MURDER AT THE PRIORY
Nick Thorne investigates the notorious murder of barrister Charles Bravo in Victorian Balham
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.
A SCANDALOUS RELANTIONHIP
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