It was an uncomfortably warm morning in central London. The thick black fog that had hung like a pall early in the morning had moved away and a muggy, hot morning followed. The newspapers wrote of an impending storm over Europe that was causing the unusually warm weather. Notwithstanding the heat, the capital of the mighty British Empire was already bustling with people rushing to and from work. Amongst them was Dr. George Brown as he made his way from Charing Cross to nearby Soho. His destination was 10, Denmark Street. He meant to call upon a patient of his, Miss Rose English, who had been under his treatment since August for an abscess. Upon reaching the house however, Dr. Brown was surprised to learn that Rose was not yet ready.
No. 10, Denmark Street was a boarding house and the landlady, Mrs. Gilbert, informed Dr. Brown that neither Rose nor her newly-married husband, Cyril, had come down to breakfast that morning. It was in fact Cyril, who was acquainted to Dr. Brown, who had first brought Rose to him and it was again he who had made the present appointment. It was therefore most unbecoming of the couple to keep the busy doctor waiting. Hence after a while, Dr. Brown asked Mrs. Gilbert to knock on the bedroom door.
When repeated knocks met with no response, Dr. Brown and Paul Kraft, the housekeeper, broke the door. Neither of them was ready for the gory sight that confronted them as they stumbled into the room through the broken door.
On the bed lay Rose and Cyril’s bodies, side by side, drenched in blood. It was a surreal scene. But for the crimson liquid that tinged everything the couple may well have been lying peacefully in bed sleeping. In Cyril’s hand however was still clutched a revolver. Dr. Brown rushed to help. Rose, unfortunately, was already beyond all mortal help. Not even a flicker of life remained in her mortal coil. But as he turned his attention to Cyril, he realized that a faint glimmer of life still struggled somewhere deep in his bosom. As Dr. Brown struggled manfully to hold onto to that little thread of life, the young lad momentarily opened his eyes and shouted, “Rose! Oh, my god!” before collapsing once again into the deathly stupor he had been in.
The Victorian police were soon at the scene led by Inspector Hare. Rose’s body was removed to the St. Giles Mortuary for post-mortem, while Cyril was taken to Middlesex Hospital. As the police investigation progressed, information and rumor became indistinguishable. The Victorian press embraced, exaggerated, and disseminated every little detail about the case. Soon the case was even being reported in newspapers in Allahabad, Bombay, and Calcutta. As the Empire tuned in to follow the lurid details of the case, the press dubbed it the ‘Soho Love Tragedy’.
The horrific morning when the tragedy was discovered was a Friday, 28th of September 1895. By the middle of the following week it emerged that Cyril was a 19 year-old medical student at Guy’s Hospital whose full name was Cyril James Hewlett Dutta. He was a Punjabi Muslim who had converted to Roman Catholicism and been disowned by his wealthy father. He had arrived in London to study medicine in 1893 and remained a ward of the Catholic Church.
Rose was 22 and initially reported as being an actress or an heiress. In time, however, it emerged that she was neither. Her father was a humble bricklayer named Hawkins English and lived in Ipswich. Her mother had died young and the father had been abusive towards his children. At the age of 16 she had finally quarreled with her father after he remarried and moved to London. There she lived with her married sister, Annie Bertrand, and her husband at 10, Denmark Street. Exactly how she earned her living remained sketchy and there was some suggestion that whatever she did was not particularly respectable.
In early 1894 she had met Cyril. Their relationship had soon blossomed and Cyril became a regular at the Denmark Street address. Within months, Annie and her husband moved out to Chelsea and Cyril moved in with Rose. He paid for the both of them from his own funds. Everyone, including Annie and Mrs. Gilbert, testified that Cyril and Rose were both extremely devoted to each other. Another witness spoke of them as ‘kittens in love’.
As their love matured though, Cyril’s interest in his studies declined. Despite being an excellent student, he failed to appear for his exams in July 1895 and even had the piano he had kept at the hospital moved to Denmark Street. His professors wondered and worried about the lad but Cyril himself was blissfully happy and unperturbed. He had found the love of his life and the death and disease of his medical course no longer held his attention. With a callous disregard for the future that is typical of youth, augmented further by the first flush of love, he spent all his time with Rose rather than with the dissected corpses of Guy’s Hospital.
The winter of 1894-95 had been an exceptionally harsh one, remembered in meteorological records as the beginning of a decade of bitterly cold winters, so everyone breathed a sigh of relief with the advent of spring. The bitter, gloomy days of the long Victorian winter, made worse by the smog that perennially hung over the metropolis, gave way to the cheery patter of birds in the park and the colorful blooms everywhere, whilst the summer breezes dispelled the suffocating urban smog. Spring seemed brightest to our young lovers. It was their first spring together and must have seemed especially glorious coming as it did in the wake of the bitter winter. Cyril took his beloved Rose on holiday. Instead of the grubby toil of urban London and its smoke-filled skies that the young bricklayer’s daughter had been accustomed to, Rose now walked the beach at Clacton-on-Sea with her gallant and genteel Cyril by her side.
Though little is known of Cyril’s background, he was by all accounts a well-spoken, gentle lad who came from a wealthy Punjabi family and had received the best education. He had a quiet reserve and a polite, understated charm that seemed a world apart from the working class men of London whom Rose had usually interacted with. It is doubtful that Rose, given her background, would ever have met a man like Cyril, just as Cyril had likely never interacted with a girl like Rose. Where Rose was often rash and impulsive, Cyril was calm and measured. Where Cyril hesitated to raise his voice, Rose was boisterous and self-willed. Yet, somehow the two complemented each other perfectly across the divides of race and class that marked the high noon of the Victorian Era.
From Clacton-on-Sea the couple travelled to Ipswich and saw Rose’s parents before heading on to Hastings. At Hastings they checked into the Castle Hotel and registered themselves as Mr and Mrs. Dutta. They told the hoteliers that Cyril’s father was a wealthy “West Indian merchant” but was opposed to their marriage and hence they were keen to keep the marriage secret for the time. Yet, an elated Cyril also telegraphed Paul Kraft, the housekeeper, in London telling him of the marriage. Life was one unending and joyous adventure for the young couple. Other guests at the Castle Hotel commented on how the two young people seemed entirely lost in each other’s company.
Apace with the relentless march of time, spring gradually hardened into summer and was now inching towards autumn. The sprightly daffodils had withered and perished and now even the residual green leaves were getting ready to drift into the arms of the earth below. The harsh practicalities now began to gradually cast their melancholic shadow upon the fantasy world in which Rose and Cyril had spent the last couple of months. Cyril’s meager allowance from the Church and the medical school began to run dry as he neglected his studies and spent more than he could afford on the long holiday. A couple of his checks had been dishonored and creditors were asking for their money. To make things work, Cyril realized that he had to return to his studies. He proposed that they return to London and then temporarily part ways. He would go to Oxford to complete his medical studies, while Rose could lodge once again with Annie in Chelsea.
Ever impulsive and more passionate than reasonable, Rose flew into an uncontrollable fury and threatened to kill herself if Cyril tried to leave her in any way. Having grown up in a love-less home and lived a harsh life, she had glimpsed happiness, joy, and love with Cyril and did not want it to end. Cyril tried to calm her at first, but eventually when nothing worked, threatened to kill himself in turn. This brought Rose to her senses and the two made up once more. Many at the Castle Hotel however, overheard the whole fracas. A few of the older auditors of the quarrel perhaps wryly recalled the impracticalities and irrationalities of their own bygone youth. I wonder if a wistful smile flashed across the corners of their lips as they heard the youngsters quarreling and remembered the most impossible demands they themselves had once made of their beloved. However that maybe, the smiles faded and the quarrel abated. Practical sense prevailed like a relentless Monday morning after a long weekend and our young couple travelled back once more to their humble rented accommodation in greasy Soho.
Things seemed to proceed calmly for a few days and Rose seemed reconciled to the fact that fantasies must be girdled by the realities of life. Cyril now began making arrangements for his move to Oxford and for Rose’s move to Chelsea. Both seemed sad but reconciled to the temporary separation. On the evening of the 27th of September, the two went out to dine at a local restaurant where they often ate and returned home late. The evening seemed to dissipate the gloom that hung over them and they returned home cheerful. They seemed as happy as they had ever been and went to bed soon.
At some point during the night, perhaps awoken by the stuffiness and heat, Rose sat up and asked Cyril once more not to go to Oxford. Cyril, sleepy and tired, was less patient than he had usually been and said he had to go and there were no other options. Rose once more threatened to kill herself if he did. Unfortunately, Cyril stuck to his position.
With the ominous words “I will do it; I will do it”, Rose got out of bed, pulled out Cyril’s revolver from the drawer and shot herself in her chest. Cyril, by his own admission, was too stunned to react. Profusely bleeding, Rose reeled back. But rather than letting the gun go, she put it now to her neck and shot herself again. With the second shot, she collapsed in a heap. With her, collapsed Cyril’s world. He stood there frozen in time and place for what seemed like an eternity.
Eventually, he made up his mind. Lovingly, he lifted Rose’s lifeless body from the floor and placed her on the bed. He straightened her dress and lay her down as if she was sleeping. He took out all the photographs he had of Rose from their recent holiday and the letters she had written to him and laid them by her on the bed. Then, with a steady determination and a firm hand, he lay down beside her and shot himself twice in the chest. He soon passed out from the copious amounts of blood that gushed from the gaping hole in his chest, trying perhaps to make its way across the bed to Rose.
Over the next week or two, Cyril fought for his life at the Middlesex Hospital. In the meantime, the coroner issued a warrant for his arrest. Some doctors and much of the press alleged that Rose could not have killed herself and that Cyril must have done it. Rose’s estranged father, Hawkins, added to the rumors by saying he had never heard of his daughter’s relationship. Two of Cyril’s strongest supporters, however, were the two people who saw Rose most often and knew her most intimately, namely, her sister Annie and the landlady, Mrs. Gilbert. Paul and Mrs. Kraft too testified in Cyril’s favor.
Annie, Mrs. Gilbert, and the Krafts all said Rose was an impulsive, passionate, and headstrong woman who was paranoid about losing Cyril. Cyril by contrast, had always been the calmer of the two and the voice of reason. They were clear that Rose was more than capable of taking the impulsive step Cyril said she had taken and that Cyril was incapable of murdering Rose. Yet, notwithstanding their testimony, Cyril was arrested while still in hospital on the 10th of October and denied bail.
As Cyril languished at Middlesex Hospital on death’s door, he remained officially under arrest and a suspect in the murder of his beloved Rose. He was charged with the murder and the trial soon commenced in absentia. Both the trial and the adjourned inquest into Rose’s death had to be repeatedly delayed due to Cyril’s condition. But nothing in the case was predictable and Cyril’s health was now the most doubtful factor. No one could tell if he would live to face trial or die quietly of his wounds on a hospital bed. The press dutifully continued to report on both Cyril’s condition and every time the courts adjourned the case.
Suddenly, around late October, almost a month after remaining in hospital, Cyril’s fate chose life over death. His condition began to improve remarkably and rapidly. Who can tell, perhaps it was Rose who tended to his wounds? Perhaps it was the headstrong young girl who had convinced Cyril to return from death’s door for another shot at life. By early November, though he could still not walk on his own and despite his lawyer’s vehement objections, he was released from hospital and transferred to Holloway Gaol.
It was from prison and supported by two warders that Cyril finally came to attend the adjourned inquest into Rose’s death on the 13th of November. There, to the surprise of the yellow press and the relief of Cyril’s friends, especially Annie, two government doctors testified that the wounds found on Rose were consistent with suicide. Based upon their findings, the coroner had little option but to officially enter a verdict of suicide ‘during temporary insanity’.
What continued to elude rational explanation was why exactly had Rose arisen in the middle of the night and reopened the issue of their impending separation despite having earlier seemingly reconciled to it. ‘Temporary insanity’ seemed the most logical answer. Others, less charitable, muttered that the insanity may have been brought on by syphilis, which Rose may have acquired prior to her acquaintance with Cyril. But none of these explanations rise above the realm of lurid speculation and approach anything like a plausible fact. Interestingly, in the early eighteenth century, over a hundred years before the death of Rose, a London-physician named Dr. John Purcell had authored a famous book on ‘hysteric fits’ that predictably had much to say about women’s passions. Purcell had a lived at the very house where the tragedy unfolded between Rose and Cyril, viz. at No. 10, Denmark Street. More grimly still, he speaks of having dissected several ‘hysteric women’ in search of a cause for the affliction. Were some of those dissected and disembodied passions still lurking in the shadows of the house? Was there something in the combination of the young medical student and the passionate woman that brought the macabre history of the house to life on that malignant night? Was there perhaps something beyond simple ‘temporary insanity’ that eluded the grasp of courts and juries, not to mention the Victorian cult of Reason, on that stuffy September night in 1895?
In any case, when the murder trial recommenced on the 27th of November, exactly two months from that fateful night, the prosecution told the judge that in view of the coroner’s verdict they had reviewed the case and decided not to prosecute Cyril any further. The judge therefore ordered the immediate release of Cyril Dutta, while adding—perhaps fearing that he might attempt to take his life again—that his revolver should not be returned to him.
By the end of November, Cyril had recovered almost completely and walked out of the jail with a firm gait and downcast eyes. That was also the day he walked out of history. Like most other stories that unfolded under gaslights, Cyril’s departure from history leaves us searching for answers. Did he ever come to terms with the loss of Rose? Did he reconcile with his parents? Did he go on to become a doctor? Did he ever return to the land of his father? Or, is he buried somewhere on the Isle where Rose had lived?
Quite like a connection with Dr.John Purcell in this story, as I am doing research on the history of the Denmark Street.
I would like to ask the author a question: ” Is this plot based on the historical facts ( I mean – Cyril and Rose affair and her tragic death) or it is pure fiction?”
Projit B. Mukharji
The story of Cyril and Rose is entirely historical. I found the details in old British and Indian newspapers of the time. I have merely rewritten it. The Purcell connection is of course not mentioned in any of the newspaper reports. But again Purcell and his book are both historical facts. I have merely linked the two.
Thanks for reading.