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THE MURDER OF P.C. WILLIAM HINE . . . A Fenny Compton Mystery (2)

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SO FAR: Fenny Compton, February 1886. Police Constable William Hine has not been seen since he left The George and Dragon inn on the evening of 15th February. Foul play is suspected, but his colleagues in the Warwickshire constabulary have found no trace of him. The Banbury Guardian, of Thursday 25th February broke this news:

Finding the body

There was a Coroner’s Inquest. Hine had been dealt a savage blow to the head, which had stunned him but the cause of death was something much more sinister – and puzzling. He had two almost surgical knife wounds in the neck, and it was speculated that he had been held down and bled out.

The medical evidence went to show that the fatal wound in the neck had been inflicted with scientific accuracy, and that probably the deceased was held down on the ground while it was indicted.”

Body found

On 6th March, The Leamington Spa Courier reported on the wintry funeral of the murdered officer:

“The remains of the murdered constable, Hine, of Fenny Compton, were interred in the Borough Cemetery, Stratford-on-Avon on Monday. More inclement weather could not possibly have been experienced. Snow had been falling for several hours, and lay upon the streets and roads to the depth of about two feet. On the outskirts of the town the snowdrifts were, in places, from three to four feet deep. Such unpropitious weather naturally militated against so large attendance of spectators as had been anticipated. Many who had intended coming from a distance were compelled to forego their intention, some of the country roads being almost impassible.”

“The hearse conveying the body of the murdered man to Stratford left the Wharf Inn, Fenny Compton, about 8 am. The journey to Stratford, nineteen miles, was accomplished with difficulty, and in the face of a blinding snowstorm. At Kineton, ten miles distant, it was found necessary to engage a third horse, the roads in places being blocked with snow. Just prior to leaving Fenny Compton a very beautiful floral wreath, composed of white camellias and maidenhair ferns, was placed upon the coffin by Mr Perry, of Burton Dasset, magistrate for that division. The hearse arrived at Stratford shortly before noon. By that time a large number of police, representing every division in the county, had assembled in the open space near Clopton Bridge.”

The search for those who had murdered William Hine – and opinion was that there was more than one assailant – went on until the trail grew as cold the weather on the day he was buried. There was a bizarre interlude when a bargee from the Black Country was arrested for the murder, having confessed involvement in it to a woman friend, who passed this on to the police:

Confession

In court, Mountford then vehemently denied that he had been involved, but gave no reason for his extraordinary confession. He was released without charge, and the police never explained why they discounted his confession. A year later, another “clue” emerged, as reported by the Kenilworth Advertiser:

“The police have discovered blood-stained clothes hidden in a garden at Cropredy village, adjoining Fenny Compton, and it is believed that they belong to the men who murdered Police-constable Hine in February last year. Two men in prison at Oxford are suspected. The night after the murder a woman at Cropredy noticed the blood-stains on the inspected men’s clothes, and it is said they threatened to “do” for her husband if she mentioned the circumstance. The woman is since dead, but made a statement before death.”

The death of William Hine is perhaps not the most infamous unsolved murder in Warwickshire history. That dubious accolade has to belong to the killing of Charles Walton on 14th February 1945. To read that story, click this link. There is, however, at least one similarity, and that is the location and its ambience. Lower Quinton is twenty miles away from Fenny Compton, but is in that self-same part of rural south Warwickshire, a countryside untouched by heavy industry and intense urbanisation. Both locations remain thinly populated, lightly policed, and share a population which, back in the day before mass media and the  internet, tended to keep themselves to themselves, and had a residual suspicion of strangers. There was always the suspicion that Walton’s death was somehow connected with witchcraft; there was no hint of this in the killing of William Hine, but the peculiar nature of the wounds on his throat was never explained away.

Emily HineIt is abundantly clear to me that despite the best efforts of the police, there were people who knew who had killed Charles Walton, but they took their silence to the grave. My best guess is that same applies to Fenny Compton in 1886. I believe William Hine was killed by local criminals – probably poachers and livestock thieves – who local people knew and – most importantly – feared. A charitable fund was raised for Hine’s widow and children. There was something of a scare in September 1887, when the Leamington bank of Greenway, Smith and Greenway collapsed, and it was rumoured that the Hine fund – close to £80,000 in modern money –  had been in their keeping. This rumour proved untrue and the fund paid out until Emily Hine (left) died in 1924. She never remarried, and lived in Shottery for the rest of her life. A new headstone was erected in the memory of William and Emily in more recent times.

Hine gravestone

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highest-point-in-burton

 

THE GUNS OF AUGUST . . . A tragic mystery from 1889 Stratford-on-Avon (2)

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SO FAR: Stratford-on-Avon, Monday 19th August 1889. A German gentleman, J. Lachmann von Gamsenfels, with his wife and young daughter had obtained rooms in a cottage on the Tiddington Road, owned by a Mrs Freeman. At breakfast time, Mrs Freeman heard gunshots. She ran for help from her neighbour, and the police were called. When they forced an entrance into the rented room, a scene of almost unimaginable horror faced the two officers:

The discovery

Three dead bodies. A scene almost beyond the imagining of Shakespeare himself. Why would an apparently sane and reserved man murder his wife and daughter? He was also in possession of two different guns Turning one of them on himself after such an atrocity is not unheard of in the annals of crime, but the story was about to become even more baffling.

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Investigations proved that Lachmann von Gamsenfels (pictured above) was who he said he was. A man, born in Prague, thus a Bohemian. The history of that area is immensely complex, and there is no time for it here. Yes, he had connections with the German language newspaper The Londoner Journal, but was he the editor,or just the printer?

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Screen Shot 2023-01-19 at 18.23.24What threw the investigation on its head was the fact that the woman who died in that Stratford cottage was not von Gamsenfels wife, although the dead child was probably his. By examining the dead man’s possessions, the police discovered that his legal wife was a Mrs Rosanna Lachmann von Gamsenfels, and that their marriage was somewhat unusual. He was absent from the family home for months on end, but always gave his wife money for the upkeep of their son. Mrs Lachmann von Gamsenfels traveled up to Stratford to identify her husband’s body, but was either unable- or unwilling – to put names to the dead woman and girl. Try as they may, the authorities were unable to put names to the woman and girl who were shot dead on that fateful Monday morning. Artists’ impressions of ‘Mrs von Gamsenfels” were published (left) but she and her daughter left the world unknown, and if anyone mourned them, they kept silent.

A Christian burial was all that awaited the dead woman and her child. The scene was the churchyard of nearby Alveston:

“Subsequently the bodies were enclosed in three separate coffins, which were conveyed to Alveston Parish Church in the Workhouse hearse. The plate of the coffin containing Gamsenfels bore his name and the date of his death, but there were no names or inscriptions any kind on the coffins of the woman and child, as, at the time of burial, they had not been identified. Several pretty wreaths were sent by sympathising friends in the parish; and upon the coffin of the woman were placed a piece of weeping willow and a faded rose, gathered from Anne Hathaway’s cottage garden in Shottery. No burial service was read over the corpse of Gamsenfels. The coffin was carried direct to the grave and lowered into the ground without any religious ceremony whatever. The Rev. W. Barnard (vicar of Alveston) and the Rev. J. Ashton (curate) met the bodies of the woman and child the church gates, and the usual burial service was gone through. A large crowd from Stratford and the district congregated in the neighbourhood of the Tiddington Road, had witnessed the ceremony at the church.”

Alveston

The mystery of the identities of the dead woman and child remains unsolved to this day. For another Warwickshire unsolved mystery, click the link to read about the murder of Charles Walton, just ten miles away from Stratford in 1945.

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Harraden, Richard Bankes, 1778-1862; Warwick Castle

 

THE MEON HILL MURDER . . . Part three

The Spring of 1945 turned into summer in Lower Quinton. The barren hedges that Charles Walton had tended bore green buds. The war in Europe finally ended, and the wives, daughters, mothers and sisters who had not lost their men in the struggle against Hitler began to dream of the day when “We’ll Meet Again” would be a joyful reality rather than a sentimental song. More mundanely, the Warwickshire police were none the wiser as to who had hacked an old man to death on that fateful St Valentine’s Day. Robert Fabian had returned to London, and Alec Spooner had other cases to solve (although the Walton murder remained an obsession with him).

Just as the identity of Jack the Ripper will never be known, we will never know who killed Charles Walton, or why. As recently as 2014, the local BBC team for Coventry and Warwickshire examined the case, and sent some unfortunate trainee out there to quiz the locals. As you will see from the feature (click here) no-one was very keen to talk, any more than they were in the weeks and months after the murder.

Alfred Potter died in 1961, and whatever secrets he had went into the grave with him. The Firs farm was later demolished and was replaced by an expensive housing development. Talking of graves, the researcher will look in vain for the last resting place of Charles Walton, in St Swithin’s churchyard. It has been said that the headstone was removed to deter ghoulish sightseers, but like so much of this story, there is no hard evidence that this is the case. Walton’s meagre cottage has now been knocked through with two other adjoining properties to make a rural residence which, no doubt, is worth an eye-watering amount (below)

Cottages

My view? The only thing that stands out like the proverbial sore thumb is the total collective silence – both contemporary and future – of the villagers of Lower Quinton. 1945 was not a time of continual distraction from electronic or digital media. Lower Quinton was not a bustling place, a transport hub, or somewhere used to endless strangers coming and going. Someone – and then by definition others in their circle – knew something, and the resultant omertà is almost as chilling as the murder itself. Thirty years later, Walton’s death was still providing copy for regional journalists and, although I have no evidence that Ron Harding – who penned this piece – was in any way involved with the murder, it still sounds as certain people – or their sons and daughters – at the heart of whatever made Lower Quinton tick, were still anxious for the world to move on and leave them to their secrets.

THE MEON HILL MURDER . . . Part two

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It wasn’t long after the discovery of Walton’s body, and the arrival of PC Lomasney from Long Marston, that the police involvement escalated upwards. Detective Superintendent Alec Spooner of Warwickshire Police soon realised that this was above his pay grade, and a request was made for outside help, which soon came in the celebrated form of none other than Chief Inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard.

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The investigations continued for several weeks. Every single household in Lower and Upper Quinton was visited. No-one had seen anything. No-one knew anything. No-one had any idea why Charles Walton had been killed. Clutching at straws, the police remembered that at Long Marston, a couple of miles to the north, there was a camp housing Italian prisoners of war. Perhaps it was a crazed foreigner who had hacked Charles Walton to death? The POWs were considered so peaceable and harmless that they were allowed to wander around the countryside, pretty much at will. That investigative spark petered out almost as quickly as it had burst into brief flame.

Potter remained the only viable suspect. His financial probity was examined. He didn’t own the farm, but just managed it for the family business. He had apparently claimed more staff wages than he had actually paid out, and there was a suspicion that he may have borrowed money from Walton, but the amounts were trifling, even if it were true.

The police investigations, despite every inch of the fatal fields being searched, came up with a big fat nothing. Fabian returned to London, defeated by a case that would feature in his memoirs in later years. DS Alec Spooner wore the case like an itch he couldn’t scratch, and it was the proverbial irritating pea underneath his mattress. For many years he returned to the village on the anniversary of the murder, hoping that someone, somehow would yield up a secret that would solve the mystery of Charles Walton’s death.

FINALLY, in THE MEON HILL MURDER
Witchcraft and A Village of Secrets

PART THREE OF THIS FEATURE WILL BE PUBLISHED
ON THURSDAY 24th SEPTEMBER

THE MEON HILL MURDER . . . Part one

Body Text revised

Walton was due to return home just after dark, but when there was still no sign of him at 6.00pm, Edie set out with a neighbour – Harry Beasley – to look for her uncle, calling in at Firs Farm to see if Potter knew where Charles was. Potter joined the search, and with the aid of a torch and a lantern, picked their way between the hedges and ditches of the dark fields. Before too long, they found the old man and, in the flickering light, saw a sight that would haunt them for the rest of their days.

The mutilated body of Charles Walton lay against the hedge he had been working on. Harry Beasley and Alfred Potter tried to shield Edie Walton from the terrible sight, but she had seen enough to tip her into hysteria. Beasley ran to a villager with a telephone, and the nearest police officer – PC Lomasney from Long Marston – was on the scene within fifteen minutes.

Charles Walton had met his death in the most horrific manner. He had been savagely beaten about the head with, it was proved later, his own walking stick. His throat had been slashed so savagely that his head was close to being parted from the body, and a pitchfork had been driven into the ground, its prongs either side of what was left of his neck. The old man had not gone down without a struggle, however, as the post-mortem revealed defensive wounds on his hands. These were the findings of the pathologist, as reported in the Tewksbury Register and Gazette:

“Walton had serious injuries received from a hedging hook and from both prongs of a hay fork. A blood-stained walking stick was nearby Some of Walton’s clothing was undone and part of it torn. The hay fork had been plunged into his body for three-quarters of its length. Several ribs on the left side were broken. There were bruises as well as cuts on the man’s head, and an injury to the back of the left hand such as might be received when defending himself against a cutting instrument.

The main wound was in the neck and was obviously made by more than one blow with the slashing hook; in fact, three separate and distinct blows had been delivered by a cutting instrument. All the main vessels of the neck were severed. Other wounds in the neck were caused by the prongs of the hayfork. One prong of the hayfork had punctured a lung.”

NEXT IN THE MEON HILL MURDER
Suspects, the search for a motive,
and Fabian of The Yard.

PART TWO OF THIS FEATURE WILL BE PUBLISHED
ON TUESDAY 22nd SEPTEMBER


TRUE CRIME . . . A Warwickshire tragedy

Drive east on the A425 out of Royal Leamington Spa and you will soon come to the village of Radford Semele. The Semele is nothing to do with the princess in Greek mythology or Handel’s opera of the same name, but apparently relates to a Norman family from Saint Pierre-de-Semilly who were lords of the manor in the twelfth century. These days it is a rather prosperous village, much expanded from 1947, when it housed a mixture of the well-off and the rural poor, with nothing much in between.

Number 23 Radford Semele housed the Ashby family. Frederick, aged 48, his wife Marie, 51, son Frederick Philip, 27 and a younger daughter. Frederick junior was in the RAF. In 1947 people didn’t tend to move about as much as they do these days, and the 1911 census tells us that Frederick lived with his grandparents in Radford, while wife Marie had been born in Napton, a few miles down the road. They had married in 1921.

The late winter had been particularly savage, and after a brief heatwave in June, the July weather was cloudy and humid. Those with a radio or a gramophone could have been listening to Frank Sinatra sing Among My Souvenirs, which topped the charts for three weeks. Fred Ashby junior had been a pupil at Clapham Terrace School in Leamington and, being something of an athlete, was a member of the celebrated Coventry Club, Godiva Harriers. After a spell as a draughtsman at the Lockheed works in nearby Leamington, he had joined the RAF. He had come home from nearby Church Lawford on weekend leave, and on the morning of Sunday 27th July, had set off across the fields with a friend, Cyril Bye, to try and shoot a few rabbits for the pot.

It seems that the relationship between Fred Ashby (left) and his father was anything but harmonious. Fred senior, who was a foreman at the Coventry Radiator factory in the village, was often involved in loud arguments when his son was home on leave. At around 4.00pm that Sunday afternoon, a Radford teenager called Rose Marie Summers was standing talking to a friend outside a nearby house, when she saw Fred senior staggering out of the Ashby’s house, clutching his side, in obvious pain. He cried out, “He has kicked me.”

The girl saw Ashby walk round to the rear of the house and return with a shotgun in his hands. He pointed it through the open window of the cottage and fired.

Witnesses who entered the house shortly afterwards never forgot the horrific scene, Young Fred Ashby was kneeling on the floor, his head face down on the sofa. In his back was a gaping wound, pumping blood. The police and ambulance were quickly summoned, and the young man was rushed to the Warneford Hospital, just little over a mile away in Leamington. There was nothing doctors could do to save his life, however, and he died later that evening with his mother at his bedside.

There was never a more cut and dried case for Warwickshire Police. Even as the local bobby, PC Haines, arrived at the scene, Fred Ashby was beside the body of his dying son, trying desperately to staunch the fatal wound, saying, “I did it. I shot him.”

As the case progressed up the ladder of the criminal justice system, from local magistrates’ court to Birmingham Assizes, it became clear that the evidently mild-mannered Fred Ashby was, for whatever reason, regularly bullied by his physically powerful son and, having been knocked about and abused during the afternoon of 27th July, had finally snapped and,in a red mist, fired the shot that ended his son’s life. His plea of manslaughter was accepted, and he was sentenced to ten years penal servitude.

Whatever grief he bore for the killing of his son, Frederick Ashby survived his prison sentence and died in 1984. His wife Marie pre-deceased him by nine years. The senior policeman in the case, Chief Superintendent Alec Spooner of Warwickshire CID, is celebrated by True Crime enthusiasts as the man who led the case investigating the as-yet-unsolved ‘witchcraft murder’ of Charles Walton, at Lower Quinton in 1945, but that is a story for another day.







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