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The Madge Kirby Murder

Madge Kirby just before her abduction.


The sad tale of Madge Kirby begins in Liverpool at 4.30 p.m. on the wintry afternoon of Monday, 6 January 1908. Seven-year-old Margaret T Kirby, known affectionately as Madge by her father and friends, was playing near the reservoir in Farnworth Street, Kensington, just around the corner from her home at Number 55 Romily Street. Her father David, 38, was a plumber, but work had been slow because of his severe depression, caused by the loss of his wife, who had died from a long illness, just a fortnight before.
On that cold afternoon in 1908, as twilight gathered, a man in black clothes approached Madge, who was with her best friend Annie McGovern. ‘Would you like to go with me for some sweets?’ the stranger asked Madge in a well-spoken voice. He had probably chosen her because she was said to have been a child who always stood out amongst her peers because of her beauty.
Madge nodded, and the sinister man in black took her by the hand and walked away. Madge never returned home for her tea, and her father went in search of his daughter without success. He listened with dread when young Annie and other children told him about the man who had accosted Madge with a promise of sweets. The police lost no time in launching a wide-scale search party for the missing girl. Lakes were dragged, parks scoured, over 5000 empty houses were searched, and there were door-to-door enquiries in Kensington and parts of Edge Hill, but Madge could not be found. Mr Kirby was devastated by the abduction of his daughter, and his sisters and his 3-year-old son provided only a modicum of consolation for him. The police asked him to provide a detailed description of his missing daughter so it could be circulated to police stations throughout Lancashire. Fighting back tears, David told them that Madge had been wearing a black shirt with worn sleeves, a blue pinafore, a black velvet bonnet with black strings, black stockings and laced boots. His beloved daughter had brown hair, sky-blue eyes and a very fair and fresh-faced complexion.
In St Michael’s School, which Madge Kirby had attended, the teachers and children said a prayer each day for the missing girl to return. The months wore on, but still no trace of Madge could be found – until eight months later on the morning of Tuesday, 21 August, when a man going to work came upon a sack on Great Newton Street, off London Road. That sack contained the remains of a scantily clad girl. The body of Madge Kirby had been found at last. Now the hunt was on for her killer.
Madge’s body was found in a dry onion sack on the rainy pavement outside a condemned house at Number 15 Great Newton Street, near London Road. A subsequent investigation determined that the sack had been kept in the cellar of the derelict house. The police lost no time in launching a murder hunt, but their investigations were largely obstructed by the public. Crowds of people congregated outside of Prescot Street Police Station, eager to hear of the latest developments in the shocking murder case. On the night after the body was found, two policemen rushed out of the police station with a bloodhound leading the way. The dog led the officers in a western direction, and the great mob followed – six raced after the police on bicycles, two elderly men were pushed along in their wheelchairs in the pursuit, and several women even pushed prams as they joined the hunt. Over 2000 people poured down Prescot Street, many of them carrying refreshments, towards the city centre, but little did they know that the bloodhound they were following was but a decoy. Shortly after midnight, one of the most astounding bloodhounds ever deployed by the Lancashire Constabulary emerged from the police station and immediately took up the scent he’d taken from the clothes of the murdered child. He was Czar, a very sensitive dog who had been loaned from a Mr Pakenham. Czar took the police on a curious trail that wound through the Botanic Gardens, then on to a strip of secluded wasteground on the eastern extremities of Edge Lane. From there, Czar led the constables to Tunnel Road, and on to Edge Hill Railway Station. Czar dragged the policeman to the city centre-bound platform and stood stock still, gazing at the tunnel. He convulsed, and sniffed the air. That tunnel led to Lime Street. Czar was bundled into a horse-drawn cab, and the cab-driver was instructed to go to Lime Street Railway Station, where the bloodhound bolted for Platform One. Czar barked and howled at the tunnel, and the dog’s owner said that he believed this meant that Madge Kirby’s killer had left Liverpool for the Midlands, as trains from that platform were bound for Birmingham. There, the tantalising trail ended.

The envelope that contained the letter sent to police from someone who claimed to be the child-killer

Police received a letter, purportedly from the child killer, which stated that the murderer had once lived as a lodger on the premises where the body was found, and that he had kept the key, so he’d had access to the empty house. He said he’d taken Madge to the World’s Fair public house before bringing her to the derelict house, where he killed the child. Eight months later he had decided to let the world know what had become of Madge Kirby, so he took her remains from the cellar and placed them in an onion sack which was then left on the pavement. Several people came forward and told police that they had spotted a sinister man dressed as a woman, climbing over the backyard wall of the empty house on Great Newton Street on the morning the body was found in the bag. Police later suspected a man named Thompson who had lodged in Great Newton Street, but they were never able to track him down. Madge’s heartbroken father never recovered from the murder, and died weeks after his beloved daughter’s body was found. Today, Madge Kirby lies at rest in Ford Cemetery, the forgotten victim of an Edwardian child-killer, but Wavertree criminologist Keith Andrews is determined to identify the murderer, even though 94 years have elapsed since the crime was committed. ‘This monster’s name is lurking within these books, ‘ says Keith, tapping two leather-bound volumes of the electoral registers of 1908, ‘and I intend to leave no stone unturned until I find out who he was.’

©Tom Slemen 2002.