William Hine was born in the hamlet of Ingon, just north of Stratford on Avon, on 7th September, 1857, although his birthplace is listed on the 1861 census as nearby Hampton Lucy. He and his parents, with his brother and sister are listed as living at 2 Gospel Oak. He married Emily Edwards on 17th November 1880 in Stratford. Earlier that year, Hine had joined the police force. By February 1886 they had three children. By then, Hine was serving as Police Constable in the village of Fenny Compton.
As a native of Warwickshire myself – born and raised in Leamington Spa – I believe our county becomes more beautiful the further south one travels, and by the time one reaches Fenny Compton, just a few miles from the Oxfordshire border, the Cotswolds are within sight, particularly for the watcher who sits up on the highest spot of the Burton Dassett hills.
On the evening of Monday 15th February 1886, William Hine spent part of his evening in a pub called The George and Dragon. It sits on the bank of the Oxford Canal, is a mile and a half north-east of the village centre and is now called The Wharf. Some reports suggest there was a cattle auction being held in the pub that night, but Hine left at about 10.00pm, after ‘chucking out time’. When he did not return home, his wife was not unduly alarmed, as he was due to be on duty at Warwick Races the next day, and she assumed he had gone on ahead. When he did not turn up for duty at the racecourse, enquiries were made, and he was reported as missing. A search of the area around the George and Dragon was initially inconclusive, but then a stick which PC Hine habitually carried was found in a field, and a little further away his hat and handkerchief were found. There were bloodstains and signs of a struggle.
By the time Saturday came, the only other clue to Hine’s disappearance was the discovery of a large pocket knife in a ditch near where the hat had been found. In his six years as a Police Constable in South Warwickshire William Hine had experienced several run-ins with poachers and livestock thieves. He had remarked to a friend, “You may depend upon it they mean to do for me some time; that will be my end.”
Villagers reported the sight of a large horse and trap being driven at pace through Fenny Compton on the night of Hine’s disappearance, and rumours spread that a gang of well organised rural thieves had been at work. It is worth noting, that even today, almost 140 years on, rural theft and stock rustling is still a major crime industry in Britain.
The canal was dragged, as were nearby ponds and pools, with no result. In the absence of Hine – or his body – being found, ever crazier theories surfaced. Some said that the best way to dispose of a body was to take it to the lime kilns of the cement works at Harbury, and cremate it there. When Silvia Hine identified the pocket knife as one belonging to her husband, police wondered if Hine had tried to defend himself with the weapon, but it had been wrenched from him and used against him.
There is a saying that the sea eventually gives up its dead. The same happened with the murky waters of the Oxford canal on Wednesday 24th February, 1886.
IN PART TWO
AN ENDURING MYSTERY