APART from those down to mass murderers and maniacs, it’s probably the most written about killing ever carried out in this part of the world.

It has spawned  a TV mini series, several books, endless columns of debate, had legal brains at loggerheads and is said to have inspired crime mystery queens Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers.

It all happened 100 years ago in the picturesque Welsh border town of Hay on Wye and reached its climax at Hereford Assizes, where a jury found Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong, a solicitor by profession, guilty of poisoning to death his wife Kitty.

After an appeal failed, Armstrong was hanged by John Ellis at Gloucester Prison on May 31 1922. He was the first, and so far only, lawyer in Britain to go to the gallows.

The case itself was quite simple. The Crown claimed that Armstrong had killed his wife by putting arsenic in her food. But he maintained he hadn’t and the weakness in the prosecution evidence was that no one had seen him do it or indeed anything like it.

Armstrong had always appeared the caring husband.

The hows/whys/wherefores/whodunnits have occupied many minds – some professional legal, others amateur legal – ever since and on the centenary of Major Armstrong’s execution comes another book.


Stephen Bates’ book

Stephen Bates’ book


The Poisonous Solicitor by Stephen Bates (Icon Books £18.99) has the tag-line “The True Story of a 1920s Murder Mystery”, a boast which it could really have done without and I suspect was not Mr Bates’ idea, because it could imply all the words written in the past 100 years have missed something vital.

And this is the problem because everything happened all those years ago and the details have been trawled through forensically ever since, sometimes in the hope of finding a smoking gun to prove Armstrong was innocent.

After all, it’s perversely a better tale to show that someone was executed for a crime they didn’t commit rather than one they did. The story suddenly grows extra legs.


Stephen Bates, author of The Poisonous Solicitor, the new book about Herbert Armstrong, the only lawyer in Britain to be hanged.

Stephen Bates, author of The Poisonous Solicitor, the new book about Herbert Armstrong, the only lawyer in Britain to be hanged.


Stephen Bates, an Agatha Award-shortlisted author and hugely experienced journalist with 10 books under his belt, doesn’t set out with that agenda. He tells it as it was, very fairly sets out the pros and cons and leaves the reader to form an opinion.

Not forgetting that the moods of the country, its people and its legal system were a lot different in 1922 to what they are in what we like to think is a more enlightened 2022; although which era can claim the better values or morals would be a debate of its own.

However, the narrative of the action remains compelling and led George Orwell to describe the case as the near perfect whodunnit.


Major Armstrong and his wife Katherine, or Kitty

Major Armstrong and his wife Katherine, or Kitty


The Armstrongs had three children, but their marriage was complex. On the one hand the domineering Kitty would regularly abuse and humiliate her husband in public, while on the other both expressed apparently genuine concern when apart: she during his time away during the First World War and he during her spells in hospital.

Katharine Mary Armstrong died on February 22 1921. She had fallen ill nearly two years before, but recovered and it was not until August 1920, her health, both physical and mental, began to go rapidly downhill.

She was admitted to Barnwood, a private mental asylum near Gloucester with pyrexia, vomiting, heart murmurs, and albumen in the urine. There was also partial paralysis in the hands and feet and loss of muscle tone. She was also delusional.

Again she rallied and was sent home, but within a month Kitty Armstrong passed away. Her death certificate cited gastritis, aggravated by heart disease and nephritis.

That would have been the end of it, except eight months later Oswald Martin, the only other solicitor in Hay and a rival in a property deal, became violently ill after visiting Armstrong for tea and scones. A sample of his urine showed traces of arsenic.

On December 31 1921, in what must have caused quite a stir in the small market town, Scotland Yard detectives arrived in Hay to arrest Major Armstrong for the attempted murder of Oswald Martin.


Mayfield, the Armstrong family home where Mrs Armstrong died

Mayfield, the Armstrong family home where Mrs Armstrong died


He maintained he was innocent, but police found a packet of arsenic in his pocket and many more in his house.

Mrs Armstrong’s body was then exhumed and examined by the eminent Home Office pathologist Dr Bernard Spilsbury. It was riddled with arsenic 10 months after death and on January 19 1922 Armstrong was charged with the murder of his wife.

The prosecution alleged Armstrong poisoned his wife with weed killer he had legally bought to control dandelions at their imposing family home Mayfield in the village of Cusop Dingle, not far from Hay.

The defence claimed it was ether a case of suicide or someone else had administered arsenic to the depressed Kitty Armstrong at her behest.


Armstrong is led into court by Herefordshire’s deputy chief constable Albert Weaver

Armstrong is led into court by Herefordshire’s deputy chief constable Albert Weaver


Both sides faced problems.

The Crown could not produce anyone who had seen Armstrong give his wife arsenic; the defence could not produce a name for anyone else who might have done it.

Some of the top legal brains of the day battled it out in front of Mr Justice Darling, a veteran judge taking his last trial before retiring and not, according to some views, making too good a job of it.

The Hay poisoning has always been one of the most fascinating cases in British legal history with its twists and turns and insights into the social landscape of market town England emerging from the Great War.

Stephen  Bates’ book takes a perceptive measured look at it all and if you read just one account of the saga, this will do nicely. Be warned, you will have a job to put it down.