Search

fullybooked2017

Tag

Cambridgeshire

TRUE CRIME … The killing of George Belverstone

 

wisbech-the-canal-c1955_w115020
I have always had a morbid fascination with canals
. There is something sinister about the unnatural way they snake into towns and cities, often hidden between and beneath buildings. The water is always murky and impenetrable; it could be three feet deep, it could be ten feet deep; the latter is, of course unlikely, but the awful possibility remains. I associate canals with death. Dead bodies. People who have had enough. Rivers are capricious things. They flow, they run shallow, they run deep; they are unreliable. But the canal is different. For someone contemplating what is surely the most awful method of suicide, drowning, the canal offers stillness and silence. The canal will be unlovely, unvisited, and a place where the past hangs heavy. For a killer, wishing to dispose of a body, the same attractions apply. Even as I write, an urban legend grows in strength. People believe The Manchester Pusher is a serial killer (click the link to read the story) who haunts the cold, bleak and dark canal network that runs through the city. There are few lights along the canal towpaths. There is no-one to hear you when you scream. Figures from the Manchester City Area coroner’s office show there have in fact been 35 drownings over the past decade. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) say there have been 22 such deaths in the city centre since 2009.

Wisbech had a canal. It was dug out of the Fenland soil in the dying years of the 18th century, and was relatively short, but connected the tidal River Nene with the Great Ouse and was, in its prime, a way to transporting the valuable fruit and vegetable produce of the Fens to the coast, and then onward to other markets. In 1853, the canal remained a viable thoroughfare for farmers. merchants and traders. It was also still enough, cold enough and deep enough to embrace human bodies in its watery arms.

In the grey dawn light of May 29th 1853, a body was found floating in the canal. A witness at the subsequent court case stated:

“I heard someone shout, “There’s a man in the water.” I did not get up until I heard someone say, “It’s young Belverstone!” I knew Belverstone well. I knew Wilson by his nickname ‘The Russian Hog’, but I was not well acquainted with him. I had been brought up with Belverstone from a child. When I heard the cry that he was in the water, I went downstairs and went to the canal side. I then saw Wilson, with several other people. The body was out of the water, and on the bank. I asked Wilson to let me see the body, but he refused. When I asked him who it was, he said, ‘Young Belverstone.’ I asked to see his face, but Wilson said, ‘No – you are a female, and don’t want to see him. When I afterwards saw the body, it was young Belverstone.”

Suspected murder

Frederick Wilson, as his nickname might suggest, was a fearsome local brawler. Built like a heavyweight, he held court in several Wisbech pubs. Belverstone, (24) was not unused to pub life, as his father, William, was landlord of another local tavern, The Wheatsheaf.

Belverston

It seems young George had been drawn to Wilson’s circle of hard characters and female hangers-on, but they saw him as gullible and a prime target for jibes and jokes at his expense. Again, another witness statement from Wilson’s trial for murder:

“At about one o’clock, I was in bed, but woken up. I thought the noise was in our yard. People were laughing, larking and scuffling about in the lane. I went to the window to look. There was a gas lamp in the lane, fifteen or twenty yards from where I was looking. I saw the prisoner and Belverstone, and two women. I didn’t know the women. I saw Belverstone knocked up against Mr Oldham’s door by Wilson and the two women. They did not appear to be angry, but seemed to be all larking. I then saw young Belverstone knocked down on the ground several times. I don’t mean knocked down with fists, I couldn’t see that. They all kept about him larking. He was pushed down three or four times, and then they helped to pick him up, as far as I could see. One of them kept saying, ‘Pick him up, pick him up!’ I don’t know that he was drunk. Once, when he was knocked up against the door he cried out. I saw Wilson strike Belverstone once or twice, but whether by the fist or the back of the hand I cannot say.”

Belverstone’s fatal final evening had been spent in a back street pub called The Bowling Green Tap. It was demolished in the 1970s, but local people still recollect it fondly:

Memories

Back in May 1853, it seems that the hapless young Belverstone had supped well but not wisely. He had chosen the company of people who sought entertainment through his vulnerability. In court, the evening’s merrymaking at The Bowling Green Tap was described thus:

“I left about six persons in the house. Belverstone was drinking, and was not sober. He was so tipsy that he fell off his chair, but did not hurt himself.” Mr Power asked, “How would you know?” Mallet replied, “I fancy he didn’t.” The judge asked, “Was he so tipsy that he couldn’t sit on his chair?” Mallet said, “Oh he could sit very well, and he was laughing to see another man so drunk that he fell down.” Mr Power then stated, “Ah, so one man was so drunk that he laughed so much at another drunken man that he could not retain his seat!” Mallet said, “Yes, but there was no quarreling when I was there.”

Map

It seems that Belverstone was struck down by Wilson, who was clearly acting up to impress his female entourage. Somehow Belverstone ended up in the canal. Wilson was arrested and detained on suspicion of murder. His trial was held during the Cambridgeshire Summer Assizes in the July of 1853. There were two key questions which needed answers; Did Belverstone drown, or was he killed by a blow from Wilson? How did he come to be in the canal?

The local surgeon who carried out the post mortem on Belverstone provided an unequivocal answer to one of the questions. He said that the dead man had received a violent blow to the skull, just behind the ear, but saw nothing to indicate death by drowning. As for how Belverstone found his way into the canal, a prisoner called Peter Brett who talked to Wilson while he was on remand seemed to solve the mystery.

“I have known Wilson for two years. I am a prisoner from Wisbech. I met Wilson in prison. He asked me how long I had to stop. I said I was in for a month, and asked him what he was in for, and he said, ‘murder’. He said no more that day, but I saw him a few days after (the 5th of June) and he said, ‘ I have thrown a man into the river.’ I asked him what man, and he replied, ‘George Belverstone.’’’

1stLordWensleydaleAfter an elaborate summing up by Judge James Parke, 1st Baron Wensleydale, (left) the jury retired to consider the precise cause of Belverstone’s death. Not for them days of deliberation, or purdah in some hotel away from the public eye. After a full five minutes, they returned and the foreman stated that George Belverstone had been killed by a blow from Wilson’s fist. The prisoner, at this point, must have had visions of the hangman’s knot swimming before his eyes, but the 1st Baron Wensleydale was minded to differ. Unbelievably, he was of the opinion that although Wilson struck the fatal blow, “the violence was attributed to accident,” and pronounced:

“Frederick Wilson, I quite approve of the verdict of the Jury. You have aggravated your offence by adding the guilt of falsehood to your crime of having deprived a fellow creature of life whilst in state of intoxication; I punish you now only for the blow inflicted ; It does not appear that you were in state of anger at all, and there are other mitigating circumstances in your case. I therefore sentence you six months’ imprisonment, with hard labour.”

Six months in jail for killing a man? I believe that those who rail against what they see as the soft sentences handed out to modern criminals should study legal history. The law is, always was, and ever will be – an ass.

My thanks to the members of the Facebook group Wisbech Pictures Old and New, particularly the family of the late Geoff Hastings, Andy Ketley, Roger Rawson, Steve Williams, Andy Ward, Patricia Warden and Pat Prewer for their photographs and memories.

BGT double

 

 

JIM KELLY … A landscape of secrets

jim kelly Small_0JIM KELLY (above) grew up in the shadow of some of the worst criminal misdeeds the country had ever experienced and, as his childhood progressed, the evil that men do was seldom far away from the Kelly family. So, he had a brutal and disadvantaged upbringing? No, far from it – just the opposite. His father Brian was a top detective in the Metropolitan Police, and his maternal grandfather, too, had a background in keeping the peace as a special constable – he actually was there on the street, as it were, in 1911, when Home Secretary Winston Churchill and others managed to turn a hunt for anarchist criminals into the expensive and bungled farce that we know as the Siege of Sidney Street.

 Kelly was born in Barnet, originally a small Hertfordshire town, but now a borough long since absorbed into the suburban sprawl of north London. It was near Barnet on 14th April 1471, that one of the most influential battles of the Wars of The Roses secured the throne for the Yorkist King Edward IV. The only battles that Kelly recalls were, however, between his beloved Barnet Town Football Club and their rivals. ‘The Bees’ have been back and forth between league and non-league football over the years, with all the regularity of a fiddler’s elbow, but as long as hope springs eternal in the human breast, Barnet can be sure of at least one man’s loyalty.

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 19.40.08

After several years in journalism, which culminated in writing for The Financial Times, Kelly decided to put his skills to the ultimate test. He would become a full time novelist. By this time, he and his family had moved to the beautiful Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely, which had all the advantages of wide open spaces as well as the crucial railway connection to London. Before we continue, a word from one who knows. Ely is, geographically, in Fenland – an area of such fertile soil that it is said that a man only has to spit on the black soil for it to start growing into something productive. But Ely, with its tea-rooms, artisan bakeries, arts centre and elegant cafés may be in The Fens, but it is certainly not of The Fens. To explore the real Fenland, the traveler must visit such hard-scrabble towns and villages as Wisbech, Chatteris, March, Welney and Three Holes. It is among these sometimes insalubrious settlements that Kelly sets the series that first brought him to public attention.

Philip Dryden is the editor of Ely’s local newspaper. When he was first introduced, in The Waterclock (2002), local ‘rags’ had yet to feel the full force of digital competition, but they were already on the rocky road of no longer charging a cover price, but giving themselves away for nothing, hoping to cover costs from advertising revenue.

In Kelly’s books there is always a sense of déjà vu, of history coming back to bite people on the bum, and a telling awareness that despite tomorrow being another day, it is yesterday that casts the longer shadow on people’s lives. This is even evident in the fact that Dryden’s exotic wife Laura is lying alive, but insensate, in an Ely hospital. She is there as a result of a catastrophic road accident when she and Dryden ended up in a deep Fen ditch late on a winter’s night. When I first met Kelly, he came and spoke about his books at my local library. He revealed that one of his favourite authors is Dorothy L Sayers. And how does her most celebrated book begin?

“That’s torn it!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch,
her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank,
as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth
and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifting snow.

Thus Lord Peter Wimsey and the faithful Bunter have to seek the help of the inhabitants of Fenchurch St Paul and, in doing so, become involved in the celebrated mystery of The Nine Tailors. The Sayers connection is further developed by Kelly in his novel The Funeral Owl (2013), the most recent Philip Dryden mystery, where much of the action is centred in the Fen village of Brimstone Hill. This village is easily identifiable on the ground as Christchurch, which is little more than a huddle of houses in the lonely expanse of flat farmland between March and Ely. And who was the Rector of the little Victorian church in the village (below), between 1917 and 1928? The Reverend Henry Sayers, whose daughter went on to become one of the great literary figures of her day, and also a member of the elite writers of Golden Age crime fiction.

christchurch_1

Like all amateur detectives, Dryden sticks his nose into places where it is likely to get stung or at least severely nipped. The fact that he lives on a houseboat moored on Ely’s River Great Ouse always adds a touch of the exotic, but his day job as newspaper man allows him access to places that mere interested passers by could never penetrate. After refusing ever to drive again after the accident which left his wife paralysed, Dryden relies for transport on an obese and sedentary taxi driver called Humph. Humph serves several functions, including playing the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on and observing at a small distance the complications and dramas with which his regular customer involves himself. On a less cerebral level Humph has an inexhaustible supply of snacks, as well as an impressive collection of spirit miniatures harvested during his frequent trips to Stansted airport.

Kelly’s other crime fiction series hovers closer to the police procedural landing strip than the Philip Dryden novels. Peter Shaw is a high-ranking detective based in King’s Lynn. He too has his Watson, but in this case it is in the form of the taciturn and misanthropic copper, Sergeant Valentine. Kelly’s portrayal of King’s Lynn is as accurate and revealing as his frank picture of the bleak, inhospitable, historically incestuous and endlessly resentful villages of Fenland. Lynn, as it is known to locals, is also a paradox. On the one hand we have the magnificent churches, the prestigious Festival, and the unbreakable connection with a certain family who have a country home just up the road in Sandringham. But we also have the rough estates, the ill-at-ease migrant workers, and the tough-as-teak descendants of the fishermen who once sailed out of Lynn in search of seafood for the tables of rich men in their castles.

Like Dryden, Shaw is a complex character. He conceals from his bosses the fact that he may be losing his sight as a result of an old injury. His father – like Kelly’s – was a hugely respected policeman. Unlike Detective Superintendent Brian Kelly, however, Shaw père may not have been as honest as the day is long. In recent Peter Shaw novels, readers have been taken away from King’s Lynn and led up the Norfolk coast to such places as Brancaster and Holme. This part of Norfolk has been called Chelsea-on-Sea, due to the rising numbers of wealthy second-homers who have invested money, if not time, in the area. Shaw’s beautiful wife, who runs a beach shop and store at Hunstanton, and our man’s part-time job as a member of the local lifeboat crew, certainly add depth to the character.

As a master of landscape and what has been called pyschogeography – the invisible pull that past deeds, embedded in the fabric of buildings and streets, exert on modern day events – Jim Kelly has only one equal, and that is Christopher Fowler, whose elderly detectives Bryant and May are always jerked this way and that by the powerful magnets of history which lie beneath the streets of London.

If you are yet to read one of Kelly’s novels, then you should do so as soon as possible. If, like me, you are a devout disciple, then I hope that I have summed up just a hint of the man’s magical writings.I am presenting the two series of novels as separate graphics, but you can find out more by visiting Jim Kelly’s Amazon page.

PHILIP DRYDEN NOVELS

Dryden

PETER SHAW NOVELS

Peter Shaw

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑