088: Why Thomas Allen was hanged in Swansea, April 1889
He had dropped his razor (which had been used to cut his victim) and his cap in the bedroom, and the latter helped identify him. ‘Said to be a Zulu’ who had ‘been hanging about the town’ he had been a sailor on the Cubana. A short, slim black man named Thomas Allen, he was taken to the police station – and was abused by angry people (Frederick Kent was well respected). These details come from the Aberdeen Weekly Journal of 11 February 1889, for the incident as widely reported.
The Western Mail of Cardiff carried details when it reported the inquest on 13 February 1889. Allen, a ship’s steward, had said that he had not intended to harm anyone. One of the angry crowd had hit him with an umbrella as he was taken into custody, but the Western Mail said the mood had changed. Nothing seemed to be known about Allen, although a black with that name had been sent to prison in June 1888.
Allen’s English was fluent (there were reports he had been educated at a mission school in South Africa) and he said that he had been invited into the private part of the pub by one of the servant girls. Neither had been out on the Saturday and both denied issuing an invitation. He had been attacked by Kent when he (Allen) lit a candle and had grabbed Kent’s razor in defence. Mrs Kent testified that her husband had had a beard for fifteen months and that she had never seen that razor. The jury agreed almost immediately that Kent had been murdered by Allen.
Most believed that Allen had hidden in the room, planning a burglary. Allen withdrew his statement about the servant’s invitation, and said it was a case of mistaken identity. The Illustrated Police News, a sensational London weekly said (2 March) that Allen had sent a four-page letter to the widow from his prison cell.
The trial was at Cardiff on 18 March, when the assize court heard that Allen would not deny killing King but that he had gone into the bedroom at the invitation of a young woman: and had no intention of committing murder. The woman, Annie Taylor, was brought from Swansea prison and told the court she had not seen Allen for ‘several days’. (Standard London, 19 March 1889, page 3). He was found guilty and sentenced to death.
A substantial report, with illustrations including one of Allen, appeared in the Western Mail on 19 March (page 3). His letter to the widow (18 February) removed any doubt over identification (Mrs Kent said she did not recognise him). The jury took five minutes to reach their verdict.
The Revd Oscar Snelling organised a petition, seeking a reprieve (Western Mail, 28 March). The edition of 30 March published a letter from someone who had been in the court, who pointed out that Kent had attacked Allen who had been sleeping after a drinking session and lit a candle which alerted Kent to his presence – and Kent attacked Allen without a word. Allen defended himself, so the charge should have been manslaughter, not premeditated murder.
The petition had been signed by four thousand, including Swansea’s mayor. The Home Secretary saw no reason to interfere and on the morning of 10 April 1889 Thomas Allen met his death on the scaffold at Swansea jail. He had again written to Mrs Kent, asking for forgiveness and she replied, granting that wish.
Modern procedures would have involved finger prints and more investigation of whose razor had been used to kill Frederick Kent. If the two juries believed that Allen had taken a razor into the pub then that, combined with his statements and his letters, left little or no room for a murder charge to be changed to one of manslaughter.
Many of the newspaper reports used the same texts, and their headings often included ‘Zulu’.
See also page 091 on this site.