George Edalji

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George Edalji
George Edalji.jpg
George Edalji
Born March 1876
West Midlands, England
Died 17 June 1953 (aged 77)
Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, England
Cause of death Coronary thrombosis
Nationality British
Ethnicity Parsi Indian-English
Occupation Solicitor
Known for Great Wyrley Outrages
Religion Anglican
Parent(s) Shapurji Edalji
Charlotte Stoneham

George Ernest Thompson Edalji (March 1876 – 17 June 1953) was a Parsi English solicitor and son of a vicar in a South Staffordshire village who served three years' hard labour after being convicted on a charge of injuring a pony. He was pardoned after a campaign in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took a prominent role. The difficulty in overturning the conviction of Edalji was cited as showing a better mechanism for reviewing unsafe verdicts was needed, and was a factor in the 1907 creation of a court of appeal for England. Present-day commentators on the case see it as demonstrating pervasive racial prejudice and resentment toward incomers by highly placed traditionalists in provincial England.


Edalji was the eldest of the three children, his mother was Charlotte Edalji (née Stoneham), the daughter of a Shropshire vicar. His father was the Reverend Shapurji Edalji, a convert from a Bombay Parsi family. He had served as the curate in several parishes before being given the living as vicar of St Mark's, Great Wyrley. The right to make this appointment lay with the bishop, the Reverend Edalji obtained the position through the previous incumbent, his wife's uncle, who arranged it as a wedding present. Livings were scarce, conferred valuable emoluments and were much sought after.[1]

The Reverend Edalji moved into the vicarage, a large house with its own grounds, in late 1875; George, the first child, was born there soon after. The Reverend Edaji was more assertive than his predecessor and was sometimes involved in controversy about parish business.[2] Many modern writers on the case express the opinion that rural English society was infected with backward racialist attitudes, and that this would have been particularly true of a village like Great Wyrley.[3] An aristocratic former army officer, Captain the Honorable G. A. Anson, was the Chief Constable of Staffordshire during the case. He is widely seen as having expressed a racist attitude toward the Edaljis.[4][5][6][7]

Anonymous Letters of 1888[edit]

In 1888 when George Edalji was twelve and a half, anonymous threatening letters were sent to the vicarage demanding the Reverend order a particular newspaper and threatening to break windows if this was not done. He ignored them. After windows were broken, and a threat to shoot the Reverend was made, he became alarmed and called in the police. Graffiti slandering the Edaljis was written on the outside walls of the vicarage, and on the inside walls. Pseudonymous letters were sent to vicarage maid-of-all-work, 17-year-old Elizabeth Foster, threatening to shoot her when her "Black master" was out. One was found inside the hall with the envelope wet; the letter was written on pages from the exercise books of the Edalji children.[8]

The circumstances made it clear either Foster or Edalji was responsible. Foster was implicated by assertions made by Edalji; the Reverend his wife, and police Sergeant Upton thought they perceived similarities between Foster's handwriting and that of the pseudonymous threatening letters.[8] The Reverend prosecuted Foster for writing the letters, which she denied doing. He offered to drop the case if Foster confessed, but she refused and went to live with an aunt. Foster, unable to pay for a defence at trial, pleaded guilty in front of the magistrates in exchange for being given probation, but continued maintaining her innocence thereafter. The Reverend congratulated Upton for his performance.[9][1]

Letters and malicious mischief of 1892[edit]

In 1892 a member of the parish council called W. H. Brookes received obscene letters that included accounts of his adult daughter sexually abusing her 10-year-old sister, The letters mentioned Edalji among others at first, but increasingly concentrated on Edalji and the Reverend, sometimes using a phrase ("the blackman") that had occurred in 1888 letters attributed to Elizabeth Foster. One letter was made in two distinctly different 'hands' of writing. The letters to Brookes accused his son of writing the 1888 letters to the vicarage attributed to Elizabeth Foster, and of giving them to George Edalji to post. Reverend Edalji and a vicarage servant also got letters, in which the Reverend was accused of "gross immorality with persons using Vaseline in the same way as did Oscar Wilde". Letters purporting to be from the Reverend Edalji were sent to other vicars. Brooke and Reverend Edalji called in the police, and Sergeant Upton again found himself investigating poison pen letters to the vicar. Attempts to get the post office to identify the sender failed as the mailed letters ceased. Notes (a total of over 70) began appearing at the vicarage, and various objects, including a bag of excrement, were left on the doorstep. Police kept watch and claimed to have established that a stolen key had appeared on the doorstep in a time frame when only George Edalji had used the entrance. Following this, excrement was smeared on the outside of upstairs windows, and Upton decided George had been responsible for the letters.[1]

A police ploy clearly aimed at getting Edalji to incriminate himself as the note writer was unsuccessful and brought forth protests from his mother at the way the investigation was focusing on him. She and her husband demanded that Foster be arrested. A campaign of hoax ordering of goods and services for the vicarage lasted for 3 years. Police largely ceased investigating the incidents, and in response to her protests the Chief Constable of the county, Captain Anson, told Mrs Edalji that if she wanted his men to spend more time on the matter she should make a serious effort to help catch the culprit, who was obviously either her husband or son. Reverend Edalji threatened to complain to higher authority about the conduct of Anson. The notes and hoaxes ceased in December 1895.[1]

Perceptions of Edalji[edit]

Brookes came to believe Edalji was the author of the 1892 poison pen letters, he asserted that after he returned a smile from Edalji in the railway station with a disagreeable look, the letters began to refer to him as 'sour face'. Brookes also said the letters to him stopped after he got out a train and swung punches at Edalji on the platform, because he was peering in the compartments.[10][11] Edalji was taken on at a legal firm as a trainee solicitor and scored exceptionally high marks in his professional examinations. In 1899 his family helped him set up on his own as a newly qualified solicitor, working out of an office in Birmingham and sometimes from the vicarage. Edalji was described as looking younger than his age, of a rather peculiar appearance, and solitary, being given to taking evening strolls by himself. A couple of roughs were fined for hitting him while he was walking three miles from his house one night in 1900, the assailants were not from Great Wyrley or known to Edalji. He had a book, Railway Law for the "Man in the train" published in 1901. In the same year a solicitor and clerk to the court, C. A Loxton, accused Edalji of writing "immoral and offensive" allegations about Loxton and his fiancé on walls.[1]

Although his younger brother, Horace, does not seem to have encountered any difficulties with locals or the authorities, most present day comment on the case takes the view that the traditional culture in a Staffordshire village of the time would make George Edalji an object of suspicion because of his racial heritage.[1][4][5][6][3]

1903 letters and animal maiming[edit]

In 1903, when Edalji was 27 years old, a series of slashings of horses and other livestock known as the 'Great Wyrley Outrages' occurred. From 1 February 1903, when a horse was maimed, to 29 June 1903, when two horses were similarly wounded, a number of animals received injuries resulting in them being put down.[12] Isolated cases of livestock maiming were not unheard of as a way of settling scores in farming communities, but the series of attacks provoked a public outcry far beyond the area. Pseudonymous letters to the police purporting to be from one of a gang of culprits named real people as members of the gang, including Edalji. Several others named in the letters were schoolboys who Edalji regularly commuted with in the same train compartment.[13] A letter purporting to be from one of them, 15-year-old Wilfred Greatorex, was also sent to Edaji.[4][13][1][14]


Staffordshire Chief Constable Captain Anson—an administrator without experience of investigatory police work—believed Edalji was the author of the letters, but had no involvement in the animal maimings due to his professional status.[15] Inspector Campbell headed enquiries into the maimings and from an early stage considered Edalji a person of particular interest, although there were a number of suspects. The exact nature of the circumstantial evidence that led to suspicion falling on Edalji is not known; according to what Anson privately alleged years later, Edalji was seen 'prowling' the area at night and on two occasions trails of footprints from attack locations seemed to lead to the vicarage, from which most of the crimes had occurred within a half mile radius. On 29 June, two horses were mutilated. Following this, the seventh attack, Campbell felt sure Edalji was responsible for the maimings, because he reportedly had been seen late on that night in the field where it took place.[15] After Inspector Campbell began to focus on Edalji for the mutilations, and a July 1903 letter threateningly predicted that "little girls" would be the target of the next attacks, Anson agreed to a watch being kept on the vicarage and nearby countryside.[1] There were rumours that Edaji was going to be arrested for the attacks, and he offered a reward for information about who was spreading them. His habit of taking walks continued, and he returned from one at around 9pm on 17 August.[14]

Early on 18 August, a wounded pony was discovered, half a mile from the scene of the first attack. Inspector Campbell sent a constable to the railway station where Edalji was waiting to catch his train, asking him to help with inquiries, but he declined and left for Birmingham. Inspector Campbell went to the vicarage with a sergeant and constable, and asked to see any weapons in the house; a small trowel was the only thing shown to them. Edaji's clothing was also asked for; it included muddy boots as well as mud-stained serge trousers and a housecoat—both of which the police said were damp. The inspector said there was a hair on the housecoat, whereupon there was a dispute between the Inspector and the Reverend over whether something visible on the housecoat was a hair or a loose thread.[4][13][1][14]

The next day police searched the vicarage and found a case with four razors in the bedroom that Edalji shared with his father. Reverend Edalji said the razors were old ones not in use. According to the police, when it was pointed out that one razor was wet, the Reverend took it and wiped the blade with his thumb; he later said this was not true.[13] Police said a heel on the boots was worn down in an unusual way, and left a distinctive pattern on the ground that matched heel impressions in an alleged trail of footprints between the vicarage and the scene of the crime. A local doctor who examined the housecoat for the police said it was bloodstained, and there were 29 hairs on it similar to ones from the pony's hide near the wound. The doctor said the hairs were small and difficult to see.[4][1] Home Office officials later considered it highly unlikely that police would have gone on to fabricate evidence by planting the hairs after the Edaljis had vehemently drawn attention to the absence of hairs on the housecoat while it was handed over.[16]

Conviction and campaign for pardon[edit]

Edalji consistently maintained he was innocent of all charges. He pled not guilty to injuring the pony, an indictment for sending a letter threatening to kill a policeman was not tried. The trial was moved out of the village which meant the jury was of people who did not know Edalji. The prosecution accused Edalji of having left the house and attacked the pony in the early hours of the morning. The Reverend said he had hardly slept that night and knew that Edalji could not have left the bedroom they shared, the door of which he had locked as usual. Edalji was convicted and sentenced to seven years hard labour. Edalji's defence did not mention his eyesight, Edalji later said he had been told by his lawyers that the prosecution case was so weak he was sure to be acquitted, and thus it was unnecessary to bring up how poor his vision was.[1] Some 10,000 signatures, including hundreds from lawyers, were on petitions that protested at the conviction. Some legal figures thought that it was improper under English evidence law for Edaji to be sent for trial charged with separate offences of sending a threatening letter and a pony maiming, and then having evidence about letters used to help convict him of the maiming, which was the sole offence he was tried for.

R.D. Yelverton, former Chief Justice in the Bahamas, thought the case for the prosecution had been conclusively disproved. He asked: "How could a gentleman in the position and of the education of Mr Edalji , be supposed to write the following, put by the Prosecution before the Jury, as written by him. (They were sent either to the Police or to himself). "You great hulking blackguard and coward I have got you fixed you dirty Cad – bloody monkey!" ".[17]

Senior civil servants at the Home Office reviewed the case and reported that there were no serious flaws in the trial and conviction of Edalji. He was paroled after serving three years.[11][1]

Conan Doyle[edit]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, then second only to Rudyard Kipling as a celebrated British writer, was to become the most influential supporter of the public campaign for Edalji to be given a pardon. The weight Conan Doyle's opinion on the case carried with the public stemmed from the appeal of his fictional master detective, Sherlock Holmes, which associated the author with Holmesian traits of close attention to detail and drawing logical inferences; these were valid principles that outlined the scientific method, according to Maria Konnikova.[18]

Boiled down, the idea was that cool reflection on what "an observant man might learn by an accurate and systematic examination of all that came in his way" enabled one "to use observation to deduce meaning from an otherwise meaningless fact." In contrast, the natural human tendency was to "spontaneously construct narratives, and firmly believe in their veracity", which—as Konnikova writes—is exemplified by the cognitive style of Dr Watson, in which "it is incredibly difficult to resist our desire to form narratives, to tell stories even if they may not be altogether correct, or correct at all."[18][1] As his creator admitted, Holmes was an idealised reasoner without light or shade.[1]

Having arrived to meet with Edalji at a hotel after becoming interested in the case, as Conan Doyle recalled, he paused to study Edalji, who was passing the time reading a newspaper while waiting in the lobby. On observing how Edalji held the paper at an angle inches from his face, Conan Doyle was convinced that Edalji was innocent; he believed it impossible for someone with eyesight as bad as Edalji's to have moved through the countryside after nightfall attacking animals and successfully evading the police.[18][4][1]

Anson corresponded with Conan Doyle and met with him in January 1907 to discuss the case, but relations between them became acrimonious when two days later Anson was informed by Conan Doyle that he intended to campaign for Edalji to be given a pardon. Anson thought a firm conclusion could not have been reached from a neutral standpoint in that time, and that Conan Doyle had obtained his co-operation and an interview by misrepresenting himself as having no settled opinion about the case. Conan Doyle wrote to the Home Office saying Anson had implied homosexual incest between the Reverend and Edalji. Anson insisted he did no such thing.[4][1]

1907 letters[edit]

The same day that Conan Doyle wrote his letter of intent to Captain Anson, a long pseudonymous letter with apparent inside knowledge of the arguments Conan Doyle intended to publish was sent to Conan Doyle, Edalji, and Anson, the first of a spate about the case they received. It purported to be by a private detective who had been summoned to the vicarage; this was similar to an ingenious deception perpetrated during the hoax campaign of 1892 when a female private detective was led to believe she was working for Mrs Edalji to investigate suspected infidelity by the Reverend. It has been questioned whether the detailed knowledge of incidents at the vicarage and Edaji's professional life that were demonstrated in the letter could have come from anyone not at the center of those events or part of the investigation into them. Attribution of the letters is further complicated by police having used the ploy of sending pseudonymous letters to Edalji on a couple of occasions before his arrest.[1][19]

The 'private detective' letter of 1907 ostensibly offered to help Edalji, but seemed to be an obvious trap. It has been suggested the letters were aimed at disrupting the campaign to have him granted a pardon.[20] The police handwriting consultant said the letter was by Edalji in his 'Greatorex' hand. Police believed such letters had ceased while Edalji was in prison, and those pseudonymous or anonymous letters about the case received when Edalji was in gaol they attributed to persons other than the author of the 1903 pseudonymous 'Greatorex' letters, which police believed was Edalji. Poison pen letters in the name of the "Wyrley Gang" continued until the 1930s, by an offender who also wrote to people connected to other crimes in the news.[21][19][4][1]


Conan Doyle became an active investigator, going to the crime scenes, interviewing participants and critiquing the reliability of the witness who testified peculiarities found in handwriting of Edalji also occurred in the 1903 pseudonymous 'Greatorex' letters to police naming Edalji as a culprit in the animal mutilations. Legal technicalities made the evidence about the letters being used to convict Edalji controversial, because he was not tried on the charge of sending a threatening letter. Opinion within the Home Office was split on the matter. Conan Doyle thought that he had identified the person behind the pseudonymous letters of 1892 and 1903 and the maimings as a certain Royden Sharp. There have been a variety of opinions since about whether he was justified in his belief, although Peter Costello who wrote a modern book on Conan Doyle's investigations, concurred with his conclusion.[4][1]


Newspapers suggested visual impairment would have made it impossible for Edalji to have committed the crime. Captain Anson told the Home Office he thought Edalji was physically more than capable of the nocturnal maiming, asserting that Edalji had a panther-like gait and eyes that "came out with a strange sort of glow, like a cat's eyes," in a low light.[22]

According to Anson's communications with the Home Office about the case, an assertion that Edalji made in a letter published in a newspaper to the effect that he was not abroad after nightfall was "indisputably false".[23] Anson said several people remembered coming across Edalji very late at night and miles from his house during 1903.[23]

Conan Doyle's articles in support may have been a key factor in getting the authorities to commission a committee of inquiry. Edalji was granted a pardon for the maiming conviction in May 1907, though the inquiry finding he had brought prosecution upon himself by sending the pseudonymous 'Greatorex' letters to police during the summer of 1903 meant he was not given compensation.[4][1]


Edalji's case and the associated campaign were factors in the creation of England's Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.[1] Eighty years later, a June 1907 memo by then Home secretary Herbert Gladstone was discovered which revealed that Gladstone had been privately told by one of the lawyers who had represented Edalji of suppressing as damaging to the defence's case a letter by Edalji which his brother, Horace, had brought as a specimen of Edalji's handwriting. It consisted of obscenities similar to ones Edalji was accused of sending. When the 1907 letters started the lawyer's colleague remarked, "He is at it again".[22]

In November 1907 Edalji was accepted back on to the roll of solicitors in good standing and allowed to practice, despite the Committee of Inquiry's conclusion that he had written some of the 1903 letters. His sister Maud moved in with him, and they lived together in Welwyn Garden City until his death in 1953.[4] In 2013 the Solicitor-General, Oliver Heald, said that the trial of Edalji had been a farce.[3]

In popular culture[edit]

The episode of the 1972 BBC anthology series The Edwardians about Conan Doyle centres on his involvement in the Edajli case. Written by Jeremy Paul and directed by Brian Farnham, it stars Nigel Davenport as Conan Doyle, Sam Dastor as George Edalji, and Renu Setna as the Reverend Edalji.

Julian Barnes's 2005 novel Arthur & George is based on the events, and was the basis for a March 2015, ITV three-part dramatisation of the case, Arthur & George, starring Arsher Ali as Edalji.[24]

Further reading[edit]

The most complete account of the Edalji case is Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case (2012) by Gordon Weaver. Outrage: The Edalji Five and the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes (2010) by Roger Oldfield, sets the case within the context of life-stories of the Edalji family as a whole.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v International Commentary on Evidence, Volume 4, Issue 2 2006 Article 3, Boxes in Boxes: Julian Barnes, Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and the Edalji Case, D. Michael Risinger
  2. ^ International Commentary on Evidence, Volume 4, Issue 2 2006 Article 3, Boxes in Boxes: Julian Barnes, Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and the Edalji Case, D. Michael Risinger
  3. ^ a b c 17 June 2013, Welwyn Hatfield Times, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and the curious case of Welwyn Garden City man George Edalji
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Conan Doyle, Detective,Peter Costello, Chapter 'Persecution of George Edalji'
  5. ^ a b Conan Doyle: Writing, Profession, and Practice – P153
  6. ^ a b I Am Innocent!: A Comprehensive Encyclopedic History of the World's Wrongly Convicted Persons
  7. ^ "The George Edalji Case". Birmingham City Council. 5 October 2011. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  8. ^ a b Weaver, G., 2006 Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case, page30-31
  9. ^ Weaver, G., 2006 Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case, page 32.(Weaver – p34 asserts that Captain Anson disapproved of Upton obtaining the conviction of Foster, which may have affected the way Upton dealt with the later 1892 letters, but apparently does not cite his source for that information. Weaver also says Anson later "disingenuously" denied he had been aware of the 1888 letters at the time they happened. p34.)
  10. ^ Weaver, G., 2006 Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case, page44-45
  11. ^ a b Conan Doyle, Detective, Peter Costello, Chapter 'Persecution of George Edalji'
  12. ^ Weaver, G., 2006 Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case, page 17
  13. ^ a b c d CURIOUS CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE. Star , Issue 7814, 26 October 1903, Page 2 link
  14. ^ a b c Feilding Star, Volume XXV, Issue 121, 4 November 1903, Page 4 link
  15. ^ a b Weaver, G., 2006 Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case, page 96
  16. ^ Weaver, G., 2006 Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case, page 193
  17. ^ The George Edalji Case – Birmingham City Council,Letter Written by R.D. Yelverton in Support of George Edalji
  18. ^ a b c Konnikova, M., 2013, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, chapter: Scientific method of the mind
  19. ^ a b Weaver, G., Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case
  20. ^ Weaver, G., 2006 Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case, page 30, footnote 32
  21. ^ "''The Times'' 7 November 1934". Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  22. ^ a b International Commentary on Evidence, Volume 4, Issue 2 2006 Article 3, Boxes in Boxes: Julian Bardes, Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and the Edalji Case, D. Michael Risinger
  23. ^ a b Weaver, G., 2006 Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son: The George Edalji Case, page 258
  24. ^ "Arthur & George". 2 March 2015. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 

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