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Jack London and the 1902 Cavilla family murders

Located amidst the bosky acreage of Brockley cemetery in an unmarked grave lies the last resting place of five members of the Cavilla family, whose lives were tragically ended in September 1902 in a brutal murder that shocked the nation. An unemployed house painter called Frank Cavilla, aged 34 years of Batavia road, New Cross, cut the throats of his wife Helena (33 years) and four children, Frank Herbert (12 years), Walter (8 years), Nellie Violet (4 years) and Ernest Eugene (16 months). On the 20th October 1902 Frank Cavilla appeared at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, and was found to be insane and unable to plead. He was ordered to be detained during His Majesty's pleasure  and he died in 1942 at Broadmoor Hospital.

Source: New Zealand Herald, Volume XXXIX, Issue 12099, 18 October 1902, Page 2

In 1903, the American novelist, journalist and social activist Jack London wrote The People of the Abyss, his famous first hand account of the dire and degrading living conditions of the poorer parts of East London. He spent time undercover sleeping on the streets, staying in workhouses and lodging with a poor family. The book offered a vivid, sad and harrowing ethnographic account of the lives of those struggling to survive in the richest city on earth, with London described as 'a huge man-killing machine'. 

Jack London's famous short adventure novel' The Call of the Wild' was also published in 1903 and is still one of the best known stories written by an American author.

Photo of Jack London c.1902 London (Source : Color by Klimbin)

Jack London arrived in London from the USA as a war correspondent en route to cover the South African War when hostilities ended in 1902 and his contract was cancelled. His friend Upton Sinclair reported that "for years afterwards, the memories of this stunted and depraved population haunted him beyond all peace". And London himself declared: "No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor."

During his research for the book he read newspaper articles on the Frank Cavilla murder case and incorporated this moving account of Frank's first appearance at Greenwich Police Court charged with killing his family. It is to be found in Chapter Twenty -Two of the book, an excerpt of which is reproduced below :

The People of the Abyss:

Chapter XXII—Suicide

'He is a good-looking man, with a mass of black hair, dark, expressive eyes, delicately chiselled nose and chin, and wavy, fair moustache.' This is the reporter's description of Frank Cavilla as he stood in court, this dreary month of September, 'dressed in a much worn gray suit, and wearing no collar.'

Frank Cavilla lived and worked as a house decorator in London. He is described as a good workman, a steady fellow, and not given to drink, while all his neighbors unite in testifying that he was a gentle and affectionate husband and father.

His wife, Hannah Cavilla, was a big, handsome, light-hearted woman. She saw to it that his children were sent neat and clean (the neighbors all remarked the fact) to the Childeric Road Board School.  And so, with such a man, so blessed, working steadily and living temperately, all went well, and the goose hung high. Then the thing happened. He worked for a Mr. Beck, builder, and lived in one of his master's houses in Trundley Road, Mr. Beck was thrown from his trap and killed. The thing was an unruly horse, and, as I say, it happened. Cavilla had to seek fresh employment and find another house.

This occurred eighteen months ago. For eighteen months he fought the big fight. He got rooms in a little house on Batavia Road, but could not make both ends meet. Steady work could not be obtained. He struggled manfully at casual employment of all sorts, his wife and four children starving before his eyes. He starved himself, and grew weak, and fell ill. This was three months ago, and then there was absolutely no food at all. They made no complaint, spoke no word; but poor folk know. The housewives of Batavia Road sent them food, but so respectable were the Cavillas that the food was sent anonymously, mysteriously, so as not to hurt their pride.

The thing had happened. He had fought, and starved, and suffered for eighteen months. He got up one September morning, early. He opened his pocket-knife. He cut the throat of his wife, Hannah Cavilla, aged thirty-three. He cut the throat of his first-born, Frank, aged twelve. He cut the throat of his son, Walter, aged eight. He cut the throat of his daughter, Nellie, aged four. He cut the throat of his youngest-born, Ernest, aged sixteen months. Then he watched beside the dead all day until the evening, when the police came, and he told them to put a penny in the slot of the gas-meter in order that they might have light to see.

Frank Cavilla stood in court, dressed in a much worn gray suit, and wearing no collar. He was a good-looking man, with a mass of black hair, dark, expressive eyes, delicately chiselled nose and chin, and wavy, fair moustache.

Frank Cavilla's older children were described as ' respectfully dressed' and regular attenders of nearby Childeric Road Board School, New Cross.

The only extant photographic image of the Cavilla family is that of Frank's father, Joseph Damien Coelhe De Cavilla, who was born in Gibraltar and moved to London to work as a Wine Merchant. He died in 1873 is buried in Camberwell Old Cemetery. (Source : Ancestry website)