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THE KILLING OF ROBERT ROUGHTON . . . A December Drowning (2)

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SO FAR – On the evening of Saturday 16th December 1876, a young Wisbech man named Robert Roughton was involved in a drunken scuffle with two older men – George Oldham and Charles Wright – on the river bank near the timber yard on Nene Parade. Allegedly, Roughton was pushed into the river and has not been seen since. The police have arrested Oldham and Wright on a charge of murder, but have been forced to release them on bail, as Robert Roughton’s body has not been found.

Christmas came and went, and The Norfolk News had this brief update in its edition of 30th December.

Norfolk News

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The case dragged on and on, with Oldham and Wright going back and forth to the court and being released again but, eventually, the inevitable happened, and on Sunday 20th January a Wisbech sea captain called Edward Benton made a grim discovery. He later informed the court:

“I am the master of the steam tug Spurn., and live in Bannisters Row, in the parish of Leverington. Yesterday morning I was walking down the bank when a gentleman called across the river to me and said that there was something like a corpse floating. I then launched the boat end recovered the body and brought it to the “Old Bell.” I believe the body to be that of Robert Roughton from the description his father gave me about a  week ago.”

P.C. Burdett. added:
Yesterday morning I searched the body which was brought to the stables by Capt. Benton. and found in the pockets 6d. in silver and 4d in coppers, a pocket-knife, a clay pipe, and a scarf pin.”

At last the police had a body. What kind of state it was in can hardly be imagined. The Nene was certainly freezing cold at that time of year, which would have hindered putrefaction, but the mortal remains of Robert Roughton would have been swept back and forwards twice each day by the relentless scouting tides. The body was identified, with a savage touch of irony, by Robert Roughton’s older brother, who was now a Sergeant in the police force. The post mortem was conducted by Mr William Groom, surgeon. He told the court:

“On Sunday morning, 21st January, I made an examination of the body shown to me as Robert Roughton. The hands were clenched, the arms extended above the head. I had the clothing removed and the body washed except for the face. I saw no marks of injury on those parts which were washed. I washed the face myself and found a bruise upon the left cheek bone between that and the ear about two and a half inches in length. There was a lacerated wound a little above the left nostril and a bruise extending to the lip. There was a bruise upon the prominent part of the right side of the head. I examined the chest. The lungs were in a much congested state and the air tubes had a reddish mucus in them. I then turned the scalp down. The marks of injury on the outside corresponded with the marks of injury on the inside of the scalp. I then removed the cranium and upon examining the brain I found it highly congested. There were livid patches on the face and body, but they were the result of being in the water. I should say that death was caused by suffocation or asphyxia, and from the appearance of the body I should say from immersion in the water. I should say that the injuries on the face were given before death.”

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So, the police now had their body, and after further court hearings in Wisbech, where evidence eventually emerged that Robert Roughton was in dispute with Oldham and Wright over a relatively small sum of money. The disagreement spilled over from the confines of The Albion and onto the quayside of Nene Parade. The magistrates finally adjudged the two men to be guilty of manslaughter, and the case was sent to be tried at the next Cambridge Assizes in March. The hearing was brief, and the newspaper reported:

Brett“Charles Wright and George Oldham, two elderly men, were indicted for the manslaughter of Robert Roughton, at Wisbeach, on the 16th of December last. A bill for murder had been sent up to the Grand Jury, but was thrown out by them. Mr. Naylor appeared for the prosecution ; the prisoner Oldham was defended by Mr. Horace Browne. It appeared that a dispute had arisen between the prisoners and the deceased on the evening in question, and they were seen struggling together on the banks of the river, in which the body of the deceased was afterwards found on the 21st of January. The evidence showed that both the prisoners and the deceased were the worse for drink, and that the deceased, who was a much younger man than either of the prisoners, was the originator of the quarrel. The river bank at the place in question was sloping, and at the place where the cap of the deceased was found there was a gap in the rails by the river-side. Mr. Horace Browne, for the defence, urged that there was nothing in the evidence to show that it was any. thing but an accident. The Jury found the prisoners guilty, and his Lordship (Mr Justice Brett, left) passed a sentence of six months.”

What do we know of the subsequent lives of the participants in this sorry tale? Of Roughton himself, his burial place is not recorded, at least in cemeteries run by Fenland Council. Oldham and Wright appear briefly in the county record of criminal convictions for 1877 (below)

Register

Robert Roughton’s parents, William and Sarah had moved to King Street by 1881, and were in their late 60s, but of Oldham and Wright there is no conclusive trace.

FOR OTHER STORIES OF WISBECH’S CRIMINAL PAST,
CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW

OLDMARKET

THE KILLING OF ROBERT ROUGHTON . . . A December Drowning (1)

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StaffordThe 1871 Wisbech census shows that the Roughton family lived at 178 Queen Street. It also puts Queen Street in Walsoken, technically therefore in Norfolk, and the census bundle for Queen Street follows that for Stafford Street (left) – which was certainly in what was then called New Walsoken. Nearby are King Street, Prince Street and Duke Street, so logic would suggest that Queen Street would be nearby, but apparently not. The map shows that Queen Street was a north western extension of Bedford Street and not in Walsoken.

The Roughtons were a typically large family, probably living on top of each other in a terraced cottage. The census lists:
William (aged 57) – agricultural labourer
Sarah (aged 57) – chairwoman (perhaps charwoman?)
Robert (aged 18) – agricultural labourer
Thomas (aged 15) – agricultural labourer
George (aged 12) – agricultural labourer
Jesse (aged 10)
Rebecca (aged 1) – described as granddaughter. In the previous (1861) census there was also John Roughton, then aged 12, and Alice Roughton, then aged 14, so Rebecca must have belonged to one of the older children.

Moving on to Saturday 16th December 1876. It is dank and wet. Exceptionally heavy rainfall had resulted in flooding across much of the region. Robert Roughton, then employed at Walsoken Steam, Brick and Tile Company (which was situated just south of modern day Broad End Road) had left home that day looking for a day’s work in the livestock market. His mother, Sarah, standing in the doorway of their house, handed him his cap and his stick. It was the last time she was to see him alive. Robert was no angel, and he had frequently been in trouble with the law. His offences were mainly trivial, often committed when he was ‘in drink’, but he had served spells in prison.

The events of the evening of 16th December only became clear much later, when witnesses were called to both the Wisbech magistrates’ court and the much more forbidding Cambridge Spring Assizes in March 1877. For William and Sarah Roughton, however, anxiety began to set in when the weekend passed, Monday dawned, and there was still no sign of Robert.

Things were moving on, however, and this was the report in The Cambridge Independent Press of 23rd December.


First report

The report continued:

It is stated that some the men who were with him advised him to go away and that he replied he could not while the man was in the river. The friends of Robert Roughton began to make inquiries about him, he not having gone home on Saturday and nothing having been seen or heard of him since the time he left the Albion. A cap was picked up in the river on Sunday, and upon it being shown to Roughton’s father, he at once identified it as the one his son was wearing on Saturday, and this circumstance, coupled with the fact of his being missing  and the statements made by Oldham led the police to investigate the matter.

The police then learnt that after leaving the “Albion” Saturday Roughton encountered the two men Wright and Oldham, with whom he had a scuffle, and Oldham’s statement is that Wright struck Roughton and knocked him into the river The three parties were evidently in drink, and it is perhaps owing to the state they were in that neither Oldham nor Wright gave any alarm.

The police arrested Charles Wright, and then George Oldham and remanded them in custody to await an appearance before the magistrate. The police had a problem, though – there was no body. It seemed to defy probability that Robert Roughton had scrambled out of the river and was safe and sound somewhere, recovering from his ordeal. The law, however, was the law, and solicitors representing Oldham and Wright were able to secure the release of their clients on bail.

IN PART TWO

Edward Benton, Captain of the steam tug ‘Spurn’
makes a grim discovery, and the court is reconvened

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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”.

1909 IPN image


IN PART TWO – 19th century tragedies

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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