Conan Doyle and The Parson’s Son
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A definitive study of the George Edalji case covering the early life and harrassment of the Edalji family; the police set up George using fabricated evidence; the intervention of Conan Doyle; the Home office and Police cover up; and the eventual free pardon given to George for a miscarriage of justice. A classic Victorian and Edwardian crime set against a background of racism and police duplicity.
After well over four years researching the case of George Edalji, reading everything available in the local press and delving through the thousands of letters and documents held in the Home Office files at the Public Record Office, a comprehensive study of the Edalji case and the circumstances surrounding the case is now available. The study covers the period from 1876 when Reverend Shapurji Edalji, a Parsee convert to Christianity, became vicar of St Mark’s Church in Great Wyrley, until well into 1912 when the case was still causing conflict between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edalji’s champion, and Captain Anson, the second son of the Earl of Lichfield and Chief Constable of Staffordshire, who was the arch opponent of the Edalji family, disturbed about a ‘Hindoo parson’ being the parish vicar in an outpost of his fiefdom.
The centrepiece of the work is the arrest, trial and imprisonment of George Edalji for a series of maimings of animals in Great Wyrley. But how did this myopic and astigmatic young solicitor manage to get himself into the frame for these crimes? To understand why he was arrested and convicted of a crime that he was physically incapable of carrying out, the starting point was the situation the Reverend Edalji and his family had to face and the resentment directed towards them after the Parsee-convert to Christianity became vicar of the parish in 1876.
In the work now completed, the early years of the Edaljis’ life in Great Wyrley and the problems they encountered have been covered. From the late-1870s, considerable conflict existed in the parish between Reverend Edalji and several prominent persons and interest groups over a range of issues, which eventually resulted in a campaign of harassment and intimidation directed against the vicar and his family – threats, hoaxes, scurrilous and crude anonymous letters, continuing on and off for close on twenty years. The new vicar made many enemies from all walks of local life not just because he challenged their dominance in the locality but he was the embodiment of what Victorian and Edwardian jingoism looked down on. The local police, influenced by the Chief Constable, left the Edaljis to their persecutors. The antagonism continued into 1903 when a series of maimings and a spate of anonymous letters hit the locality and the police decided to prosecute George Edalji as the maimer and the scribe.
The account of the arraignment, committal and trial of George Edalji shows the duplicity of the police and the prosecution in fabricating evidence against Edalji. Other more likely suspects, believed by the police to have had a hand in the maimings, were never charged, including a local youth, who was arrested for carrying out a similar maiming while Edalji was in Stafford jail awaiting trial. He was allowed to leave the country for South Africa, escorted to Southampton by Staffordshire policemen. Despite this new incident, Edalji was brought to trial before an incompetent, second level Chair of the Quarter Sessions instead of before a judge in the Assizes. George was convicted in what was very much a kangaroo court where the Chief Constable, and his associates in Staffordshire, railroaded George Edalji into one of His Majesty’s prisons. Edalji, according to several leading legal experts at the time, was convicted principally on inadmissible evidence – evidence concerning similar crimes for which Edalji was not on trial and the testimony of a handwriting ‘expert’, who swore that Edalji was responsible for the anonymous letters, which had no connection at all with the crime for which Edalji was on trial.
George Edalji seen at his trial in 1903
Following Edalji’s conviction and the start of a campaign by many prominent people for the release of Edalji, another similar maiming took place but this did not lead to a reappraisal of Edalji’s conviction, it merely intensified a smear campaign against the Edaljis, conducted by the Chief Constable. Within six months of the conviction, with Edalji in Lewes prison, Great Wyrley suffered another maiming and a miner, seen in the vicinity of two previous maimings, was convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment. This was followed by the complete discrediting of the handwriting ‘expert’, who admitted errors following revelations of his ineptitude in another major case of the period, the Adolf Beck case. Beck had been wrongly convicted of deception on the evidence this expert.
The campaigning weekly newspaper, ‘Truth’ owned by the maverick MP, Labouchere, took up Edalji’s case and in late 1906, shortly after Edalji was released early from prison, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of detective fiction, took an interest in the case. After considerable investigation, Conan Doyle wrote articles for the Daily Telegraph, calling for a public Commission of Inquiry into Edalji’s arrest and conviction. Not surprisingly, in the absence of a Court of Appeal, the Home Office, who were responsible for recommending pardons to the Monarch, stood firmly behind the Staffordshire Constabulary, despite advice from legal advisers that the case against Edalji had been extremely weak. Eventually, the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, sanctioned a watered-down inquiry, which recommended a pardon for Edalji but fell short of recommending a Commission of Inquiry into the Staffordshire police and Home Office officials as demanded by Edalji’s supporters. Gladstone grudgingly agreed to the recommendation of a free pardon but withheld compensation for this gross miscarriage of justice. This compromise did not satisfy public opinion but merely fuelled the demands from a wide section of the national press for a full-scale commission of inquiry. However, Home Office officials closed ranks and their duplicity in protecting their fellow bureaucrats in the Staffordshire police shines through the considerable documentation passing between Home Office officials, the Chief Constable of Staffordshire and other officials and lay persons on whom officialdom relied.
Shortly after Edalji was pardoned, the Great Wyrley area was hit by further maimings and a local man, a supporter of George Edalji’s campaign, was arrested and, in what was a re-run of the 1903 trial, evidence was fabricated against this new scapegoat, although on this occasion the ‘evidence’ was completely discredited in court and the police were left without a conviction. However, the latest maiming made little difference to Home Office officials who adamantly refused to recommend the grant of any compensation to Edalji for his imprisonment.
Conan Doyle’s contribution in exposing the Staffordshire police’s inadequacy and duplicity created considerable antagonism between himself and the Chief Constable that waged on and off for another five years as the Edalji issue was visited and revisited on numerous occasions and each element in the case regurgitated. However, the Home Office would not concede the field but Edalji, now reinstated to the Rolls as a solicitor following his pardon, was free to carry on his profession.
The Edalji case was an early 20th century example showing the intransigence of bureaucrats and the extent of their efforts to protect each other when confronted by an individual, who sought justice and protection after being railroaded for an offence it was most implausible to consider he had committed. Individuals, apparently, were as likely a hundred years ago to suffer a miscarriage of justice as they are in the early-21st century.
Surprisingly, given the significance of the case, which drew notable lawyers, writers and scholars into the fray at the time, very little of substance has been written on the case itself. Apart from references made to the case in numerous biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which offer little to the complexity of the case, there have only been the most limited attempts at dealing with the Edalji case. In the later stages of the twentieth century a few articles; an introduction to Conan Doyle’s articles on the case; a chapter in a book on Doyle; and a paper presented to a police conference is all that is available.