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THE FIVE LITTLE MARTYRS . . . Part two

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The story so far. “SCHOOLBOY GANGSTERS ROUNDED UP!”  screamed the local papers. According to Dr Meacock, who chaired the Special Children’s Court, the boys,

“constituted a centre of vice in the town,and they must be dealt with drastically.”

John Bull

Those of you who follow my posts will remember that Dr Meacock was at the very heart of the controversy surrounding the life and death of Dr Horace Dimock, twenty years earlier, an unfortunate situation which resulted in the infamous riots. So, who were these five desperadoes, and what were the Industrial Schools to which they were to be packed off, until they reached the age of 16?

Firstly the names of the boys. I received this information from the County Record Office. I imagine they are all now deceased, but at the time their names would not have been available in the press, for legal reasons. They were:

Horace Stephen Freear, age 7
Frederick Hunt, age 8
Stanley Johnson, age 9
Harry Rivett, age 10
Harry Worth, age 10

Their sentence? To spend the years in an Industrial School, until they reached the age of 16. For Worth and Rivett – a 6 year sentence; for Johnson, 7 years; Hunt would serve 8 years, and Freear a staggering 9 years.

The words ‘Industrial School’ have a vaguely worthy ring to them. There’s a suggestion that they were places where youngsters could learn a trade, benefit from a healthy lifestyle, and be taught the errors of whatever ways had led them to become inmates. Older readers will remember the words ‘Reform School’ and ‘Borstal’. These days we skip around the  truth with phrases like ‘Young Offenders Institution’, but the fact remains that Industrial schools were usually grim places which probably served as training grounds for future lawbreakers. The industrial schools were invariably grim and forbidding places but it doesn’t seem that one existed in Cambridgeshire, with the nearest one being in Suffolk.

IS

To their eternal credit, there were those in Wisbech who thought the sentence handed down to these boys was excessive. To use modern parlance, they may well have been “thieving little scrotes”, but even so, this was a draconian sentence, even by the standards of 1933. Spearheaded by a Baptist minister, the Reverend R N Armitage (pictured below), a fund was started to appeal the boys’ sentence.

Armitage

Then, the big guns turned on Dr Meacock and the other people alongside him who actually were magistrates. It seems that Meacock had no business being in that court, and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the infamous Old Pals’ Act was alive and well in Wisbech. The popular national periodical, John Bull, said its piece. After repeating the findings of the magistrates, the journal then let rip.

Montage3

Martyrs clippingThe case of the Five Little Martyrs is not simply one of a wrong being righted. It has a curiously modern feel to it, with its far-reaching echoes of relatively minor misdeeds being met by extravagant punishment. The boys were clearly beyond parental control. and their group had a velocity and dynamic all of its own. Yes, the hauls from their thieving – ten bob, some pig serum, cycle lamps and a packet of Aspros (remember them?) seem comical.

However, you only need to follow local Facebook groups nowadays to read accounts of similar misdemeanours, on the same streets as the Infamous Five frequented, to read violently worded responses from people who feel that ‘feral youths‘   (a term not yet invented in 1933) are making their lives a misery. The people who ran Wisbech in 1933 – in particular Dr Meacock – don’t emerge from this saga with any honour. Sadly, some things never change.

I write as someone who lives in Wisbech, and I can tell you that in 2020, eighty seven years on from the events I describe in this feature, modern day versions of Dr Meacock are alive and well, still with theirhands on the tiller.

So, what became of The Five Little Martyrs? The records tell us that a Horace Stephen Freear died in 1978, and that a Frederick Hunt died in 1971. Of the others, no-one knows what they did with their lives after they, briefly, became national figures.

THE FIVE LITTLE MARTYRS . . . Part one

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It is the Autumn of 1933. The summer had seen the cinema release of The Private Lives of Henry VIII featuring Charles Laughton, and an out-of-favour politician called Winston Churchill had made a speech warning of the dangers of German re-armament. In Wisbech – an unremarkable town in Cambridgeshire’s Fen country – a criminal case was the headline in the Wisbech Standard. The repercussions of this vaguely comical affair would later bring Wisbech into national focus.

Headline cropped

Let the report in the Wisbech Standard tell the tale of these ruthless gangsters and their reign of terror which had the honest Fenland folk cowering in their beds and in fear of their lives.

“For five hours Dr H. C. Meacock (in the chair) and other magistrates sat, on Tuesday, at a special Wisbech Children’s Court listening to the evidence in an amazing series of thefts extending over two months, committed by a gang of young Wisbech schoolboys, five of whom were eventually ordered to be sent to an industrial school.”

Those who read – in an earlier Fully Booked True Crime feature – the sad tale of Horace Dimock, and the tragic events in Wisbech some twenty years earlier, may recall the name of Dr Meacock. It could be said that he had ‘previous’. Wasn’t he the man who, twenty years earlier, was most prominent in the sad case of Dr Dimock and The Wisbech Riots? He was, the very same. One of his fellow magistrates was a certain Mr Savory, seen here on the right of the good doctor.

Meacock Savory

So, what was the nature of the criminal career of these five lads? Were they emulating the deeds of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker who were in the middle of their legendary crime spree a few thousand miles across the Atlantic? The crimes of The Wisbech Five were rather more mundane:

The defendants were first charged with stealing a purse containing a ten shilling note and 2s 6d in silver from the dwelling house of Annie Ward, at Wisbech, on September 5th.

Annie Ward, of Little Church Street, Wisbech, stated that she left her house at 11.55 am to go to a nearby baker’s establishment. When she returned five minutes later she found her purse missing from the mantelpiece.

Inspector Bush gave evidence of the enquiries he pursued after being informed of the loss, and read statements which he said were made by the defendants when he interviewed them.

The next charge was one of stealing a box of ante-serum for pigs and 5s worth of groceries, the property of Bert Clifton at Wisbech on September 1st.

Bert Clifton, a farmer, of Gedney, said that about 8 o’clock he left his motor car against the Canal railings near the Empire Theatre. In the car were some drums of ante-serum, which he valued at 22s 8d, and 5s worth of groceries. He was away from his car between 8pm and 10.45pm, and on leaving the Theatre he went direct to the car and did not miss the goods until he reached home.

Inspector Bush stated that on September 11th and on subsequent dates he interviewed defendants, one of whom he said took the groceries out of the car and handed them to another of the defendants, who threw them into the canal. Witness added that one of defendants’ parents had rendered every assistance in trying to retrieve the goods from the canal (pictured below)

Canal

All the defendants pleaded guilty except one, whose father said that he was in the house at the time of the alleged crime.

The same boys were then charged with stealing a rib of beef and a carton of cream belonging to Susannah Winters, at Wisbech on the same date.

Susannah Winters said that she left her cycle in Clare’s Passage at about 6-40pm. On the handlebars was a basket containing a joint of meat worth 2s 3d, and a carton of cream, which had disappeared when she returned to her cycle at 6.55. Inspector Bush spoke of interviewing defendants, one of whom said that one of the others took the meat home and had it cooked. This was denied by the parent. Mr A R Bennett, headmaster of the Queen’s School and Mr A V Thompson, headmaster of St Peter’s School were present when witness interviewed defendants.

Five of the boys were then charged with stealing cycle lamps at Wisbech on September 8th and 9th, the property of William Callaby, James John Harrop, Kate Rose, and another. Inspector Bush gave evidence in each case.

A charge of stealing two purses and 9d in money, the property of Ivy Irene Hurst, and another, at Wisbech on September 9th was brought against four of the boys. Ivy Irene Hurst said that she went to the Swimming Bath on the date in question, with a friend. After she had left the water, and dressed, she took her shopping bag, which contained her own handbag, inside which was her friends purse, and placed it in her friend’s cubicle. A few minutes later they both went back to the cubicle and found that the purses had been taken from the bag. Witness valued the handbag at 7s 6d. Jean Parlett corroborated the previous witness’s evidence. Inspector Bush said he interviewed defendants, who admitted being there.

Another summons was for stealing half a pound of butter, a box of Aspro tablets and two cycle spanners, at Wisbech on September 9th. Dolly Mary Willimott Barber stated that she left her cycle outside 6, The Crescent at about 6-15pm. On returning at 6-40pm, she found the articles were missing. In his evidence, Inspector Bush said he saw the defendants on September 10th, and one said that they had all shared “the white sweets, which did not taste nice.”

Five of the boys were also charged with stealing a leather handbag containing 2s 7d in money, certain photographs, and one NP match-box, the property of Ivy may Hurst, at Wisbech, on September 1st. Ivy Hurst, of Broad Drove, South Brink, Wisbech, said that at about 9-15am she left her perambulator, in which was her handbag containing the articles, outside Dr Gunson’s House. She visited Dr Gunson’s surgery at 10-10, and when she came out at 11 o’clock the handbag was not there.

Inspector Bush said that when he interviewed defendants one of them said that a boy took the bag out of the perambulator and hid it under some stones near St Peter’s School. All the boys admitted they were there when the theft was committed.

Two of the boys were finally charged with stealing 2s in silver and 4d in copper, the monies of Barbara Joyce Bush, at Wisbech, on September 9th. Barbara Joyce Bush, of the Police Station, Harecroft Road, Wisbech, stated that she left her cycle outside Peark’s shop. On the handlebars was a basket, in which was a small bag containing the money. She was only in the shop about three minutes, but when she came out her bag was missing. Inspector Bush spoke of the previous witness reporting her loss to him, and the subsequent enquiries he made. One of the defendants admitted taking the money and sharing it one of the other boys. They bought some sweets with some of the money.

This hearing took place at Sessions House, a familiar Wisbech landmark.

Sessions House

IN PART TWO
(live on Friday 26th June)

The summing up and sentencing …
The horrors of the Industrial Schools…
The town – and the nation – responds …
The five boys named for the first time ….
The ‘judge’ who had no business being in the court

THE DEAD ON LEAVE . . . Between the covers

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Leeds, Yorkshire. 1936.
The once thunderous clatter of its mills and factories is now a hesitant stutter. Although the Great Depression is over, like the plague passing over biblical Egypt it has left many victims. Work is scarce, and men live in fear of being unable to put bread on the table for their wives and children. There is state relief, but it is a grudging pittance. When a widely disliked Means Test Inspector – a man paid to snoop around people’s houses rooting out efforts to cheat the system – is found garotted, there are few to mourn him. But murder is murder, and police detective Urban Raven must find the killer.

TDOLIt appears the dead man is a would-be follower of Sir Oswald Mosley, charismatic leader of the British Union of Fascists and, after an appearance in Leeds by Mosley and his Blackshirts turns into a riot, it is tempting for the police to think that the murder is politically inspired. As Raven tries to make sense of the killing, he has his own demons to face. Like many other Yorkshiremen, Raven is a Great War veteran, even though his war was brief and horrific. Only able to see active service in the dog-days of the conflict, he was unlucky enough to be close to a fuel dump which was hit by a stray shell. There’s a line from a song about that war, which goes,

“Never knew there was worse things than dying..”

Those words might be an extreme take on the scars of war, but Urban Raven’s face is a shiny and distorted mass of scar tissue, and he has become adept at ignoring the fascinated horror on people’s faces when they see him for the first time. His disfigurement might do him no favours with ordinary people, but has learned that it gives him an extra edge when dealing with criminals.

Against a fascinating background of the attempts by British fascists to emulate their German and Italian counterparts, and the ongoing saga of a member of the royal family who wants to marry an American divorcee (plus ça change?) Raven’s problems become deeper and wider as he falls foul of the secretive Special Branch, begins to suspect his wife’s fidelity and then – as if his problems weren’t serious enough – finds himself mired in a a political and criminal conspiracy.

As in every other Chris Nickson novel I have read, the city of Leeds is the central character. Whether it’s Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong or, now, Urban Raven treading its grand thoroughfares and mean ginnels, Leeds remains gritty, grimy, home to all manner of beauty and bestiality, but always vibrant. There is a wonderful feeling of continuity running through the books; it’s as if each police officer is carrying the baton handed on by a predecessor; Nottingham to Harper, Harper to Raven, Raven to Armstrong. The characters inhabit the same city, though; The Headrow is ever present, as are Briggate and Kirkgate, their suffixes names testifying to their antiquity.

NicksonThe Dead On Leave is very bleak in places. Hope is in short supply among the working people in Leeds, and men have no qualms about building a wooden platform for Moseley to rant from, because a job is a job; consciences are a luxury way beyond the reach of folk whose families have empty bellies. Nickson (right)  is a writer, with social justice at the front of his mind and he wears his heart on his sleeve. I doubt that he and I agree on much in today’s political world, but I can think of no modern British author who writes with such passion and fluency about historical social issues.

Make no mistake, though. The Dead On Leave is not a sermon, and it does not wag a finger in admonition. It is an excellent crime novel, a perfect example of a police-procedural and it ushers on stage another compelling character in Nickson’s Leeds Dramatis Personnae. The book is published by Endeavour Quill and is available now in Kindle and as a paperback.

Endeavour

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