The Edwards Mystery: The story of Miss Lizzie Pickford

Miss Elizabeth Mary Edwards, the woman at the centre of the “Liverpool Mystery”, had disappeared from a busy street in Liverpool on 3 September 1879. After six weeks of intense interest from the press as the story was discussed across the country, she was found in London by a private detective, Richard Alfred Lloyd, who claimed that he found her on Oxford Street on the very first day that he looked for her. By 20 October, Miss Edwards was safe in the house of her uncle in London and the mystery seemed to be over. It still left the question of how she came to be in London. The initial explanation printed in the Daily Telegraph, seemingly based on what she told her family and almost certainly given to that publication by her uncle, was that she had fainted and been helped by a man in Liverpool. The family believed she was then forcibly detained and made to travel to London against her will. However, by the weekend, the inconsistencies in the story were pointed out and the press began to doubt her explanation. Newspapers now argued that she simply ran away, contrary to her family’s insistence otherwise.

Over the weekend of 25 and 26 October, the Edwards family attempted to reconcile her original explanation with new information – for example, that she travelled to Shrewsbury – and address the suspicions of the press. This was the last hope of maintaining their argument that Miss Edwards had been the victim of foul play. But this explanation was fatally undermined by a syndicated interview with the previously unnamed woman with whom Miss Edwards was found. This appeared in several newspapers on 27 October.

Hyde Park Corner, where Miss Edwards met Lizzie Pickford

Miss Lizzie Pickford was an actress who lived in Brompton. She met the woman who turned out to be Miss Edwards in Hyde Park at around 11am on 20 September – 17 days after she had last been seen in Liverpool. Pickford saw her sitting on some seats near Apsley House corner. She joined her, attempting to start a conversation. Miss Edwards was initially monosyllabic and obviously did not want to talk, but Pickford persisted as “she seemed lonely and ill”. She asked her if she lived in London, and she replied: “Yes, for the present.” When asked if her parents were in London she said: “No, I have none.” Further questioning established that Miss Edwards did not have a job but had been trying to find work as a barmaid and hoped to “go on the stage if she could find an opening.” Pickford advised her against the stage “as she would find it very hard, up-hill work, and not to attempt that life unless she had to do so.”

After this, Miss Edwards became more chatty. Pickford told her a little about herself (which she did not divulge in the interview). Miss Edwards told her that she had been in London for a few days. She had applied for “a bar maid’s situation” at the offices of Mr Tomlinson, paying him 7s and 6d (around £40 in today’s money), for which she received a form (presumably saying that her application was on file). She was staying at “a respectable place” in Queen’s Road, Bayswater. She wore no jewellery, suggesting that she had pawned or sold it. Pickford thought she did not look well; on being asked, she reluctantly told Pickford she had not eaten since the previous morning. She later admitted it had been at least two days since she ate; Pickford also subsequently learned that she was wearing the same clothes in which she left home.

Part of Stamford Street, pictured in 2009. The address of Lizzie Pickford is unknown. (Image: Photo © Robin Webster [cc-by-sa/2.0])

Pickford therefore insisted that Miss Edwards come back to her home for some food; Miss Edwards was reluctant at first but Pickford persuaded her. At Pickford’s apartment in Stamford Street, she had some food. Pickford offered to let her stay there until she “got something to do”. Miss Edwards “seemed very pleased, and said she would like it very much.”

Miss Edwards then told her somewhat fictionalised autobiography to Pickford. She gave her surname as Elliott and said she was known as “Cissy” at home. She said she came from Liverpool, in Fairfield (which was true) and had “been living with an old lady who was very unkind to her, as she was trying to force her to marry an old man”, which was why she ran away. She told Pickford she left her house in the afternoon intending to travel to London and met “some chapel acquaintances” on the omnibus but “merely nodded at them” before getting off – “I think she told me she got out of the Fairfield omnibus at the Monument in London Road.”

Miss Edwards then, according to Pickford, pawned her ring and crossed the River Mersey to Birkenhead, “taking particular notice, she told me, that she was not followed.” She took a train to Shrewsbury, arriving late at night, and got a train to London the following day, disembarking at Willesden Junction. “She was very much surprised, she told me, when she got there, as she thought she should find herself in the heart of London.” Asking for directions, she walked “some distance” before “she got into a Bayswater omnibus”. She found a place to stay in Queen’s Road, Bayswater, where she lodged until she met Pickford.

Brighton West Pier where Miss Edwards was recognised by “the fellow that had had his dinner” (Image: West Pier Trust)

Miss Edwards brought her few belongings from Bayswater and moved in with Pickford, who said “we soon became on the most affectionate terms.” After a week at Stamford Street, Pickford paid for the pair to have a ten-day holiday in Brighton: “I paid all the expenses on this occasion, as I had grown very fond of my new companion, and I also bought her a dress and a few other articles of clothing.” In Brighton, they had a strange encounter. On the pier one evening, a man approached them and asked if they had heard of the missing woman in the “Liverpool Mystery”. He then “turned to Cissy, and said, ‘And I believe you are the very girl.'” She did not answer him, and after a few more comments, he left. “The gentleman in question had evidently well-dined, and he kept frequently observing, ‘I have had my dinner,’ so that we two subsequently called him the fellow who had had his dinner.” They never saw him again, but this was the first Pickford had heard of the story; therefore she bought a newspaper and read about it. To her, the dress in the description sounded like that of her companion, and she said to her, “It is you, Cissy.” Miss Edwards denied it, saying “she had no parents”, but Pickford was unconvinced. However, “as I had grown greatly attached to her” she did not say anything else. According to her account, this was on Monday 6 October.

Postcard showing Oxford Street, where Lloyd first saw Miss Edwards

When they returned to London, Miss Edwards went out for a walk by herself (the first time she had done so) on the Thursday (9 October) as Pickford “was not disposed to go out”. She returned “in a frightened state”, saying a detective had seen her at Regent Circus claiming to know her. “She said, ‘I have promised to meet him next Monday evening at eight o’clock, at Piccadilly Circus, and take you with me, as I have told him you are my cousin.'” They went out walking on the evening of Sunday 12 October “as usual”, not intending to meet the detective, but as they passed Piccadilly Circus, Miss Edwards saw him again and grabbed Pickford by the arm. They went away, but the man (who was Lloyd) followed them and “said to Cissy, ‘Don’t you like to see me?’ ‘No,’ she said crossly. ‘No; I don’t like to speak to strangers in the street.'” He left them alone, and they returned home.

Although the two women continued to take walks, they did not see the man again for over a week. On the night of 20 October, as they were walking home, Pickford saw Lloyd again standing at the corner of their street and she said to Miss Edwards, “Cissy, you are booked.” He came over and “said to Cissy, ‘Excuse me, miss, I want to speak to you.’ She answered sharply, ‘What is it? Here I am.'” He called her uncle from across the street. Pickford described what happened: “The stranger walked up to Cissy and said, ‘What, Lizzie?’ She made no answer and he appeared much bewildered and said, ‘It is very much like her. Don’t you know me? I am your uncle.’ … Cissy replied, ‘No, I don’t know you, and I have no uncle.'” When asked by Pickford, she denied knowing him. “Mr Lloyd then addressed her very sharply and said, ‘Are you not Miss Edwards?’ adding, ‘I know you are Miss Edwards; you may as well confess it at once.'” Pickford took her aside and urged her to tell the truth, at which point she apologised for having lied in saying she had no parents. 

Miss Edwards then turned to her uncle and said “Yes, uncle, it is me,” which Pickford confirmed, saying “She is the girl.” Everyone except Lloyd was a little overwhelmed by all that had taken place, but he spoke to Miss Edwards and she agreed to go immediately with her uncle. “She said goodbye to me very tenderly, and kissed me repeatedly; in fact she had to be reminded by Mr Lloyd that it was getting late before she would consent to leave my arms and say goodnight. It was arranged that she would write to me wherever she went and see me before she left London for Liverpool. I am sorry to say, however, that I have neither heard from nor seen Miss Edwards since that night.” However, her uncle and father came to see Pickford the following evening and she told them her tale. That was the last she had heard from them at the time of the interview. Pickford said that “Miss Edwards never mentioned anything which would lead anyone to suppose that she came to London otherwise than of her own accord, or that any means were used to induce her to leave her home. Had she been drugged or outraged, I feel positive her story would have been entrusted to me.”

A follow-up point made in the Liverpool Mercury said that a London correspondent knew Miss Pickford to be “an actress at a fashionable West-End theatre, and is a person of prepossessing appearance and modest demeanour.”

There are a few curiosities about Pickford’s story. Unless she previously knew the different areas of Liverpool, her identification of “Fairfield”, “the Monument”, “London Road”, the “River Mersey” and “Birkenhead” suggest that she was more familiar with the story than her account indicates. There is also a remarkable degree of agreement with the story as given by Lloyd in the Daily Telegraph: the “bewilderment” of her uncle, and the “sharp” manner with which Lloyd spoke to Miss Edwards – descriptions that tally almost exactly with those of the detective. Maybe Pickford had read the interview Lloyd gave; it is not inconceivable that she and Lloyd collaborated to some extent on their stories. Does any of this compromise her reliability? We cannot know; but her descriptions of how she met Miss Edwards and what they did together are plausible and seem unlikely to have simply been invented to appeal to the press. Other incidental details, such as the nickname the two women created for the man who accosted them in Brighton – “the fellow who had had his dinner” – make Pickford’s account sound credible.

If we can largely believe Pickford, there are still unresolved questions. Miss Edwards must have found a way to support herself before meeting Pickford: not only did she manage to pay for a room at Queen’s Road, but she had paid £7 6s to Mr Tomlinson to find her a job. To this must be added the cost of her train tickets to Shrewsbury and then Willesden, the cost of her overnight stay in Shrewsbury, her board in Bayswater and any other expenses such as food. Most of this money presumably came when she sold or pawned her jewellery. By the time she met Pickford, as she had not eaten for several days, this must have all but run out.

An illustration of a barmaid from 1849 (Image from Gavarni in London)

Also, she obviously had no intention to return home as she was looking for a job to support herself. This was supposed to be a permanent escape. Her intentions appear a little vague: she was looking for work as a barmaid but hoped to go on the stage. The job of barmaid was a relatively new one and involved working in the bar of hotels. Barmaids in this period tended to be young and employed for their looks as much as anything, but were relatively well paid; additionally, their wages and working conditions were superior to the more traditional occupations for single women such as domestic service. Although barmaids attracted the ire of both those who disapproved of alcohol and those who disliked the idea of women working independently, it was a fairly respectable albeit unconventional job.

In this respect, it is worth considering the additional details printed in the Daily Telegraph on 25 October. Without giving any clue as to the source of the information, the newspaper stated that Miss Edwards had stayed in a Bayswater coffee house and had travelled to Whitechapel looking for work. The Bayswater location matches where Pickford said Miss Edwards had been staying; in fact, a coffee-house keeper lived at 76 Queen’s Road at the time of the 1881 census – the 58-year-old Charles Kingwell and his family. Perhaps she tried to work in a coffee-house to earn money. At the time, although fewer in number than they had been in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were many coffee shops in London; these generally were visited by poorer people and were a little shabby, if a rather scathing sketch in Punch in 1882 is to be believed.

The reference to Whitechapel is interesting if it is accurate. That area is notorious as where “Jack the Ripper” operated nine years later. In 1879, it was a poor area full of slums and associated with prostitution. If Miss Edwards went there seeking work, she was presumably either unsuccessful or disinclined to accept anything as she was still looking for a job and living in Bayswater when she met Pickford.

Finally, we have the issue of Miss Edwards’ desire to “go on stage”. Pickford makes it clear this was her aim, but two other sources support the claim. The Daily Telegraph article on 25 October makes the same suggestion: Miss Edwards “apparently desired to go upon the stage and earn an honest livelihood”. The other instance is much earlier: Samuel Campbell wrote on 15 October that Ellen Welsh, the mother of the man on the Shrewsbury train, had been told by letter that Miss Edwards had previously run away from home to join a ballet company. There is no other mention of this (and Campbell denies it is true), but the coincidence would be incredible – and this was written before Miss Edwards was found and Pickford’s story emerged. Therefore, it is quite likely that her ultimate aim when she left Liverpool was to go on stage.

Apart from the coincidence that Miss Edwards just happened to meet an actress (This is not impossible – there are over 600 women living in London who listed their occupation as “actress” on the 1881 census) this objective causes the picture to become somewhat murkier. Acting in this period was far from a respectable profession in the eyes of the public, which may explain some of Lloyd’s statements once he found Miss Edwards, in which he tried to reinforce how respectably she and her companion had been behaving. And if Lizzie Pickford was an actress, respectable people would be immediately suspicious and even alarmed.

Actresses at this time had a very poor reputation. There was an explicit association in the public mind between actresses and prostitution, and at times it seems that the word “actress” was almost used as a synonym for “prostitute”. There were various reasons for this: some wrapped up in Victorian ideas of propriety and moral judgement; others connected to the lifestyle of an actress such as receiving gifts and visits from gentlemen; perhaps the most relevant reason was the general misogyny exhibited by the Victorian press and upper classes. While some actresses were undoubtedly prostitutes, and while there was probably some overlap in the murkier areas of London theatre life, the association has been generally discredited by historians. 

However, that would not have helped Lizzie Pickford; her occupation explains why Edward Edwards and Lloyd were so keen to establish that she had a good reputation. The biggest fear of her family from the beginning seems to have been that Miss Edwards had been forced into prostitution, so they were eager to reassure themselves. But there were certainly some parts of Pickford’s story that may have raised suspicions. For example, Pickford’s attempt to dissuade Miss Edwards from a life on stage – because “she would find it very hard, up-hill work, and not to attempt that life unless she had to do so” – could have several meanings when the association with prostitution is considered.

Another detail that may have raised eyebrows was that Miss Edwards and Pickford frequently went out walking in the daytime and evening. An article unconnected with Pickford (printed for example in the Nottingham Evening Post on 27 October) said that the elderly landlady of the two women “states that to the best of her belief, the two lodgers had obtained some day-employment, as they went out together in the morning and regularly came home at mealtimes.” Something similar was reported by Lloyd, who believed they went out so frequently merely owing to boredom, but his need to explain their behaviour shows that it would have aroused suspicion. Perhaps, however, Miss Edwards simply liked walking: she went out with her hotel room-mate in Shrewsbury to walk in the local park; and on the evening of 9 October when Pickford “was not disposed to go out”, she went out alone.

Finally, it may have attracted notice that Pickford was relatively wealthy. Lloyd commented that she was better dressed than Miss Edwards. She had a respectable apartment, she could afford to support the unemployed Miss Edwards, and could pay for their ten-day holiday in Brighton. However, even “jobbing” actors and actresses, who were by no means famous or particularly successful, could earn more than an average worker; the newspapers suggest Miss Pickford was well-established as an actress. Yet, her interview makes no suggestion she was working (she spent all her time with Miss Edwards) and does not mention any acting jobs. But while prostitution could also pay more than the average wage, Pickford could hardly have brought clients back to a respectable apartment which had a landlady keeping close watch.

If these factors may have caused some misgivings about Pickford, they were not shared publicly by Lloyd or the Edwards family. However, while everything may have had a straightforward explanation, it is not impossible that such suspicions were correct. Nor can this question be satisfactorily answered by tracking down Lizzie Pickford. While people of that name can be found on various census returns, none of them match what we know – for example, many are married women – and most are the wrong age. It is also likely that our Lizzie Pickford had changed her name, possibly several times, especially if she wished to establish a theatrical reputation.

We are eventually left with a few possible glimpses of Lizzie Pickford after she gave her interview in 1879. None can settle the question of how Pickford earned a living as they point in completely different directions.

Margaret Street pictured in 2010: St Agnes’ Hospital was at the far left end of the first building, the eighth and ninth windows along and the entrance of which is under the semi-circular arch (Image: Photo © Robin Sones [cc-by-sa/2.0])

The first possibility comes on the 1881 census: Eliza Pickford, an unmarried woman who gave her occupation as an actress. She was born in Islington, London, in 1855. This seems to be a perfect match. But there is a twist. At the time of the census, Eliza Pickford was a patient at St Agnes’ Hospital, 3 Margaret Street, Marylebone. St Agnes’ was a hospital for “fallen women” which offered free entry; “fallen women” were generally prostitutes but could also be thieves, the homeless or the mentally ill. St Agnes’ had been established in 1874 by the Reverend Arthur Brinkman and was run by an order of Anglican sisters; in 1881, Emma Jones was the sister in charge. This Eliza Pickford cannot be traced on any subsequent census or in records of marriages or deaths.  While there are other Eliza Pickfords on later censuses with a similar birthdate, for various reasons they cannot have been the same woman. If this is our Lizzie Pickford – and it would be a huge coincidence for an actress of around the right age to be found with the same name and located in the same general area just 18 months later – it does raise the possibility that she was a prostitute.

The other “fallen women” who were patients at St Agnes’ Hospital in 1881 included a matron, three servants, a laundress, three housemaids and another actress. The latter was a 20-year-old calling herself Eugenia Hitt: in March 1886, she was taken into Fulham Road workhouse, giving her occupation as a “ballet girl”; the admission notes say that she was pregnant, but do not indicate what happened to her afterwards, although William Hitt, the son of Eugenie, a workhouse inmate, was baptised at St Pancras church in March 1888. There, the trail goes cold. None of the patients from 1881 seem to have enjoyed happy lives, as far as they can be traced. Sarah Bates, one of the servants, was a 17-year-old from Buckinghamshire, who is recorded on the 1871 census as an inmate of a workhouse with her unmarried mother and her sister. She vanishes after 1881.

Another possible trace of Miss Pickford comes in the pages of The Stage in October 1895; it lists “Lizzie Pickford” taking part in an examination at the North-East London Institute of music, science and art as one of the pupils of Mr Carrington Willis’s School of Elocution and Dramatic Art. Her recital of “Absolution” was praised and she received a first-class certificate. In December 1896, she took part in a Shakespearian recital put on by Mr and Mrs Carrington Willis at Steinway Hall, Lower Seymour Street, performing selections from King Lear. Additionally, an 1897 advertisement in the London Kelt Welsh language newspaper had “Miss Lizzie Pickford” taking part in a “Grand Concert” for the Welsh Sunday School at Stoke Newington, along with the Wilton Square Choir and William Davies, a tenor at St Paul’s Cathedral; she seems to have narrated a musical performance. If these are all our Lizzie Pickford, it suggests that she was indeed an actress. However, she would have been around 41 (if she was born in 1855 as indicated on the 1881 census), which perhaps was too old to be a pupil. Was this the same woman attempting to become “respectable”? Was it a completely different woman, and we have another coincidence? Or was “Lizzie Pickford” a recycled pseudonym? There is no further trace of Mr Carrington Willis’ pupil after 1897.

It is finally worth looking at where these events took place. All the locations mentioned by Lloyd and Pickford are close to each other. Hyde Park, where they met, is some way from Pickford’s house, but close to Queen’s Road. Miss Edwards was first seen by Lloyd at Regent Circus and later at Piccadilly Circus. These are close to the main theatre district of Covent Garden and the West End, where the Liverpool Mercury said that Pickford worked in a “respectable theatre”. But a direct route from Stamford Street to these locations passes through the Haymarket; at this time, this busy street had a reputation as a place where prostitution openly took place at night (albeit at a considerably later hour than Pickford and Miss Edwards were abroad). There were dance halls and brothels nearby, and it is not hard to imagine these as places where an actress struggling to establish a career might find herself. Finally, even St Agnes’ Hospital is in the general area where the two women spent their time, increasing the probability that Lizzie Pickford and the “fallen woman” Eliza Pickford were the same person.

The Haymarket at midnight (Image: Unknown but reproduced at joankanenichols.wordpress.com)

So who was Lizzie Pickford? Was she an actress? Was she a prostitute? The evidence points both ways and is hardly conclusive in either direction, which might imply someone at the very fringes of “respectable theatre” – perhaps performing in something like music halls – and who perhaps inhabited blurred lines between the two professions. What did she and Miss Edwards do on their long walks, what did they discuss, what did they plan? Was Miss Edwards intending to join this shadowy world? Or was she just happy to have a supportive friend? From the way she left Pickford when her uncle found her, were they even more than friends? The evidence does not tell us enough to draw any meaningful conclusions. We simply cannot know. There, I think we must leave it.

Despite their earlier attempts to maintain their “foul play” story, the Edwards family never challenged Pickford’s version. In fact, they ultimately acknowledged it to be the truth. Newspapers reported on 8 November that “friends of Miss Edwards” sent Pickford letters of thanks and, as the Liverpool Echo described it, “a handsomely bound Bible and a pecuniary gift, in recognition of her kindness to Miss Edwards, to whom she gave a home in London.” Most newspapers simply said that they sent some expenses to cover the costs she had incurred. Whatever Miss Edwards had told her family by then, they obviously approved of Pickford’s actions. They also seem far more eager to help her than to reward Lloyd, who did not receive his £100 until the end of the month. Is there any significance in the choice of a Bible as a gift? Did she perhaps require redemption of some kind? Whatever the case, the Edwards family were grateful. Did Miss Edwards keep in touch with Pickford afterwards, as she had promised Pickford? In some ways, I hope she did.

Articles continued to appear in newspapers for a few weeks, although most were reprints in regional newspapers. But the disappearance had caused quite an impact on the public. The story even travelled overseas. The New York Times carried at least two articles with somewhat sensational headlines: “Liverpool Lady’s Freak: Finding of Miss Edwards after Several Weeks’ Mysterious Disappearance” (which was a fairly straightforward account of her discovery by Lloyd) appeared on 5 November; “The Mysterious Maiden: Conduct of the Liverpool Lady Astray in London” (a reprint of the Pickford interview) was printed on 9 November. Whatever Miss Edwards felt at becoming notorious in such a way, it cannot have improved her mood or hastened her recovery.

Miss Edwards was still reported to be ill on 8 November, and similarly when Lloyd was paid at the end of the month. It also emerged that she had been previously treated for “hysteria involving hallucinations”. Interestingly, neither Pickford nor Lloyd gave any indication that she was suffering from epilepsy nor any form of “fainting” or “hysteria”. Doubts were expressed that she would ever recover. But she did so. This was far from the end of Miss Edwards’ adventures. What happened to her next may give some clues about her motivation in September 1879: an unhappy marriage from which she eventually fled; an unusual career as a stewardess… and a trip on an ocean liner called the Titanic.

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