Whilst undercover, Detective Caminada recognised John Roberts, aged 24, who was wanted for murder in London. Trailing Roberts and his dubious companions to the George Hotel, he staked out the building and spied on the suspect through a bedroom window, as he was sitting at a dressing table. Once he had confirmed Roberts’s identity, Caminada summoned the assistance of local police officers, who arrested the fugitive. His shocking crime had been reported in the London Daily News earlier that month.
Renowned gambler, William Collett, also known as Welsh, had been living with Emma Thomas in New Kent Road, Southwark. He earned his living from betting on horses and keeping a refreshment booth at the races. A jealous man, he kept a cavalry sword in his house, threatening to use it if he found his girlfriend talking to another man, particularly John Roberts, an acquaintance of the couple. Trouble flared on 26 November when Roberts, a ‘powerfully built man’, came to Collett’s house after a race, expecting to find Emma alone. Roberts flew into a violent rage, seizing a leg of mutton from the table and throwing it onto the floor. Collett grabbed his sword, which was two and a half feet long, but before he could unsheathe it, Roberts had snatched it from him. He struck Collett about the head with the sword several times until he fell to the ground unconscious. Collett died later from his injuries. In the meantime Roberts escaped, only to be arrested by Detective Caminada in Leeds. On 8 January 1872, John Roberts was tried on a charge of manslaughter at the Old Bailey.
In court the witnesses, who had been present during the fight, gave their account of the fateful evening and a different version of events emerged. The deceased’s girlfriend, Emma Thomas, was the first to take the stand. She testified that Roberts had arrived at the property with John Turner, a drinking companion, at about 10.30 pm whilst Collett was absent. Both men were drinking heavily and Roberts started to throw his weight around by demanding food and ale. Towards midnight Collett returned, also drunk, and when Roberts tried to steal his cigar, the two men had ‘a few words’. What happened next is unclear but it would seem that a scuffle ensued. Collett went to the fireplace to grab the poker, whilst Roberts reached for the cavalry sword, which was hanging on the wall. Emma Thomas, John Turner and another woman, Elizabeth Kelly, all tried to prise the men apart who, by now, were fighting. Turner later stated that it was Collett who had the sword first and that he had run at Roberts with it, catching him on the arm. No one seemed to see the fatal blows, but at the end of the tussle, 27-year-old William Collett had sustained a deep cut to the head that would end his life.
Under cross-examination all the witnesses agreed that the victim, William Collett, was ‘a very violent man when he was the worse for liquor’, and he had used his sword on others. Collett and Roberts had known each other for years and regularly went out drinking together. That evening they had clearly drunk too much gin and the general concensus was that the nature of the fight was ‘sparring’, without any serious intentions of injuring one other. The detective who escorted Roberts to London from Leeds recalled that the prisoner had said, ‘No one regrets more than I do this occurrence. Is it likely I should kill the young man?’
Thomas Jones, house surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, described Collett’s injuries at the trial. He had a clean cut on the top of his head, about three inches long and down to the bone. Although the wound healed well, he died of blood poisoning three weeks later.
John Roberts was acquitted of manslaughter and Detective Caminada received a message from Sir William Henderson of the Metropolitan Police, commending him for his part in Roberts’s arrest, ‘The merit of the arrest of John Roberts is entirely due to him, and we fully appreciate his conduct on the occasion.’
The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada by Angela Buckley is published by Pen and Sword Books. For more details, see her blog at victoriansupersleuth.com or follow Angela on twitter @amebuckley