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DARK WATER AND LOST SOULS – The tragic waters of the Louth Canal (4) The 20th century

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1900

The 1891 census reveals that living in Alvingham was a family headed by Henry Mason. Henry Mason was not destined to survive until the next census. On 1st June 1900, The Lincolnshire Chronicle reported:
“An inquiry was held at the Iron Bridge House, Alvingham, on Saturday by the Deputy-Coroner touching the death of Henry Mason, a carrier and cottager, aged 48 years, whose body was found in the Louth Canal, in tbe parish of Alvingham, early that morning. Mr. George Bett was foreman of the jury. The deceased had been a healthy and strong man to last September, when he developed mental trouble and in consequence of then attempting suicide he was removed to the county Asylum. Having spent three months in this institution be had sufficiently recovered to justify his discharge, and he returned home and followed his occupation. On Thursday Dr. Higgins, of Louth, was called in to advise as to his bodily more than mental condition, several boils having broken out. He then seemed a little depressed, and complained of not sleeping well, but in other respects the doctor could not detect any mental trouble. He, however, impressed upon the family the importance of keeping an eye upon him for fear of the return of a fit of depression. The deceased continued to go about his work as usual, and on Saturday morning he intimated that as the man and boy were busy he would go and shepherd, which he had done alone before that week. The sheep were in a field near the canal, and as he did not return for some time search was instituted, with the result that the body was found in the canal. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Suicide whilst of unsound mind.'”

1909

horror-creepy-face-under-ice-layer-horror-creepy-face-under-ice-layer-168350714The freezing weather at the beginning of 1909 – and the resulting ice – drew people to the canal, with fatal results. The wording used by The Sheffield Evening Telegraph, ‘The Face Under The Ice’ is horrifyingly graphic as it headed up a report on an event which occurred on Monday, 25th January.

Face

Hard on the heels of this was the tragic death of Ida Brewer, which I featured in Part One of this story. Click this link and scroll down the page for the full story.

Better weather, as was natural for June, but the canal was still doubling as a mortuary. In this case, no-one knew if it was a case of murder, or a matter of illegally disposing of a body. The only certainty is that it wasn’t suicide.

Infant

1910

The North Lincolnshire Advertiser of Saturday 26th march carried this sombre report:

“The body of Charles Dobbs, aged 65, of Kidgate, Louth, formerly a farm foreman and subsequently a carrier at Swaby, was recovered from the Louth Canal on Monday afternoon, under circumstances pointing to suicide. An inquest was conducted by the Coroner for the Louth District (Herbert Sharpley, Esq.) at the Woolpack Inn on Tuesday afternoon.

The Coroner said when the jury had heard the evidence be thought they would come to the conclusion that deceased put himself into the water, and that he did not get there by any accidental means. Wm. Ashton, shoemaker, said he had lodged with the deceased for about six months. Deceased had a complaint which troubled him very much, and he had been very upset the last few days. He said there was no help for him since Dr. Higgins’ death. He had his dinner with witness the previous afternoon, and when witness remarked to him that he did not seem to be enjoying his dinner, deceased said ” must die ; it will kill me, the pain at the back of my head.’

Witness was not surprised when he heard afterwards what hail occurred, although he had never heard deceased threaten to take his life. John Melton, employed by Mr. White, coal merchant, said he was with his employer in Thames Street the previous afternoon about a quarter past one, and met deceased about thirty yards from Harvey’s yard gate. Witness spoke to him and deceased replied. About three quarters of an hour afterwards Mr. Harvey called him, and witness assisted get deceased out of the water. Joseph Harvey said he left his wharf a little after twelve the previous day, and returned about a quarter-past one. He went into the office, and came out again about a quarter-past two.

A young man named Finney called his attention to a coat hanging on the crane, and when witness examined it he found an envelope the pocket with ” Charles Dobbs, Louth,’ written on it. He looked in the water and noticed something, and, although be could not reach it with the boat hook at first, the wind shifted it, and he was able to get it to the side. Mr. W. R. Higgins said deceased was subject attacks which were attended by mental depression. He was one of his late father’s oldest patients, and was greatly attached to him. Witness was not surprised when he heard what had occurred. He thought his trouble had temporarily unhinged hi.s mind. The Foreman said thirty-five years ago deceased told him that he thought the pain would drive him mad. A verdict of suicide whilst of unsound mind was returned.”

1913

From the Sleaford and South Lincolnshire Advertiser, 25th October. The sub heading was probably made up ready and put to one side due to its frequent usage.

BODY FOUND


“An inquest was held on Monday at Louth on the body of an unknown man. apparently 23 of years of age which was found in the Louth Canal near Fulstow Bridge on Sunday. On October 10th a man who lives at Thoresby Bridge found a cycle on the canal bank and took it to the police. No trace of the owner could be found. On Sunday morning the body of the man was recovered. There were cycle clips in his pockets and tools, which led to the belief that be was a mechanic. There was, however, nothing to identify the body. A witness said he did not think the deceased fell into the water, owing to the way in which the cycle was lying. The deceased was wearing a black coat and vest, light cord trousers with a pair of boots marked “The Yorkshire Hero,” nearly new. A verdict of ‘Found drowned” was returned.”
Fulstow

1915

A new century, and a new way for people to kill themselves

Car crash

crash report

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1923

Walking

With a slightly disrespectful subheading, the Halifax Evening News reported the sad death of a seven year-old boy:

“Well-known Minister’s Son Drowned. On Saturday afternoon, Bernard Spurr, aged seven, younger son of the Rev. F. C. Spurr, the well-known Baptist minister and author, of Edgbaston, Birmingham, was drowned in the canal near Louth. He was on a visit to his grandparents, Ald. and Mrs. F. Thompson, of Louth, and went for a walk with two other small boys. When near a bathing pool, formerly a dry dock, in the canal, he took off his boots, and said he would walk along a plank which was suspended by chains over the pool, and is used as a diving board. As he was walking across the plank overbalanced, and the lad was thrown into the water. A man named Wray attempted to get the lad out, but was unable to do so until some of the water had been run off. P.C. Cook tried artificial respiration for 2O minutes, but the lad did not recover.”

1931

Tailor

The Hull Daily Mail, on Tuesday 25th August, reported:

Lake

1938

TysonThis tragic story, from the Louth Standard of Saturday 13th August, is made even more macabre by the fact that it attracted a huge crowd of spectators:
“After her son had been missing for twenty-eight hours and the police had dragged the canal at Riverhead unceasingly, a Tetney mother arrived on the scene at the tragic moment when the body her seven-year-old child was being dragged from the water. Scores of Louth people, mostly women, were on the canal banks as the child?s body was brought to light, and their gay dresses and the blazing sunshine made a strangely unreal setting to the tragedy that was revealed.
The victim of the tragedy was seven year-old John Tyson, son of Mr. and Mrs. Tyson, of Bishopthorpe, Tetney. He had been staying at 117. Eastfield Road. Louth, with his married sister. Mrs. Kirkby. It is understood that after dinner on Tuesday, which was to have been the last day of his holidav. the lad went out to the canal behind the house, telling his sister that it would not be long before he was back, as he was only going to fetch a jam jar which he had left at the side of the canal when he had been fishing before.
But he did not return either in a few minutes or a few hours even, and in the evening they notified the police. The police at once searched the canal banks, but could find no clue, and the fact that neither the lad’s cap nor his jam jar could be found led them to believe that the lad might have strayed. However, from midnight until about 1.30 on Thursday, the police dragged the canal behind the house, but without success.
Dragging operations were recommenced at 9 a.m. Later in the morning a search was also made in Hubbard?s Hills and a huge crowd of men. armed with sticks, walked through reeds and shallow water in lower reaches of the canal, working on the theory that the lad might have been wading in the shallow water and fallen down.
In the afternoon a big crowd gathered to see the police continue their search, which embraced the canal from Riverhead to Ticklepenny’s lock. The lock gates at the top of the canal were opened for the first time for many years ir an attempt to lower the level of the water at the places where it was thought that the lad might have fallen.
Later, the police worked their way back to the starting place, just behind the house where the lad had been staying, and it was here that the body was found at a quarter to four.
P.C. Storr was stirring the mud at the side of the canal with a grappling iron, when he touched the body, which rose immediately, and was fetched out of the water by another constable.
To add to the tragedy, the boy’s mother arrived on the scene at the fatal moment. She collapsed immediately and had to be carried indoors. A few minutes later, the boy’s father, who had stationed himself further down the canal, arrived at the scene and performed the sad act of identification.”

I am sure there were more suicides and more fatal accidents after the tragic death of John Tyson, but enough is enough, at least for this story. In a dry summer, the waters of the Louth Navigation are now generally shallow, placid and harmless. The waterway’s dark past tells a very different story and, if there are such things as ghosts and phantoms who have died in torment, then this would be the place to find them.

Willows Sketch

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

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”.

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IN PART TWO – 19th century tragedies

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.

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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.

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THE ILLUSTRATED POLICE NEWS . . . 74 years of Murder and Mayhem

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In Britain today, the print media faces an uncertain future due to the intense competition from broadcast news and the immediacy of social media. We still have, according to some, what is known as the gutter press. Depending on your political convictions, you can name your own suspects, but there are only a couple of titles which are regularly – and genuinely – idiotic. The word ‘tabloid’ has come to be a term of disdain, but we would do well to remember that it is, technically, simply a name for the format of the paper – a compact rectangular shape rather than the much larger broadsheet form, now all but extinct in weekday editions.

unknown-broadside-B20071-77While newspaper coverage of politics diminishes the further you go down the journalistic food chain, one subject that can always find the front page is crime, and in 1864, enterprising publishers decided to capitalise on the public’s long-standing fascination with violent death and despicable deeds by producing The Illustrated Police News. The title suggests that it was something authorised by the police themselves, but it was nothing of the sort. Ever since printing became a cheap and practical way of spreading information, spectacular crimes and, most of all, executions, had been sensationalised by broadsides (left) – usually a one-sided sheet with a stylised illustration and perhaps a doggerel poem, or dramatic description. These would be sold for pennies to the crowds who gathered in their hundreds to watch murderers meet their maker. The Illustrated Police News was a rather more comprehensive version of those macabre souvenirs.

Key to the paper’s success was its visual impact. Bear in mind that photographs in newspapers were very primitive until well into the 20th century, so TIPN employed artists who drew their impressions of crime scenes and victims. These would then be made into etchings or engravings and the plates would be inserted into the set type.

The “Freddy Starr ate my hamster” school of journalism has a long and distinguished heritage, Here, in a front page from 1871, we have a perfect blend of lurid sexual sadism, suicide and a disaster in the peaceful Suffolk town of Stowmarket.

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So how did TIPN treat crime cases which became nationally notorious? It had huge fun, of course, with the Whitechapel murders in 1888, and many of its illustrations have been used in books on Jack the Ripper over the years. The beauty of it, as far as TIPN was concerned, was that there was so much speculation and the police were so clueless that the artists could speculate away to their hearts’ content without fear of contradiction.

Ripper

What was to become known as The Tottenham Outrage took place on 23rd January 1909, when two Latvian anarchists ambushed a car carrying wages for factory workers in Tottenham. In the lengthy pursuit of the hijackers, a policeman was shot dead and a young boy died after being hit by a stray bullet. I have covered the incident here but, needless to say, TIPN were quickly on the case.

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Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson had been a senior member of the British high command in World War One, without ever having active service in the field. Born in Ireland, he was known to have Unionist sympathies, and when he was murdered by two IRA gunmen in 1922 TIPN, never less than patriotic, seized the moment.

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The front pages of TIPN were, of course, its main selling point, but the inside of the paper was pretty much solid reading, interspersed with occasional smaller illustrations. One of the classic full page illustrations inside the edition was in 1934 and covered what was known as The Brighton Trunk murder. A petty crook called Cecil Lewis England had adopted the name Tony Mancini, probably because it had gangsterish sound to it. He was in a relationship with a prostitute, Violette Kaye. On the 10th May she disappeared, having apparently sent a telegram to her sister in law saying that she had gone away to work in Paris. Eventually the police became suspicious and eventually discovered Kaye’s remains in a trunk owned by Mancini.

At his trial, he claimed that he had found her dead body, but concealed it, fearing he would be accused of her murder. Mancini was defended by two celebrity barristers, Quintin Hogg, better known as Lord Hailsham, and Norman Birkett, who would achieve lasting fame as the British judge at the Nuremberg trials after WW2. Astonishingly, the jury found Mancini not guilty, but In 1976 he confessed to a News of the World journalist. He explained that during a blazing row with Kaye, she had attacked him with the hammer he had used to break coal for their fire. He had wrestled the hammer from her, but when she had demanded it back, he had thrown it at her, hitting her on the left temple. A prosecution of Mancini for perjury was considered but rejected due to lack of corroboration.

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By 1938  TIPN had dramatically changed direction and had become more of a sports paper, with particular focus on racing (both horses and dogs) and football. It still had time and space, however, to report on the career of Herr Hitler. By the time Hitler plunged Europe into war in 1939 when he invaded Poland, The Illustrated Police News was itself no more, having become a victim of changing times and tastes.

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GLADYS MITCHELL . . .A writer revisited

Guest writer Stuart Radmore explores one of the lesser-known female authors of the Golden Age, and he feels that the revival of interest in her books by modern readers is justified.

Gladys Mitchell (1901 – 1983), of Scottish descent, was born in Cowley, near Oxford.  She spent much of her childhood in Brentford, Middlesex.  After taking a degree at the University of London, she taught (English, History and Games) altogether for some thirty-seven years at a variety of schools in what is now West London.

Away from her teaching life Miss Mitchell created the first notable, and still the best known, example of a psychiatrist-detective in the formidable person of Mrs (late Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, consultant psychiatrist to the Home Office.

She is sometimes extremely orthodox in her methods.  While some of her deductions allude to Freudian theory (one of the author’s many enthusiasms) she appears to obtain her results by intuition – or something more.   Elements of the occult – witchcraft, the supernatural, folk superstitions or practices – sometimes play too large a part in many of the books, to the detriment of their quality as detective stories; though this at least makes it clear that Mrs Bradley is as much a witch as a psychiatrist. 

In fact, Gladys Mitchell well understood that her books had about them the basic unreality of an all-ends-well comedy.  “I regard my books as fairy tales” she said, “I never take the crime itself seriously”. 

It’s been noted by others that Miss Mitchell was obviously a woman of some inquisitiveness, and that what she finds out, she shares.   Throughout her many books while it’s inevitable that there is a wide variation in subject, this sometimes also results in a variation in quality.

Everyone has his favourites, but it’s generally thought that her best books were those written up to the early 1950s – ‘St Peter’s Finger’ (1938) The Saltmarsh Murders’ (1941) and ‘The Devil’s Elbow’ (1951) are particularly praised – with only a handful thereafter reaching this earlier high standard.   Of these later novels ‘Dance to your Daddy’ (1969) should be singled out.  It’s light on the supernatural, while maintaining an air of unreality throughout.   The author herself has said:

… apart from ‘Laurels are Poison’ (1942) I like most ‘The Rising of the Moon’ (1945) which recalls much of my Brentford childhood. (I am Simon in the story and my beloved brother Reginald is Keith) and the same two children appear as Margaret and  Kenneth in the 50th book, Late, Late in the Evening’, which is about the two of us in Cowley, before the motor works got there “. 

Let the final words come from the poet Philip Larkin, who was a great admirer of the novels. In 1982 he wrote:

Miss Mitchell has always stood splendidly apart from her crime club confreres in total originality – even when, as today, there are almost none left to stand apart from. The originality consists in blending eccentricity of subject matter with authoritative common sense of style”.   

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Book

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If you want to read the full review of the books below,
just click the link and it will open in another window

THE FOUNDLING by STACEY HALLS

Best4

ORANGES AND LEMONS by CHRISTOPHER FOWLER

Best3

WHEN I COME HOME AGAIN by CAROLINE SCOTT

Best2

BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020
A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL by JAMES LEE BURKE

James Lee Burke has reached a grand old age, but every new novel shows us that the light shines ever brighter, and his indignation at injustice, cruelty and corruption – expressed through the deeds of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell – is still white hot. A Private Cathedral is a mesmerising showcase for the author’s poetic style, his awareness of the all-encompassing power of the Louisiana landscape, and his sense that history – the dead and their deeds – hasn’t gone anywhere, but is right there, hiding in the shadows. There is music – always music – to  spark our senses and remind us that a three minute pop song can be just as potent a memory trigger as Proust’s Madeleines.

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CRIME FICTION ADVENT CALENDAR . . . Week Four

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Each decorative bar is a clickable link to
a video of the book of the day and a piece of seasonal music

Dec22

Dec23

Dec24

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