mur­dered by Mrs Cox, as he had threat­ened to sack the lady’s com­pan­ion to save money - but she was ac­tu­ally due to come into money of her own. Other spec­u­la­tion had the vic­tim’s wife, Florence, as the mur­der­ess, or a dis­af­fected coach­man whom Bravo had dis­charged from em­ploy­ment at The Pri­ory and who used the poi­sonous sub­stance in his work with the horses.


To re­search the pro­tag­o­nists of this real-life mys­tery, we can use many of the other records on TheGe­neal­o­gist, as well as the re­ports in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. Look­ing for Charles Bravo in the ed­u­ca­tional records re­turns the de­ceased’s en­try in the Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity His­tor­i­cal Reg­is­ter. This makes it clear that its past stu­dent had changed his name. In the in­quest re­ports, the vic­tim’s step­fa­ther, Joseph Bravo, had ap­peared be­fore the court in order to add back­ground to his step­son’s cir­cum­stances. This doc­u­ment now makes it clear that Charles had adopted this gen­tle­man’s sur­name. A new re­source com­ing soon on TheGe­neal­o­gist is The In­dex to Change of Names 1760-1901 for UK and Ire­land – this will en­able re­searchers to find some­one who changed their sur­name.

If we search for Charles in the 1871 cen­sus, we can find him as a 25-year- old bar­ris­terin-prac­tice, liv­ing in the house­hold of his step­fa­ther Joseph Bravo. Joseph was a mer­chant, and had been born in Ja­maica.

In the court pro­ceed­ings, it was re­vealed that the fam­ily of the vic­tim’s wife had be­come es­tranged from their daugh­ter Florence be­cause of her re­la­tion­ship with Dr Gully. The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News gave Florence’s es­tranged mother’s name as Mrs Camp­bell of Bus­cot, then in Berk­shire, but now in Ox­ford­shire. Us­ing the Peer­age, Gen­try and Roy­alty records on TheGe­neal­o­gist, we can find an en­try for the fam­ily in var­i­ous re­sources - in­clud­ing The County Fam­i­lies of the UK, 1880; Burke’s Landed Gen­try; and the 1895 Kelly’s Hand­book to the Ti­tled Landed and Of­fi­cial Classes. From this, we can see that her fa­ther was a mag­is­trate in Berk­shire, and a mer­chant in Lon­don.

Dr Gully, Florence’s for­mer lover, is easy to find in a num­ber of records - in­clud­ing The Med­i­cal Reg­is­ter, 1873, and an ad­ver­tise­ment in The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News for his book on the wa­ter cure. In a news­pa­per re­port from the in­quest, Dr Gully was im­pli­cated when it was dis­cov­ered that he had signed a note that Grif­fiths, the dis­af­fected coach­man, had used to pur­chase tar­tar emetic a few years ear­lier. While there was not enough ev­i­dence for the po­lice to make any sort of a case against him in Charles Bravo’s death, the pub­lic re­port­ing of his af­fair with his pa­tient ru­ined the doc­tor so­cially. In the process of the sec­ond ex­am­i­na­tion, it was al­leged that in the years be­fore Florence had met and mar­ried Charles, when she was the mis­tress of Dr Gully, he had made her preg­nant and that he had then aborted their child.

The Bravo mur­der was never solved. The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News felt it nec­es­sary to write a line in Oc­to­ber 1876 to note that ‘Mrs Cox, who gave ev­i­dence at the re­cent en­quiry, had sailed for Ja­maica’ - thus leav­ing it up to its read­ers to come to their own con­clu­sions. By look­ing at the death records on TheGe­neal­o­gist, we find that Florence, shock­ingly, died a mere two years af­ter her hus­band, still aged only 33. Var­i­ous re­ports state that her death was from al­co­hol poi­son­ing.

While we are left spec­u­lat­ing as to who mur­dered Charles Bravo, the records on TheGe­neal­o­gist have re­vealed the traces that our an­ces­tors leave be­hind in doc­u­ments, ones that we can use to good ef­fect to re­search their lives, and deaths, to­day.

The Bravo fam­ily home at The Pri­ory in Bal­ham

Charles’s wi­dow, Florence, of­fered a re­ward for in­for­ma­tion about who had bought the poi­son

The Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity His­tor­i­cal Reg­is­ter, on TheGe­neal­o­gist

Dr James Gully was renowned for his wa­ter cure. Here, he is listed in The Med­i­cal Reg­is­ter, 1873; and he ad­ver­tised in The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News of 13 March 1847

‘Camp­bell of Bus­cot’ in The County Fam­i­lies of the UK, 1880

A sketch of the coroner’s court, from The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News

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