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Armstrong, circa 1915
Armstrong, circa 1915

Herbert Rowse Armstrong TD MA (13 May 1869 – 31 May 1922) was an English solicitor and convicted murderer, the only solicitor in the history of the United Kingdom to have been hanged for murder.[1] He was living in Cusop Dingle, Herefordshire, England and practising in Hay-on-Wye, on the border of England and Wales, from 1906 until his arrest on 31 December 1921 for the attempted murder of a professional rival by arsenic poisoning. He was later also charged with and tried for the murder of his wife.

Early life and career

Armstrong was born at 23 Princes Square, Plymouth, Devon,[2] on 13 May 1869 to a family of modest means. The family later moved to Edge Hill, Liverpool. He studied at St Catharine's College, Cambridge,[3] gaining a degree in law, and qualified as a solicitor in February 1895.[4] He later gained an MA from St Catharine's in 1901.[5] Initially practising in Liverpool, later Newton Abbot, he successfully applied for a vacancy in Hay-on-Wye, Breconshire, in 1906. He married Katharine Mary Friend of West Teignmouth, Devon, the following year; the couple had two girls and a boy.

The Armstrongs moved into an imposing family home called Mayfield in the village of Cusop Dingle not far from Hay where Armstrong ran his law firm of Cheese & Armstrong. Armstrong was a hard working man and rose in the social community of the town. He was a leading member of the Freemasons and was appointed clerk to the justices. He joined the Volunteer Force and rose to the rank of Captain. In 1914 he was called up in the First World War, where he eventually gained the rank of Major in the Royal Engineers Territorial Force, and served in France, May to October 1918. The award of the Territorial Decoration for long service was published in the London Gazette, 4 November 1919. After the War, he was usually referred to as "Major Armstrong".

Death of Mrs Armstrong

In May 1919, Kitty Armstrong's health first began to weaken, with certain symptoms which the local physician, Dr Thomas Hincks, diagnosed as a case of brachial neuritis. From this she appeared to recover, and did not need to consult Dr Hincks for over a year. But in August 1920, Mrs Armstrong's health, both physical and mental, deteriorated again. Armstrong kept in close contact with Hincks, and showed great concern for his wife, consulting relatives and friends as well. Hincks found that Mrs Armstrong was showing signs of mental collapse and came to the conclusion that it was connected to her illness. At the end of August, Mrs Armstrong was admitted to Barnwood, a private mental asylum near Gloucester. On admission she had pyrexia, vomiting, heart murmurs, and albumen in the urine. There was also partial paralysis in the hands and feet and loss of muscle tone. Mrs Armstrong was also delusional.

Mrs Armstrong's condition began to improve at Barnwood, and she was discharged home on 22 January 1921. Shortly after her return home her condition mysteriously deteriorated again and she died exactly a month after her return on 22 February 1921. Hincks was puzzled by Mrs Armstrong's symptoms, but nevertheless stated on the death certificate that she had died of gastritis, aggravated by heart disease and nephritis. Outwardly, Armstrong had shown nothing but forbearing concern for his wife, sitting at her bedside reading to her in the evenings, and leaving the office early whenever possible to be with her. If Armstrong did kill his wife, but for a later act of folly he might well have escaped detection.

It would seem that there had been at least problems in the marriage. Though authors who have studied the case have assumed that the Armstrong's marriage was a failure due to the domineering attitude of Mrs Armstrong to her husband, the precise nature of the Armstrongs' relationship is far from clear. It was generally held that Mrs Armstrong was a singularly unpleasant woman who regularly abused and humiliated her husband in public, and it was not unnoticed that, though the local newspaper described Mrs Armstrong as a 'popular Hay lady,' few people attended her funeral. On the other hand, Mrs Armstrong, whenever separated from her husband due either to her stays in hospitals or to his service in the War, is reported to have expressed her desire for the family to be reunited at the earliest opportunity.

Whatever the truth, service in the First World War had opened up new experiences for the Major and he had had several affairs. He also went to dances in Hay and made passes at local girls. On the day of Mrs Armstrong's death, the servants closed all the curtains as a mark of respect. The first thing that Armstrong did on returning home from the office was to open them again.

Attempted murder of Oswald Martin

Oswald Martin was Armstrong's only rival solicitor in Hay. They were representing opposing parties in a property sale, the Velinewydd estate, which could have ended with Armstrong's client losing and Armstrong having to pay a large sum to Martin's client. The details of the whole transaction remain unclear; Martin subsequently said there was a question about the titles. Perhaps Armstrong's reluctance to pay Martin was due to him having speculated with his client's funds and then losing it. If this was the case, the only thing Armstrong could do was gain time by quietening Martin somehow at least for a while until he could raise the necessary funds by some other means. It would certainly appear that the money entrusted to Armstrong as a deposit on the sale was gone. Martin kept mentioning the matter of completion to Armstrong, but the latter repeatedly delayed and it remained uncompleted by the time of Armstrong's trial.

Armstrong eventually invited Martin to a meeting at his home on 26 October 1921. Martin found tea laid out with cakes and buttered scones. Martin probably thought that Armstrong wanted to discuss completion of the property sale, but the two men merely discussed everyday things and office organisation, although Martin could have raised the matter himself. Armstrong spoke of being lonely after the death of his wife. During the meeting over tea, Armstrong picked up a scone, said, "excuse fingers"[6] and handed it to Martin, who ate it. Having returned home, Martin became violently ill.

Martin's father-in-law, John Davies, the chemist (pharmacist) in Hay, had made several sales of arsenic to Armstrong supposedly to kill dandelions despite the fact that it was the autumn and there were only twenty dandelions in the garden of Mayfield, the Armstrongs' home. The chemist was now suspicious of Martin's sudden illness, and when Martin told him he had been to tea at Mayfield, Davies became suspicious. Meanwhile, Hincks became struck by how similar Martin's symptoms were to those of Katharine Armstrong. Hincks, Martin, and Davies discussed the situation and Davies warned the Martins against receiving gifts.

It was subsequently discovered that a few weeks before the tea party, a box of chocolates had been anonymously sent to the Martins. Mrs Martin's sister-in-law had eaten some and become violently ill. Fortunately, some chocolates remained and when examined some were found to have a small nozzle-like hole in the base. Dr Hincks contacted the Home Office and explained his suspicions about what had happened to Martin, and later voicing suspicions about Mrs Armstrong's death. Samples of the chocolates and Martin's urine were examined and found to contain arsenic, and the Home Office now passed the case to Scotland Yard. Meanwhile, Armstrong began to bombard Martin with further invitations to tea, for which Martin found it increasingly difficult to find excuses to avoid.

Scotland Yard had to move slowly so as not to warn Armstrong of their suspicions. They eventually arrested him on 31 December 1921, and he was charged with the attempted murder of Oswald Martin. He maintained he was innocent. When he was arrested, the police found a packet of arsenic in his pocket and many more in his house. Mrs Armstrong's body was exhumed and examined by the eminent Home Office pathologist Dr Bernard Spilsbury. Her body was riddled with arsenic ten months after death, and on 19 January 1922, Armstrong was charged with the wilful murder of his wife. "I repeat what I said before. I am absolutely innocent," said Armstrong.


Armstrong's trial for the murder of his wife began at Hereford before Mr Justice Darling on 3 April 1922. Armstrong was defended by Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, one of the leading criminal trial barristers of the day. Public and media interest was enormous. A year earlier there had been a trial near Hay of another solicitor, Harold Greenwood, for the murder of his wife by poison, supposedly disguised as an illness. Greenwood had been acquitted. Also, the fact that the three men who brought the charges to the police included Armstrong's business rival and the latter's father-in-law looked suspicious to some people. It was believed by some that Armstrong was being framed.[7] But despite the widespread belief that he would be acquitted, the prosecution case was a strong one. Katherine Armstrong's body was riddled with arsenic and at the time of her death the ingested quantity must have been far higher, and Armstrong had made huge purchases of arsenic. The defence had somehow to make the jury believe that Mrs Armstrong had committed suicide by getting out of bed, going downstairs and helping herself to arsenic without anyone seeing or hearing her; or that massive doses of arsenic had somehow got into her system some accidental way. All witnesses confirmed that towards the end she was almost paralysed. Dr Bernard Spilsbury insisted that the fatal dose must have been taken within twenty-four hours of death, and Hincks affirmed that for Mrs Armstrong to have taken it herself was "absolutely impossible".

Arsenic poisoning

Then Armstrong had to explain his habits concerning arsenic or the white powder, arsenic trioxide. He claimed that it was his practice to put small portions of arsenic into individual pouches, which he squirted into the ground near spots where dandelions tended to grow. One small pouch was found on his person following his arrest, and there was no reasonable explanation offered for his carrying it around, particularly as the arrest was in December. Armstrong did not come off well under questioning by Mr Justice Darling concerning this point.

Much later, after the trial, two possible motives emerged for Katharine Armstrong's poisoning. Firstly, Armstrong had decided he wanted a different, more congenial wife. Secondly, Katharine had written a will in 1917 leaving the bulk of her estate not to her husband, but to their children. Armstrong produced a new will following his wife's death, giving him control of her estate, but studies suggest that it was probably forged. For some time before the Velinewydd estate affair Armstrong's business had been in financial difficulties. The difficulties in relation to the sale of the Velinewydd estate made things even worse for him.

However, the evidence against Armstrong, though considerable, was nonetheless purely circumstantial. No one had actually seen the Major administering poison, and at the time of his arrest he had made no attempt to draw upon his dead wife's fortune. Mrs Armstrong had occasionally spoken of suicide, some medicines contained arsenic, and there were plenty of other people coming into contact with her at Mayfield. The prosecution failed to show how it was Armstrong and only Armstrong who administered poison, and no one else. As for the Martin poisoning, the money to cover the Velinewydd deposits would still need to have been found even if Martin had died, and Mrs Armstrong's funds would not have covered it. In short, other than gaining a little time, the death of Martin would not in any way have relieved the Major's business problems.

Armstrong made no confession and adamantly maintained his total innocence to the bitter end. On 13 April 1922 at Hereford Shire Hall, he was found guilty of the murder of his wife.


Mr Justice Darling stated that he concurred with the jury's view and that it was absurd and unsupported by any evidence that Mrs Armstrong had committed suicide. He then sentenced Armstrong to death. On 16 May 1922, the Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed his appeal and Armstrong was hanged by John Ellis at Gloucester Prison on 31 May 1922. Ellis claimed that before the trap was opened on the gallows Armstrong called out, "Kitty I'm coomin to ye!"[8][9] although this is unconfirmed.[10] The News of the World reported that when asked by the prison governor on the morning of the execution if he had anything to say, Armstrong's last words were "I am innocent of the crime for which I have been condemned to die."

Media adaptations

The Armstrong case was dramatised on the BBC radio series The Black Museum in 1952 under the title of The Champagne Glass.

Armstrong was also the subject of a 1994 TV mini-series called Dandelion Dead, which starred Michael Kitchen as Major Armstrong, Sarah Miles as Katherine Armstrong, David Thewlis as Oswald Martin and Lesley Sharp as Martin's wife, Constance. It was directed by Mike Hodges and won a BAFTA in 1995. As well as telling the main story of Armstrong's crimes, the series develops the courtship of Martin and his wife and shows the effects of events on Armstrong's children.[11]

Deadly Advice, a black comedy released in 1994, was set in Hay-on-Wye and had Jane Horrocks becoming a serial killer under the ghostly influence of Armstrong (played by Edward Woodward) and others like Dr Crippen (Hywel Bennett) and Jack the Ripper (John Mills).[12]

The then-recent Armstrong case was discussed in Dorothy L. Sayers' 1927 mystery novel Unnatural Death, [13], and in Detection Unlimited, a mystery novel written by Georgette Heyer, a character is compared to Armstrong.[14]

The Hay Poisoner

Armstrong's home in Cusop was subsequently owned by Martin Beales, a solicitor working in Armstrong's former office in Hay. Beales believed that Armstrong was innocent and published a book arguing his case.[15][16]

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