The 1861 census has William Ernest Greatrex living with his family at 3 Victoria Terrace, Rushall, a district of Walsall. The house, below, along with its neighbour, No. 4, is a Grade II listed building which you can find more about here. William was born in the autumn of 1854, and the records tell us that was baptised at St Matthew’s Church on 27th December 1854. His father, James Frederick Greatrex, was the well-to-do owner of a family saddlery business in Adams Row Walsall. In all, James Greatrex and his wife Mary had five children – Robert Charles, Frederick James, and two daughters, Emily and Mary Augusta.
It seems that the family home – at least in regard to William – was not a happy place. At the age of seven he was sent to boarding school, in Kidderminater. This was one of the things he later levelled his ” Mater.” He said, “The school was nasty, the food was bad, the bread and milk made me feel sick.” He complained that he was most unhappy there but his unhappiness was just dismissed as, “complaints of trifling annoyances such as are met with by school boys generally.
A newspaper reported:
“He left Kidderminster about eleven years of age, and went a school at Brewood, where he remained about two years, and then went to Malvern College, where he had inflammation of the lungs. He states he was lost there in consequence of not having sufficient pocket money. He is under the impression that his parents put him to these schools to get rid of him, and that they were persecuting him at that period of his life. After he left school, at about 15 years of age, he was sent to Hastings and Torquay on account of his health, and, at about 18, he helped in his father’s business, at Walsall, his father making him a small allowance.”
This matter of money was to weigh heavily on William Greatrex for the rest of his life. What shouts to us from the printed page over a century after the tragic events of 1892 is that James Greatrex spent a small fortune on his son, and considered it money well spent to keep William at arm’s length.
William’s career in the decades after he left school is a catalogue of disasters, one after the other. After working for a while as a commercial traveller for the Greatrex firm, he was sent to Australia at the age of 23 on ‘a sales mission.’ From there he was asked to go to New Zealand, where opened his own business. This failed, and after a brief spell at home he was again sent abroad, this time to America, where he was given money to become a partner in a cattle ranch in 1884. It was reported that Greatrex senior had sunk £6000 into this venture. Using the Bank of England online calculator, I can report that this is somewhere in the region of £800,000 today. The ranching venture, like everything else the younger Greatrex had tried, failed dismally and, eventually, after a spell in Geneva in 1889, William Greatrex returned to England, where he rented rooms in London, and began a concerted campaign to persuade his father to give him “just one more chance.”
By this time, James Greatrex had sold the business and retired to Guys’ Cliffe Avenue, a quiet street in Milverton, a district of Royal Leamington Spa. The house, known in those days as Moss Close, still stands, but has now been converted into flats (above). It is within a stone’s throw of this house that the next chapter of this drama will play out.
IN PART TWO – A fatal revenge and an investigation into insanity
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