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George Edalji and the Great Wyrley killings: a real-life Sherlock Holmes mystery

The Great Wyrley killings of 1903 had all the classic trappings of a Sherlock Holmes story. So when the man convicted of the crimes sought to prove his innocence, it only made sense that he turn to the detective’s famous creator, writes Shrabani Basu

An undated image of George Edalji. (Image credit: Cheslyn Hay Local History Society)

On a crisp, cold morning in January 1907, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle caught an early morning train from London to Birmingham. Unnoticed by fellow commuters, the writer buried himself in the pages of a newspaper. At Birmingham he changed trains, travelling deeper into the heart of the Midlands. The creator of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s most famous detective, was on a mission. His final destination was the small mining village of Great Wyrley. Relieved to stretch his legs after the long journey, he walked briskly to St Mark’s Church and knocked on the door of the vicarage.

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Reverend Shapurji Edalji and his wife, Charlotte, received Conan Doyle gratefully. Shapurji was a Parsee convert to Christianity, had arrived in Britain from Bombay and was the first vicar of Indian origin in Britain. His wife was English. Over breakfast, the weary vicar told Conan Doyle of the troubles that his family had endured over the last few years. The author was moved to hear their story. A few weeks ago, he had met their son, George, in a London hotel. Thirty-year-old George had been a successful solicitor in Birmingham until his life turned upside down.

Reverend Edalji and his wife, Charlotte, pictured in 1892 with their children George, Maud and Horace. (Image credit: Cheslyn Hay Local History Society)
Reverend Edalji and his wife, Charlotte, pictured in 1892 with their children George, Maud and Horace. (Image credit: Cheslyn Hay Local History Society)

In 1903, the village of Great Wyrley became the centre of a series of brutal crimes as horses, pit ponies and cows were mutilated and left to die. Horrified villagers found their animals lying in the fields, their innards spilling out on the clay soil. Death was the only way to put the animals out of their agony, and Great Wyrley came to be known as the ‘village of fear’. Every attack followed the same pattern: the killer came in the dead of night, slashed the animals and left silently. The local police were clueless. Farmers locked up their cattle at night and children were told not to go out after dark. The police increased their surveillance, to no effect. The ‘Wyrley Ripper’ carried on his deeds.

As the crimes against the animals continued, the macabre tale took a further sinister twist. Anonymous letters were sent to the police, taunting them. They were also sent to the vicarage and to a few other locals. The letters mentioned a gang of killers, who were working on full-moon nights. One of the members of the gang was named as George Edalji. Letters were written in the name of a schoolboy called Wilfred Greatorex. Some of them were written to George.

Shrabani Basu is the author of The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the Case of the Foreigner in the English Village (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021)

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The police started watching the vicar’s son. The quiet and shy solicitor had a studious reputation. He was known to have won medals at university and had written a book on railway law. George lived a mundane life at the vicarage. Every morning he caught the train to his office in Birmingham and returned home in the evening. He did not drink, was never seen at the local alehouse and generally kept to himself. The police casually questioned George about the letters he had received and continued to watch the vicarage.

Early on the morning of 18 August, young miner Henry Garrett was walking to the start of his shift at the Great Wyrley Colliery when he found a horse limping in the field. It had been slashed. He raised the alarm and terrified villagers once again hurried to the spot. This time the police did not wait. They rounded on George Edalji and arrested him at his office in Birmingham. They went to the vicarage and removed a coat, a pair of boots and a razor. The coat, they said, had horse hairs on it, while the boots were wet and the razor displayed evidence of being used as a weapon. George protested that he had not left the house that night. He was not wearing the coat either, as he never wore it outdoors. Nor did he use a razor to shave – he always went to the barbers. None of it convinced the police.

Getting on the case

The trial took place over four days in Stafford in a low court ill-equipped to deal with such a serious crime. It took just 50 minutes for the jury to pronounce George guilty and the judge sentenced him to seven years’ penal servitude. Yet the flawed trial drew the attention of top legal experts and a petition to release George gathered more than 10,000 signatures. Eventually, he was released on parole three years later. But the crime still hung over his head and he remained barred from practising as a solicitor.

In desperation, George wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the best detective of Victorian England. He had read his novels while in prison and been impressed. George felt that only Conan Doyle wearing the hat of Holmes could solve the crime and save him.

Conan Doyle received George’s plea at a time when he himself was going through a dark period in his life. His wife, Louise (affectionately known as ‘Touie’), had died a few months earlier from tuberculosis. The tragedy of her death was mixed with guilt, as he had fallen in love with another woman while she was ill. He was now free to marry Jean Leckie, but he felt he was living under a shadow. The Edalji case, and the championing of a cause for a downtrodden family, would be something to lift him from his gloom. A grave miscarriage of justice had occurred, and the author was ready to take the fight to the powers that be.

Conan Doyle invited George to meet him at the Grand Hotel in London’s Charing Cross. The writer was late and spotted George waiting for him in the lobby. As the only Indian man in the room, Conan Doyle recognised him instantly. He also knew at once that George could not be the criminal. He was holding his newspaper close to his eyes and was clearly severely myopic. The night of 17 August had been wild and windy, and Conan Doyle surmised that a man with such poor vision could not have crossed the dark fields at night in the heavy rain. Conan Doyle had deduced important facts about George Edalji before he had even spoken to him, just as Holmes did in his books.

“Are you astigmatic?” the writer asked George.

“Yes,” he confirmed. The critical fact had not been brought up at the trial.

As Conan Doyle listened sympathetically, asking pertinent questions, George told him about the trial, the incompetence of the judge in directing the jury, and the inconsistent and flawed evidence provided against him. Moreover, the cattle killings had continued after he was in jail. A man had confessed but was not charged.

The media had whipped up a frenzy about the “dark Oriental” and his strange faith. Many believed that Parsees, who worshipped the fire and the Sun, regularly carried out nocturnal sacrifices of animals. Though born, brought up and baptised in England, George was seen as a foreigner with a strange religion.

Though born, brought up and baptised in England, George was seen as a foreigner with a strange religion

For Conan Doyle, the game was afoot. He had George’s eyes tested professionally, travelled to Great Wyrley to visit the scene of the crime, and interviewed the locals. Finally, he called on the chief constable of the Staffordshire police, the aristocratic Captain GA Anson, who had no love for the Indian vicar and his family. The meeting left Conan Doyle convinced that Anson was a racist.

Anonymous threats

On 11 January 1907, Conan Doyle published the first of his articles about the George Edalji case in The Daily Telegraph. It caused a sensation. “England soon rang with the wrongs of George Edalji,” remarked Conan Doyle. The articles were reproduced across Britain and across the Atlantic, making George famous around the world. Fellow authors such as JM Barrie, Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw all lauded Conan Doyle for taking up the cause.

With forensic precision and with all the art and mastery of Holmes, Conan Doyle threw out the case, pointing out errors at every stage of the trial. Every exhibit – from the wet boots and coat to the razor – was shown to be thoroughly inappropriate to be even admitted in court, let alone secure a conviction. Evidence from ophthalmologists was cited as evidence that George could not have made the mile-and-a-half journey across the fields in the dark. Nor could he have written the anonymous letter.

But there was more. Conan Doyle revealed something that had not been brought up at the trial at all. It was the grim story of the persecution of the Edaljis by a torrent of anonymous letters, hoaxes and threats for decades. The first of the letters had arrived in 1888 when George was a mere 12-year-old schoolboy.

The vicarage at Great Wyrley, which received a personal visit from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in January 1907. (Image credit: Cheslyn Hay Local History Society)
The vicarage at Great Wyrley, which received a personal visit from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in January 1907. (Image credit: Cheslyn Hay Local History Society)

The missives had soon escalated in tone. Obscene drawings of the vicar and George were left outside the vicarage, graffiti was daubed on the walls and excreta thrown in through the window. The letter-writer repeatedly threatened to kill George. The police were called, but to no avail. When a large key belonging to Walsall Grammar School was mysteriously left at the vicarage door, the police sergeant blamed George (by then 17 years old).

Though not a shred of evidence was produced, it brought George to the attention of Captain Anson, the head of the Staffordshire police. Anson was convinced that George was guilty, had written the anonymous letters himself, and that the “Hindoo vicar” of Great Wyrley was lying to protect him. Anson declared that he would seek penal servitude for the culprit when he was eventually identified.

In search of the truth

The stage had thus always been set for George’s arrest, said Conan Doyle. The writer became the conscience of the nation, revealing how racism, incompetence and prejudice had led to George’s conviction. Conan Doyle went so far as to compare the Edalji case to the Dreyfus affair in France, which had revealed the anti-Semitic attitude of the French army. To Conan Doyle the cases were similar. In France it had happened with a Jew; in England it had happened to a Parsee.

Scottish detective novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Scottish detective novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Solving the killings in Great Wyrley became a personal crusade. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Home Office was forced to appoint a committee to look into the case. They granted a pardon to George, but offered no compensation, concluding that he had written the anonymous letters and brought the trouble on himself.

Conan Doyle was incensed. “Either the man is innocent and deserves compensation, or he is guilty of the crime and deserves punishment,” he thundered. Over the next year, he stepped up his campaign. Until then, he had focused on proving that George had not done the deed. He now began an investigation into the real criminal. It led to major rows with Anson, who did not want to be taught policing by a popular writer. Anson even went to the extent of laying false trails to trip up Conan Doyle, and made it a personal feud.

It would be the only case that Conan Doyle investigated himself. But, he too, made mistakes, and the Home Office refused to reopen the files. And what became of George Edalji? Thanks to the efforts of Conan Doyle, he was eventually readmitted on to the Solicitors Roll and started practising in London, but he never returned to his home in Great Wyrley. His case led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907, but Edalji himself was largely forgotten. The mystery of the ‘Wyrley Ripper’ would remain unsolved.

Shrabani Basu is a bestselling author and journalist. Her books include Victoria & Abdul (The History Press, 2010), which was made into a feature film, and The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the Case of the Foreigner in the English Village (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021). Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or Bookshop.org

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This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of History Revealed