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fullybooked2017

A retired Assistant Head Teacher, mad keen on guitars. Four grown-up sons, two delightful grandchildren. Enjoys shooting at targets, not living things. Determined not to go gently into that good night.

DARK WATER AND LOST SOULS – The tragic waters of the Louth Canal (3) 1879 – 1897

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Two surnames repeatedly crop up in these 19th century accounts. One is the Coroner, Dr Sharpley, and the other is Alfred Ticklepenny, the lock-keeper, whose house often played host to the melancholy duties of Dr Sharpley. Where was the house? I am told that there were only two lock-keeper’s cottages actually built beside the canal, and they were at Tetney and Top Lock. Old maps show a building just to the east of the lock, but nothing remains of it now.

This is from Stuart Sizer, who is the archivist of the Louth Navigation Trust:

When the Louth Navigation Canal was built, one of the locks of the canal was built on the land farmed by Joseph Ticklepenny.  This lock subsequently became known as “Ticklepenny Lock”.  Joseph’s youngest son, Thomas, became the lockkeeper at Ticklepenny Lock.  In addition, he farmed the land inherited from his father (the death/burial of Joseph has not been found).  For the next 115 years the family was associated with the canal in one way or another, either sailing the canal, (one became captain of a sea-going vessel which plied as far as Scarborough and Grimsby), or as lockkeepers, and one became overlooker of the canal.

Meanwhile, the tragedies continued to happen.

1879

The Stamford Mercury of Friday 16th May reported “a very painful case of self-destruction.

1880

On Friday 17th September, The Hull Packet reported this strange story:

Last week Dr. Sharpley, coroner, and a jury composed of gentlemen from Louth and Keddington, met at the house of Mr. Ticklepenny, near the Keddington lock and bridge on the Louth canal, to inquire into the death of Thomas Swaby, aged 31, unmarried, son of Mr. Swaby, clothier, Eastgate. John Gray said he was passing along the bank on Sunday morning before ten o’clock when he saw a man’s coat lying on the footpath and a hat floating on the water. He at once went to the house of Mr Ticklepenny close by, and got a drag, with which, however, he failed to secure the body he supposed to be under the water.

He then hurried to the police-station and gave an alarm. John Robinson, labourer, Louth, said he was passing by on the morning in question when he was told by some persons about the coat and the hat. He at once plunged into the water and dived, but did not discover anything. On diving a second time he came in contact with the body of deceased. Life was extinct. Mr. Alfred Ticklepenny said he was on his way to the Sunday school about 8.40 when he met Swaby between a quarter and half a mile from his house, and coming from Louth. He did not then know who he was, but he noticed that he looked very peculiar. He did not look like a tradesman on a Sunday morning’s walk, as his boots were very dirty, and his general appearance was that of a man of dissolute habits.

J. Smurthwaite, carpet weaver, 72, James Street, said that about a quarter to 12 on Saturday night a neighbour of his named Brookes, living in Ramsgate, brought Swaby to his house to see if he would give him a night’s lodging. Brookes said he would have taken him in, but his wife was ill. He agreed to do so, and Brookes paid sixpence for the lodging. Swaby told witness he had been locked out. He saw nothing particular in his manner or appearance; he was as bright and sober as possible. Deceased had not been to his house before.

On Sunday morning he called to witness, and asked him if he knew what o’clock it was. He answered he did not, when Swaby said it was just eight o’clock, and wished he would come down and open the door, as he could not manage the queer old lock. He left the house without breakfast. A man named Sanderson deposed to having noticed deceased early on Sunday morning. He saw him coming along towards Mr. Smith’s gate and then turn back again. He took hold of a gate-post and turned round two or three times, and at, last turned off into the road leading to Louth. He thought the man did not look quite right. Thomas Padman, of the county policed, stated that on his being acquainted with the affair he at once went to the scene. In deceased’s pockets were a bunch of keys and a knife,  but no money. Gray gave him a letter which he had found, and 22 photographic, cards of celebrated sports- men, actor; and actresses.

The Coroner said the letter “did not throw ‘any light on’ the matter in hand.” It alluded to family matters and disputes with friends and relatives. It contained the ominous words, “they may I regret it when it is too late.” It was written apparently on the preceding Tuesday. He should be glad if he could advise the jury to deliver a verdict of accidental death or found drowned, but they must take into consideration the surroundings of the case. There was the coat deliberately taken off and laid on the bank, and as to the hat, it might probably have been placed by it . and been blown into the water. Isaac Swaby said his brother was always irritable and excitable after having been drunk; he could not at such times bear a word of a reproof, and had at such times repeatedly talked of putting an end to his existence.

On the following Bank Holiday last year the deceased told his friends he should make an end of himself. His brothers often remarked that he must be going crazed. He had for some time past been irregular in his habits. He had latterly paid his addresses to a respectable young woman, a servant in a gentleman’s family, and was in her company at the Mablethorpe regatta on the preceding Thursday. The jury returned a verdict of “Suicide whilst temporarily insane.” The Coroner said it was remarkable that when he held an inquest a few years ago on one who committed suicide by drowning in the canal be had been called upon to hold four inquests within a few days, and that this case was one of a similar multiplicity of inquests.

1882

Reynolds News, in January, reported on what it called “a Singular Suicide.”

“Dr. Sharpley, the district coroner, hold an inquest at Louth, Lincoliishire, on Monday, on the body of William Barton, aged fifty-live, a publican. The deceased sent for his doctor on Saturday night, who found him evidently suffering from the effects of drink, and prescribed for him an opiate. Deceased then went to bed at midnight, but on Sunday morning he was seen by several persons walking rapidly from his garden into the country. It appeared he walked for two miles to the Louth Canal, into which he precipitated himself. When the body was recovered life was extinct. A verdict of ” Temporary insanity ” was returned.”

1884

James Ingoldby was a disturbed young man whose mental frailty combined fatally with a liking for drink. He was found in the canal basin in March, and the inquest determined that he had taken his own life while temporarily insane.

1886

From the Lincolnshire Chronicle, 18th June:

“On Friday second, inquest was held before the Deputy Coroner, respecting the death of man named Charles Turner, whose body was found in the canal, near Ticklepenny’s lock, on Thursday afternoon. Deceased, who was a Louth man, kept the Bell Inn, at South Somercotes, some years ago; recently he has been living at Hull. Thursday morning he left the Woolpack Inn, River Head, which is kept by his mother in-law, Mrs. Hewson. Some time afterwards, in consequence of his coat being found on the bank of the canal, a search was made for him; his body was soon found in the water, and on being taken out, life was quite extinct. After hearing the evidence, the jury returned verdict of “Drowned himself whilst of unsound mind.”

And there was this, from the Stamford Mercury, published on the same day:

William Robinson 1886

1890

The Boston Guardian just had three lines to spare here in June. A married woman named Grantham committed suicide at Louth on Wednesday. Her dead body was found in the Louth canal.” There were several Grantham families in Louth, and the census information gives us Fanny, aged 43, MA, aged 34 and Elizabeth, aged 18. In the 1891 census there is no mention of Fanny, so perhaps she was the unfortunate soul.

1896

This was a bad year for accidents, with deaths in April and December  .

1896

1897

Mr Watson

IN THE FINAL PART OF THIS FEATURE WE WILL
LOOK AT 20th CENTURY DEATHS IN THE CANAL

THE WRECKING STORM . . . Between the covers

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In the early summer of 1641, London is one of the most dangerous places in Europe. King Charles is facing growing challenges from Parliament and many of London’s people, stirred up by firebrand politicians such as John Pym, sense change is in the air. For Roman Catholics – such as the Tallant family – the mood is doubly dangerous. The Tallants are spice merchants, importing the precious condiments and selling them to those wealthy enough to afford to disguise badly-kept meat with pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger. When two Jesuit priests disappear, Thomas Tallant is asked to investigate. When their bodies are found, it is obvious that they have been executed.

Both Sir Robert Tallant and his son Thomas are Members of Parliament, and they are about to witness one of the most famous scenes in British history, but first they must discover who is behind attacks on their premises – both their warehouse beside the River Thames, and their family home out in what was then countryside beyond the City. Are the attacks at the behest of rival merchants, jealous of the Tallants’ connections to the powerful Dutch East India Company, or is something more personal involved? And who is fomenting the violent activism of the Apprentice Boys?

These days we might think of The Apprentice Boys as purely a phenomenon of the political divide in Northern Ireland, but the Apprentice Boys in London predate the Derry incident by over forty years. The London Apprentices in the 1640s were a loosely organised group of many hundreds of young men who took to the street in protest at what they saw as exploitation by their masters. Inevitably but not necessarily correctly, they equated what they saw as their own servitude with the Royalist cause.

The author gives us a brilliantly described account (albeit moved a few months earlier) of the celebrated visit to the House of Commons by King Charles on 4th January 1642 in order to arrest the five members – John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Hollies, John Pym and William Strode – who he saw as central to the plot to bring him down. In this novel, their absence is attributed to a secret message passed earlier in the day to John Pym, and results in the King declaring ruefully, “All my birds have flown.

Birds

Michael Ward does a sterling job of recreating the political and social tensions on the streets of London during what was, arguably, the most turbulent period of British history. The Wrecking Storm is published by Sharpe Books and is available now.

DARK WATER AND LOST SOULS – The tragic waters of the Louth Canal (2) 1834 – 1877

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Readers of my posts about Louth will probably be aware that most of my information comes from old newspapers, bet the first mention of a fatality connected to the Louth Canal that I could find is dated 1834, many decades after the canal opened in the 1760s. One must assume that there were accidents and suicides during that period, but they don’t appear to have made it into the newspapers. This, then, was the brief but melancholy report in The Stamford Mercury on 15th August 1834.

1834 Huby

Temporarily back in the present day, a summer doesn’t go by without a few scorching hot days, and these are inevitably accompanied by reports of people drowning while swimming in rivers or pits. It is nothing new, however, and in June 1841, The Lincolnshire Chronicle reported:
“We regret to record a fatal accident which happened to Mr. Boys, an assistant in the shop of Messrs. Sutton and Pettinger, drapers, Louth, and son to Mr. Boys, of Epworth, joiner. The young man, early on Saturday morning last, in company with three of his brother shopmen, repaired to the Louth canal, near thee third lock, for the purpose of bathing, but, within a few minutes after entering the destructive element, he sunk, and before assistance could be procured life was extinct. The other young men used every effort to rescue him from his fate; but, alas, proved of no avail. An inquest was held over his body the same day, and his remains were interred in St. Mary’s burying ground on Tuesday last. The spot where this unfortunate young man breathed his last, has long been a bathing resort for the young men of the town; but we hope this, added to many previous fatal occurrences, will tend to make others more careful in future.”

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“The third lock” would be Ticklepenny’s Lock, and its dark reputation was beginning to be established. In February 1855, The Stamford Mercury, in its report into local inquests included an incident which would have a fatal echo over half a century later (see Part 1 of this feature).

1841 hardcastle

Grimoldby 1861

The 24th August 1861 edition of The Louth and North Lincolnshire advertiser devoted just six lines to the death of a Tetney lad, but a search in the 1861 census records reveal that he was Matthias Richard Grimoldby, third son of Benjamin and Elizabeth. The same newspaper, in its edition of Saturday 14th December, reported at greater length:

“A melancholy event was brought to light yesterday about two o’clock p.m., by the discovery that a gentleman who formerly resided at Louth, Mr. Thomas Grant, and who was related to several families of the highest respectability in the town and neighbourhood, had committed suicide by drowning himself in Louth canal. The unfortunate gentleman had some time past resided with his family in Jersey, and about a week ago came over to Louth on a visit, but suddenly disappeared on Sunday evening last, leaving his father’s residence at about eight o’clock. On Wednesday, the most painful apprehensions were aroused at his prolonged and mysterious absence, and a bill was issued offering reward to any person who could give information where he might be found.

Yesterday it was resolved to run off the water out of the canal, and at the same time drags were employed; in a short time a hat was found which left no doubt on the minds of those engaged to the poor gentleman’s fate. Messrs. Phillipson and Sugden succeeded in recovering the body just outside the first lock, which they placed in shed at the River-head, and on examination it was found that the gold watch in possession of the deceased stood at 8-45, proving at what hour Sunday evening the painful event transpired. A young man named Easting, remembered seeing Mr. Grant, at about half-past eight the same evening, not many yards from the spot, and before he had got out of the neighbourhood heard a splash in the water, but he had no suspicion as to the cause. Evidence was adduced on the inquest, held yesterday at the Lock Tavern, which fully established the fact that the fatal act was committed when the deceased was in an unsound state of mind. Verdict temporary insanity.”

Sad to relate, in the decades up to the turn of the century, a further seventeen people (at least) died in the unforgiving waters of the Louth canal.

1869

The death of 23-year-old James Davey in April was particularly horrific. He was mate of the sloop “Hawk” and was negotiating the boat’s passage through Willow’s Lock . He was drawing up the dam of the gates to let water into the lock when the handle slipped all of a sudden and he fell into the river. The force of the current rushing strongly into the lock, he was dashed against the gates and washed in therewith. The lock is very deep and had no appliances to render help, he sank and his body was not recovered until 30 minutes later.

In November George Ward went missing. He was not a happy man, and feared he was about to become the victim of a conspiracy. His housekeeper observed him at his house in James Street near Ramsgate, burning documents and papers, but his disappearance remained a mystery, until he was finally found in the depths of Ticklepenny’s Lock. The informative website called Death On Your Doorstep says:
“His body was taken to the Woolpack Inn, Riverhead and placed in an outhouse. His corpse was in an amazing condition and the coroner had just received that day a most vile and scandalous anonymous letter implicating certain people in his disappearance. When discovered, Ward’s face was caked in mud and in his pockets were a comb, seven keys, a knife, handkerchief and rather oddly, a pair of nutcrackers. There is no doubt that the body had laid in a hollow made by machines that scoop out the mud from the canal bed and there must have been thirty of these machines pass over, thus embedding the corpse in the mud.”

1870

From The Lincolnshire Chronicle Friday 16th December:

On Saturday last an inquest was held at the Woolpack Inn, before Dr. Sharpley, coroner, on the body of Thomas Lidgett, of North Somercotes, aged 65, which had been taken out of the Louth Canal, near the first lock, the day before. The jury having viewed the body, the following evidence was taken. John Spoonser, Somercotes, said about half-past 12 o’clock on the night of Wednesday, the 23rd of November, Louth Martinmas fair day, the deceased and he left the Pack Horse Irnn together. “When near the Railway-bridge deceased said he should not go home that night, he would stop at the Woolpack Inn (River Head). Although the deceased was not sober he thought he was quite capable of taking care of himself. Witness himself had had some drink during the day. Samuel Dixon to a certain extent corroborated the statement of Spoonser, whom he joined at the Railway-bridge, but as he had not been in company with either of the parties during the day he knew very little beyond what Spoonser had told him on the road home. John Face, a sailor, said on the preceding day a man’s hat came under the quarter of a vessel he was aboard of, and he had heard that the deceased was missing and was supposed to be drowned in the canal, he and three others grappled for the body, which they found near the first lock, about 100 yards lower down than where the hat was found Having recovered the body they at once communicated with  the police. Mr. E.D. Ditchett had made a superficial examination of the body, upon which had not found the slightest trace of injury. The jury after a short consultation, pronounced the deceased “Accidentally drowned. “

1875 

In July, eight year-old Joseph Proctor was found dead, floating in the canal. His father, Thomas Proctor, said he had been sent to Mrs Nell’s garden to fetch some vegetables in a basket. At the spot he was discovered, he must have bent down to get a drink from the spring and somehow, whether, by the wind blowing him in or a dizzy spell, he ended up in the water. He was found near a stone trough into which water is conducted from a spring in order to supply vessels, adjoining the wall of the canal basin.

1877

In September, Betsy Carritt, aged 51, was found dead in the Louth canal near to Willows Lock. Her husband, Edward Carritt, saw her on Saturday afternoon when she went to the market. Later on that evening a man came and told him that he could hear his wife screaming. They got a lantern and went to search for her. They went to Ticklepenny’s Lock and got the drag, but in the meantime, her corpse had been found further on in the canal. She was pulled out around 9-30 p.m., with the basket of food in the centre of the lock. She had been drinking in the Marquis of Granby pub earlier that evening and this, coupled with her short-sightedness, and also the fact that she was tired and it being dark, were adjudged to have contributed to her accidental death.

1878

From The Lincolnshire Chronicle, 14th June:

Sarah Brown

NEXT: 1879 – 1897

DARK WATER AND LOST SOULS – The tragic waters of the Louth Canal (1) An introduction

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GranMy maternal grandmother  was born near Beverley in 1882, spent her teenage years in Tathwell with her family and then, after her marriage, moved to Louth where she remained almost to the end of her life. For reasons I could never quite fathom, she had a morbid fascination with death, and I can recall listening in as a small child to conversations she had on the subject with my mother. Grannie Preston (left, in younger days) was convinced that once, when she was very ill, she had a near-death experience, complete with trumpets and a blinding light. One conversation always stuck in my mind, and it was on the best way to commit suicide. Drowning, she thought, would be “such a peaceful way to go.” I suppose there is a poetic aspect to this, as the far off ancestors of mankind are meant to have emerged from the water (or, as the cliché would have it, the primeval slime) so a watery death has a certain circularity about it, and it is true that many suicides have taken place in a warm bath. The bath, however is usually only the setting, the unfortunate person usually having used other methods to actually bring about their end.

Sadly for Grannie Preston’s theory about the peaceful experience of drowning, the pathology of drowning is that death is brought about by suffocation which, as deaths go, must be one of the most violently unpleasant experiences. Clearly, though, the many people who chose to end their lives by jumping into the Louth Canal must have shared the old lady’s views.

I spent much of my childhood in Louth, but by that time, the canal was virtually derelict. Yes, water flowed – remember it was basically a man-made appropriation of the River Lud – but, at least in the summer months, it seemed placid and shallow. There was a bit of folklore that said the quaintly-named Ticklepenny’s Lock was “bottomless.” When we finally cycled out to investigate, we were rather disappointed to find that the dark depths of the legend would hardly have come up to our shins, despite the towering brickwork suggesting something more sinister.

The truth, of course, is that the canal we saw in the 1960s was nothing like the waterway that was built in 1770. Its usage as a navigation had begun to decline by the time of The Great War, and the catastrophic Louth Flood in 1920 destroyed much of the infrastructure at the town end of the canal. After that, water levels steadily fell due to the lack of boat traffic and the decay of the eight locks which controlled how much water lay between them. The waters of the Louth Canal were, then, much darker and deeper than they are today.

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Obviously, none of the poor souls who chose to end their lives in the Louth Canal are around to answer the question “why choose drowning?” Many of the deaths which I will relate in this feature are suicides, but there are two or three notable dramatic accidents, and one such was in late January 1909. It made the front page in a celebrated – and sensationalist – tabloid paper called The Illustrated Police News. During that month freezing conditions across much of the country had tempted people out onto the ice, and this wasn’t the only drowning incident. The Boston Guardian later reported:

A DISREGARDED WARNING. A distressing ice fatality occurred on the Louth and Tetney Navigation Canal on Saturday night, when four skaters, including three members of a well-known Louth family were immersed, and Miss Ida Brewer, aged about 25 years, was drowned.
It is only in very severe weather that the Louth canal is sufficiently frozen over to permit of skating. During the week, however, an intense frost had been experienced with the result that the canal was coated over with ice of sufficient thickness, and on Thursday of last week skating became general on the waterway, and particularly on the stretch near Keddington and Ticklepenny’s Lock.
On Friday there was a great change in the climatic conditions, a thaw setting in, while rain fell at night. These adverse conditions affected skating and rendered the ice unsafe.In spite of the weakening of the ice. however, a large number of skaters were the canal which, at some places presented an animated picture. Reports regarding the the ice on Saturday afternoon were of unsatisfactory character, and in the evening, the number of skaters at this particular spot greatly dwindled.
It is not improbable that the height of the the water by this time had greatly varied, for one the skaters stated that the ice was bending and cracking beneath the weight of those on its surface in an alarming manner, and water was penetrating it at points.
The accident occurred about ten minutes past eight. Miss Ida Brewer, who was the eldest daughter of Mr William Brewer, of Victoria Road, Louth, and who was a teacher in a school, was skating, in the well-known hand-in-hand fashion with her brother, Mr Sidney Brewer, a clerk in Louth Post Office; a younger brother named Oswald was following close up behind by himself.

A FUTILE WARNING. Another male skater had preceded the party up the canal, and he, feeling that the ice not in a safe condition, turned round, intending to go to the bank to take off his skates. As he passed the two elder Brewers he warned them that the ice was “not safe over there,” adding ” You two had better part,”
Possibly they did not hear his cry of warning as they continued their course, and immediately afterwards their would-be friend heard the ice give way. Looking round saw the three persons in the water. An alarm was raised, and another skater, Ernest Shearsmith. bricklayers apprentice, residing in Mount Pleasant, Louth, who was a considerable distance away down the canal, immediately dashed up. and. despite warning shouts to ‘keep back,” was going to render assistance to the unfortunate Brewers, when he found the ice giving way beneath himself, and he, too, was immersed.
Being a swimmer he fortunately did not lose his presence of mind and after a few unsuccessful attempts to get out of his perilous position with the ice breaking away in his hands, managed to clamber to safety. As he made for the embankment the ice again gave way beneath him, but luckily he was near enough get hold of the grass on the bank and save himself from being again precipitated into the water.

MISS BREWER’S DISAPPEARANCE. Meanwhile the other three had attracted the attention of all the others on the ice, and by means of ladders and the plucky action of one man, who lay down on the ice and drew one of the youths out, both Sidney and Oswald Brewer were rescued. However, of Ida Brewer there does not appear to have been any trace after her first disappearance until her body was recovered from beneath the ice an hour afterwards. Artificial respiration was resorted to Mr. W.J.Best but without the desired effect.
Later the body was conveyed home. Attached to the fatality is a tragic interest in the circumstance that only a short time before the accident Miss Brewer is stated to have remarked one of the other skaters that she had made her will “in case she got drowned”.

1909 IPN image


IN PART TWO – 19th century tragedies

DEATH ON A QUIET STREET . . . The killing of James Frederick Greatrex (2)

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SO FAR: James Greatrex had retired from his Walsall saddlery business a wealthy man, and in the summer of 1892, he was living in Moss Close, a large town house on Guys Cliffe Avenue, Leamington. His wife Mary had recently died, and her sister, Rebecca Ryder, now lived in Moss Close. William Ernest Greatrex, aged 37, was the younger son of the former businessman. He had been set up in numerous ventures by his father over the last twenty years or so, in places as far afield as New Zealand, Australia and Texas, but all had failed. Now, William Ernest Greatrex was living in St John’s Wood, London, but still – as it was revealed later – harassing his father for more money by way of an improved allowance.

James Greatrex and Rebecca Ryder were in the habit of taking a morning stroll provided the weather was clement. Tuesday 31st May 1892 dawned bright and warm, and a little after 11.25, the pair walked down Guys Cliffe Avenue towards Rugby Road. They crossed Rugby Road and as they walked alongside The Coventry Arms (now The Fat Pug) Mr Greatrex stopped and turned round, as Miss Ryder had lagged a few paces behind and was removing a stone from her shoe. As he asked how she was getting on, a gunshot rang out. Struck in the chest, Greatrex staggered, and as he did so he was shot again, this time in the back. He fell to the pavement, bleeding profusely. Rebecca Ryder screamed in horror at the assault and was astonished to see, nonchalantly holding a large revolver, William Ernest Greatrex. He had concealed himself beside the wall of a large house opposite The Coventry Arms and, as his father and companion approached, had stepped out and fired the shots from close range.

Dr-ThursfieldThe stricken man was carried to a nearby house and laid on a sofa. Dr  Thomas William Thursfield (left) was a well known local doctor and politician (he later became Mayor) and a bystander attracted to the scene by the sound of gunfire noticed that Dr Thursfield’s carriage was outside an adjacent house. He was quick to attend to Mr Greatrex, but there was nothing to be done. The inquest found that one of the bullets had passed through the victim’s heart.

A labourer who had been drinking in The Coventry Arms had seized William Greatrex after the shooting, but there had been no resistance, and when Constable Crowther and Sergeant Hemmings, who had been in the vicinity, arrived at the scene, Greatrex calmly handed over the weapon and said:

“It is all right, officer; here you are. “The second shot did it. I have got him ; it ought to have been done years ago.”

When he was charged with murder at Leamington Police Station later that day, Greatrex made a formal statement:

“I would like to make a clean breast of it. No one knows the treatment I have received from my father. I ought to have done it years ago. He drove me out of the country in 1884. I have been in America five years, and had fever and dysentery, and was very ill. I came back to this country, and have tried to make friends with him, and to know how I stood in his will. He has tried to drive me out of the country again. I have not been home since I came to my mother’s funeral. I have tried to get satisfaction in every way, but have failed. I stayed in Warwick last night, and came on this morning to have satisfaction. Now I have got it. I am sorry I did not have time to take a dose of prussic acid.”

Justice_Wright,_Vanity_Fair,_1891-06-27

Charles_Arthur_Russell,_Baron_Russell_of_Killowen_by_John_Singer_SargentAfter the formality of the local inquest and magistrates’ court appearances, William Ernest Greatrex appeared before Mr Justice Wright (above) at the August Assizes in Warwick. His legal team, headed by the distinguished QC Charles Arthur Russell (right) had but one job, and that was to establish that William Ernest Greatrex was insane at the time he shot his father dead. Russell did this after his people had conducted ruthless research into the mental stability of the male members of the Greatrex family, and so the barrister was able to make a convincing case, backed up by the medical officers of one or two large lunatic asylums. William Ernest Greatrex was found guilty but insane, and ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, and he was sent to Broadmoor.

Her Majesty’s pleasure in this sad case was not very prolonged. Records show that Greatrex died in December 1905, but even in death he was worth a tidy sum – in today’s money, over £170,000.

Broadmoor
Death
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DEATH ON A QUIET STREET . . . The killing of James Frederick Greatrex (1)

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The 1861 census has William Ernest Greatrex living with his family at 3 Victoria Terrace, Rushall, a district of Walsall. The house, below, along with its neighbour, No. 4, is a Grade II listed building which you can find more about here. William was born in the autumn of 1854, and the records tell us that was baptised at St Matthew’s Church on 27th December 1854. His father, James Frederick Greatrex, was the well-to-do owner of a family saddlery business in Adams Row Walsall. In all, James Greatrex and his wife Mary had five children – Robert Charles, Frederick James, and two daughters, Emily and Mary Augusta.

3Victoria


It seems that the family home – at least in regard to William – was not a happy place. At the age of seven he was sent to boarding school, in Kidderminater. This was one of the things he later levelled  his ” Mater.” He said, “The school was nasty, the food was bad, the bread and milk made me feel sick.” He complained that he was most unhappy there but his unhappiness was just dismissed as, “complaints of trifling annoyances such as are met with by school boys generally.

A newspaper reported:

He left Kidderminster about eleven years of age, and went a school at Brewood, where he remained about two years, and then went to Malvern College, where he had inflammation of the lungs. He states he was lost there in consequence of not having sufficient pocket money. He is under the impression that his parents put him to these schools to get rid of him, and that they were persecuting him at that period of his life. After he left school, at about 15 years of age, he was sent to Hastings and Torquay on account of his health, and, at about 18, he helped in his father’s business, at Walsall, his father making him a small allowance.”

This matter of money was to weigh heavily on William Greatrex for the rest of his life. What shouts to us from the printed page over a century after the tragic events of 1892 is that James Greatrex spent a small fortune on his son, and considered it money well spent to keep William at arm’s length.

William’s career in the decades after he left school is a catalogue of disasters, one after the other. After working for a while as a commercial traveller for the Greatrex firm, he was sent to Australia at the age of 23 on ‘a sales mission.’ From there he was asked to go to New Zealand, where opened his own business. This failed, and after a brief spell at home he was again sent abroad, this time to America, where he was given money to become a partner in a cattle ranch in 1884. It was reported that Greatrex senior had sunk £6000 into this venture. Using the Bank of England online calculator, I can report that this is somewhere in the region of £800,000 today. The ranching venture, like everything else the younger Greatrex had tried, failed dismally and, eventually, after a spell in Geneva in 1889, William Greatrex returned to England, where he rented rooms in London, and began a concerted campaign to persuade his father to give him “just one more chance.”

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By this time, James Greatrex had sold the business and retired to Guys’ Cliffe Avenue, a quiet street in Milverton, a district of Royal Leamington Spa. The house, known in those days as Moss Close, still stands, but has now been converted into flats (above). It is within a stone’s throw of this house that the next chapter of this drama will play out.

IN PART TWO – A fatal revenge and an investigation into insanity

For more True Crime stories from Leamington, Warwick,
and surrounding villages, click the image below.

TC link

A CORRUPTION OF BLOOD . . . Between the covers

 

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Simpson_James_Young_signature_pictureAmbrose Parry is the pseudonym used by husband and wife writing team Dr Marisa Haetzman and Chris Brookmyre. As a pseudonym goes, it is a pretty good one, especially for historical novels, as it has a rather convincing resonance to it. Writing partnerships are more common than you might think, and in some cases it remains a mystery as to who contributes what. Not so, possibly, in this case, as Dr Haetzman was a consultant anaesthetist at Wishaw General Hospital in Scotland, and the central characters in this novel are a young doctor in early Victorian Edinburgh – Will Raven – and his mentor, the real life James Young Simpson (left), a pioneer in the use of anaesthesia (chloroform in the early days) in surgical procedures.

This is the third novel in the series so, as ever, there is a back-story, part of which you can find in my review of the previous book The Art of Dying. Raven’s love interest in that book is a young woman called Sarah who was a domestic servant in the Simpson household. She had a brief flirtation with Raven, but then married another Edinburgh doctor. He died, but left Sarah a considerable fortune, which is helping her pursue her ambition to become a doctor. When this book begins, she has left Edinburgh on her version of The Grand Tour, during which she hopes to meet the first woman to be officially recognised as a professional physician, the American Dr Blackwell.

Screen Shot 2021-09-02 at 18.26.27Meanwhile, Raven has met – and fallen in love with – Eugenie Todd, the beautiful and intelligent daughter of another Edinburgh doctor, and has also become involved in a murder mystery. Sir Ainsley Douglas, a powerful and influential man of means has been found dead, and the post mortem reveals traces of arsenic in his stomach. His wastrel son Gideon is arrested on suspicion of poisoning his father, with whom he has had a fairly unpleasant falling-out. Raven is an old acquaintance – but far from a friend – of Gideon. The two knew each other from university and Raven has a very low opinion of his former fellow student, and is very surprised when he is summoned to Gideon’s prison cell and asked if he will investigate Sir Ainsley’s death.

Sarah returns from her trip to the continent, but she is chastened by her meeting with Dr Blackwell, who suggested that she simply did not have the depth of education required to become a physician. Uneasy and uncertain at the news of Raven’s new romantic venture, she distracts herself from this unwelcome news by investigating an illegal trade which involves the selling of unwanted babies.

As Raven attempts to piece together the events of the last evening of Sir Ainsley’s life, the arsenic poisoning looks increasingly unlikely since – if it had been administered by Gideon – a former medical student would know that the poison is easily traced in the body. Raven has more personal matters on his mind, too, as he suspects that Eugenie and her father are keeping something from him about the young woman’s past.

There are some grisly scenes in the novel involving both the living and the dead, but the story is suitably – and fiendishly – complex. Readers will have to wait until the very last few pages for all to be revealed and, for what it’s worth, I didn’t foresee how the plot eventually worked itself out. There are no prizes on offer for guessing which parts of the narrative are written by Dr Haetzman, but these authentic descriptions of surgical procedures and spotlights on the history of medicine blend seamlessly with the crime fiction plot to make for a riveting and convincing murder mystery. A Corruption of Blood is published by Canongate Books and is available now.

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A HUNDRED YEARS TO ARRAS . . . Between the covers

Arras1006Ask the average person to name a Great War battle, and they will probably come up with The Somme, or perhaps Paschendaele. Few would mention Arras. It was certainly shorter than the more infamous prolonged slogging matches, officially lasting from 9th April to 16th May 1917. A brief historical background: after the Battle of the Somme ground to a halt in November 1916, the German army began planning a strategic withdrawal between Arras and Reims. The effect of this would be to shorten their line, making defence easier. The Germans called the new line the Siegfriedstellung, while the British and their allies called it the Hindenburg Line. The withdrawal was conducted with great skill and secrecy, and the Germans conducted a scorched earth policy on the terrain they vacated. The Sam Mendes film 1917 was set against this backdrop.

Arras1005In the spring of 1917, the British planned a major offensive either side of the ancient city of Arras, and J.M. Cobley makes this the climax of his novel. The main protagonist, Robert Henson, is a farmer’s son from Somerset and he enlists with the county regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry. We follow him through training and early skirmishes with the enemy, along with other men who become his close friends, and Cobley makes clever use of the contrast between the Cider With Rosie idylls of life in rural England and the harsh realities of life in the British Army. The author does, however, make the telling point that for some young men the plentiful – if unimaginative – army diet was actually a huge improvement on what they had been used to at home.

Robert Henson soon learns the difference between life out of the line and the very different world in the trenches, where insanitary conditions, rats, lice, dead bodies and haphazard meals – not to mention the danger of sudden death – are ever present. Robert’s skill with a gun – honed since he was a young lad hunting rabbit, pheasant and hare on his father’s farm – comes back to haunt him when he is chosen to be part of a firing squad who must execute two lads who have cracked under the pressure and deserted.

Cobley is not much given to mysticism in this book but, like many who have visited the old battlefields and stood in the silence contemplating the fallen, he senses a crucial link between time, landscape and dramatic events:

“The land sweeps. The mind strays. The soil can be swept away, but the heart is deep-rooted. It always returns. The land, broad and deep, is home. The warmth of the farm and the embrace of the hills, the coldness of the battlefield and the pulse of blood are one in the earth.”

No novel set in the Great War will – for me –  ever come close to John Harris’s magisterial Covenant With Death, but Jason Cobley’s novel is up there with the challengers. The closing pages reveal that the author has a personal connection to Robert Henson. Cobley’s military research is pretty good, and he leaves us with a heartbreaking account of the cruelty of war, the pity of war and the devastation that war brings to the lives of ordinary men and women. We also have a sober – and sombre – reflection on the interweaving mysteries of time and memory. A Hundred Years to Arras is published by Unbound and is out now.

Please read the novel. Then, if you are minded, click here to read more about the real life Robert Gooding Henson.

ROBERT GOODING HENSON . . . A memory

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Robert Henson, the central character in J.M. Cobley’s A Hundred Years to Arras is not a fictional creation. He lived and breathed, but was just one of the estimated forty five thousand men to perish during the 1917 battle. He died of wounds, and is buried in Hervin Farm British Cemetery, St Laurent Blangy, on the outskirts of Arras. The Western Times reported his death on Wednesday 9th May 1917.

Newspaper

There is no joy in this sad tale, but at least Robert Henson did not leave a widow – or children – back in Somerset. As Cobley’s book relates, Robert’s death plunged his father deeper into a spiral of drink and depression, and all his mother was left with was the War Gratuity – a paltry one pound eight shillings and fourpence, some mass produced medals, and what was sarcastically termed the “Dead Man’s Penny”, below. (This is not Robert’s actual Memorial Plaque, but an artist’s impression)

Death Penny

s-l1600Robert’s regiment, The Somerset Light Infantry, has a distinguished history. It was founded in 1685 as part of King James II’s response to the Monmouth Rebellion. Under various titles it fought in every major conflict including the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Afghan Wars and the Boer War until it was finally merged with other regiments to become The Light Infantry in 1968.

I am old enough to remember when living veterans of The Great War were numbered in their tens of thousands, and I grew up in a country still mourning its WW2 dead, but there was – and always will be – something different about the 1914-1919 war. Poet Vernon Scannell expressed this perfectly: (the full poem is here)

Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle’s hoarse, sweet cry,
The reason darkens; in its evening gleam
Crosses and flares, tormented wire, grey earth
Splattered with crimson flowers,
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.

Robert Henson’s name lives on. Not just in the poignant words of a modern novel, or carved on a headstone in a lonely French cemetery, but much closer to the place he called home, whose trees, streams, fields and cloudscapes shaped his upbringing. This simple plaque is on the wall of St John the Baptist church Skilgate.

Plaque


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