Wisbech is a small Cambridgeshire market town on the banks of the River Nene. It is Spring 1905. The Mayor is Mr H.C. Elgood, patriarch and owner of the local brewery. The Rev. R.E.R Watts, Vicar of Wisbech is retiring due to ill health, and his grateful parishioners have raised the sum of £224.19s as a testimonial. Sadly, due to the cleric’s infirmity, there is to be no public presentation.
Away from the rectories and grand villas, the world goes on. In the insanitary slum courts off the main thoroughfares, men get drunk. their women goad them, and there is violence a-plenty. One such instance is the tragic – and painful – death of Frances Parlett. Most of the following narrative is taken from contemporary newspaper reports.
Frances Parlett was married about six years previously, but left her husband, and for two years she had lived with the John Day at 18a Carpenter’s Arms Yard. At one o’clock in the morning May 2nd they were in their living room, one of two rooms in which they lived. Day, having fallen asleep, was awakened by the woman, and it was said that either in sudden anger or with malice aforethought, he seized a lighted paraffin lamp which was on the table, and threw it at her. She was at once covered in flames, and screamed and rushed to the front door.
A very worthy man who lived near, and who often heard screams, went out and saw the poor creature. With remarkable courage and pluck, this elderly man rushed hack into his house and secured some blankets, with which he put out the flames. Next day the woman died, fearfully burnt. The evidence was that the accused, about 11 o’clock that night, was heard to say to her that he would do something to her when he got home.
Nothing remains of Carpenter’s Arms Yard today. It was a narrow lane running off what is now West Street, and it ended just short of Tillery Field, which in those days was a cemetery. Its position was more or less where St Paul’s Close is now. By all accounts it was one of the meaner streets of the town. I have been unable to find any image of Carpenter’s Arms Yard, but it is safe to imagine that it would have been narrow, dirty and the tiny terraced houses would have been packed with residents who were at the bottom end of society.
The photo on the right is of an existing Wisbech alley which, due to its central position has survived more or less intact, and gives us an idea of what the Yard might have looked like. Carpenter’s Arms Yard was earmarked for slum clearance in the late 1920s along with its near neighbour Ashworth’s Yard, and both were gone before the outbreak of World War II. What is now St Peter’s Road was probably more prosperous than either of the Yards, and its terraced houses were spared the redevelopments of the 1930s. It is tempting to look back and wish that more of old Wisbech had been preserved, but we would do well to remember that conditions in these old houses would be awful, even by standards of the time. Damp, insanitary and built on the cheap, these grim places contributed to the general poor health and high death rate of the time. The cemetery at the bottom of the slight slope of Carpenter’s Arms Yard was actually instituted as an overflow burial ground when a cholera epidemic struck the town earlier in the 19th century.
Back to the terrible events of May, 1905. Sadly, Frances Parlett died of her burns the next day, and the wheels of the law began to grind. The first step was a Coroner’s Inquest. At the inquest, it was reported that:
“Deceased was suffering from extensive superficial burns, extending from the knees to the armpits, and the front part was worse than the back. If deceased had been sitting at a table and the lamp capsized one would have expected more severe burns at one particular spot. There were no marks on her face or chest to show that they had come in contact with a hard substance, and would have expected to have found some marks on the body if it had been struck by the lamp with much violence.”
In answer to the Foreman, a witness said he thought the lamp could be thrown with sufficient force on the steel of the deceased’s corsets to break the lamp and not mark the body. The skin was discoloured too much to see any bruise. Herbert Brightwell, bootmaker, of 19a, Carpenter’s Arms Yard, said he heard the deceased and Day come home about 11 o’clock on the night in question. At about one o’clock he was awakened by the shuffling of feet, but he heard no voices. Immediately afterwards he heard a woman scream, and saw a bright light flash across his window. The woman continued to scream, and he went downstairs. When he opened the door of Day’s house the deceased, who was in flames, fell into his arms. Brightwell attempted to put out the flames by wrapping blankets round her.
Brightwell asked Day to assist him, but he did not do so, and said nothing. Having put out the flames, Brightwell ran to tell Frances Parlett’s sister, and Day ran after him, saying:
“What the **** are you exciting yourself about. If you don’t come back here I will jolly well put you through it as well.”
NEXT – John Day is tried for murder,
and faces an appointment with Henry Albert Pierrepoint
Part Two of A WISBECH TRAGEDY, will go live on the evening of Friday 24th July.