Just over 200 years ago, gentle Dulwich was horrified by the murder of a much loved local eccentric – Samuel Matthews, better known as the Dulwich Hermit.
Mathews wasn’t born locally, but in Pembrokeshire, Wales, sometime around the 1730s, and didn’t move to Dulwich until much later in life, probably when he was in his early 40s. He moved with his wife and four children to work as a gardener in one of the grand homes that Dulwich is famous for.
However, just a few years later, in 1775 his wife died, and the depression that triggered was to last the rest of his life and he withdrew from people, eventually settling in a small cave that he dug himself and roofed the front with thatch in the nearby Dulwich Wood. Somehow, it seems that he had permission from the Master and Wardens of Dulwich College to take up a spot near the rear of College Wood and in front of Sydenham Common.
Although often described as a cave, it seems more likely to have been a wooden shed built into a cliff-face which was dug out a bit to provide more shelter.
It seems that while he withdrew from modern life, he wasn’t a recluse or loner, as he still worked as a gardener, and occasionally brewer, and still maintained friendships with local people. He was often visited in his cave, being described as a learned man living amongst savage conditions.
Such was the local love for the Man in the Woods, that one particularly cold winter saw Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow, sending his servants to check up on the man in the woods, and bring him to Lord Thurlow’s home if he was in distress.
In around 1798 he was badly beaten during a robbery, as despite his humble abode, he was thought to be modestly wealthy, and may have had to return to Wales to recover, suggesting that he still had family connections even despite his living conditions in London.
He returned to London though, and to his cave in Dulwich Wood around 1800, by which time he would have been in his mid to late 60s.
His return was to be short though — as on 28th December 1802, his badly mutilated body was found near his cave by some boys who wanted to give him Christmas greetings. So outrageous was the murder, and the local fame of the hermit that his death was reported in the national newspapers.
Suspicion fell on a group of travelling gypsies who were at the time camped on Sydenham Common, and it was claimed that several were seen returning to the common at around 2am on the morning of the murder, and said they had seen “Old Matthews” the evening before.
The two men, Benjamin Craggs and Arthur Bowers were reportedly overheard talking, and one said to the other “Father be sure you keep in one story, for it we get into two stories we shall be done”.
Although the local gypsies were suspected of the murder, and the earlier mugging, and two men were put on trial in March 1803, the Judge ruled that this evidence was too slight to convict the men, as conviction would mean their own deaths as well.
The jury agreed and concluded that his death was “wilful murder, by person or persons unknown”.
A second trial in 1804 of another man, William Payne was dismissed, as was a trial in 1807 of John Haydon who had been overheard boasting to have assisted in the murder, but denied being the one to deal the deadly blows.
However, although no court of law ever found the murderer, in 1809, a local labourer Isaac Evans, locally known as Wry-necked Isaac gave a death bed confession in a Lewisham workhouse that he had been one of three men who murdered the Dulwich Hermit, but he refused to name the other two men.
The Dulwich Hermit’s body lies in the Dulwich burial ground, the murder remains unsolved.
Western Mail – Thursday 01 October 1925
Bury and Norwich Post – Wednesday 05 January 1803
The London Sun – Friday 25 March 1803
Bell’s Weekly Messenger – Sunday 27 March 1803
Morning Advertiser – Wednesday 07 January 1807
Kentish Gazette – Friday 09 January 1807