I have been researching and writing about true crimes for many years now and, by their very nature, the events I have described rarely make easy reading. On display is a journey through the very worst of human character, from weakness, via jealousy and insanity, through to pure and simple evil. I can say, however, that the story I am about to tell has been hard to write. It contains descriptions of madness and physical violence which may not be to everyone’s taste, so, if you are squeamish, then maybe this is not for you. Every word of this story is taken from contemporary newspaper reports and transcriptions from a criminal trial that horrified readers in the early summer of 1890.
We are not quite in Louth, but just a few miles south east, in the gentle landscape on the edge of The Wolds, and bordering the former marshland which stretches out to the coastal settlements of Mablethorpe, Trusthorpe and Sutton. South Reston is a modest village now, as it was then. In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described South Reston like this:
RESTON (South), a parish, with a village, in Louth district, Lincoln; 2 miles N N E of Authorpe railway station, and 6 S E of Louth. Post-town, Louth. Acres, 710. Real property, £1, 312. Pop., 235. Houses, 51. The property is divided among a few. S. R. Hall is the seat of W. Hay, Esq. There is a brick and tile manufactory. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Lincoln. Value, £180. Patron, the Duchy of Lancaster. The church was rebuilt in 1865; and is in the early English style. There are chapels for Wesleyans and Free Methodists, a parochial school, and charities £7.
It is the family of William Hay of South Reston Hall (pictured below) that concerns us in this story. The Hays were a landed family spread across the county as far north as Scunthorpe and Brigg. The Hall itself is on an ancient site that dates back to pre-Domesday times. Strangely, in the 1881 census, the inhabitants of the Hall are listed as Lizzie Hay, aged 20, as Head of House, with her younger siblings Walter and Mary. You will notice the name of John Crow living close by. He was to be a witness to the dreadful events about to be described. In 1891, a few months after the dreadful crime about to be described, the Hay family seem to have been all together again.
Although it is not illegal, we are, nowadays, justifiably squeamish about first cousin marriages. Where it does occur – mostly in immigrant families – it is a proven cause of child deformities and mental health problems. The Hay family, however in the second half of the 19th century, had no qualms. George Dawson Hay, elder son of William and Elizabeth had married his first cousin, Louisa Hay. The 1881 census has her, aged 14, living with her farming family in Humberston, just south of Cleethorpes. Also named is Thomas W Hay, aged 13.
George Hay had been gifted a house and land on which to farm. South Reston Grange sits near the junction of Willoughby Lane and Scrub Lane, a little way south west of the village. The household comprised George Dawson Hay junior, just a year old, his two year-old sister Ethel, and – strangely – Louisa’s brother, Thomas.
It seems that mental illness was not uncommon in the Hay family. A Thomas Hay, of Yarborough, had died eighteen months earlier in Bracebridge Asylum, Lincoln; George Hay’s older brother, William, had died at the Hall in 1886, while his younger brother, Sidney, was undergoing treatment for what was termed ‘melancholia’. George Hay himself had spent some time in New Zealand, and had confessed to trying to do away with himself there.
On the early morning of 24th May, the staff of South Reston Hall were astonished to see George Hay enter the building. He had apparently been sleeping in a stable. but his clothes were soaking wet, and he was covered in mud from head to foot. His mother came to his aid, and he told her that he had been to the nearby village of Withern, where he had tried to drown himself in the Great Eau (pictured left), a narrow but swift flowing stream which eventually dissipates into the marshes near Saltfleet. Mrs Hay packed him off to bed with a glass of whisky, realising that this was the latest manifestation of mental troubles of which George had been complaining for some weeks. When she went up to see him, a little later that morning, he was still awake, but barely coherent. He asked her just one thing:
“I think you had better go down to The Grange, and see how they are getting on there.”
A simple request from a concerned husband? What the visitors to The Grange found would scar them for the rest of their lives.
IN PART TWO – A TRUE CHAPTER OF HORRORS