On a bright summer day, the table-flat marshland between Long Sutton and The Wash is beautiful. Endless blue skies, waving fields of wheat and skylarks singing overhead. On a grey autumn afternoon, however, the countryside takes on a much more menacing aspect. It was on such an afternoon in October 1907 that a brutal murder took place near Guy’s Head Farm. Two people are central to the drama, a 36 year-old farm labourer’s wife named Catherine Gear, and a 47 year-old man called William Duddles.
William Duddles was born in 1860 in High Toynton, just on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. In the 1891 census he is living with his mother and sister in Boston. Somehow he doesn’t appear in the 1901 census, but we know that in 1907 he was working on Guys Head Farm, on the left bank of Tycho Wing’s Channel, the arrow straight cut that takes the River Nene into The Wash. He was lodging with another farm worker in their tied cottage. William Gear and his wife Catherine, always known as Kate. They had married in 1898, and she was from the Bontoft family, born in Wrangle, between Boston and Skegness.
On the afternoon of Tuesday 8th October 1907, some employees of Guy’s Head Farm were, for whatever reason, not engaged in honest toil. In the Gear’s cottage Kate, William, Duddles and two other workers, James Towson and Edwin Hocking, were having a party which certainly involved drinking beer, if nothing more sinister. At some point, the beer ran out, and William Gear volunteered to walk the mile or so to Gedney Drove End and fetch more beer from one of its three pubs. By the time he returned, Towson and Hocking had, as they used to say, ”made an excuse and left”, leaving Kate Gear and William Duddles in the cottage on their own.
What William Gear found in his cottage when he returned with fresh supplies was not a convivial booze-up, but a dying woman – his wife. She had been battered about the head with something heavy and deadly. She lay on the floor, her life oozing away inexorably from a terrible head wound. Gear’s return to the cottage had coincided with neighbours hearing some kind of disturbance and going to the cottage to investigate. Their evidence was later reported in the newspaper:
“Whilst witness (Mrs Jane Hocking) was getting her tea a friend who was with her remarked, ” I think I can hear a scream,” and upon going into Gear’s house they found the woman in a dying condition. Robert Stebbings, labourer, of Lutton Marsh, said about the time of the tragedy he noticed William Duddles coming from the direction of Gear’s cottage, and at the same time Mr Gear was going an opposite direction, Duddles turned off to avoid him. When Duddles passed witness he noticed that he was in excited and frightened state, and witnessed confessed to being alarmed at his appearance. He stated that a fortnight previously he had heard Duddles say, ” I will be the death of the **** if I swing for it.”
The sensationalist newspaper, The Ilustrated Police News, were quick to have one of their house artists draw a dramatic reconstruction of the discovery of Kate Gear’s body.
The police and medical help were summoned, but Kate Gear was beyond help, and she died later that evening without ever recovering consciousness. A heavy coal hammer, its head bearing the marks of blood, bone, hair and skin tissue had been discarded next to the woman’s body, and was obviously te murder weapon, but where was William Duddles, the obvious culprit? The Boston Guardian reported on Duddle’s movements – and the amount he had drunk:
IN PART TWO:
An arrest, a funeral, an execution – and a mystery