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Euston Square Mystery: Canterbury woman Matilda Hacker found murdered in cellar


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Found with her hands cut off and a rope around her neck, it was a gruesome end for Matilda Hacker.

She was known as a local eccentric in her home city of Canterbury, renowned for her flashy style of dress - and refusal to pay taxes.

Matilda and Ameila Hacker, The Canterbury Belles, as depicted in The Spectator. Picture: CHAS
Matilda and Ameila Hacker, The Canterbury Belles, as depicted in The Spectator. Picture: CHAS

After a stint in Westgate prison, she spent years moving around the country trying to avoid the police.

Such was her nomadic lifestyle, when a year went by with no one hearing from her it did not cause great alarm.

Then, one morning, the grisly truth was revealed.

An errand boy sent to clear out coal from the cellar of a London lodging house pulled out a human foot.

The grim discovery would spark a murder trial and revelations of a steamy affair - which caused a sensation in the British press and made the pages of the New York Times...

John Hacker funded the addition of the famous clock to St George's tower in Canterbury in 1837
John Hacker funded the addition of the famous clock to St George's tower in Canterbury in 1837

An eccentric life in Canterbury

Matilda was born in 1811 in Mary Magdalen church in Canterbury - daughter of stone engraver John Hacker and his wife Mary.

Her father prospered in his trade, growing wealthy enough to purchase several properties in the city, including four in a row in Blackfriars.

He was also responsible for organising and funding the addition of the famous clock to St George's tower in 1837.

The family moved to a large house in Wincheap in the 1850s, which is now home to Royal Gurkha Dine restaurant.

John Hacker owned a row of properties in Blackfriars in Canterbury. Picture: Google Street View
John Hacker owned a row of properties in Blackfriars in Canterbury. Picture: Google Street View

Neither Matilda nor her sister Amelia married - and their behaviour became increasingly strange.

Financed by their father's generosity, they wore identical silk dresses, lace shawls, gaudy sashes with large buckles and a brooch with bright coloured stones. To top this off, each sported a felt hat with feather - all regarded as more fitting for teenage girls than women in their 50s.

Often seen strolling together during the summer season along the front in Margate and Ramsgate, bystanders referred to them as the Canterbury Belles.

Matilda then developed a bizarre principle of refusing to pay the rates on the properties she controlled.

She spent a short time in Westgate prison before her jewellery was seized to settle her debts.

Wincheap House, depicted in the 1870s. Picture: CHAS
Wincheap House, depicted in the 1870s. Picture: CHAS
The Royal Gurkha Dine restaurant in Wincheap today. Picture: Google Street View
The Royal Gurkha Dine restaurant in Wincheap today. Picture: Google Street View

Yet her spell behind bars did not persuade her to change her ways - as she then refused to pay for the installation of mains water supply to her properties.

Instead of coming up with the cash, she fled to Brighton and later London, living under assumed names.

Following the deaths of her father and sister, by 1873 the entire rental income of the Hackers' properties went to Matilda.

But instead of simply paying rate demands, she used the money to dodge the authorities by moving from one place to another.

By the late 1870s she was living as Miss Huish at 4 Euston Square, a lodging house in London - where she would meet her tragic fate.

Housemaid Hannah Dobbs was accused of murdering Matilda Hacker. Picture: CHAS
Housemaid Hannah Dobbs was accused of murdering Matilda Hacker. Picture: CHAS

Maid on trial for murder

On May 9, 1879, 15-year-old William Strohman was sent to the cellar of the Bloomsbury house to sweep away the coal, as a new guest was to arrive that day.

It was here that the decomposing body of Matilda was found.

A rope was coiled around her neck, her legs were detached and her hands cut off.

Police investigations established that she had died in the autumn of 1878.

The Matilda Hacker murder trial was held at the Old Bailey. Stock picture.
The Matilda Hacker murder trial was held at the Old Bailey. Stock picture.

The public were fascinated by the case, which was dubbed the 'Euston Square Mystery' by the media. The New York Times coverage referred to Matila and her sister as 'The Wincheap Dolls of Canterbury'.

Crowds gathered outside the property - owned by the Bastendorff family - and had to be held back by police at times.

Detectives soon turned their attention to housemaid Hannah Dobbs after it emerged she had pawned items belonging to Matilda.

The case was heard at the Old Bailey in June 1879.

Forensic evidence emerged of a blood stain on the carpet near where Matilda had been found. But as she had been killed by strangulation and, knowing capital punishment would be the result of a conviction, the jury found Dobbs not guilty.

The Marlowe Studio put on a production of The Canterbury Belles, based on the Hacker sisters, in 2017
The Marlowe Studio put on a production of The Canterbury Belles, based on the Hacker sisters, in 2017

Affair sensation sparks second trial

Not long after walking free, the housemaid sensationally told a journalist that she had been having an affair with her former employer at 4 Euston Square, the "bushy-bearded" Severin Bastendorff.

She even suggested he was Matilda's killer. She claimed she had discovered the body in a workshop and Bastendorff had threatened her to stay quiet.

Dobbs also accused him of murdering another lodger and beating a homeless boy to death.

Such was the level of detail that a second trial was ordered.

The former Euston Square in Bloomsbury is now known as Endsleigh Gardens.. Picture: Google Street View
The former Euston Square in Bloomsbury is now known as Endsleigh Gardens.. Picture: Google Street View

There wasn't enough evidence to convict Bastendorff of murder but he was found guilty of perjury after lying about the affair with Dobbs in the previous trial. He was sentenced to 12 months behind bars.

A mystery to this day

So, while the police and judiciary were left in little doubt that Matilda had been murdered, the culprit was never found.

In 1880, the courts were once again called upon - this time to rule on the claims on John Hacker's will.

The family's property was sold and the proceeds distribute among his surviving sons.

Meanwhile, the residents of Euston Square - fed up with the notoriety of the murder - changed the name of the residential southern side of the square to Endsleigh Gardens.

*Information sourced from the Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, historyofyesterday and thehistorypress.

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