In a case of confused identities, when Frances Saunders was murdered in Peckham in 1897 by her lover, the couple was described in the press as Mr and Mrs Francis. Although Frances’ real identity was soon established when her estranged husband identified her body, it took another nine years for police to work out who her suspected killer really was - but the delay enabled him to escape justice.


Frances was only 31 years old, but had lived a chequered life. Married at 18 to market gardener William Saunders, she was the mother of three young children, and it seems that as she approached her thirties, she was looking for a bit of excitement. She had affairs, she drank, and she wasn’t good with money. Her marriage failed, and William soon decided that she was leading such a dissolute life that he cut off her agreed maintenance.

Read other instalments of Nell Darby's historical cold cases:

The mystery of Miss Lamond

The mystery of the vanishing widow 

Murder in the year of the Ripper 

She took him to court and William was ordered to pay, albeit a reduced sum; but Frances promptly absconded with one of their two sons. She then moved in with another man in Peckham. Frances’ new partner was a career burglar, but one who was content to sit back and let his girlfriend prostitute herself to pay their rent - indeed, locals said Frances would bring men back to their house on Cator Street while her boyfriend was present. She was unable, however, to bring sufficient money in, and the night she was killed, neighbours heard an argument between the couple over their finances, with Frances shouting that if she could find his burglary equipment, she would happily take it to a police station and report his crimes.

Her partner waited until she and her son were asleep, and then attacked her with a hatchet. Afterwards, he calmly asked a neighbour to look after the child, claiming that Frances had had to go away. It was another three days before anyone thought to investigate where Frances was, giving her errant boyfriend ample time to escape before her body was finally found.

More like this

The one that got away

Peckham High Street, shot in 1917
Peckham High Street, shot in 1917. (Photo by Alamy)

Initial reports in 1897 make it clear that the police were unsure of the identity of Frances’ suspected killer. They had been known as Mr and Mrs Francis, but these obviously weren’t their real names. He was known to also go by the name of Vincent, yet Frances referred to him as ‘Uncle Ben’. There was an uncorroborated sighting of him near the docks, but nothing else.

Time moved on, and William Saunders soon remarried; he and his second wife would bring up Frances’ three children. Only in 1906, after many people had forgotten about Frances and her fate, did the police release new information. They had established that her killer had other pseudonyms, including Benjamin Ollaway and Mr Tompkinson - but his real name was Joseph Tomblin. He was 5ft 6in, and had a ginger moustache or beard, a bald head, and a sunken nose.

He would now be 57 years old. The description of him was certainly quite detailed, but despite this, there is no evidence that Tomblin was ever caught. The delay in finding Frances’ body, and her lover’s shady life, enabled him to give the Victorian and Edwardian police the slip.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed


Dr Nell DarbyCrime historian and author

Dr Nell Darby is a crime historian and writer, and the presenter of the CBS Reality series Murder by the Sea. Her latest book is Sister Sleuths: Female Detectives in Britain (Pen & Sword History, 2021)