There are trusting and optimistic souls who will tell you that no man is born evil, and no man is incapable of redemption. Unfortunately, the history of crime is riddled with examples of people who have simply been devoid of any sense of decency and have no moral compass whatsoever. Such a person was Edgar Edwards. Despite having only just been released from prison for earlier misdeeds in the autumn of 1902, he still believed he was smarter than the law – and his potential victims.
Seeing a newspaper advertisement for the sale of a Camberwell grocer shop, Edwards presented himself to John William Darby, at his shop, 22 Wyndham Road, in the south London borough of Camberwell. On visiting the shop in early December 1902, he explained to Darby and his wife Beatrice that the shop was just what he was looking for, and that he would take it on, and put a manager in place immediately. Before describing what happened next, we should take a moment to explain the murder weapon. Older readers will be familiar with sash windows. The concept seems alarmingly complex now, but basically, a heavy window frame could be raised and lowered with the help of a heavy iron counter-weight, hidden from view within the frame, and connected to the frame with a stout cord. Edwards arrived for his meeting with Darby armed with both sash weight and cord. It is believed that he bludgeoned to death Darby and his wife, and then used the cord to strangle their 10 month old daughter Ethel.
Having done the deed, Edwards concealed the bodies in a room above the shop, and installed his shop manager, a man named Goodwin. Goodwin and his wife ran the business for a few days, presumably oblivious of the dead bodies lying above the shop. In the meantime, Edwards had taken Darby’s gold watch and chain, and pawned it for cash. He had also rented a separate premises in the east London borough of Leyton, and on 10th December he explained to Goodwin that he was going to sell the Camberwell shop.
In a sequence that would probably be dismissed as preposterous if pitched as a movie screenplay, Edwards then dismembered the remains of the Darby family, and transported them in hessian sacks to Church Road, Leyton, where he buried them in the back yard. Thinking he had become a criminal genius, Edwards decided to reprise his masterstroke. Unfortunately for him, his assault on another shopkeeper, this time a man named Garland, misfired. Garland was able to escape and fetch the police. When Edwards was arrested, the police found John Darby’s business cards among Edwards’ possessions, and after excavating the back yard at Leyton and finding the remains of the Darby family, the police had more than enough evidence to charge Edwards with murder.
His trial at The Old Bailey was something of a foregone conclusion, brightened only by speculation as to whether Edwards would plead insanity. It was revealed that there was a strong streak of mental illness in his family. His mother and an aunt had died insane; one of his cousins was in an asylum and two others were what contemporary newspapers called “mental defectives”. Edwards was found guilty and apparently burst into manaical laughter when he was sentenced to death. As he stood on the scaffold on 3rd March 1903, it is alleged that he turned to the prison chaplain, giggled, and said, “I’ve been looking forward to this lot!”
The Little Shop of Horrors at 22 Wyndham Rd, Camberwell, where the entire Darby family was murdered for greed and gain by Edgar Edwards in 1902 remained one of London’s most notorious murder houses for many years. In 1906, George R Simms noted that the shop had changed hands twice since the murders. Country folks, ignorant of its history, have taken on the business, but found out about the dreadful deeds enacted unders its roof – and left again. Another writer noted that the shop had stood empty for many months after the murders, since no-one wanted to live or do business in a building with such terrible memories, even at a reduced rent. He went on to say,
“It had a very desolate look when I walked past it some months after the killings, but on walking there a few years later I saw that a saddler and harness maker had set up business there.”
It seems that the shop stood until the 1940s or 50s, after which it disappeared, perhaps as a result of wartime bombing or peacetime redevelopment.