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THE HANGMAN’S SONG . . . Executions in 19th century Warwick (2)

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PART TWO

WillsOn 6th April 1863, Henry Carter, aged 20, was hanged for the murder of his sweetheart, 18 year-old Alice Hinkley, in December the previous year. The murder occurred in Bissell Street, Birmingham, and was relatively unusual for a ‘domestic’, as it involved a firearm, in this case a double-barrelled pistol. When the case came to Warwick Spring Assizes Carter’s defence was that the pistol had been discharged accidentally, but the jury was having none of it. They found him guilty, but with a recommendation to mercy. Mr Justice Willes (left) donned the black cap, and told Carter”

“I must implore you not to entertain any fond hope that the recommendation can save your life from the consequences of so awful and dreadful an act.”

He was right to be pessimistic. Home Secretary Sir George Grey was disinclined to be merciful, and Henry Carter was hanged. The newspaper reported thus:

“Yesterday morning Henry Carter was executed at the County Gaol, Warwick, in the presence of an immense assemblage of persons. It will be remembered that the culprit was tried at the recent assizes on the 28th ult. before Mr. Justice Willes, for the wilful murder of a young woman named Alice Hinkley, to whom he was paying his addresses, at Birmingham. He admitted when taken into custody that he had shot the unhappy girl. The execution took place at ten minutes after ten o’clock, and it is understood that the culprit confessed his crime ; but as Warwick is one of the gaols from which the press is rigorously excluded, any details are impossible to be given.”

Another account had more detail:

“Henry Carter, brass-founder, aged about twenty, was executed in front of the County Gaol at Warwick, on Thursday, for shooting with a pistol Birmingham, on the 4th of December last, his sweetheart. Alice Hinkley. The facts of the case have been recently reported. Carter had been Sunday-school teacher at Car’s Lane chapel, Birmingham, and spent the chief part of his time since his condemnation in religions devotions. On Thursday week a petition was forwarded the Secretary of State praying for commutation sentence, the grounds of Carter’s youth. An intimation that the the law must take its course was received on Saturday, and the warrant for execution once made out.

The services of Smith* of Dudley, Palmer’s executioner, were retained as hangman. The ceremony commenced shortly before ten o’clock on Thursday morning, when the prisoner attended prayers in the chapel of the gaol, then formed one of the procession of the prison officials to the pinioning room, and thence on to the scaffold. He was asked whether the pistol went off accidentally, and he said, “No. There was no quarrel between us while talking. I shook her hand, and kissed her before parting, and then shot her. It was through jealousy.” On reaching the scaffold in his prison dress he addressed the crowd below, warning them not to give way to similar feelings lest they should meet the fate which he was about to receive. and which, he well deserved. He then repeated a prayer from a book entitled “The Prisoner’s Memorial,” after which the bolt was removed and the drop fell. Death ensued almost instantly.”

George-Smith*George Smith (1805–1874, pictured right), popularly known as The Dudley Throttler , was an English hangman from 1840 until 1872. He was born in Rowley Regis in the West Midlands where he performed the majority of his executions. Although from a good family he became involved with gangs and petty crime in his early life, and was imprisoned in Stafford Gaol on several occasions for theft.

Carter was the last person to be publicly executed in Warwick, and the last to die in front of the old gaol. A new prison was built on Cape Road and the old gaol was converted into a militia barracks. There were to be seven more executions, the last being William Harris on 2nd January 1894. Harris, also known as Haynes, had murdered his girlfriend, Florence Clifford in Aston, Birmingham in September the previous year. The 17 year-old girl, tired of Harris’s brutal behaviour towards her, had decided to leave him, and went to her mother’s house to collect some clothes. Harris followed her there, and murdered her with an axe. He then went on the run, but gave himself up to Northamptonshire police. At his trial, he said:

“I wish I could have chopped the girl’s mother up, and then I should have been satisfied. I would have chopped her into mince-meat, and made sausages of her. I am ready for execution now.”

Defiant and unrepentant during his trial, Harris cut a sorrier figure when he went to the gallows.

Harris execution

It is worth remembering that the death penalty was widely available for a large range of offences until penal reforms in 1835 saw the end of capital punishment for crimes other than murder or attempted murder. The chart below gives an analysis of executions in Warwick during the 19th century. “Uttering” was, basically what we would now call fraud, while “coining” was the crime of counterfeiting or otherwise interfering with currency. It was also considered to be high treason.

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THE HANGMAN’S SONG – Executions in 19th century Warwick (1)

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PART ONE

I was at Warwick School in the 1960s, and our regular cross-country running route was up Gallows Hill, which runs between the Banbury Road and Heathcote Lane. It is certain that it was a place of execution long ago, but my story here is about relatively more recent times when executions at Warwick Gaol were a source of great entertainment for the population. The gaol was situated in what is now Barrack Street, and was rebuilt on that site in the late 18th century. You could be executed for all manner of crimes back in the day (see closing paragraphs of Part Two) but I am focusing on several executions for murder which were carried out between 1820 and 1900.

Dial House

To be a parent and have to suffer the pain of having one of your grown-up children executed for murder must be considered, at the very least, unfortunate, but to have two offspring die in the same way is a tragedy. Such, however, was the fate of a Mrs Heytrey, a widow living in Charlecote. Her daughter Ann, 21, was a servant in the house of Mr and Mrs Dormer who lived at Dial House, Ashow (above). On the evening of 29th August 1819, while other members of her family were out for a walk, Mrs Sarah Dormer was sitting in a chair, reading. For no apparent reason, and without any provocation, Ann Heytrey came up to Mrs Dormer and punched her hard on the head, knocking her onto the floor. Dazed, Mrs Dormer staggered upstairs, but Ann Heytrey, wielding a large kitchen knife followed her, and slit her throat from ear to ear.

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When the family returned, they found Heytrey “in a great state of perspiration” with blood on her apron. Mrs Dormer’s body was discovered, Heytrey was arrested and duly tried for murder and Petty Treason – the crime of violating the authority of a social superior. She was found guilty and, as decreed for any crime of treason, bound to a hurdle (a kind of gate woven with sticks) which was then drawn by a horse to the place of execution. She was hanged in front of Warwick Gaol on 12th April 1820, and a final indignity was visited on the hapless woman’s body in death, as while her body was still warm, it was cut down and sent to Kenilworth to be dissected by doctors. The travails of her mother in Charlecote were not over, however.

On 14th April 1821, the Warwick crowd was entertained by a quadruple hanging. Henry Adams, Thomas Heytrey (brother of Ann), Nathaniel Quinney and Samuel Sidney had been convicted of the murder of a wealthy landowner, Thomas Hiron, in November the previous year. The reports of the killing were sensational:

“On Saturday, the 4th instant, at an early hour in the evening, a ferocious and murderous robbery was committed within a few miles of the borough of Warwick, upon Mr. William Hiron, a gentleman residing at Alveston, about two miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. The deceased had on that day dined with his nephew, Mr. Thomas Hiron, surgeon, of Warwick, and set out from his house, to return home, about seven o’clock. Between seven and eight the next morning, Mr. Hiron’s horse was found at the stable door, when search was instantly made after its master.”

Hunscott

“”On the road leading from Wellesbourne to Alveston, near to Little Ham Bridge, about half mile from the house, his keys, gloves, and stick, were found upon the ground, near to which lay a quantity of blood. A short time afterwards the unfortunate gentleman was found lying in a senseless state, without his hat, in a deep ditch in Hunscott Lane, by a woman who was passing that way. She immediately procured assistance, and he was conveyed home. It is supposed that he had been attacked by some villains at the place where the blood, and other articles belonging to him, were discovered, and that, after beating him about the head in a most dreadful manner, they had robbed and then left him. It was also supposed that Mr. Hiron, after lying some time, recovered a little, and had attempted to find his way home, but, from the state of confusion which he must have been in from the nature of his wounds, instead of taking the road for Alveston, went towards Charlecote, and becoming faint from the loss of blood, had fallen into the ditch. The deceased, we most sincerely regret to add, lingered till Tuesday night, nearly in a senseless state, and then expired. His executors immediately offered a reward of two hundred guineas to any person who would give such information as should lead to the conviction of the offenders. Four men were apprehended in the neighbourhood of Alveston, on Thursday, on suspicion of having committed the murder, and, it is added, that they have confessed the horrid deed.

The account of the closing day of Warwick Spring Assizes for 1821 begins with this:

Warwick Assizes

And continues:

“Thursday was principally occupied with the trial of Quinney, Adams, Heytrey, and Sidney, for the murder of Mr. William Hiron, in the parish of Alveston On the 7th November last. lt appeared in evidence that Mr. Hiron had been in Warwick on the day in question, to give his vote to Mr. Lawley in the late county election, and left that place about eight o’clock in the evening, on his return home. When he got to Little Ham Bridge, six miles from Warwick, and about half mile from his mother’s house, the prisoners attacked him, put a large hook, in the form of a shepherd’s hook, round his body and pulled him off his horse. Mr. Hiron sprung upon his feet, when three of them attacked him. (Heytrey being hid behind the hedge) and beat him with large bludgeons until he was senseless. They then robbed him of two or three pound notes and his pocket book, and left him in the road to all appearances dead. Mr. Hiron, in the course of the night, recovered a little, got up, and endeavoured to go home, but missing his way, he went up Hunscott lane, where fell into a ditch. In this situation, nearly senseless from his wounds, loss of blood, and cold, he was found about eight o’clock the next morning, lying upon his back. The prisoners had made separate confessions before the coroner, Mr. Hunt, acknowledging the murder, and the part each of them had taken in the barbarous deed. These confessions, added to the corroborative evidence given by the respective witnesses, left no doubt whatever in the minds the Jury, or on a very crowded Court, of their having committed the murder. The Jury found them all guilty, and in pursuance of their sentence the unhappy men underwent the dreadful penalty of the law shortly before twelve o’clock on Saturday morning.”

As a sad postscript, it was reported that Mrs Heytrey had “died of a broken heart” even before her son had breathed his last.

IN PART TWO …. The last public hanging and a new gaol

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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MURDER IN THE PARK . . . The tragedy of Doris and Walter Reeve (2)

DORIS HEADER

SO FAR – The murder-suicide of Doris and Walter Reeve in August 1933 has shocked Fenland and made the national newspapers. The Illustrated Police News – which had been publishing lurid accounts of crime since 1864 –  had great delight in producing an imaginative illustration of the double tragedy.

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Back in Wisbech, the inquest continues to investigate the relationship between Doris Reeve and her husband.

On the Tuesday, Doris’s father went to Upwell to confront his son-in-law. Walter Reeve was aggressive when spoken to, and accused Mr Reeve senior of only coming round to provoke an argument. When Walter Reeve was accused of carrying on with another woman, he replied:

“I know I have, and I shall do again.”

Later, Doris revealed, that in addition to physically knocking her about, Walter had shown her a double barreled shotgun and threatened to first blow her head off, and then turn the gun on himself. Eventually, later in June, Doris left Walter for good. Walter paid several visits to the Clarence Road home and was in turn both threatening, and playing the part of the heart-broken husband. On one occasion, Doris’s father said to Walter:

“You have turned out a rotter.”
Walter replied:
“You will not let her come back, and you will regret this.”

The events of that Saturday evening, 26th August became clear as the case progressed. PC Howard, who had been called to the grim scene in the railway carriage told the inquest that he had been on duty in Wisbech early on the Saturday evening. He had seen Walter and Doris Reeve standing in the High Street. Walter Reeve had his hands in his pockets, and Doris did not seem to be upset or distressed in any way.

May Simpson, of Norwich Road Wisbech, had known Doris as a friend since January. The two were meant to meet in Wisbech at 7.00pm that Saturday evening, but Doris did not arrive on time. Miss Simpson began walking up Norfolk Street, and stopped outside a butchers’ shop to talk to another woman friend, when Doris Reeve came rushing up. This was about 7.10pm. Doris seemed to be in good spirits. The three women then went to the Empire Theatre, and came out at about 10.45pm. They stood outside talking for a while, and Doris still seemed cheerful, and said nothing about any matrimonial troubles. Doris and the third woman, Mrs Read, then walked towards the Lynn Road, going via the cannon on Nene Quay, rather than the dark and rather confined Scrimshaw’s Passage. They said goodnight by Ames Garage, and Doris the walked briskly off in the direction of her own home. That was the last time that anyone – with the exception of her husband – saw her alive.

What had Walter Reeve been up to on that fateful evening? The court was told that he had no history of mental health problems, and was a man of “considerable bodily vigour and health”. On the evening of the murder, he met with some friends in The Five Bells on Norfolk Street. They stayed there drinking until about 10.00pm, when they went to Wombwells, a fish and chip shop next to The Electric Theatre. After enjoying a fish supper, they left about 10.40pm in the direction of Blackfriars Bridge over the canal, where they parted company

One of the men with whom Walter Reeve had been drinking was asked by the court if Reeve had been the worse for wear. He replied that he had been rather quiet all evening, when he was normally quite jolly. The witness said that he knew divorce proceedings had been started between Doris and Walter, and that Reeve had been seeing another woman.

Ernest Martin Henson, a garage proprietor of Cannon Street, Wisbech, said that he had heard knocking on his door between 11.30pm and 11.45pm on the Saturday night. He answered the door, and the man, who gave his name as Reeve, said that he wanted to be taken to Upwell. Henson said:

“I suppose you know what the fare will be?”
Reeve answered:
“Four shillings.”
No, “ said Henson, “it will be twelve shillings and sixpence at this time of night.
In a very offhand manner, Reeve said, “Oh, alright then.

Henson took about five minutes to get dressed, and went and fetched the car. When he drove round to the front of the premises, there was no-one there. Henson waited for about forty five minutes, but when no-one came, he went back to bed.

Two men, itinerant fruit pickers who had been ‘dossing’ in the park on the Saturday night had an interesting tale to tell. One of the men, called Nesbitt, saw a figure standing by a gate, but the man was doing nothing to attract attention. Then Nesbitt heard groans, and said to his friend:

Come along – there is somebody there badly using a woman.
His friend replied that it might only be a couple in a domestic dispute, and so they decided to let discretion be the better part of valour. The next day, Nesbitt’s colleague said:
There’s been a woman murdered over there..” and Nesbitt replied that he must have been correct all along the previous night.

In the Coroner’s summing up, he said that it was clear that Walter Reeve had murdered his wife and then done away with himself. He raised the question of Reeve’ sanity, but said that there was no evidence of mental health issues with either Reeve himself or any members of his immediate family. He did refer, however, to the testimony of Reeve’s mother, who had said that even as a child, Walter had been possessed of a very violent temper. The Coroner reminded the jury that if they were prepared to say that Reeve was out of his mind when he killed himself, they could then hardly say that he was sane a little earlier when he had plunged the knife into his wife. He said that the reverse was also true.

The jury returned the obvious verdict of murder in the case of Doris Reeve, but asked that the archaic verdict of Felo de Se be placed on record. The Latin term literally translates as “felon of himself”, and in earlier times, English common law considered suicide a crime. A person found guilty of it, even though dead, was subject to punishment which might include forfeiture of property and being given a shameful burial.

If only in the personal column of the local newspaper, Doris and Walter Reeve were united in death.

Obit

Regarding the burials of the two young people, shameful or otherwise, the Wisbech Advertiser had this to say in its edition of Friday 1st September:

FUNERAL 1

Just six miles away, however, a rather different interment was taking place.There will have been tears shed, but no-one sang hymns, and the police were not required to control the crowds.

Funeral 2

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MURDER IN THE PARK . . . The tragedy of Doris and Walter Reeve (1)

DORIS HEADER

On the weekend of 13th and 14th September, 2014, something unusual surfaced on social media. On Facebook, someone reported a mysterious homemade memorial which had been placed on the grass at the edge of Wisbech Park. I went to have a look. It was a simple wooden cross, with a laminated printed message pinned to it.

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Strangely, the sign was only there for a couple of days, but research in newspaper archives led me back over eighty years.

It is August, 1933. The hit song of the year was Stormy Weather, sung by Ethel Waters. In the cricket, England beat the West Indian touring side with ease. Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister, while Winston Churchill’s speeches warning of the dangers of Germany’s re-armament had been largely ignored. In Wisbech, meanwhile, the local papers were full of the latest speculation about the health of the forthcoming harvest, while the Advertiser and the Standard were running weekly updates on what looked like being a bumper year for Bramley apples. At The Electric Theatre in town, cinema audiences were preparing to be terrified by the forthcoming feature – The Mummy – starring Boris Karloff. But those Wisbech folk were to have a horror – of a genuine kind – delivered to their doorsteps very soon.

Body Text

Day broke, and as people gathered around the scene of the murder, none of them was to know that within a couple of hours, an equally macabre and disturbing discovery was to be made. Meanwhile, police had driven to the nearby village of Upwell, where Doris Reeve had been living with her husband Walter, aged 26. Getting no answer to their urgent knocking, the officers forced their way in, but found the house empty.

Another Wisbech Bobby, Police Constable Howard was called, at 10.30 am on that Sunday morning, and told that there was a man who appeared to have hanged himself in a railway carriage near Wisbech LNER station. When he went to investigate, he found that the carriage was the middle one of three, standing in a siding. and he was able to access the carriage without going through the station.he found a man hanging from a luggage rack, with a neck-tie and handkerchief used for the job. The man’s feet were dragging on the floor of the carriage, but his whole weight was on his neck. His right hand was resting on the seat, next to a knife, and his body was stiff and cold. He was wearing a pair of light grey flannel trousers, a vest and a shirt. Round his waist was a belt, with a sheath attached to it. His shirt was flecked with blood-stains and there was a knife wound on the left side of his chest. Cast to one side in the carriage compartment were a jacket, waistcoat and hat. In his possession were a wallet, ten shillings in small change, and a driver’s licence in the name of Walter Reeve, Low Side, Upwell.

The police now had two dead bodies on their hands, and people were able to reach their own conclusions about the circumstances of the deaths. It wasn’t until the inquest, however, that the full truth about the tragic events would be made public. The inquest was held at the North Cambridgeshire Hospital in Wisbech on Monday 28th August. By law, the deaths of Florence and Walter Reeve had to be considered separately. We can look at the evidence given in whichever order we choose. Firstly, the grim physical details of the deaths. Dr Butterworth, when he examined Doris Reeve, had found an incised wound, an inch long, over her third left rib, and another wound – of the same shape and size – more round to the side and between her eighth and ninth ribs. The wound over the third rib had been the fatal one, severing the pulmonary artery. The wounds had clearly been caused by a small – but very sharp – knife. Walter Reeve had died as a result of strangulation, but it also seemed that he had tried to inflict wounds on himself with the knife which was found on the seat beside his body. The doctor and the police were able to confirm that this knife was the one which had killed Doris Reeve.

In order to establish the state of the relationship between Doris and Walter Reeve, Doris’s father was called to the witness stand. He said that Doris had married Walter in January 1932, but the marriage was not one made in heaven. By June 1933 Doris had left their married home in Upwell, and moved back in with her parents at 21 Clarence Road, Wisbech. Doris’s father said that he had been largely unaware of events in his daughter’s life, because she was not n the habit of confiding in him. His first intimation that things were wrong was when he awoke from a nap one day to find Doris kneeling on the floor, with her head in her mother’s lap. Doris, however, would not tell him what had happened, but Mrs Reeve senior told him that Walter had knocked Doris down and taken money from her purse. He had only given her £1 for housekeeping that week rather than the usual thirty shillings. Doris returned briefly to Upwell, but she would come home each night to Wisbech, having been given the bus fare by her mother.

The double death in Wisbech made the national newspapers, and the Daily Mirror published this photograph of the murder site, but mistakenly sited Walter Reeve’s death to Upwell.

Murder site

IN PART TWO
Two funerals, and the inquest concludes

THE STRANGE AFFAIR AT NEEDHAM HALL (2)

Continue reading “THE STRANGE AFFAIR AT NEEDHAM HALL (2)”

THE STRANGE AFFAIR AT NEEDHAM HALL (1)

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Screen Shot 2021-04-21 at 18.20.35In Wisbech, we are not particularly well blessed with what could be called stately homes. Peckover House is very grand, but the next in line might be Needham Hall in Friday Bridge. The present building is on the site of a much older house which was pulled down in 1804. The last owner of the old house was Dr. John Fountayne, Dean of York, and his daughter Catherine lived in the new house until her death in 1824, at which point it passed to her nephew, Richard Fountayne Wilson, M.P. for Yorkshire 1826–30. The 1861 census records that the house was occupied by Frederick Easton Fryer, his large family and a house full of servants. By 1901 the house – and farm – had been bought by Walter Wooll West (left), and it is with the West family we shall stay.

Montague

Walter Montagu West (above), elder son of Walter Wooll, was killed at Ypres in 1915, and eventually ownership of the farm passed to the younger son, Charles. Incidentally, Walter senior was knighted for public service, and seems to have retired to 75 Harecroft Road (just two doors on from my house) where he died in 1952. It is Charles West who is at the centre of a story which made headlines in many national papers in 1956.

The story, as you will soon see, is not one of the tragedies of which I have written before. Rather, it has elements of comedy about it, and it has at least two of the elements that would have instantly attracted newspaper editors – a blonde, and a gun.

Charles West (59) was divorced, and lived with a woman – Ella Grundman – who had been cited as “the other party” in the divorce case. His father, Walter Wooll West was a farmer, yes, but also someone of substance in the county, and kept a large household and employed dozens on the farm, as the photo below (copyright Wisbech & Fenland Museum)  reveals. It was taken on the occasion of Sir Walter and Lady Grace’s Golden Wedding anniversary in December 1940.

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It seems that by 1956 social niceties at the Hall were not so much Upstairs Downstairs as Kitchen Sink. One evening in late April, Charles West was having drinks in a downstairs room with his cowman and a gardener. They were apparently celebrating a very pleasing evaluation of the Hall, farm and estate. Things, however, went rather pear-shaped. The emerging story tickled the fancy of more than one newspaper editor, and The Birmingham Mail reported:

A wealthy Fenland farmer was threatened with a shotgun and a carving knife by his 38 year-old lover a court was told yesterday (Friday 27th April). It happened in a tiff over cigarettes at his family seat said the prosecution at Wisbech.

The farmer, 59 year-old Charles West, of Needham Hall, Wisbech, said that he had accused her of stealing cigarettes. Afterwards, they were found in his desk. I would like to apologise,” he said.

But Mrs Ella Grundman, smartly dressed in a pink grey-dotted suit, did not glance at him as he gave his evidence.

She is accused of shooting with intent to murder, and of causing Mr West grievous harm. Mr David Hopkin, prosecuting, said that the couple were celebrating with a gardener and a cowman at the Hall.

A quarrel began over the cigarettes.Mrs Grunman asked West to open a roll-top desk. He refused.

She fetched a carving knife, put it to his back and pushed him round the room until one of the men took the knife away. Ten minutes later, she was back with a shotgun. She pointed it at West and said:Now you’re going to give me the keys, or else.”

One of the men struggled with her, but the gun went off, peppering the wall and telephone with shot. Mr Alec Whitwell, the cowman, said that later he found her scratching his employer’s face, holding him by the hair, and banging his head on the sofa. Mr West, son of a former High Sheriff, said he could not remember much of what had happened –I wasn’t drunk, but I had a lot more to drink than was good for me.

Haltingly, he said,In the washroom I was being hit by Mrs Grundman with either the candlestick, or the ash tray stand, or both.”

Mr West told Kenneth Land, defending, that he had known Mrs Grundman for two years. She had lived at the Hall since last December and before that had lived in his houseboat at Hilgay, Norfolk.

Mr Land said,She is a hefty woman and strongly built. If she had really wanted to do him harm, she could easily have done so. Neither knew the police had been called, and as far as they were concerned, the quarrel was over, and they were all tucked up for the night.

As, inevitably, Wisbech magistrates decided that Ella Grundman must be tried at the next Cambridge Assizes, the Sunday Mirror couldn’t resist a bit of fun.

Headline

DEATH IN DARK WATER . . . The murder of Ann Chapman (2)

SO FAR – Saturday 16th April, 1870. Thomas Chapman and his wife Ann have gone out for a walk together, leaving heir children at home in Linen Street Warwick, with Ann’s parents. Neither would ever return to that back-to-back terraced house.

Thomas Chapman’s father lived in Friar’s Court, Warwick. At 1.00 am on the morning of 17th April, he was awakened by a loud banging on his front door. Opening it, he was astonished to see his son, bedraggled, and apparently soaked to the skin. He said to his father:
“I have killed Ann, and now I have come home to die with you.”
Thinking his son to be either drunk or muddled, the elder Chapman made his son take off his clothes and sent him upstairs to lie down. After a few hours, however, Thomas Chapman convinced his father that he had,indeed, killed Ann,and the air set off together to the police station. PC Satchwell later gave this statement to the magistrates.

Confession

Taking Chapman seriously now, a party of constables took drags – large iron rakes on the end of ropes – and set off for Leam Bridge. They noted that there were signs of a struggle on the canal towpath, and they set about the melancholy business of searching for Ann Chapman. After about twenty minutes they found her, and brought her up out of the water. She was taken back to Warwick on a cart, covered in blankets, and Thomas Chapman was charged with her murder.

As was usual with these matters, a Magistrate’s hearing and a Coroner’s inquest were quickly convened. At the inquest, Mr Bullock, a surgeon reported what he had found.

Inquest

Chapman’s confession was graphic, and told of how his grievances against Ann’s behaviour with other men had been festering for some time:

“Last night I went home about six o’clock, and gave my money to her mother. We lived with her. I stayed at home till went out with my wife. I told her we would go to Leamington and look round there. We started a little after nine o’clock. We called at Page’s near the chapel and had a pint of ale. That is all I had all the night. We looked in the shop windows, and went on to Emscote cut bridge. I said, “Come on this way”. She said she did not like to the water side. She was all of a tremble. I said, “What makes you tremble? What have you to tremble for – I said if she would come along there we could get out the Leam Bridge on the Old Road.

We were talking as we were going along the cut side. I said I was sure the last child was not mine. She said none of the children were mine. She said. “No, you scamp, none of them are yours.” She said, “I have deceived you a good while.” When got under the Leam Bridge I pushed her into the water, and as she was going in she laid hold of me and pulled me into the water, I could not get away from her for a long while. She kept fast hold of me. She had liked to have drowned me. I got away from her and got out of the water, and lay down on the grass. I could not walk I was wet. The water was up my chin. I could not touch the bottom.

I threw my old jacket into the water. I got on the Old Road. man passed me against lawyer Heath’s. I made up my mind to drown her before went out of the house. I went my father’s house about one o’clock, changed clothes and lay down on the bed. I have been away from home three months together. When I last came home she held the last child up and said, “Here’s pattern for you; do you think you could get such a one as this ?”

By the time Chapman’s case eventually came to Warwick Assizes, it had clearly dawned on him that it was likely he was going to be hanged, and it was reported that he had been busy trying to convince the authorities that he was insane. What appears to be play-acting cut no ice with the doctors, and they testified that he was perfectly sane, both then and at the time of Ann’s death. Remarkably, the jury – all male, remember – were sufficiently sympathetic with Chapman’s bruised ego that they found him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to life. What became of him, I don’t know. In those days life meant life, and so it may well be that he died in prison.

What became of the Chapman children is another mystery. The 1871 census has Francis and Mary Dodson – Anna’s parents – living at 12 Union Building, both on ‘Parish Relief’. This had nothing to do with church parishes, but was a form of benefit based on what we now call local government wards. In practice, it was patchy, and depended on the ability of a particular parish to levy rates, and then distribute a portion to the needy.

To me, it is absolutely clear that Thomas Chapman murdered his wife. He pushed her into the murky depths of the Warwick and Napton Canal with one purpose, and one purpose only – to pay her out for her infidelity and taunts about the parentage of her children. His bizarre attempts to convince the authorities that he was insane suggest that he knew he was facing the hangman’s noose. Why judge and jury deemed his crime manslaughter baffles me. What became of him, and whether he survived the Victorian prison system, I cannot say. What I do know is that the dark and gloomy spot where the canal passes under Myton Road is forever tainted by the struggles of a young woman pushed down into the unforgiving depths by an angry and violent man.

Thanks again to Simon Dunne and Steve Bap for the photographs

 

bridge-combined

DEATH IN DARK WATER . . . The murder of Ann Chapman (1)

I have always had an irrational – but very real – fear of canals. Rivers are something else altogether. They flow, sometimes with great energy and beauty, and they are older than mankind itself. Towns and cities throughout history have based themselves around rivers, and celebrated them. Canals, on the other hand, seem to skulk out of sight and out of mind, hidden from view, especially in built up areas. As an angler, I never took to canal fishing, unlike countless other Midlanders.

I am an old Leamington lad and can still remember working barges chugging along the Warwick and Napton Canal where it runs parallel to Myton Road. The bargees seemed to come from the same stock as the old-time Romany gypsies who would occasionally knock on our door in Victoria Street, selling this and that. Their faces were weathered by exposure to the elements, and they certainly lived a harder life than we did. My discomfort about canals probably is due to the fact that they are often dark and dispiriting places where generations of unfortunates have seen fit to end their lives.

This story begins in Warwick in 1870. Thomas Chapman, his wife Ann and their young children lived with Ann’s parents – the Dodsons – in Union Buildings. Linen Street, Warwick. The website British History Online says:

“South of Marble House, dwellings in Linen Street were built between 1820 and 1825, now replaced. By 1851 these included 24 back-to-back houses known as Union Buildings which are still (1966) standing.”

I suspect that the houses outlined on this early 20th century map (below) may well be Union Buildings. Warwick experts will no doubt set me right on this.

Thomas Chapman was not a skilled man, and he had a seasonal job, during winter months, working for a gas company in Primrose Hill, Birmingham. In the warmer months he took work where he could get it nearer to home, and newspaper reports say that at the time of this affair, he was working for a Mr Cundall in Leamington. The only Cundall in the 1871 Leamington census was a man with a grocers’ shop in Regent Street, but this is of no matter. At this point, it is relevant to mention that Chapman had a nagging fear that his wife had been unfaithful to him during the winter months when he was working in Birmingham. Jokes at his expense and behind-the-hand comments made in various pubs had done little to reassure him.

Ann Chapman was 27 years old, and already had given birth six times. Three children still lived and the elder of these was born before she married Chapman. It is Saturday 16th April and Thomas Chapman, after finishing his work in Leamington for the week, has walked home to Warwick, after having a couple of pints in the pub where his employer paid out his men. Chapman gives the remainder of his wage to his mother in law, Mary Dodson, and sits down to what seems to have been a peaceable dinner. Afterwards, he plays with the children for a while, and then suggests to Ann that they step out for the evening. After a drink in a pub in Smith Street, They walk on to  Emscote, where Chapman suggests they follow the canal towpath in direction of Leamington.

In later testimony Chapman revealed that Ann did not like walking by the canal bank, as it made her “all of a tremble.” He evidently calmed her fears, and they carried on their walk. The route they took is, as best as I can reconstruct it, from modern GPS systems, a two mile walk – maybe a tidy hike to us in  our car-dominated era – but nothing at all to most people in 1870. What happened when they reached what was known to locals as Leam Bridge, but Bridge 44 to the Warwick & Napton Canal Company, was to horrify the neighbourhood for weeks to come.

Many thanks to both Simon Dunne and Steve Bap
who saved me a 200 mile round trip by taking photographs of Bridge 44.

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