In Wisbech, we are not particularly well blessed with what could be called stately homes. Peckover House is very grand, but the next in line might be Needham Hall in Friday Bridge. The present building is on the site of a much older house which was pulled down in 1804. The last owner of the old house was Dr. John Fountayne, Dean of York, and his daughter Catherine lived in the new house until her death in 1824, at which point it passed to her nephew, Richard Fountayne Wilson, M.P. for Yorkshire 1826–30. The 1861 census records that the house was occupied by Frederick Easton Fryer, his large family and a house full of servants. By 1901 the house – and farm – had been bought by Walter Wooll West (left), and it is with the West family we shall stay.
Walter Montagu West (above), elder son of Walter Wooll, was killed at Ypres in 1915, and eventually ownership of the farm passed to the younger son, Charles. Incidentally, Walter senior was knighted for public service, and seems to have retired to 75 Harecroft Road (just two doors on from my house) where he died in 1952. It is Charles West who is at the centre of a story which made headlines in many national papers in 1956.
The story, as you will soon see, is not one of the tragedies of which I have written before. Rather, it has elements of comedy about it, and it has at least two of the elements that would have instantly attracted newspaper editors – a blonde, and a gun.
Charles West (59) was divorced, and lived with a woman – Ella Grundman – who had been cited as “the other party” in the divorce case. His father, Walter Wooll West was a farmer, yes, but also someone of substance in the county, and kept a large household and employed dozens on the farm, as the photo below (copyright Wisbech & Fenland Museum) reveals. It was taken on the occasion of Sir Walter and Lady Grace’s Golden Wedding anniversary in December 1940.
It seems that by 1956 social niceties at the Hall were not so much Upstairs Downstairs as Kitchen Sink. One evening in late April, Charles West was having drinks in a downstairs room with his cowman and a gardener. They were apparently celebrating a very pleasing evaluation of the Hall, farm and estate. Things, however, went rather pear-shaped. The emerging story tickled the fancy of more than one newspaper editor, and The Birmingham Mail reported:
“A wealthy Fenland farmer was threatened with a shotgun and a carving knife by his 38 year-old lover a court was told yesterday (Friday 27th April). It happened in a tiff over cigarettes at his family seat said the prosecution at Wisbech.
The farmer, 59 year-old Charles West, of Needham Hall, Wisbech, said that he had accused her of stealing cigarettes. Afterwards, they were found in his desk. “I would like to apologise,” he said.
But Mrs Ella Grundman, smartly dressed in a pink grey-dotted suit, did not glance at him as he gave his evidence.
She is accused of shooting with intent to murder, and of causing Mr West grievous harm. Mr David Hopkin, prosecuting, said that the couple were celebrating with a gardener and a cowman at the Hall.
A quarrel began over the cigarettes.Mrs Grunman asked West to open a roll-top desk. He refused.
She fetched a carving knife, put it to his back and pushed him round the room until one of the men took the knife away. Ten minutes later, she was back with a shotgun. She pointed it at West and said: ”Now you’re going to give me the keys, or else.”
One of the men struggled with her, but the gun went off, peppering the wall and telephone with shot. Mr Alec Whitwell, the cowman, said that later he found her scratching his employer’s face, holding him by the hair, and banging his head on the sofa. Mr West, son of a former High Sheriff, said he could not remember much of what had happened – “I wasn’t drunk, but I had a lot more to drink than was good for me.”
Haltingly, he said, “ In the washroom I was being hit by Mrs Grundman with either the candlestick, or the ash tray stand, or both.”
Mr West told Kenneth Land, defending, that he had known Mrs Grundman for two years. She had lived at the Hall since last December and before that had lived in his houseboat at Hilgay, Norfolk.
Mr Land said, “She is a hefty woman and strongly built. If she had really wanted to do him harm, she could easily have done so. Neither knew the police had been called, and as far as they were concerned, the quarrel was over, and they were all tucked up for the night.”
As, inevitably, Wisbech magistrates decided that Ella Grundman must be tried at the next Cambridge Assizes, the Sunday Mirror couldn’t resist a bit of fun.