Oct/Nov 2014 Reviews & Interviews

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable
Carol Baxter.
Oneworld. 2014. 391 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78074 403 2.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! This is a history book for those who like a good story. There is a mystery to solve, there is plenty of drama, suspense, passion, gossip and sex. And it is all true.

Author, Carol Baxter, is a historian. As a "historical detective," she has conducted assiduous research but, as she tells us in her endnote, she wanted to offer readers "the immediacy of fiction without fictionalising the narrative." So, her characters speak the words they spoke in the newspaper and police reports about the murder of Sarah Hart on New Year's Day 1845. They are described from those reports, too, but Baxter interprets their emotions and brings them to life.

The role played by the recently invented electric telegraph in identifying John Tawell as the possible murderer of Sara Hart frames the story, but it is the subsequent police investigation and the amazingly eventful life of John Tawell that is the subject of the book.

Tawell was a remarkable character. Son of a Norwich shopkeeper, he grew up taunted for his red hair and his squint, but he used his intelligence and, eventually, his Quaker credentials as an honest and trustworthy citizen, to become a successful commercial traveller in London. In 1841, however, he was arrested and charged with possessing and forging banknotes. Through the intervention of his Quaker fellows, he avoided death and was sentenced, instead, to transportation to Australia for 14 years. In Sydney, by describing his former occupation as "druggist," he was assigned to work in a hospital dispensary. He was shortly arrested for theft and sentenced to spend one year in the notoriously harsh penal settlement at Newcastle, north of Sydney. Later, because his skills were in demand, he was assigned to various other medical-related tasks, and after five years, he managed to acquire his ticket-of-leave. He then worked towards a conditional pardon, and when that was granted, he used his acquired knowledge of medical matters to began trading in medical supplies. He prospered, opened the first pharmacy shop in Sydney, became a wealthy gentleman landowner and a respected and philanthropic citizen, and he established Sydney's first Quaker Meeting House.

In 1829, with a free pardon, he returned to England and set up house with his sickly wife and the youngest of his two sons. A voluntary return to Sydney followed but in 1838 he returned to England for good. By the time of his arrest for the poisoning of Sara Hart, his wife and both his sons had died of tuberculosis and Tawell was living with his second wife and their two children in Berkhampstead. He was sixty two. The trial and its revelations became a sensation and its repercussions were wide.

Baxter describes it all in vivid detail. But be warned, the front cover of the book, which proclaims it to be "A True Tale of Passion, Poison & Pursuit," indicates the melodramatic nature of Baxter's story. This is also reflected in her writing, partly because she culls descriptions from newspaper reports of the time, but also because her own prose often mimics them for dramatic effect: A steam train enters Paddington Station with a "demented scream"; a stage-coach "barrels into town" with "horns blaring and horses foaming"; we find ducks "kipping" by a frozen pond; and at one point Quaker Tawell is described as "the rabid teetotaler."

Never mind, it is all good fun, and it does capture the spirit of the time. But it makes some of the chapter-heading quotes from such serious sources as Sturgeon's "Lecture on Electricity"; George Fox's journal; Cicero's speeches; and the Bible seem out-of-place. And the extensive scholarly bibliography at the end of the book comes as a surprise. Baker, who is an academic historian, clearly felt the need to point out that in spite of the often sensational nature of her material this is still a serious historical document.


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