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DEATH COMES TO NEWMARKET . . . A savage murder in Victorian Louth (3)

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PART THREE

SO FAR – On the evening of Sunday 7th March, 1875, 22 year-old Louisa Hodgson is stabbed to death in the family home on Newmarket. Her killer, suitor Peter Blanchard, has been arrested and is awaiting trial at Lincoln Assizes.

It is worth, at this point – with Louisa dead and buried and Peter languishing in a prison cell – to examine the background – to the killing. It emerged during the investigation that all was not well between Louisa and Peter. While Mr Hodgson kept out of things, Louisa’s mother was beginning to frown on the relationship., partly because Peter Blanchard was subject to epileptic fits.

There is also the question of Peter Blanchard’s jealousy. Was there a rival for Louisa’s affections? At the inquest, evidence was given by John Campion:

“I am a farmer residing in Brackenborough Lane, Louth. I was at Mr. Hodgson’s house from eight to nine o’clock the previous evening. I saw Peter Blanchard there. He came into the kitchen to light his cigar. I left about 9 o’clock and when going out I could hear Blanchard and the deceased talking very loud. I thought I heard Blanchard say ” I will.” and the deceased burst out crying. I am a friend of the deceased’s brother and I had offered to keep company with her. I believe Blanchard was jealous of me and he had threatened to give me a good thrashing as he was going to chapel on Sunday night.”

The Spring Assizes at Lincoln was only a few days after the murder. The case was presented, but adjourned until the summer, to give more time for evidence to be gathered. The Summer Assizes opened at the end of July 1875 and, as usual, the jury was made up of men of ‘reputation and good standing.’

Trial

It might be thought that when Peter Blanchard came to take the stand, proceedings would have been relatively brief, given that there was little doubt that he had killed Louisa Hodgson. His defence team, however, lead by Mr Samuel Danks Waddy, knew that their only hope of saving Peter Blanchard from execution was to convince the jury that he was insane at the time of the murder, and so there was a long debate about the prisoner’s mental health. The jury eventually retired and returned with a verdict of ‘guilty’, but with a recommendation that Blanchard should be spared the hangman’s noose. Before the judge gave his verdict, Peter Blanchard was allowed to speak:

“My Lord and Gentlemen, – I have a few words to say. I did not not know what I was doing, or else I could not have done it. I loved her so much, and never believed it was true that I had killed her till I got one of her funeral cards, for I had never anything against her. I would take my place in hell if her dear soul might go to heaven, for I would at any time sooner suffer myself, than see her suffer. I should be thankful if you would give my parents my body to take to Louth, in order that I may laid by the side of my dear Louisa. I wish to give one word of advice to you. my dear young friends, both men and women. You have come here to see me. and hear sentence passed upon me. Keep out of bad company. That was my ruin. My first failing was that I was soon persuaded to smoke ; from that I got to drinking and then to gambling, and then to neglect to go to a place of worship. Then I lost my senses at times, and then the fits came on. Let this be warning to you all. Look to Jesus, or some of you may be standing where I am next year. And if parents would look after their own families they would find plenty of work, without looking after others. After naming a man who. he said, had caused him many restless nights, the prisoner continued : I pray to God that this may be a warning to you all, and I hope my Heavenly Father will permit me to meet you all in heaven, to part no more. I shall soon be in heaven, and I am sure to meet my dear Louisa there. Young and old. come to Jesus, for he will help you in the time of trouble. Good bye to you all.”

Mr Justice Lindley was not empowered, to be merciful, however, and was only able to put Peter Blanchard’s fate in the hands of the Home Secretary:

Verdict

Screen Shot 2021-03-22 at 19.36.24Sadly for Peter Blanchard and his family, the Home Secretary, Richard Blanchard Cross (left), was not inclined to be merciful, and Peter Blanchard was executed on Monday 9th August 1875. This newspaper report tells the melancholy story:
“Peter Blanchard, a tanner, of Louth, Lincolnshire, was executed yesterday morning at Lincoln Castle for the murder of Louisa Hodgson at Louth in March last. The prisoner was examined by Dr. Briscoe on Friday, by order of the Home Secretary, with the view of ascertaining whether the jury’s recommendation to mercy, on the ground of his mind having been weakened by fits, could be acted upon. The result, however, was unfavourable to the prisoner, and the law was allowed to take its course. The crime for which Blanchard was executed was committed in a fit of jealousy arising out of a love affair. The young woman whom he was courting disregarded his attentions, nor was he looked upon favourably as a suitor by her parents. On Sunday evening, the 7th of March, she was accompanied to church by a young man, and on returning home they were met by Blanchard, who walked the remaining distance with her. When he took his departure she went to the door with him, and he suddenly drew out a knife and stabbed her to the heart, death being instantaneous. He then left and called on a neighbour, to whom he said, “I have done it.” Since his conviction Blanchard has slept well, and has been most attentive to the ministrations of the clergyman daily. On Saturday he had a final interview with his father and mother, his four brothers, and a friend. He acknowledged the justice of his punishment, and stated he had no wish to live. He averred that he did not know at the moment what he was doing when he committed the deed. Yesterday morning he was quite resigned to his fate, and walked unsupported to the gallows. He shook hands with the gaol chaplain and officials, and the last words he was heard to utter were, “Good-bye, my dear fellows; I am quite re- signed, and hope to meet you all in heaven.” He slept well on Sunday night, rose at six yesterday morning, breakfasted at seven, and wrote a short letter to his parents and brothers. He died almost without a struggle. Mr Marwood was the executioner.”

DEATH COMES TO NEWMARKET . . . A savage murder in Victorian Louth (2)

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PART TWO

SO FAR – On the evening of Sunday 7th March, 1875, 22 year-old Louisa Hodgson is stabbed to death by a man – Peter Blanchard – who had been courting her for four years. She dies almost instantly after Blanchard’s knife pierced her heart. The pair had been together in the sitting room of Louisa’s family home at 29 Newmarket (below) Blanchard has fled the scene.

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William Turner, a dealer in poultry, lived with his wife Emma in their small house in Vickers Lane. It was 10.30pm, Emma Turner had gone to bed, and William had locked the house up and was preparing to join his wife, when he heard someone trying the front door. He went to investigate, and found Peter Blanchard. Blanchard was clearly in a state about something, and asked if could come in. Turner’s evidence continued as follows:

“He asked if I would give him some whisky. I said my wife had gone to bed, but I would call her down and see if we had such a thing in the house. She came down and said we had not She gave him glass of brandy instead. He said, “I have done It”. I told my wife to take the bottle away and give him no more.

I said, “Done what Peter ?” At first he made no reply, but on my again asking him, he said, “I have stabbed the missus.” These were his exact words. I said, “What with ?” and he replied, “With a butcher’s knife. If I had not done it with a butcher’s knife I should have done it with this, putting his hand into his pocket and pulling out a razor. He put it back into his pocket. He first opened and shut it again. He was very excited and irritable. I could not say he was drunk. He had the use of his limbs as well as I have mine now.

My wife prevailed upon him to take the razor from his pocket and give to me. I told my wife to call my son to fetch Peter’s father and mother, and also to go to Mr. Hodgson’s and inquire what it meant. On my son’s return he said “She is dead.”

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Locations

The Hodgsons had already sent for the police, and Sergeant Wilkinson and Superintendent Roberts were at the scene when 16 year-old Thomas Turner arrived. He immediately informed the officers that Peter Blanchard was at the house in Vickers Lane. When Wilkinson and Roberts arrived, there was a scene of complete confusion. There were several members of the Blanchard family in the house, as well as the Turners and their five other children. Superintendent Roberts then arrested Blanchard. This was his evidence:

“On my seizing the prisoner he said, “I’ll go”. I’ll go without the handcuffs”.
He then said, “Is she dead?
I said, “Yes she is, and you are charged with killing her, but keep yourself quiet”.
He was a in a very excited state. He answered me:
It’s a good job, and I’m glad.”
We then brought him to the police-station, where I told him he would be detained on a charge of wilful murder. To this be said ,
“Oh, I did it and I’ll die like a man for her.”

I told him that what he said would be taken down and given in evidence against him.  I  cautioned him and expressly warned him that whatever said would be taken down and produced against him. I did not put any questions to him. The exact words I used were these, when he was in the cell:
“When I told you that you would be charged with this serious offence, I did not know for a certainty the girl was dead. You will be charged with the wilful murder of Louisa Hodgson”’
He then said: “Is she dead?” and on my replying, “I have already told you so” he said:
“God bless her.”
He was undoubtedly under the influence of drink; but my impression was that be knew well what he was doing.”

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At the Magistrate’s Court the next morning, Monday 8th March, Dr Higgins gave his account of Louisa’s injuries:

“I am a registered medical practitioner, practising in Louth. I was sent for to see Louisa Hodgson at about a quarter past ten o’clock. I went at once and found her dead. I saw a wound on the chest but did not then make further examination. This morning I made a post mortem examination. The wound was situated about half an inch below the nipple of the left breast. It was an incised wound about one inch in extent. I traced the wound which had penetrated the chest wall between the fourth and and fifth ribs, passed through the interior margin of the upper lobe of the left lung, and entered the left auricle of the heart.

I found a considerable quantity of blood effused into the pericardial and pleural sacs. The wound was sufficient to cause death rapidly, almost instantaneously. The heart would only beat a few seconds after it was inflicted.

I believe the knife produced would produce a similar wound to one described. It might have penetrated four inches.”

Blanchard had thrown away the murder weapon (a butchers’ knife) but it had been recovered in Aswell Street. He had taken the knife from his landlady’s kitchen. The magistrates committed Blanchard to be tried for murder at the next Assizes in Lincoln.

Louisa Hodgson was laid to rest in Louth Cemetery on Wednesday 10th March.

Funeral

In PART THREE – trial and execution

DEATH COMES TO NEWMARKET . . . A savage murder in Victorian Louth (1)

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PART ONE

It is March 1875. Mr Disraeli is the Prime Minister, and in Louth, local architect James Fowler is Lord Mayor. At No. 29 Newmarket lives agricultural blacksmith John Hodgson, his wife Jane and their large family. Elder son Charles has moved out but there are still seven other young Hodgsons at home, the oldest being Louisa, aged 22.

For the last four years, Louisa has been courted by a young man called Peter Blanchard, aged 25, the elder of another large family who live at 29 Charles Street. Peter’s father, Peter senior, with whom he works was described as a fellmonger, an old word for someone who deals in animal skins. Peter the younger had moved out of the family home and was living in town with a woman called Mrs Baker who kept a lodging house on Eastgate.

Photograph of Free Methodist Church, Eastgate, Louth, Lincolnshire [c.1930s-1980s] by John Piper 1903-1992


The Hodgson family were devout churchgoers, and their chosen place of worship was the imposing Free Methodist church on Eastgate (above). This had been built in the 1850s after the so-called ‘Free’ Methodists split from the mainstream Wesleyan church. On the evening of Sunday 7th March, the Hodgson family attended the evening service in Eastgate. Peter Blanchard was standing across the way from the church, outside Mrs Baker’s house, and he came over to talk to Louisa but did not join them when they went into the church. At about 7.45 pm, the family left the church, to find Blanchard waiting for them. Mr and Mrs Hodgson went to visit friends in the town but Louisa, Blanchard and the two younger Hodgson girls – Alice and Harriet – walked up the hill to Newmarket.

Mr and Mrs Hodgson returned home at 9.15, along with another young man called John George Campion, a farmer who lived on Brackenborough Road. Louisa and Blanchard were  together in the sitting room, but the rest of the family were in the kitchen. Contemporary newspaper reports can do a much better job of describing what happened next that I can. These were the words of John Hodgson:

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In PART TWO – an arrest and a funeral

THE SANDRINGHAM MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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I found this novel intriguing in two ways. Firstly, the action takes place on my home turf. I live in Wisbech (well, someone has to) and Spalding, Sutterton, Sutton Bridge (just over the border in Lincolnshire), and Sandringham in West Norfolk are all very familiar. Christina James (real name Linda Bennett) writes:

“I was born in Lincolnshire, in England, and grew up in Spalding. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the South Lincolnshire Fens, with their huge skies, limitless landscapes and isolated communities; I have always been interested in the psychology of the people who have lived there over the centuries. I have now put some of this interest and fascination into the fictional world of Detective Inspector Tim Yates.”

I believe she now lives in Leeds, but the Lincolnshire (South Holland is the administrative district) landscape is as vivid as if she were just still standing there.

Secondly, she employs two narrative viewpoints. The first is centred on DI Tim Yates – obviously one of the good guys – but the second is narrated by a rich industrialist called Kevan de Vries, and we are not sure if he is on the side of the angels or the devils.

Kevan de Vries lives in a palatial country home called Lauriston, in the village of Sutterton. Almost by accident (police are investigating a suspected burglary) a package of forged UK passports is discovered in the cellar, but de Vries claims he has no knowledge of how they got there.  Then, a more shocking discovery is made, in the shape of skeletons which, when examined, appeared to be those of black people. They have been there since the 19th century.

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For all his riches, de Vries had not been able to buy happiness. His wife Joanna has terminal cancer, and their autistic son attends a boarding school in nearby Sleaford. The couple spend much of their time on the Caribbean island of St Lucia, while the business of running the huge processing plant in South Lincolnshire is largely left to a manager called Tony Sentance who, surprisingly, de Vries loathes and abhors. So, does Sentance have some kind of hold on de Vries?

Screen Shot 2022-11-17 at 18.46.47Tim Yates’s life is made even more complicated when the remains of a young woman are found on the Queen’s estate at Sandringham, across the border in Norfolk. It should be none of Yates’s business, except that the dead woman was wearing branded work clothing from Kevan de Vries’ factory. Meanwhile, a mysterious diary dating back to Victorian times, and found in the cellar at Lauristan, reveals that the controversial colonial politician Cecil Rhodes had connections with the family who owned the house at the time.

When Yates investigates the connection between the girl whose remains were concealed on the royal estate and the de Vries factory, he comes up against a wall of silence which convinces him that the dead girl was caught up in a trafficking and prostitution racket linked to the huge numbers of Eastern Europeans who came to work in the area during the years of *freedom of movement.

*The tens of thousands of people from Poland and the Baltic states who arrived in Eastern England in the 2000s transformed towns like Boston, Spalding and Wisbech. The owners of food processing factories and farmers grew rich, and the immigrants found they could earn far more for their labours than they could back home. There was a downside to this, in that along with the hard working immigrants came unscrupulous people who made fortunes exploiting cheap labour, renting out multiple-occupancy homes and – worst of all – establishing a thriving slavery and prostitution network.

This is an enjoyably complex novel which works on one level as an excellent police procedural while, on another, takes a long hard look at how powerful people – both now and in times past – exploit the most vulnerable in society. The Sandringham Mystery is published by Bloodhound Books and is available now.

DEATH IN DONINGTON . . . A Lincolnshire murder, 1897 (1)

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Susan Coates was born in November 1853 in the village of New Bolingbroke. At the age of 18, she gave birth to a son – to be called Henry Coates-Harrison. The double-barreled surname was not a sign of nobility, but rather that the boy’s father was a local farmer called Edward Harrison. Three years later, the couple “did the decent thing” and married on 19th October 1874, in the church of St Andrew, Miningsby. I imagine that it must have been a Victorian church, as it was declared redundant and demolished in 1975. A medieval building would not have suffered that fate.

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The 1881 census has the three of them plus Edward’s elderly father – living in what the document describes as ‘Enderby Allot”. Short for allotment, possibly? No matter. Edward Harrison did not live to complete the next census, as he died in 1884. The farm did not pass on to Susan, which suggests that they were tenants. It seems that in widowhood she took up  a position as housekeeper to another local farmer, Joseph Bowser. She married him in December 1886. Bowser’s history has been difficult to pin down, for one or two reasons. The first is that when the census records were digitised, his name was misread as “Beezer”, which accounts for his near invisibility. Secondly, there is another Joseph Bowser, also a farmer, and also living in the area, but he seems to be a much younger man than “our” Joseph, who was born in 1854, in Sibsey. The 1891 census has him living in Northorpe, a hamlet just north of Donington, and his wife is named as Susanah. He was something of a local dignitary, and was on the *Board of Guardians in Spalding.
*
The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act put an end to out relief, grouping parishes together into legislative bodies called Poor Law Unions. Each was administered by a board of guardians who would oversee the running of a workhouse.

Bowser was however, a volatile sort of man, as a  newspaper later describes.

“Bowser was a familiar figure market days, and every regular attendant knew him. Many are the stories that are being retailed in illustration of his excitable nature and violent temper. The general opinion would appear be that he was the worse for drink at the time, and was a common thing for him to indulge freely before he left Boston on market days, when he would drive away at break-neck speed down West-street and to Sleaford-road. The use of a gun as argument appears have been a favourite one with Bowser, as it is stated he on one occasion shot a valuable horse that was rather lively in the field, and which he could not capture, and another time a greyhound did not readily obey his commands, and its career was put an end to in equally summary and untimely manner.”

Despite much searching for clues, I have been unable to identify for certain which of Northorpe’s farms was run by Bowser. I do know that he was a tenant of the principal local landowner, Captain Richard Gleed, of Park House. My best guess is that it was one of the farms near Hammond Beck Bridge.

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By 1897, the relationship between Joseph Bowser and his wife has seriously deteriorated. Susan’s son, now 26 had left and was living in Lincoln, and Bowser’s behaviour was frequently affected by drink. The Lincolnshire Echo of Thursday 27th May reported:

“His wife had left him for short time on several occasions owing to his treatment, and had often sought refuge the house of Mrs. Roe*, at the lane end, but Bowser would go there and smash the windows, Mrs. Rowe after a time dare not shelter her.”

*The Roe family are listed next to the Bowsers on the 1891 census return, in the vicinity of Hammond Beck Bridge.

Whatever the demons were that drove him to seek comfort in the bottle, they were particularly vindictive on Tuesday 25th May, 1897. He had risen at the usual time, but thought better of it, and returned to his bed with a bottle of whisky. Later on in the afternoon, in the grip of drink, he staggered from his bed and went downstairs. A newspaper reported  what happened next:

“Towards evening, the only people in the house at the time were Bowser and his wife and a servant girl named Berridge. Two visitors were staying at the place – a Mr. Lister, of Mavis Enderby, near Spilsby, aud Miss Barber of Wyberton – but they had gone out for a walk when the quarrel commenced. From a statement by the servant girl, it appears that Mrs. Bowser had been engaged with her domestic duties more or less during the day. In the afternoon, according to custom, she was preparing some chicken food, and about this time Bowser left the house, and coming up to his wife, said,
“What are you mixing that for?  and she said
“For the chickens.”
Bowser then began call his wife names and otherwise insult her, but she took no notice, and walked round to the front the house. Bowser, however, followed her into the home held, where he kicked her, and she fell to the ground. He again kicked her while in this position. It was clear that Mrs. Bowser was hurt, for she failed to rise. In the meantime her husband had returned to the house. Mrs. Bowser length got up, and walked with difficulty to the calf-house where she supported herself near the door.”

IN PART TWO

GUNSHOTS
A FUNERAL
A TRIAL
A DATE WITH MR BILLINGTON

FOUR THOUSAND DAYS Days . . . Between the covers

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I am pushed to think of another modern writer who is more prolific, but yet so consistently readable as MJ Trow. Not only that, until a few years ago he actually ‘worked for a living’ outside of his writing career. He and I walked along one or two shared paths. We went to the same school, but I was a couple of years ahead of him, and neither of us noticed one another’s presence. We both took up a career in teaching, and shared a deep contempt for the corporate management styles in English comprehensive schools. He exploited that in his superb series centred on the world of Peter ‘Mad’ Maxwell, Head of History at a fictional school in the Isle of Wight. I say fictional, but Maxwell was, to all intents and purposes, the author himself. One imagines (and hopes) that the murders in the books were purely imaginary ones, but the troubled and often complex teenagers and preposterous members of the Senior Leadership Team were all too true to life.

Before Maxwell came Trow’s homage to Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade. Bumbling and incompetent in the original books, Lestrade is portrayed by Trow as a decent copper, nobody’s fool, and doing his best, but frequently upstaged by his flashier nemesis from Baker Street. There are also series featuring Kit Marlowe, the Elizabethan dramatist, here recast as one of Gloriana’s secret agents. I have also enjoyed the Grand and Batchelor Victorian mysteries. Trow is a great humorist and punster. mixing comedy and word play with superb plotting and  – the real pull, for me – the introduction of real historical characters in to the narrative. In addition he has written extensively in other genres, including True Crime.

Having just realised I am over 200 words into the review without mentioning the book in question, I must get back on task. Margaret Murray was the first celebrated woman archaeologist, and in Four Thousand Days she is at the centre of an intriguing mystery. We are in London, October 1900, and while the Boer War is still very much alive, the Boer leader Paul Kruger has fled to Europe, the ‘game’ is pretty much over, and the first British troops are returning from South Africa.

A young woman is found dead, apparently by her own hand, in a sleazy tenement bedroom. Further investigation reveals that she led at least two different lives, one as a prostitute, but another as a modest and attentive student, a regular attendee at Margaret Murray’s free Friday afternoon lectures at University College London. Another student of Em-Em, (Margaret Murray) Angela Friend, is drawn into the case by her soon-to-be boyfriend, Police Constable Adam Crawford.

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Enter another real-life character in the shape of retired copper, Edmund Reid (above). Troubled by the recent death of his wife and his conspicuous failure a dozen years earlier to catch Jack the Ripper, he has resigned himself to a solitary existence down in Hampton on Sea, a village near Herne Bay in Kent. Hampton would eventually be obliterated by erosion and the force of the waves, but an early part of this process – the collapse of a sand dune – reveals to Reid the body of another woman, dead for some time. The fact she was another archaeologist, is too much of a coincidence. It transpires that she was attempting to excavate a Roman coastal fort. What she found – and was murdered for – has the potential to turn Christian history on its head. He teams up with Margaret Murray to solve the mystery. The book’s enigmatic title? All is revealed in the final pages, but I will not spoil it for you.

Trow introduces other historical characters, and one of his many skills is to make us believe that how they behave in his book is just how they were in real life. As in all of his novels, Trow reminds us in Four Thousand Days that his grasp of history is second to none. Add that to his wizardry as a storyteller, and you have a winning combination. Four Thousand Days is published by Severn House and is available now.

For more on the novels of MJ Trow, click the image below.

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THE MURDER OF LUCY LINGARD . . . A Grimsby tragedy (part one)

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Lucy Margaret Mullins was born in the village of Worlaby in 1869. Her father James was Irish, and worked as a groom. Her mother Jane was from the Lincolnshire village of Great Limber. In the 1881 census the family had moved to Little Limber Grange, near Brocklesby. In April 1889, Lucy married John Lingard in St James Church, Grimsby, and the census two years later shows that they were living at 6 Vesey’s Buildings in Grimsby, and they already had two children, Rose (2) and William (10 months). By 1901 they had moved to Sixth Terrace, Hope Street, and had two more children, Nellie (8) and Arthur (4). Also living in the house were two of Lucy’s adult relatives.

The 1901 census was taken on 1st April, and by the autumn of the next year John and Lucy Lingard had separated, Lucy remaining in Hope Street with the children. By the autumn of 1902 she had given birth to another child, born earlier in the year. The census also tells us that a fisherman named Samuel Henry Smith was also living in Hope Street, apparently on his own. His background has been difficult to track. The census records that he was born in Norfolk, but later newspaper reports suggest that his home town was Brixham in Devon.

It is not clear if Harry Smith was in any way responsible for the break up of the Lingards’ marriage, but by November 1902 it was clear that Lucy Lingard and Harry Smith (also separated from his spouse) were in a relationship, when he was not out on the North Sea on a trawler.

At this point, it is worth pausing the story to compare how people lived – in terms of house occupancy – back in the day. It was very common for ordinary working people to share houses with others. I was born in 1947, and my parents rented a room in a Victorian terraced house, which was shared with another couple and the owner, a single man. Each had a bedroom to themselves, and the kitchen and scullery were shared. There was no bathroom. There was running water, but also a pump in the scullery which drew water from a well. There was no electricity until, I think, 1951 and lighting was from gas lamps which were lit by pulling a little chain, which struck a flint, rather like the mechanics of a cigarette lighter.

Before demolition

Screen Shot 2022-09-10 at 18.37.47Hope Street in Grimsby was cleared of its terraces in the late 1960s (pictured above, thanks to Hope Street History), but a late 19th century map shows back-to-back houses opening directly onto the street, and every so often there would courtyards, each open area being surrounded on three sides by further dwellings. For those interested in the history of Hope Street, there is a Facebook page that gives access to an excellent pdf document describing the history of the street. That link is here. It is also worth pointing out that house ownership, certainly in 1902, would have been in the hands of landlords. The great majority of people in streets like Hope Street would be tenants.

We must now move on to the events of 18th November 1902. Harry Smith’s trawler docked that morning, and he had spent the best part of the afternoon and early evening in the company of Lucy Lingard. Smith at one point went down to the docks to collect his wages from his latest voyage. He and Lucy Lingard were at each other’s throats, perhaps because she had refused him ‘conjugal rights’, and he had struck her several times, giving her two black eyes. In spite of this, they went out drinking again, but what happened when they returned to Hope Street later that evening was to send a shiver of revulsion through the whole area.

IN PART TWO
A daughter’s testimony
Denial, trial – and the black cap

MURDER AT CLARIDGES . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2022-03-14 at 19.49.22Jim Eldridge (left) and his aristocratic Detective Chief Inspector Edgar Saxe-Coburg are working their way around the best hotels in 1940s London, investigating murder We have had The Ritz  (click for my review), The Savoy, and now Claridges. Setting a murder against a grand backdrop is a simple but agreeable  formula which Eldridge has employed in his ‘museum series’, which are set in late Victorian England. The action takes place in October 1940, with Londoners under the hammer from Hitler’s bombers each and every night.

The concept which underpins the plot is similar to the one used in Murder at The Ritz. In the late 1930s, there were still countries in Europe ruled by what we might dismiss as ‘minor monarchies’. Albania, Yugoslavia and Romania all had ruling families, and some of them decamped to London, along with their coffers of gold. Also in London, which adds spice to the plot, were less fortunate people, some of them with a political agenda. One such, a Romanian kitchen hand at Claridges, is found garotted outside on the pavement. Saxe-Coburg’s boss calls hands him the murder investigation. The reason he wants Edgar on the case is touchingly naive. He thinks that when peace returns, and the ruling families of the Balkans resume their thrones, they will remember fondly the  discretion and tact used by an English detective. The garotter then finds another victim, but what possible connection does a young woman working for the Free French headquarters in London have the unfortunate Romanian?

murder-at-claridge-sLurking in the background of this tale is a man who is less than noble, but with more power than all the kings and queens sheltering in London’s best hotel suites. Henry ‘Hooky’ Morton is a London gangster who is building his empire on black market scams, the most profitable of which is his manipulation of the petrol market. We think of fuel supply – or lack of it – as a very modern problem, but in 1940, having fuel to put in your car was crucial to many organisations. Hooky Morton has a problem, though. Someone has infiltrated his gang, and is making him look stupid. Then, Hooky does something really, really stupid and, no nearer identifying the garotte killer or their motives, Saxe-Coburg becomes involved in investigating what is, for any copper, the worst crime of all.

Saxe-Coburg’s wife Rosa, a popular pianist and singer does her bit for morale in concert halls and hotels in the evening, but her day job is more exacting and brings her face to face with the havoc raining down on London from the sky – she drives an ambulance. Her assistant is killed when a bombed building collapses on him, and a little while later, when Rosa goes to visit his widow. she is horrified to find the woman dead on the kitchen floor, killed with the same method used to despatch the Romanian kitchen hand and the young Frenchwoman.

I suppose Murder at Claridges is, if genres mean anything, on the fringe of cosy crime, but is a genuine page-turner. Despite the grimly authentic background of London being battered by the Luftwaffe, it gives us larger-than-life characters and, of course, it allows us to peep into a world which only the truly rich inhabit. The suave Saxe-Coburg is a timely antidote to the damaged, troubled and – frankly – disturbing world of so many fictional Detective Inspectors who inhabit our contemporary world. Eldridge is a fine writer and never has escapism been so elegantly penned. This book is published by Allison & Busby, and will be out in Kindle and hardback on 21st April, with a paperback edition due in the autumn. To read my reviews of two of Jim Eldridge’s ‘museum series’, click the links below.

Murder at Madame Tussaud’s

Murder at the British Museum

FOUR ENGLISH POETS . . . A personal choice (3)

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SBBI have spent longer on the biographical details of John Betjeman because, in what was his longest and most profound poem, Summoned By Bells (1960), he writes his autobiography in blank verse. 

He was born in London in 1906, the only child of a prosperous middle class family. The family firm made what we might call ‘Knick-knacks’ from silver and fine woods, destined to grace houses that boasted parlour maids, cooks and nannies. The family were originally Dutch, but at prep school during The Great War John was bullied because the name had a Germanic ring to it. “Betjeman’s a German spy – shoot him down and let him die!” was the cruel chant.

His senior schooling was at Marlborough. He hated games and was too bookish for his more muscular Christian school chums, but managed to survive by being clever. He began to write poetry, obsessively, and it was here that he developed a lifelong passion for an England dotted with rarely-visited churches, cross-crossed with sleepy country railway lines, with dusty trunk roads punctuated by mock Tudor pubs serving the Bona Fide traveller.

By the time he went up to Oxford, tensions were already well developed at home. His father had begun to suspect that his son had no intention of succeeding him as head of the business, and he saw this as a betrayal not only of himself, but the dozens of craftsmen who relied on the firm for their livelihood. This bitter division was to haunt Betjeman in later life, but was inevitable. Throughout this his mother – a rather fragile hypochondriac – tried to act as conciliator, with little success.

Oxford

Oxford was a time of church-crawling, endless sherry lunches with fellow disciples of Maurice Bowra, but little academic success. After being sent down he briefly followed the time-honoured route of failed undergraduates and became a teacher at a prep school – in his case an obscure establishment called Heddon Court in East Barnet where, bizarrely, he was in charge of cricket. This was in 1929, but by 1933 the school folded and has long since been demolished. Gradually, he made his way in the literary world, while being paid as the assistant editor of The Architectural Review. His later career, when his poetry flourished, is well documented elsewhere. He was a natural for television and broadcasting, and became something of a national treasure. He died in Cornwall, at the age of 77, in May 1984.

John-Betjeman-225x300So what are we to make of Betjeman’s poetry today, the age of cancel culture, triggered university graduates, and the most virulent class war that I can remember in my seventy-odd years of being sentient? He has been described – by lesser writers –  as mediocre. His  prevailing themes included  the foibles and rituals of the English middle class, churches, railways, Victorian buildings and London. Hardly the stuff to bring him to the cutting edge of the literary razor in 2022, admittedly. But his detractors – or those who see him as an anachronistic bumbler, mugging it up for TV cameras and radio microphones – miss the point, big time. Time and space forced me to ignore the sheer joy found in his description of railway stations, gymkhanas, Edwardian suburbs and churches  and look at his compassion. In Sun and Fun, he begins by gently mocking the ‘morning after’ scene in a tawdry London nightclub where, in a corner, is an elderly socialite, lamenting the passing of youth and recalling her heady days as a debutante. But the mockery turns on its head in the last verse:

There was sun enough for lazing upon beaches,
There was fun enough for far into the night.
But I’m dying now and done for,
What on earth was all the fun for?
For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight.

That scared old woman confronting her mortality tugs at my heart every time I read those words. Another elderly lady, probably long widowed, perhaps sent to a nursing home by her family, features in Death In Leamington Spa. Verse one speaks for itself:

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa

But then the nurse, oblivious, comes into the room:

And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high ‘mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.

Again, the final two verses need no commentary from me:

Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the gray, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.

She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.

Betjeman was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death, but this beautiful elegy on a national event was written long before those years. What never fails to amaze me is the sheer craftsmanship of the poem. He wrote his poems to be spoken out loud, and worked them over and over, and said them to himself endlessly until he was satisfied. King George V died at Sandringham on 20 January 1936. The ‘young man’ in the final line is, of course, the future Edward VIII.

Spirits of well-shot woodcock, partridge, snipe
Flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky:
In that red house in a red mahogany book-case
The stamp collection waits with mounts long dry.

The big blue eyes are shut which saw wrong clothing
And favourite fields and coverts from a horse;
Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking
Over thick carpets with a deadened force;

Old men who never doubted, never cheated,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way
Where a young man lands hatless from the air

Ladies and gentleman, I rest my case.

IN PART FOUR
THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIAN WHO
CAPTURED HIS ENGLAND IN VERSE

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