In 1863 The George and Star inn was, as it is today, the biggest in Whittlesey. It changed its name by dropping the Star several years after the events described in this story. Behind the inn was a maltings owned by Thomas Whyles, described in the 1861 census as ‘Corn merchant and miller.’ His house was in Church Street. Two other town residents acted out their parts in this drama. Elizabeth Brown was known as ‘Betsy’. The newspapers gave her age as 36, but the 1861 census gives us two Elizabeth Browns, one aged 24 living in Scaldgate, and another aged 39 in Private Road. You can take your pick as to which was ‘our’ Betsy Brown. Both were described as labourers, but if truth be told, the Betsy who features in this story supplemented her income by being, as my grandmother used to say, ‘no better than she ought to be’. She was described as ‘a tall dark woman with coarse features, high cheek bones and black hair : she had led an abandoned life for some time.’
Just a few streets away, in what was known then as Inham’s End, 24 year-old John Green – who worked for Thomas Whyles – lived with his wife Martha and daughters Mary and Harriet. He was described thus in a newspaper report. “He is a married man with three children; is 25 years of age, rather tall, with dark hair and pale face, has no whiskers, and is of slight but muscular build.”
On the evening of Wednesday 11th March, John Green was drinking in the tap room of the George and Star, along with – amongst others – a man called Smedley, who was head maltster for Thomas Whyles – and Betsy Brown. Smedley was to play – literally – a key role in this affair, as he had a key to the maltings, and John Green, as the night’s drinking intensified was paying court to Betsy Brown and, aware of her reputation, needed somewhere private to take her, should she go along with his plans.
At some point in the evening, Betsy Brown’s mother, perhaps having some kind of premonition or sixth sense that her daughter was in danger, arrived at the inn and tried to persuade Betsy to come , home, but she refused. About half past midnight, Green, Betsy Brown and a woman called Ann MacDonald left the inn, and Green said, pointing to the maltings, “Come along, we shall have some beer.” MacDonald, well aware of what Green’s intentions were, replied, ““No, one woman with one man is plenty;”
At this point, it is necessary to explain briefly what happened in a maltings. The process of malting grain for beer and whisky making involves three main steps. The first is soaking the barley – also known as steeping – to awaken the dormant grain. Next, the grain is allowed to germinate and sprout. Finally, heating or kilning the barley produces its final color and flavor. The kiln was used to produce hot air which would be passed under the bed of grain so that it dried out evenly. In Whyle’ maltings the place where the kiln stood was referred to as the furnace room.
At about six o’clock on the morning of Thursday 12th March, John Green was seen by a man called Robert Cunnington, Green was heading towards his home. When Smedley arrived at work a little later, he entered the furnace room to be greeted by a horrific sight. Against a door was a body with the head resting against the door. The door was burning, and there was smoke issuing from the lap and chest of the body. Smedley’s first reaction was to get water and pour it on the body, but it was too little too late. Other workers – including Cunnington – arrived. The body was removed to the pump room, and Smedley expressed a fear that the body was that of his “silly mate” Green, but Cunnington informed him that he had recently seen Green, alive and well, heading for his home.
The Police were fetched and immediate enquiries revealed that if the body was not that of John Green, it must be that of Betsy Brown. The body was only recognized by keys found in the pocket of the what remained of the dress, and a ring of buffalo-horn worn by her. Remarkably, John Green turned up for work as usual that morning, and after a cap similar to the one he generally wore was found near the spot where Betsy Brown’s body body was discovered, he was arrested. Superintendent Smith later gave this account:
“I went into the pump-room shortly after seven o’clock on the morning of the 12th, the finding of tinder of burnt sacks, part of woman’s crinoline petticoat, from which I drew a piece of cane, and the state in which I found the window. About a quarter to eight I went with Mr. Whyle to the top floor, where Green was turning the kiln. Mr. Whyle told him to halt for a minute. Green looked towards us, and turned very pale and confused.
I said to him, “What time did you leave the malting last night ?’ and he replied ” Sir, sir, about half-past eight, sir.” I asked him what time he went home, and he replied, ” I went into the George and Star, and had a pint of beer with my mate, and was at home and in bed by eleven o’clock.“, I said, Did you see anything of Elizabeth Brown last night ?” and he paused, and said “I did see her in the George and Star tap-room, but never saw her afterwards.”
I took the prisoner into custody shortly before nine o’clock. He was then working a cistern below. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “John Green, I apprehend you on suspicion of having caused the death of one Elizabeth Brown, found burning the kiln-house of this malting.” Prisoner shrunk down, and said ” Oh, pray don’t, pray don’t.” I assisted him over the wall, and took him to the police station. His whole frame trembled as he walked along. At that time I observed a piece of skin had been recently knocked off the ridge of his nose. Green said, “I did not know it was there.” There was also a small scratch on the bottom lip. I searched him, and from his trousers pocket took a canvas purse, now produced, which had then a very strong smell of burning.”
IN PART TWO
The full horror is revealed to the Coroner
An appointment with Mr Calcraft