In this story we look at the life of Bernard Spilsbury, rather than the many cases he was involved in. We are particularly interested in the period when he lived in St John’s Wood and also just off the Finchley Road.
Bernard Spilsbury was born on 16 May 1877 in Leamington Spa, the eldest of the three children of James Spilsbury, a manufacturing chemist who later moved to London.
Bernard went to Oxford where he took a degree in natural science. For his medical studies at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington’s Praed Street he was fortunate to work with three brilliant forensic scientists: the toxicologists Arthur Pearson Luff and William Willcox, and Augustus Joseph Pepper, a leading pathologist.
The three men had developed a good working relationship with the Metropolitan Police under Edward Henry, the Commissioner from 1903 to 1918. He was dedicated to making criminal investigations more efficient and modern. Spilsbury who succeeded Pepper at St Mary’s when he retired in 1908, argued that England’s pathologists ought to have access to the finest laboratories and mortuary equipment, and he found a powerful ally in Henry. By 1909 Luff, Willcox and Spilsbury were being regularly called in by the coroner, the Home Office or the Director of Public Prosecutions to give forensic help.
In September 1908 Spilsbury married Edith Caroline Mary Horton, the daughter of a surgeon-dentist, and they lived at Hindes Road in Harrow on the Hill until he bought a large house at 31 Marlborough Hill in St John’s Wood. They lived here from 1912 to about 1940 (it now has a blue plaque to commemorate his residence). Their four children were looked after by a nanny in the basement, and Spilsbury built a laboratory in a back room on the top floor. Spilsbury had close working relationships with his sons Peter, who became a surgeon, and Alan, who assisted him in the Gower Street laboratory.
Early in his career Spilsbury became known as an expert witness in a series of notorious murder cases which gained wide publicity in the press. His methodical approach and his calm demeanour in court won the respect of barristers, judges, juries, and the public. The Crippen case of 1910 made him famous while other trials such as that of George Joseph Smith, ‘the Brides in the Bath’ murderer, enhanced his prestige. See this link for more information about his cases: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Spilsbury
Locally, he conducted autopsies on Kilburn murders in 1919 and 1937.
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When Spilsbury was at the height of his professional influence from 1910 to the 1930s, his opinion was virtually unquestioned among jurors. Newspapers reported his testimony, giving the impression that ‘Sir Bernard in the Box’ was a turning point for inquests and criminal trials. His reputation for invincibility evoked comment and some professional jealousy. A slip of the tongue by a defence counsel who called him Saint Bernard instead of Sir Bernard, merely reinforced public perception that Spilsbury’s opinion could not be overturned even by an array of other expert witnesses.
At his most productive, in the 1930s, Spilsbury was performing an astonishing 750 to 1,000 post-mortem examinations per year. He undertook more than 25,000 in his long career. Knighted in 1923, he was renowned as a pathologist who helped to establish the profession as a science.
A very private man, he did socialise with a group of criminologists, writers and amateur enthusiasts called ‘Our Society’ or the 'Crimes Club’ (Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and PG Woodhouse were members). Their meetings focused on medical and legal discussions of historical cases.
Today, some people who think that he was overrated as an expert witness point to his reluctance to rely on statistics, the fact he did not put his work forward for peer review, and for some of his opinions on the stand which seemed to be outdated at the time.
The Spilsbury’s marriage had effectively broken down by the time of the outbreak of WWII. In 1939 the St John’s Wood house stood empty: Edith was living with her married sister in Solihull while Bernard was in rented lodgings in Verulam Buildings, Gray’s Inn Holborn. But after bombs hit the building in March 1941, he moved to the Langorf Hotel at 18-20 Frognal just off the Finchley Road, where his sister Constance was staying. He kept his car, an Armstrong-Siddeley, in a garage down the hill in Finchley Road and drove to his laboratory in University College Hospital, Gower Street.
Spilsbury suffered three personal tragedies in succession. His son Peter, a surgeon at St Thomas’ Hospital was killed during a bombing raid on 15 September 1940, when the Hospital received a direct hit. Constance his sister, died in March 1942. Alan was helping his father at his laboratory, but in November 1945 suffering from TB he fell ill and died after a short illness lasting just three days.
Spilsbury’s own health had deteriorated during the War. Following strokes in May 1940 and 1945, colleagues noticed that his precision with autopsies and his clarity giving evidence in court had noticeably declined. He struggled to get work and was short of money as he was paid per autopsy.
Just after 8.00 on the evening of 17 December 1947, a hospital technician at University College passed Spilsbury’s room and smelt gas. When the room was unlocked, Spilsbury was found unconscious on the floor with a Bunsen burner gas tap full on. Medical staff desperately tried to resuscitate him, but he was declared dead at 9.10 pm.
The newspapers speculated it could have been an accident, a collapse following a heart attack, or the fact that Spilsbury had previously lost his sense of smell and may not have realised the gas was on. But the inquest returned a verdict of suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed. The coroner was a personal friend, Bentley Purchase. Fighting back tears, he said that Spilsbury’s declining health must have been a key factor in his decision. He was cremated at Golders Green on 22 December 1947.
At the time of his death, Spilsbury was still living quietly in Room 5 at the Langorf Hotel where people did not know who he was. He left just over £9,000 in his will, bequeathing all his property to his wife Edith. She had returned to London at the end of the War and died at 24 Lyndhurst Road Hampstead in December 1962.