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The Poisonous Solicitor by Stephen Bates

Blog | By Stephen Bates | Apr 25, 2022

It was one of the juiciest murder cases of the 20th century - but whodunnit? Stephen Bates has written a new book about it

On the morning of January 1st 1922, Tom Matthews, a solicitor in Hereford, received a surprise visitor with shocking news. It was Arthur Phillips, the clerk to Herbert Armstrong, a fellow solicitor over at Hay-on-Wye, who he knew well. But instead of routine business that Sunday, Phillips brought an urgent request: would Matthews represent his employer on a charge of attempted murder of a fellow solicitor?

The case against Major Armstrong, a war veteran, soon became even more serious after the body of his wife Katharine, who had died ten months earlier, was dug up and found to contain a lethal quantity of arsenic and Matthews found himself in the middle of a media and legal storm. The trial was a sensation, reported all over the English speaking world – “the poison drama of the century” in the words of the Charlotte Observer in far-off North Carolina – and over the coming months the country solicitor became responsible not only for organising the defence, but also sorting out Armstrong’s affairs.

On his last afternoon before his execution at Gloucester Prison, the major – who is the only English solicitor ever to be hanged for murder – handed one last possession, his pipe, to Matthews as a keepsake. It is in a frame on the wall of a conference room at T.A. Matthews’ firm, still in offices at Hereford, along with Armstrong’s stiff upper lip last letter: “Thank you my friend for all you have done for me. No one could have done more…”

I was there researching my book, The Poisonous Solicitor, about the Armstrong case, confronted by five large boxes of documents that the company has kept for a hundred years, not only trial transcripts and statements, but also the ephemera that brought a distant trial – and the Britain of a century ago – to life.

Some of it was heartbreakingly poignant. The letters that Eleanor, the Armstrongs’ 15 year-old daughter wrote: “My own darling Father. We send our best love to you. We are going on as best we can…Everyone is very good to us.” Did Armstrong ever receive it? He certainly never saw his children again after his arrest in his office on New Year’s Eve 1921. All three would be fostered out and the youngest, Margaret, who was only six, was not told what had happened to her parents, nor allowed any souvenirs of them: no photographs, no letters – even the page of her Christening Bible on which her father had written was ripped out. The story goes that she only found out what had happened years later when she was a teenager on a school trip to Madam Tussaud’s and came face to face with the major’s effigy in the Chamber of Horrors.

The boxes also contained crank letters, including one from a man in Bishops Stortford who was sure that Armstrong’s rival solicitor had injected Katharine’s body with arsenic to frame him. All that would be needed was excavating the coffin yet again to find the “almost imperceptible” hole that must have been drilled through for the poison. Creepy letters too, such as the man who volunteered to take the children on a one-way voyage to New Zealand to start new lives, so long as his fare was paid. The War Office demanded the major’s medals back.

There were negotiations too for the newspapers who wanted to buy Armstrong’s confession – the £5,000 offered by Edgar Wallace on behalf of a syndicate would have paid off Matthews’ expenses and maybe helped the children, but was brusquely rejected by Sir Ernle Blackwell, under-secretary at the Home Office: “The mischief caused by flooding the country at this moment with a life history of the murderer….would far outweigh the fact that it might secure a few hundred pounds for his children.”

Matthews seems to have been left severely out of pocket as he took on ancillary expenses such as the water rates and six months’ outstanding rent (£23.16s) on the family’s large villa and garden on the outskirts of Hay, quite apart from the barristers’ expenses – more than £1,000 for Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, the lead defence QC, equivalent to about £50,000 today.

The T.A. Matthews firm’s website still lists the Armstrong case as one of its most celebrated. How odd, a solicitor for another firm remarked to me, that they should publicise their worst-ever defeat. Stephen Bates’s book The Poisonous Solicitor is published by Icon Sent from my iPhone