A Family Tragedy at Tanners Farm

On the opposite side of the road to St Thomas à Becket church stands Tanners Farm house. In 1894 it was rented by Richard Fullager and the Towner family had lodged with him for around two years. The husband, Steven Towner, was a labourer who struggled to stay in continuous employment and drunk heavily despite the family's financial hardship. As a consequence, his marriage with his wife Emily, a dressmaker, had become an unhappy one and arguments and ill-feeling had been, it seems, an on-going part of their relationship over the past year or more. Emily had threatened to leave her husband previously and had apparently made complaints to the police about his abusive behaviour. It also emerged that Steven Towner had latterly become suspicious – although it turned out to have no basis - of his wife's association with their landlord Fullager and this was playing heavily on his mind. 

The culmination of these circumstances was a truly appalling and tragic episode in Capel's history which continues to shock to this day. 

Below are extracts from a local newspaper covering the event itself and the subsequent inquest.

Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser

Thursday 15 November 1894



On Saturday, just about mid-day, a most terrible tragedy was perpetrated in the usually quiet village of Capel, about four miles distant from Tonbridge. The fearful crime was committed within view of the parish church, and no sooner had the murderer and suicide accomplished his work, then the news spread like wildfire, and great consternation was felt when the sad and alarming intelligence reached Tonbridge and other neighbouring towns. The scene of the crime was Tanners Farm house in which lodged a man named Stephen Henry Towner and his wife Emily Jane Towner, and four little children. For some years past Towner and his wife had been on very bad terms, and this, unhappily, culminated Saturday last, when after continuous rowing, the man, with, fearful desperation, murdered his wife by cutting her throat with a razor and directly afterwards ended his own life with the same weapon, in the same manner, and in the same bedroom in which he had assailed his poor unfortunate victim. Whether Towner's mind was deranged at the time it is very difficult to say, but it is pretty clear that he had for some time been suffering from some unwarrantable fit of jealousy, that he had an ejectment order and county court summons staring him in the face, and that his wife had resolutely determined to leave him on the day of the crime on account of his previous repeated ill-usage.

The murderer was well known in Tonbridge. The wife was a hard-working and quiet woman, and showed great care and thought for her children. She, it was in fact, who has of late years been the real bread winner. The surroundings of this case are particularly sad. The deceased leaves four little children, namely, Stephen Henry, aged 8. Hilda, aged 5, Lilly, aged 3, and Sidney, aged 1. These poor mites are all healthy and pretty children, and the cleanly and tidy manner in which they were dressed at Tanners Farm on Monday on the occasion of the inquest, spoke volumes for the care and attention that had been paid to their attire and health by their late devoted mother.

THE INQUEST was held by Mr T. Buss, Coroner, on Monday night in the spacious drawing-room of Church Farm, Capel, which was considerately lent Mr J. A. Buggs, who occupies Tanner Farm also. Supt. Bartlett watched the case on behalf of the Kent County Constabulary. As soon the jury had been sworn in, they proceeded to Tanners Farm House in company with the Coroner to view the bodies, which now were lying on the bed together robed in white, with the fearful gashes in their throats gently covered with bandages. The blood-stained carpet, table cover, and pin cushion still remained, and the sight was an agonising one that must long be remembered by the coroner, jurymen, pressmen, and police.

It was decided to take the same evidence in both cases.

Mrs Elisa Towner, an elderly woman, between 70 and 80 years of age, was the first witness. She said: I live at Tanners Farm, Capel and am a widow. I have seen the bodies of Stephen Henry Towner and Emily Jane Towner; I lived with them. Stephen Henry Towner was my son, and he was 38 or 39 years of age, and his wife was 30. They have been married eight years, and had four children. They have lived at Tanners Farm about twelve months. The deceased man had recently worked as a farm labourer. They did not live together on very good terms latterly. To the best of my knowledge this was caused through jealousy. Towner was jealous of his wife, but as far as I know he had no reason to be. The morning that he cut his throat and once before that I saw him tap her on the side of the head. She had told him that she intended to get a divorce, and this seemed to prey on his mind, and he told her Saturday morning that she should not live with anyone else. She told him that she was going away that morning. The wife was going out of the door as she saw P.C. Burbridge going by, but my son would not let her go. She screamed, and then he let go of her and she went out. When she came back he asked her if she had seen the policeman, and she said she had and that the policeman was coming back in an hour to see that he did not harm her when she left. This seemed to put him out very much, and it worried him when she said that the policeman would be back in an hour.

—The Coroner: Was the wife at all jealous of him?

—Witness: She used to cheek him about one and another, but nothing else. 

- The Coroner: Were they in money difficulties? 

—Witness: No, sir, only a little rent that they owed Fullager and a little they owed for the cottage we left. He was under notice to leave the cottage we live in. This seemed to affect him. P.C. Burbridge had promised to come on Saturday morning in an hour and see her out of the place, but he did not come. They had a cup of tea each on Saturday morning. After this she kept going upstairs and her husband kept following her. I afterwards heard a blundering noise and went upstairs. I met her coming downstairs but did not notice anything then. I got up to the bedroom door and then I saw him just drawing the razor across his throat, and as he was falling he again tried to cut his throat. I ran downstairs and out into the road and called Mr Buggs and Mr Austen, and when I returned I saw her lying in the passage bleeding from the throat. Neither of them ever spoke to me. I knew that the deceased man carried a razor in his pocket. I once asked him why he carried it about with him, and he said that he should do for himself some day if she did not desist, but he did not say that he would cut her throat.

—By the Foreman : I have persuaded them to cease quarrelling, but it was not because they were fighting. I cannot say whether he went into a public house on the Friday night, but was perfectly sober. About eight years ago my son was coming home from Hartlake Fair, and he was thrown out of a cart and hurt his head, which bled very much. He was almost dead when brought home, and he has suffered at times with his head ever since. There was a great difference in him after the accident. The deceased woman told her husband that she had been to a solicitor in Tunbridge Wells, and he had advised her to have a separation order. He went and knelt down by the bedside of his dying brother and promised that if his wife would forgive him he would be a teetotaller and sign the pledge. On Saturday she said she would not forgive him, that she was going away.

Samuel Richard Fullager said: I live at Tanners Farm, Capel and am a farm labourer. The deceased man and woman had rooms in my house and had been with me about twelve months (the 24th last February). They had two private rooms to themselves, and I had two, and the rest of the house we used generally between us. I had my meals in the same rooms they had, but at a different table. The deceased man and woman did not live on very agreeable terms, and I have heard them quarrelling. I have never seen any blow struck. Lately the husband was jealous of his wife but there was no occasion for it. The reason, I believe, was because I gave him notice to leave and got an ejectment order against him. He begged and prayed of me to let him remain and I told him I should not, and that if I choose to give his wife anything I should give it to her in his face as well as behind his back. He has remarked upon me having given his wife food for herself and children, and at another time he would confess that he had no reason to complain, and his wife has told him that I was good to him and her. There was not the slightest reason for the man to be jealous of his wife in consequences of my treatment, for I have never treated her in any other way than as a respectable woman. I had summoned him to the County Court next Thursday. He had not paid his rent punctually. I was suing him for the rent and possession. The last time I saw the deceased man and woman was just before ten o'clock on Friday night. After I got to bed I heard them in their bedroom talking but I should not say that they were quarrelling then. The man used to quarrel with his wife when he had got a drop of drink. His wife never came to me for protection against his violence, and nothing has occurred in my presence to warrant me interfering, but his wife has interfered when he has threatened to punch my head a time or two. The deceased man did very little work and brought very little money home. What he did earn he did not bring home to her. He was earning 21s a week last hopping and she told me that the most he brought home to her was 14s a week for three weeks. I believe the wife was a hard-working industrious woman, or her children would never have looked so clean and tidy as they did.

Mr James Arthur Buggs said: I am a farmer at Capel and occupy Church Farm and Tanners Farm, and let the house at Tanners Farm to Fullager. I knew the deceased man and his wife. On Saturday morning, just before twelve, I was standing near Tanners Farmhouse talking to a man named Austen, when old Mrs Towner came round the corner screaming, and said her son had cut his wife's throat and his own too. Austen and I rushed in, and I saw the deceased woman lying in the passage with blood all over her, and a dreadful sight. I left Austen to look after her, and I rushed upstairs into the bedroom and found the man Towner standing there with his throat cut, and the blood was rushing from his throat very fast. I went for assistance. When I first saw the deceased woman she was not dead, but too far gone to speak.

Robert Austen, a labourer, gave corroborative evidence. He added: The wife was bleeding very much. I picked her up and held her up to see if I could do anything, but she only breathed three times, and I then laid her down again as I thought she was dead. The man was lying on the floor close to the bed, and was bleeding from the throat. He had a razor in his right hand underneath him. He breathed about three times.

Dr. George Edward Gibson Metcalfe, in practice at Paddock Wood and Capel, said: On Saturday last, about 12.30, I was sent for, and I went to Tanners Farm where I found Dr Malden had arrived just before me, and he was upstairs with the man. The woman was lying in the passage and was quite dead. She had a large incision across the centre of the throat. It stretched from the right side in a downward direction, and it had cut right through the veins. It was a very severe wound, and in my opinion it could not have been self-inflicted. The cause of the woman's death was haemorrhage. The deceased man was lying curled up by the side of the bed on the floor. His throat was cut straight across. The incision almost went from one ear to the other. This wound was self-inflicted, and in my opinion it must have been in a most determined manner. Death in this was also due to haemorrhage, and it must have been instantaneous. The woman was thin and spare, but I should not say from her appearance that she had been starved.

P.C. Willam Burbridge said: I am stationed at Five Oak Green, Capel, and I knew the deceased and his wife. On Saturday morning the woman saw me and said, "My husband knocks me about and threatens to take my life. He hit me this morning." I told her that she could take a summons out for assault and could apply for an order of separation. I gave her the address of Mr. Warner, the magistrates' clerk at Tonbridge. At about twelve thirty I went to the house and then found the woman lying in the passage with her throat cut. I found the deceased man upstairs lying on his right side with a towel round his throat, and on the table I found a black handled razor all covered with blood. I felt the man and found he was quite dead.

Supt. Stephen Bartlett, of the Tonbridge Division of Police, proved visiting the premises. On searching the deceased man he found notices given to him by the witness Fullager to quit his cottage, and also a County Court summons to show cause why he should not give up possession of his apartments and also forepayment of the rent due. In his right hand trouser's pocket was another razor, two knives, a bunch of keys, a pipe, and a tobacco box, and a pocket book, in which were written statements referring to the history of the deceased man's wife's family. To his mind it must be that the women must have been folding articles of linen up when she was attacked from behind.

The Coroner then proceeded to sum up. He carefully reviewed the facts of the melancholy case at considerable length, and, remarked that the history of the married life of these two people was a particularly unfortunate one. It was evident that the man was at times addicted to drink and was a ne'er-to-do-well ma, while his wife carried on a separate business as a dressmaker. The two led a most unpleasant and unhappy life, and during the last three years the wife had complained of her husband's ill treatment. If the jury were satisfied that the medical evidence that death was due to haemorrhage caused by the wounds in the throats of this man and woman, then it would be their duty to enquire by whose hands respectively the wounds were inflicted. If they considered that the injuries on the wife were inflicted by the husband, and that he then cut his own throat, they would have to say so. They would have also to consider what state of mind they were of opinion the man was in at the time he committed these acts. He (Mr Buss) must say that he thought they would agree with him that this was a tragedy such as not happened in a country district for a long time. It was a domestic tragedy most sad in all its details, for here were two young persons with a young family ending their lives in a terrible tragic way.

The jury, after a consultation of just upon three quarters of an hour, returned a verdict to the effect that Stephen Henry Towner did feloniously kill and slay his wife Emily Jane Towner, and afterwards did feloniously kill himself, but the evidence before them (the jury) was not sufficient to show the state of mind of Stephen Henry Towner at the time. The jury also added a rider to the effect that they considered that the husband had no grounds for jealousy, and that the conduct of Fullager had been nothing but of an honourable kind-hearted character.

Mr Tompsett, on behalf of the jury, thanked Mr Buggs for allowing them to assemble at his house to perform their painful duties, and remarked that Mr Buggs would not take any remuneration for the use of the room, but wished the money to be handed over to the woman who had been rendering assistance in this unhappy affair.

The Coroner endorsed Mr Tompsett's remarks, and the enquiry then concluded, it having occupied three hours.