Flo Dudley, whose birth name was Florence Alice Bernadette Dudley, was a beautiful young woman with a striking figure who hailed from a good family in County Wexford, Ireland, and who, at the height of her all too brief career, achieved some popularity as a singer on the music hall circuit. In 1906, she had married a theatrical entrepreneur, Mr. Francis Cunningham Silles, to whom she bore a son, Francis junior, but was widowed when her husband died only a year later.
[L]eft with no means of support, Florence was then forced to find look to her own talents and abilities to provide for herself and her child. An accomplished pianist, she thought to turn her own musical abilities to advantage on the stage and gained a start by securing an engagement at a music hall singing songs at the piano. She was an immediate success and before long had secured an agent, Mr. Davis Hart of Charing Cross Road, London, and appeared to have a bright future with a list of engagements stretching many months into the future. In the winter months she turned her talents to pantomime where she became highly popular and much sought after in principal boy roles. Having established herself on both the music hall and pantomime circuits, Flo frequently travelled to Manchester, Liverpool, Aberdeen and other provincial cities, as well as appearing regularly on stage at Ilford where she kept a flat on Cranbrook Road which she occupied with her son and a maidservant. She was also a regular attendant at the Roman Catholic Church of SS. Peter and Paul at Ilford.
In the summer of 1911, Flo met a well-to-do tobacco manufacturer named James Joseph Kelly, at the Irish Club in Charing Cross Road, London, with whom she formed a close friendship and who would later play a significant but unwitting role in her tragic demise. The friendship was renewed the following Christmas when Flo was engaged to play Robin Hood in the pantomime of “Babes in the Wood” at the Gaiety Theatre in Kelly’s home city of Dublin – the pair’s spending much time together during Flo’s stay there. When Flo returned to the English music hall circuit for the summer months, she and Kelly maintained their friendship conversing by letter, although this ceased after a few weeks and she heard no more from him. It was then, whilst she was appearing at the Tivoli in Manchester, in April 1912 that she was introduced to a man named Edward G. Hopwood, about ten years her senior. Hopwood represented himself as an unmarried businessman and the managing director of a successful company. Over the ensuing weeks Hopwood showered her with gifts and spent every moment with her that she would allow. He regularly protested his love for her and begged her to marry him, promising that her boy would not only be well provided for but well educated and his future career cared for.
Eventually, Flo succumbed to his entreaties and agreed to marry him, whereupon Hopwood induced her to allow him to take charge of her affairs. Immediately he wrote to Mr. Hart, Flo’s theatrical agent, telling him that he and Miss Dudley were about to be married and instructing him to cancel all of her theatrical contracts – adding that he wished the marriage to be kept secret and would stop by in person to settle whatever may be due to Hart by way of commission on the cancelled contracts. When Hopwood visited Hart in accordance with that arrangement, the agent pointed out that the marriage would have to be made known as, otherwise, the contracts could not be cancelled. Hopwood, however, was adamant that he would not allow Miss Dudley to return to the stage and that even her immediate contracts for the next week must be broken.
Flo’s son was then put in boarding school whilst Hopwood took her away to Brussels where they spent a few happy weeks together. When they returned to London, the proposed marriage having not yet taken place, Flo, having given up her flat, went to stay with her widowed sister, Mrs. Bland, at Ilford. It was then that the first cracks began to appear in their relationship. Hopwood became obsessively jealous, accusing her of carrying on ‘intrigues’ with other men and even paying two porters at Liverpool Street Station (the London end of the Ilford line) to report on her comings and goings. These men, whose names were Bolingbroke and Jackson, were told that Miss Dudley was Hopwood’s intended but that she was ‘playing a fine game’ with him. Miss Dudley’s alarm at this turn of events reached its climax when she discovered that, in truth, it was she that was being deceived. Hopwood, who had always represented himself as a bachelor, was, in fact, married with a living wife and three children. Moreover, his business ’empire’ was a sham. The company of which he was a director had collapsed with no line of business and no assets and he was on the verge of bankruptcy, leaving a trail of dishonoured cheques behind him. Appalled at this turn of events, Flo determined immediately to have nothing more to do with him.
Set upon resuming her career on the stage, she then wrote to Mr. Hart imploring him to act as her agent again and to find her an engagement as soon as possible. Hart replied requesting that she visit him at his office, which she did on 20th September, 1912. At that interview she told him the whole sorry tale of Hopwood’s deceit that had placed her in the precarious position in which she now found herself. Hart immediately promised to do his best for her and told her he thought he could revive some of the contracts she had cancelled. As a result of that visit, Hart secured an engagement for Miss Dudley at the Empire Theatre, South Shields, commencing 7th October, and was endeavouring to secure more when tragedy overtook to negate his efforts. The jealous deceiver, Hopwood, would not let Miss Dudley go, however, and began following her about and attempting to make contact with her. Despite this, Flo remained steadfast in her resolve to have nothing more to do with him – but Hopwood was not to be so easily dismissed. Worse, his obsession with her was about to take an altogether darker turn.
On 25th September, whilst in Brighton he purchased a revolver in a gun shop and took out a gun licence. The next day he proceeded on to Southampton by way of Portsmouth, and checked in at the South Western Hotel under the name of James Kelly. Hopwood, it appears, had somehow learned of the association Flo had had with Kelly at Dublin (perhaps due to Flo’s open honesty about her past) and the following day he sent her a reply prepaid telegram in Kelly’s name. It began:
Only recently returned from holiday in Madeira to find from inquiries made in my absence that we were cruelly parted by wicked slanders.
It then went on to ask Florence to meet him at a restaurant in Holborn the following day, 28th September, to which Miss Dudley immediately replied:
Delighted to see you as desired.
But when Miss Dudley arrived at the restaurant in question, she was greeted not by Kelly but by Hopwood, who implored her pitifully to listen to him. Perhaps to avoid causing a scene, Florence agreed to dine with him and even afterward allowed him to escort her in a motor cab back to Fenchurch Street station for her return train to Ilford. It was to prove the gravest mistake – Florence would never make the train or, indeed, arrive home alive.
The cab was almost the station, driving along Fenchurch Street, when three loud reports rang out from inside the cab. Assuming his tyres had blown out, the cab driver pulled up immediately to investigate but found all the tyres on the vehicle to be intact. When he then opened the door to check his passengers the female stumbled, with blood streaming down her face and from her breast. She almost fell into the cabbie’s arms and uttered:
Mind, cabbie, he has shot me; he has got a revolver; take me to the hospital.
Just at that moment a policeman, who had been patrolling nearby and heard the shots ran up, whereupon both witnesses heard two further loud reports issue from the vehicle.
Florence was found to have been shot in the back of the head, just behind the right ear, and back of the shoulder. Hopwood had been shot once in the head with a glancing shot that had failed to penetrate the skull but caused a slanting wound across the forehead. Both victims were immediately conveyed by motor ambulance to Guy’s Hospital where Miss Dudley expired within minutes of arrival. Hopwood’s wound, on the other hand, was not considered a dangerous one and he was fully expected to survive. Hopwood was immediately arrested for the suspected murder of Miss Dudley. He was guarded in hospital by two constables and subsequently taken into police custody immediately upon his release six days later.
An inquest was held into the death of Miss Dudley at which a great deal of evidence as to the events of that night was admitted.
Hopwood, appearing before the coroner with his head bandaged, admitted to purchasing the revolver at Brighton, claiming that he had been planning a trip to Belfast and had intended the weapon for personal protection because of the troubles there.
The driver of the motor cab, Charles Matthews, testified as to stopping the cab on hearing the initial shots and the subsequent condition of the victims found inside – adding that until that moment he had heard no sound of struggle or argument.
James Kelly also gave evidence and attested that the telegram the victim had received in his name had not been sent by him, nor had he had any knowledge of it prior to Miss Dudley’s death. In cross examination, Hopwood quizzed Kelly as to the nature of his relationship with Miss Dudley and asked the witness if, in January last, he had made love to her. Kelly steadfastly denied that his relationship with Miss Dudley had been in any way improper. As to the letters he had exchanged with her, he described them as “very nice, affectionate letters” but denied that they were love letters. The magistrate then intervened and warned Hopwood that this line of questioning was dealing only with the “trumpery fringes” of the case and did not help then prisoner with regard to the charges laid against him.
George Bolingbroke and George Edward Jackson, the two Liverpool Street porters that Hopwood had paid to spy on Miss Dudley, told how, on the day that Hopwood engaged them, they had even followed Miss Dudley, whom Hopwood pointed out to them, on the train to Ilford which she had boarded in the company of two gentlemen. One of her companions got out with her at Ilford, where they parted company, whilst the other went on to Seven Kings – facts which the pair reported back to Hopwood.
PC Butler, who had been the first policeman to arrive on the scene moments after the first shots were fired, gave evidence that he looked into the cab to see Hopwood with gun in hand but was unable to prevent him putting the gun to his head and firing the last two shots with which he tried, unsuccessfully, to take his own life. He then took the weapon from the hand of Hopwood who had at this point rendered himself insensible.
Doctor D. N. Cox, who had attended the deceased at Guy’s hospital, gave evidence that the cause of death was due to haemorrhage in the chest caused by a bullet which had punctured her lung.
A note which was found in Hopwood’s pocket was also read into evidence. It read:
I am driven to this by my sweetheart deserting me when all my ready cash has gone, and by finding she has been reviving her old intrigue with Mosely, Birmingham, whom she has been out drinking and debauching with all this week. I am heartbroken through the conduct of Flo!
The note referred to Harry Joyce, another former acquaintance of Miss Dudley that Hopwood had found out about and who lived at Mosely. Joyce also appeared before the Coroner to refute its imputations, however. He testified to knowing Miss Dudley but denied any improper relationship with her at any time, or that he had met with her at all for many months past.
The inquest ended on 16th October, with a verdict of wilful murder being returned against Hopwood. In light of the Coroner’s findings, Hopwood was then brought before the Mansion House police court on 4th December where he was formally remanded for trial at the Old Bailey. His defence council then asked that the case be put over to the next sessions to allow witnesses to be called from various parts of the county. The judge, however, said that he did not feel there were any grounds for postponement and ordered the trial to begin on Monday, 9th December.
At that trial Hopwood conducted his own defence, his claim throughout being that he had never intended Miss Dudley any harm, but that rather he had intended to kill himself – the note subsequently found in his pocket being in the nature of a suicide note.
He claimed in evidence that Miss Dudley had known from their first meeting that he was a married man with three children but was living apart from his wife. Miss Dudley, he said, had pressed him to marry her, “if it was safe.” Shortly prior to the events of the tragic night his business had collapsed leaving him terribly hard up and his wife had taken his children away from him, occasioning his trip to Brighton where they were staying. “Everything had gone,” he sobbed in court, “everything lost. Home gone, children gone, business gone.” It was for these reasons that he had determined to take his life.
In the taxi-cab, he said he taken out the revolver and shot at himself but the bullet missed its mark. Miss Dudley had then grasped at the gun and said “Teddy, put it down. Don’t. I don’t mean to leave you!” “She tried to twist my hand,” he said, “and the wretched thing kept on going off, and I unconsciously shot her in the head.” He added that he then shot at himself a second time and collapsed. This version of events was refuted by Professor Pepper, the Home Office gunshot expert, however, who testified that whilst it may have accounted for the wound on the head, it could not explain the wound to the back of the shoulder. In his opinion, due to its location, the fatal wound could not have occurred whilst Miss Dudley had her hands on the gun, but rather was more consistent with Miss Dudley turning away from Hopwood in an effort to escape from him.
The evidence put forward in the inquest was repeated before the trial concluded on 11th December, amounting to a substantial case against Hopwood. The judge then directed the jury that they must consider three pertinent questions:
- Did the prisoner intentionally discharge the firearm at the woman with intent to kill her or do her grievous bodily harm?
- Did he intentionally discharge it at himself with intent to kill himself, and did the shot intended for himself kill the deceased?
- Is it possible to accept the theory that the pistol went off by accident during a struggle to prevent him discharging it at himself, and was the death of the deceased caused by his attempt to commit suicide?
In the first two cases they must find the prisoner guilty of murder, and in the third case they might find him guilty of manslaughter.
The jury took only twelve minutes to return a verdict of wilful murder. His Lordship, Mr. Justice Avory, asked if the jury had come to the conclusion that Hopwood intentionally shot the woman and the foreman answered in the affirmative. Passing sentence, his Lordship admonished the prisoner:
Edward Hopwood, you must now be prepared to die by the hand of the law instead of by your own hand as you wickedly intended.
Hopwood appealed against his conviction on the grounds that the judge had misdirected the jury in regard to evidence of witnesses at the scene of the murder, and alleged prejudice against him because he was a married man. At a hearing in the Court of Criminal Appeal on 13th January, 1913, Hopwood against represented himself but his objections were thrown out, and the sentence against him upheld.
Hopwood was executed, by hanging, at Pentonville prison on 29th January, 1913. His executioner was Henry Pierrepoint, who assessed the drop at six feet, eight inches. Death was instantaneous.
Reproduced courtesy of Don Gillan © stagebeauty.net
Primary sources: Various period newspapers, particularly The Echo, London Daily Mail, and Lloyds Weekly News.