The Edwards Mystery: An inexplicable disappearance in broad daylight

Early in the afternoon of Wednesday 3 September 1879, an 18-year-old woman called Miss Edwards set out for the centre of Liverpool from her home in the West Derby area of Liverpool. She took the omnibus – a horse-drawn vehicle taking passengers in the same way that a modern bus does – and disembarked at London Road, a very busy street in the centre of Liverpool about a mile-and-a-half from her home. Her subsequent disappearance sent shockwaves through Liverpool and became a national sensation. In the 46 days she was missing, reports appeared in newspapers across the country speculating where she was, and what might have happened to her. The story became known as the “Edwards Mystery” or “Liverpool Mystery” and took on a life of its own.

Throughout the 46 days and beyond, the newspapers almost exclusively called her “Miss Edwards”; some went a little further and named her as Miss E. M. Edwards. None gave her full name, even though she was central to the story. Yet her address was freely given, not least in letters written to newspapers by her father. These details make it possible to identify the central figure in the Edwards Mystery and fill in some blanks about her. 

Rufford Road photographed in 2012. The Edwards’ house would have been at the far end of the road as pictured. It has now been converted into two properties.
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © JThomas – geograph.org.uk/p/2853839

Elizabeth Mary Edwards was the daughter of Edward Henry Edwards, a journalist for the Liverpool Mercury, and Martha (Mattie) Bird. Born on 16 June 1861, she was one of at least twelve children to the couple. Her seventh surviving sibling, her sister Margaret, had been born earlier that year and was four months old at the time of Elizabeth’s disappearance. Having first lived at 88 Aubrey Street in Everton, by 1879 the family had moved to 35 Rufford Road, West Derby, which was an affluent area at the time. They were wealthy enough to have a live-in servant. She had just become engaged to a man with whom, as the Liverpool Mercury put it, “she had a long-standing attachment”.

A summary of Miss Edwards’ life to that point appeared in the Daily News around a month later: “A young woman of respectable position, who had received an excellent education, had many accomplishments, and much intelligence; she was attractive and graceful in appearance, and very young – only some eighteen years of age. She was, it appears, the favourite child of her father and mother, and owing to the latter being somewhat of an invalid she had of late assumed the part of housekeeper to her family. She was engaged to be married to a young man, to whom she appeared to be tenderly attached.” A friend of the family added a little more, saying she was “an affectionate and, although high-spirited, thoroughly domesticated young lady.”

Perhaps her mother becoming “an invalid” was connected to the birth of Margaret because she must have recovered later; Martha gave birth to at least three more children.

At the time of her disappearance, Elizabeth’s parents were visiting the Isle of Wight, leaving her in charge of the house. She set out on the afternoon of Wednesday 3 September to do some shopping; she planned to buy items for her brother (presumably Frank, aged 19 and still living at home) who was entertaining a friend that evening. She also wanted a birthday present for her fiancé, which according to the Liverpool Mercury (the newspaper connected most closely with the family) she planned to give him on the “following Friday”. Although the wording is vague, it clearly states she wanted to give him the present on 5 September (Later reports in other newspapers assumed that this meant 12 September, and interpreted that to be the date of his birthday; they were likely mistaken about both details). All newspaper accounts went to great pains to emphasise that she had become engaged willingly: prompted by the narrative circulated by her family, they said there was no suggestion that romance or elopement with another man played a part in her disappearance. The Daily News remarked that “new, simple, and touching evidences of the attachment have been found since her disappearance” among her possessions, although there is no indication what these were.

Liverpool in 1894: the circle shows the area of London Road where Miss Edwards alighted. Stafford Street is the road heading north. The majority of shops were on London Street and St Anne Street (Image: Ordinance Survey 6-inch map for 1894, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

Several newspapers described her movements that afternoon in some detail. Leaving her house on Rufford Road, she crossed to West Derby Road and got the omnibus. The Daily Telegraph said that her destination was the Islington area and specifically Lime Street. She alighted around 3pm at the Monument in London Road – presumably the statue of George III located in what is now called Monument Place. This was a busy area, full of shops, and there would have been many people nearby. Several witnesses, including fellow passengers and passers-by, observed her turn into Stafford Street in the direction of Islington before they lost sight of her. After this, the trail went cold. She never visited any of her intended shops; she did not pay the household bills that she had taken money to settle; no one remembered her purchasing a birthday present. By the evening, she had not returned home. A search was made, but no trace of her could be found. The police were involved. Checks were made at hospitals and police stations, to no avail. Her parents were sent for and returned from the Isle of Wight in a panic. Further searches revealed nothing, nor any clues as to what might have happened: for example, no trace could be found of her jewellery being sold, as might have occurred had she been robbed.

A description of Miss Edwards was circulated: she was “simply dressed”, “slender” and wearing jewellery of little value – including a silver locket engraved with her initials E. M. E. One other detail thought to be important was that she was “subject to fainting fits”. The Daily Telegraph, in a passage laden with mid-Victorian condescension, said that this was “a not very uncommon malady at her tender and susceptible age”. A reward of £100 was offered for information leading to her discovery.

Windmill Inn, Liverpool, corner of Stafford Street and London Road, 1865, by J. McGahey. The omnibus that Miss Edwards took would have been similar to the one pictured here in red.

The Liverpool Mercury covered the Edwards Mystery most closely, no doubt prompted by her father, one of its reporters, in a series of increasingly prolix and somewhat pompous articles. But other newspapers across the country – for example in Leeds, Manchester, London, Dundee, Derry, Glasgow, Bristol and Coventry – carried updates on the story in the mid-September, and further reports were published at the beginning of October when she had been missing for a month. One report described how far the news travelled: “The story of her disappearance, with a description of her person and attire, has now been told in nearly every newspaper in the kingdom, and the police in all the large towns have spread the information as widely as possible, being assisted in their inquiries by photographs of the young lady.”

There were several reasons the story was followed so intently, apart from the fact, as wry observers noted later on, that it was “silly season” and there was not much else in the news. First, the Liverpool Mercury kept the story at the forefront of public attention. Second, it attracted a lot of correspondence, including writers who believed they had solutions, or had seen Miss Edwards. There was even a written argument at one point between friends of the Edwards family and a potential witness.

The Monument, pictured in 1921 (image from Liverpool Picturebook)

Finally, there was huge interest, and some slightly worried disbelief, that a woman could vanish without a trace, in broad daylight, from one of the busiest areas of Liverpool. Although there were some suggestions that she could simply have eloped or run away from home, most newspapers followed the line put out by her family: that she would not have disappeared of her own free will. One report praised her “sedate” character. The Liverpool Mercury stated this rather wonderfully: “Never was a young lady less likely to be a consenting party to her own disappearance. She was not addicted to freaks; was far too shrewd to be decoyed; and had no motive which it is possible to conceive for going away from home.” If such a person could be taken by what were presumed to be foul means, it “would startle every domestic circle with a sense of peril hitherto almost undreamt of.” She was described in the Penny Illustrated Paper of London as “a most dutiful and affectionate child, deeply attached to her parents, and without a secret from them.”

Many seemed convinced that foul play was the most likely explanation. A common theory was that she had fainted and then somehow been “carried off”, although this perhaps wilfully overlooked the likelihood of there being witnesses to something so unusual. Other ideas included a gang of “ruffians” abducting her, or that she had come to some harm and was likely dead. Suicide was even suggested. As the Daily Telegraph observed, to assume that there was any cause of her disappearance other than an involuntary one, “would be to destroy without reason or proof the young lady’s character, to charge her with deceit and underhand conduct, to discard the ample evidence of her acknowledged purity, and to believe that through fear or thoughtlessness she is … causing the most acute agony to those who have never given her anything else but warm-hearted affection and honest love.”

But other newspapers were more sceptical about the saintly virtues of Miss Edwards. Some writers questioned whether her parents were mistaken about their daughter’s impeccable character, and suggested she may have had a “secret attachment” and eloped, or had wanted to break off her engagement. There were also reminders of similar instances where people had unexpectedly run away with little obvious cause. This was a theory offered in the Penny Illustrated Paper of London in an article accompanied by a bizarre illustration of a young lady walking her dog and being observed by three bewhiskered men in top hats, at least one of whom appears to be wearing a monocle.

Yet her parents insisted that they knew all about her, knew all her acquaintances and knew that she was so happy she would never willingly disappear – and that she would have got in contact if she could. Instead, they believed the only possible explanation was more sinister, and their theory was carried in the Daily News in early October: “In the neighbourhood of the spot where she was last seen are several small streets chiefly made up of houses which are filled with women and girls of an immoral class. These houses are not dens of squalid and poverty-stricken vice; they are rather of the flashy and brazen character. Many of them, it is believed, are stocked with girls decoyed into Liverpool from Belgium and Germany, some of the girls brought over to this country under the impression that they were about to get decent employment here, but who, when once safely entrapped into one of these houses, were not able to make their way out of them into honourable life again.” Miss Edwards was last seen on the “outer fringes” of this area where there was a “wholesale trade of this kind”. Her parents thought she may have had a fainting fit, which would sometimes leave her “all but insensible” for up to an hour and been taken into one of these houses, especially if she had felt it coming on and turned into a smaller side street where she could have more privacy. Although it is unlikely they could have kept her by force, her parents wondered if shame would keep her “in the power of the wretches who carry on the abominable trade.” The Daily News reported that although the police had checked these areas, they were not legally allowed to search the houses themselves and could only question the people within them; if Miss Edwards was inside, they had not been able to look for her.

The area around Stafford Street and Blanford Street (then renamed as Kempston Street) in 1908, showing how many houses were packed into the area. The Monument is at the bottom of the map. (Image: Ordinance Survey 25-inch map for 1908, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

This whiff of prostitution, which lingered over the Edwards Mystery even after Miss Edwards had been found, may explain the widespread interest in her fate; then, as now, the press loved a scandal, particularly when the family involved was wealthy. And such tales will always attract sensation-seeking readers and correspondents.

The area in question, which was mainly a road called Blandford Street (renamed Kempston  Street in 1891), had a reputation for the huge number of brothels, openly tolerated by Liverpool police, to be found on it. As the map of the area shows, Miss Edwards was heading in this direction, along Stafford Street at the time of her disappearance. As we shall see later, it was a curious route to take, whatever her destination; even if simply heading for Islington, it was not the obvious way to go.

It is equally curious that this was the theory of forced prostitution seemed most likely to her parents – and even preferable to other solutions. However, by the time this idea had reached the newspapers, there had been potential sightings of Miss Edwards all over the England. One man even claimed to have seen her on the steamer heading for Antwerp. At one point, the Liverpool Mercury  – presumably prompted by Mr Edwards – felt the need to criticise the “wildest rumours” in circulation that it called “wild, improbable, and sometimes cruel”. 

Blandford Street (Image: The Liverpool Nobody Knows Tour)

But two promising leads were followed up closely. On 3 October, police investigated a possible sighting in Birmingham. A woman matching Miss Edwards’ description had been seen at “Corbett’s Temperance Hotel” in New Street, where she had stayed since 31 September. Several members of staff identified her photograph, and the landlady was able to precisely describe the dress she had been wearing when she disappeared. The woman was described as “reserved”; she arrived alone, paid her bill every morning and left the hotel until evening when she went immediately to her room; she only ate one meal at the hotel. Witnesses said that she wore a locket very similar to the monogrammed one that Miss Edwards wore. As she had left the hotel as usual on the morning of 3 October, a police detective waited for her to return, but she never did. Some newspapers reported that this woman was definitively Miss Edwards, and that her family believed it to be her too. Neither claim was true.

An earlier sighting, however, was more promising, although it eventually fizzled out. In mid-September, the story emerged of a man called Robert Welsh who had been travelling by train from Liverpool to Shrewsbury, where he had family, on 3 September, the day of the disappearance. As the train was about to depart at 7:15pm, a woman fitting the description of Miss Edwards boarded: alone, without any luggage and carrying an umbrella – the press reports had not mentioned an umbrella but her family confirmed she had left the house with one. A later version of the story, after police had investigated, said that she only joined Welsh’s carriage when the train was at a station near Wrexham but she told him that she boarded at Liverpool and was travelling to London. She also remarked that she had been on the Isle of Wight: Miss Edwards had, in fact, been at Ryde on the Isle of Wight with two of her brothers a few weeks previously. However, upon being told that they would not arrive in Shrewsbury in time to catch the last train to London, she asked for recommendations for a hotel. When the train arrived at Shrewsbury, the woman got off the train with Welsh. He took her – in the company of his sisters and a man called Brown, all of whom had been at the station to meet Welsh off the train – to Beddow’s Temperance Hotel where she stayed the night. The Welsh sisters and Mr Brown later identified the woman as Miss Edwards when shown her photograph and a sample of her dress pattern, as did witnesses at the hotel. Furthermore, another guest at the hotel, also from Liverpool, had struck up a conversation with the woman, who seemed to be familiar with West Derby Road, close to the Edwards’ residence.

The Quarry, Shrewsbury, pictured in 2006 (Image: Wikipedia)

The following morning, the woman and a lady who had shared her room went for a walk together in a nearby park called The Quarry. The woman returned alone and left the hotel saying that she was going to catch the 1pm London train. Her room-mate returned later to find her gone; she expressed annoyance that she had not said goodbye before leaving, but denied that she could have caught that train as she had seen her after 1pm walking in the town in the company of a man, apparently in his mid-30s, dressed like a clergyman. Mr Brown, the friend of the Welsh family, also stated that he saw her that afternoon in the company of a clergyman. A policeman also said that he saw a woman who looked like Miss Edwards walking alone in The Quarry on Friday (5 September). None of the possible witnesses thought that the woman seemed distressed, or to have suffered any harm, or to have been compelled to act against her will.

It seems that Mr Welsh’s mother, Ellen Welsh, went to the police when she read about the Edwards Mystery, which is how the Shrewsbury story came to be reported in the press. Much of the detail was pieced together by Edward Edwards and a friend of the family called Samuel Campbell; the police also followed up the story. Mr Welsh was traced to his home in Birmingham and interviewed, but the lady who shared the room could not be immediately located. Nor could the woman who may or may not have been Miss Edwards. But from a letter written to the Liverpool Mercury by Ellen Welsh, it seems that the Edwards family were highly sceptical of the tale and preferred to think that Miss Edwards had been taken against her will rather than, as the Shrewsbury story suggested, having actively chosen to leave.

Samuel Campbell of Elm Park in Fairfield, the friend of the family who had investigated the sightings, now took centre stage. Some reports described him as a member of the family, but most said that he was simply a friend. He wrote several letters around this time. To the Liverpool Evening Albion, he said that Miss Edwards had not had any arguments before leaving; that she had taken nothing with her nor made no signs to indicate that she intended not to return. He also said that, in the course of his investigations, he had spoken to people in Liverpool who had seen her on the evening of her disappearance and on the following day.

Convinced that the woman seen in Shrewsbury could not be Miss Edwards, Campbell wrote a long and detailed rebuttal of the idea, printed in the Liverpool Mercury on 15 October. He had travelled to Shrewsbury himself and interviewed some of the witnesses; he had travelled to Birmingham to speak to Mr Welsh (who, he wrote, believed that the woman seen at Corbett’s Hotel in Birmingham was also Miss Edwards). Welsh discredited the use of photographs as a form of identification of Miss Edwards. As it happens, most of his arguments proved to be wrong, but he did record one interesting fact: that Ellen Welsh had received a letter from Liverpool “stating that Miss Edwards had run off before and gone on the stage”, which led Mrs Welsh to deduce that the clergyman with whom she had been seen was an actor (this clergyman had prompted others to wonder if she had chosen to run away to join a religious order). Mrs Welsh also wrote to the Liverpool Mercury to ask if it was true that Miss Edwards had run away from home to join a ballet troupe a few years before. This may be important.

Samuel Campbell and Ellen Welsh were not the only people writing letters. The Lancaster Gazette of 8 October showed that interest was still high: an article mentioned that someone who signed himself as “A. M.” had written that Miss Edwards was being ill-treated and forcibly held near where she was last seen; an author signing as “B. H.” seemed to have hinted that he saw someone matching Miss Edwards’ description buying a railway ticket from Shrewsbury to Willesden.

However, by this stage, another man was on the case. And it would not be the Edwards family or Samuel Campbell who solved the Edwards Mystery, but a Welsh private detective, poet and former Liverpool policeman living in London.

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