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DEATH AT SANDOWN VILLA . . . True crime in Leamington Spa (3)

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PART THREE

So far …. 21 year old Maida Warner, from Stockton, has been arrested after a dead baby was found in the room she occupied at Sandown Villa, the home of Mr and Mrs Patterson, who employed Maida as a domestic servant. The bay was found with string tied tightly around its neck.

On 23rd June, at the second Coroner’s Inquest into the baby’s death, (the first was adjourned because Maida Warner was too ill to attend) the grandly named Mr. J. J. Willington Wilmshurst, spoke to a packed room in Leamington Police Station. This time, Maida Warner was present. The newspaper reported:

“The young woman, Maida Warner, who has been charged with the wilful murder of the child, was present, accompanied by a wardress from Warwick Gaol. She looked white and ill, and after the evidence of the first witness was obliged to retire for a few minutes.”

The jury heard medical evidence which was ambivalent about whether the baby was born alive. This was to be a key issue in the criminal proceedings which followed. The legal phrase was “separate existence”. In simple terms, if the baby had drawn breath, even for a few seconds after the umbilical cord had been cut then was deemed, by law, to have had a separate existence and, as such, was entitled to the protection of the law. Despite one of the doctors saying:

“It is my opinion that the child was healthy child, at, or near, full time, that it had lived and breathed freely. The cause of death was suffocation by strangulation, which might have been caused the cord round the infant’s neck. The child was alive when this constriction was put round it.”

But he then muddied the waters by saying:

“It is impossible to say that the child was wholly born, at the time it was done.”

Despite the confusion, the Coroner could only pass the case on up the legal ladder to the criminal courts. It was at this inquest, however, that another piece of evidence emerged which was to have an important bearing on the date of Maida Warner. Knowing that the young woman would not – whatever the outcome of the trial – be coming back to Sandown Villa, John Patterson had gone to clear up Maida’s room. He found a letter, torn up and thrown in the fire grate. It was signed, “Your dear little husband, S.B.C. – Warwick

Stockton was a small village, and it wouldn’t have taken a Sherlock Holmes to discover who S.B.C. was. In 1901 Sidney Cox had been living with his sister and their large family in a house on Napton ad, Stockton.
Sidney Cox

Probably very much against his wishes, he was produced as a defence witness when Maida was brought to trial at Warwick Assizes on July 28th, in front of Mr Justice Wills (left) By this time – and Maida must have had a very clever defence team – the charge had been reduced to that of concealing a death. The judge seemed to put great store by the presumption that Maida was fully prepared for – and happy with – the fact that she was about to give birth. Evidence for this was produced, in the form of newly purchased baby clothes found in Maida’s trunk. Sidney Cox had his moment in court as reported in the local newspaper:

“A young man named Sidney Cox was then called, and stated that he had been keeping company with the prisoner, and it was arranged that they should be married next month.

Judge; “Did you know that she was about to be confined?”
Cox,“No”
Judge, “Did you know what she intended to do?”
Cox,“No”
Judge, “Are you now prepared to marry her, and is it you intention of doing so at the earliest opportunity?”
Cox, “Yes.”

To cut a long story short, the Judge – despite the strange and unexplained matter of the string knotted round the baby’s neck, decided that Maida Warner was guilty of concealing a death, and sentenced her to twelve months hard labour. This story has a happy ending, after a fashion. In December 1906, the local news from Stockton column had this announcement:

Wedding

It is good to know that, whatever the truth of what happened on that fateful day at the end of May 1905, Maida went on to live her life in full. The last we see of her, at least in official records, is that in 1911 she was living with her husband in George Street, Stockton.

1911 census

For me, looking back at something which happened over a century ago, it is a curious case, and no mistake. What was the string doing around the baby’s neck? Was it something to do with a young woman giving birth on her own, and perhaps misguidedly remembering – as a country girl –  how calves were hauled from their mothers’ wombs with stout cord? Did the baby have “a separate existence”? We will never know. I believe there are Neals and Warners still living in and around Stockton to this day, and I hope that they will think that I have reported this strange episode with respect and fairness.

DEATH AT SANDOWN VILLA . . . True crime in Leamington Spa (1)

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PART ONE

Employment options for young women in the England of the early 1900s were pretty limited, especially from poorer households. Educational opportunities for most would have rudimentary, and many thousands would seek work in domestic service in wealthier households, and hope for a reasonable marriage when they had turned twenty or so.

Such a young lady was Maida Warner. In 1905 her family lived in the village Stockton, between Leamington and Rugby. Her father – like many men in the vicinity was employed at the cement works, which was owned by the Nelson family of Warwick. The 1901 census has the Warners living on Beck’s Lane.

1901 census
After working for a lady in Coventry, 21 year-old Maida took up a position with Mr John Percival Patterson and his wife Lizzie on 10th May. They lived in the rather grand sounding Sandown Villa, on Rugby Road in Leamington. The house showed up in the 1948 Kellys Directory as No. 251 Rugby Road, but that puzzled me, as the present day 251 is obviously a semi built in the 1950s or 60s. Thanks to some excellent detective work by Steve Hawks we found that there was renumbering of the houses at some stage, and what was named Sandown Villa is the modern day No. 269, and to the left of it in the picture was Cliff Cottage, of which more later.

Sandown Villa
Back to the events of May 1905. Later in the month, having seen plenty of the young lady, the Pattersons began to suspect that Maida might be pregnant. In the rather euphemistic words of a newspaper report, they “became suspicious of her condition”. Lizzie Patterson broached the subject but Maida strongly denied that she was expecting. It rather suggests to me that she was, as they say, “of a fuller figure” as had she been just a slip of a thing it must have been glaringly obvious. On 28th May, Lizzie Patterson again spoke to Maida about the matter, but received the same reply. What happened next was reported fully in the newspapers when Lizzie Patterson (witness) gave evidence in court.

“On the Thursday she did her work as usual, but after tea she complained of a headache and went upstairs. Witness advised her to go for a short walk, but she said she felt too ill. Witness asked her if she wanted anything, and she said no. She went to bed, and just after nine o’clock Witness took her a cup of cocoa. When Witness went into the room she felt sure something was wrong and she asked Warner if she would have a doctor. She declined, but Witness insisted on having a doctor. When she went downstairs she sent for the doctor.

Witness did not hear anything of the girl, and the doctor arrived about 11 o’clock. When the doctor went upstairs the bedroom door was locked and Witness called “Open the door.” Warner replied, “Is the doctor there?” and the doctor then asked her if she was all right. She said “Yes,” and added that she did not want the doctor. She refused to open the door. If she wanted help she would let them know.

Later Witness again went to the door, and Warner then said she was all right. She did not hear anything of her during the night. Next morning Witness sent some breakfast to Warner, and a little later went to her room to see her. She asked her how she was and she said she was very much better. Warner had drunk her tea and had eaten some food. The girl appeared very much better. She remained in bed until Saturday afternoon, but still refused to have the doctor. Witness suggested that she must either see him or go home, and Warner said she would rather home. She walked to the station and went by the 4.10 train.”

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The railway station – Milverton – was literally just around the corner, and from there Maida could take the train – a twenty minute ride on the old London and North Western Railway – to Napton & Stockton Station.

LNW ∑ Napton and Stockton ∑ Warwks ∑ anon ∑ by 10/1910

As soon as Maida had gone, John and Lizzie Patterson went up to Maida’s room. What they found there would haunt them for many a year.

PART TWO WILL BE AVAILABLE AT 6.00pm
ON SUNDAY 28th FEBRUARY

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE LOST . . . Between the covers

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Occasionally I review a novel which lies outside the crime fiction genre, but within my own field of interest. Such a book is The Photographer of The Lost by Caroline Scott. It is centred on the events of 1914-18 but, more particularly, their aftermath. Picture a Britain where over 800,000 fathers, brothers, husbands and sons have been killed. The vast majority of those – if they have a known grave – are buried far from home. Sometimes the only things relatives have left are the initial fatal letter from the authorities, a mass-produced scroll of honour ‘signed’ by the King on behalf of a grateful nation and probably a Death Penny – a large copper disc bearing a picture of Britannia and inscribed with the name of the deceased.

DEATH PENNY

TPOTL coverIt is 1921. In Britain, dignified war memorials, paid for by public subscription, are beginning to be dedicated. In France and Belgium most cities and towns within artillery range of the Old Front Line stand in ruins, while villages are usually reduced to random piles of shattered bricks. The dead are everywhere. In places where the living have yet to re-establish themselves there are crosses. Thousands upon thousands of simple wooden crosses, distinguished one from the other with a basic aluminium strip, letters stamped on it and pinned to the wood. A former officer, now a worker for what would become the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explains his mission:

“There are going to be cemeteries with white grave markers – gardens of sleep – real English gardens. There will be wallflowers and forget-me-nots and pansies and bible words cut in stone. They’ll be places that their families can visit and hopefully find some comfort. I was meant to bring their boys home; this is the best alternative that I’m able to offer.”

Harry Blythe makes his living meeting a macabre but necessary demand. He travels the shattered countryside, on commission from relatives, taking photographs of the crosses, or the places of which dead men spoke in their letters home. There were three Blythe brothers, Will, Harry and Francis. Only Harry has survived the conflict. As in other silent houses across the country, mothers did what mothers always do – adjust and try to get on with things:

“In the weeks after Will’s death, Margaret Blythe had cleaned out his room, boxing up her son’s books, birds’ eggs and football boots ….. everything of Will had moved up into the attic.”

The story hinges on Harry and Francis’s widow Edie. Edie has received an envelope in which is photograph of Francis. No words. No explanation. No sender. The postmark is smudged beyond interpretation. She and Harry have, in the years since Francis was reported missing in action, exhausted themselves interrogating an overwhelmed bureaucracy in a vain attempt to locate a grave.

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“Most of the burials here have no names, he sees. These men have all been swallowed up by the earth, their identities gone, along with their futures. Thy have lost their bones, their blood, and the name that bound it all together and made them into that particular man.”

Harry and Edie travel to The Old Front Line independently, but their paths converge. There is a painful frisson running through the narrative because Harry is – and probably always was – deeply in love with Edie, and in one of their last conversations, fuelled by whisky and within the sound of the guns, Francis bitterly confronts his brother with the prospect of Edie being a fraternal legacy after his own death.

By 1921, pilgrimages to The Old Front Line have become big business. Visitors are everywhere, armed with commercially printed guide books; some search for graves, others visit their old haunts. Caroline Scott lets us shadow Harry and Edie on their heartbreaking journey from the Houthulst Forest and Ypres in the north, via Arras and down further south to the point where the French manned the front line trenches of a line that ran from the Belgian coast to Switzerland.

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Ironically, the answer to the mystery of Francis and the anonymous letter is revealed not on Flanders Fields but far away in the dusty south, in a sun kissed village physically untouched by the carnage, but with a brand new memorial to its missing sons waiting to be unveiled.

Wilfred Owen wrote, concerning his work, “The Poetry is in the pity.” Caroline Scott echoes this message. Such was the disconnect between life in the trenches and home that, for many men, returning on leave was not the joyous temporary reprieve from hell that we might imagine:

“How could she admit to anyone how difficult she had found it to be with him? That she didn’t know how to speak to him? That she felt some relief when the week ended and he went back? How can she tell anyone how she opened all the windows after he went, and scrubbed the floors, and boiled the bed sheets?”

The power and poignancy of this novel will cause it to be spoken of alongside such classics as Covenant With Death, the Regeneration Trilogy and Birdsong. It is available now, and published by Simon & Schuster.

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