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THE MADNESS OF GEORGE TIMMS . . . Part One

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Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 21.36.11A lifetime ago, when I was a pupil (remember that word? These days they are ‘students’ or ‘learners’) at Warwick School, I remember a gentleman coming to speak to us in the assembly hall we knew as Big School. He was Mr Guy Nelson, and we knew nothing of him, but it transpires he was the current head of a family which had been a major industrial presence in Warwick for generations. The Nelsons had a variety of interests, including gelatine manufacture and meat shipping, but the time we were assembled to listen to him, the firm had been absorbed by bigger competitors.

What the Nelsons stood for, however, was rather special. They were enlightened employers who took a philanthropic view of the relationship between worker and master. They built houses and social clubs for their workforce and, for some time, the area around their factory in Emscote was known as Nelson’s Village. Central to this was Charles Street, and this is where we come to the True Crime aspect of this feature.

At a few minutes past one o’clock in the morning, on 19th January 1888, Police Constable Salt was stamping his feet and trying to keep warm as he stood on duty at the far end of Smith Street, Warwick. The silence of the night was broken by a man’s voice in the near distance, shouting and calling out.  Walking towards the disturbance, Salt shone his bulls-eye lantern into the dimly lit street, and he saw a figure come staggering towards him, lurching from one side of the road to the other, still shouting and moaning incomprehensibly.

With his free hand, Salt caught hold of the distressed man, and immediately noticed that his hands seem to be covered in blood. In a hoarse voice, the man cried out:

“I’ve murdered my wife; the Devil has tempted me to do it.”
“Where do you live?” asked Salt, but received no answer.
“Have you been home?” At this, the man replied,
“Yes – I’ve been to bed and got up again.”

A man called Henry Harris, who was the night-watchman at the nearby fire station, attracted by the fracas, joined the pair, and between them, he and PC Salt managed to march the man to the police station, which then stood at the top end of Northgate Street. manning the front desk was Police Constable Lewis. Salt informed Lewis what the man had told him, and Lewis asked for his name:

“My name is George Timms. I live at No. 1 Charles Street and, yes, I have murdered my wife. You will find her there. I have left the back door open.”

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From here, the pace of events quickened. The two constables, realising that this was something way above their pay grade, wasted little time in summoning the help of their senior officers. Dr. Guthrie Rankin of 23 Jury Street was called to the scene. What he found was later reported in the press as follows:

“On going into the bedroom he saw the woman lying on the bed, halfway across, and quite dead. Her face was lying in a pool blood. There was no evidence that any struggle had taken place. From a superficial examination, he found some wounds on the back of the scalp, from which the blood had evidently come. Death had only recently taken place. He made a post mortem examination some hours later. There were four scalp wounds, one of them very large, and the bone underlying the wounds was fractured in several places. Two the fractures penetrated to the brain. There was a large bruise over the back of the neck, and the back of the left shoulder was also discoloured. All these wounds were, undoubtedly, such as might be caused by blows from a brick.”

In Part Two of The Madness of George Timms
A FUNERAL
WARWICK ASSIZES
A NEW CAREER AS A SHOEMAKER

A LOUTH TRAGEDY . . . Part Two

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Heneage copyTHE STORY SO FAR … It is July 1927, and we are in the quiet market town of Louth in the Lincolnshire Wolds. King George V has his head on the stamps and coins, Stanley Baldwin is the Conservative Prime Minister, while in parliament, Sir Arthur Pelham Heneage (left) represents Louth. All is not quiet however in a wooden bungalow close to the level crossing on Stewton Lane. The body of Minnie Eleanor Kirby has been discovered lying on the floor of one of the rooms. She has been dead for some hours, and the cause of death is clearly a massive wound to the base of her skull.

Inspector Davies of Lincolnshire Constabulary, alerted by Mrs Kirby’s worried son Harry, has forced an entry into the bungalow and made the grisly discovery. A few feet away from the lifeless body of Minnie Kirby is a large axe, bloodstained, and which would later be identified by the pathologist as exactly fitting the fatal wound. Suspicion immediately falls on Minnie Kirby’s husband Bertram, and while the poor woman’s corpse is removed to the mortuary for further investigation, the police begin their search for him. It was not to be a long or difficult manhunt. The White Horse Inn was one of several pubs that Kirby was known to frequent, and on the evening of Tuesday 12th July, PC Morris and Inspector Davies found Kirby engrossed in a game of dominoes. After being informed that he was to be arrested, he is reported to have said:

“All right. I am going to be fair with you. I am not going to cause any trouble. My God, boy, you don’t know how things are! I hope you never will. You don’t know what I had to put up with.”

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Kirby “came quietly” and was taken to the police cells. He was initially remanded until the forthcoming Saturday, 16th July. He was brought before the magistrates, and was remanded again to allow the police to prepare a case to put to the public prosecutor. Needless to say, the atmosphere in the town was described as “electric” by one feverish reporter, who went on to write:

Toen hall“A big crowd assembled outside the Town Hall in an endeavour to catch a glimpse of the prisoner, but the proceedings took place at the Superintendent’s office at the County Police Station in another part of the town.

Here, in a small room, before Mr Mark Smith and Mr W. C Street, with only the Clerk (Mr H. E. Roberts), Supt. C. Skinner, Inspector Davies and members of the press, Kirby was brought in. He trembled violently, his eyes had a vacant stare and he had to be supported by two police officers.

The prisoner is of stout build, with greyish hair and he wore no collar, his shirt being open at the neck. He was represented by Mr R. H. Helmer, of the well-known Louth firm of solicitors, Allison and Helmer.”

Part of the dossier being prepared for the prosecutor was a number of letters Kirby had written, and which were found in the bungalow and in his possession when arrested. They suggested a man at the end of his tether, preparing to enter into some kind of a pact with his wife. One passage read:

“My wife is my greatest pride in life. . . We have realised our financial state affairs, and come to the conclusion that death is the only way out of them. Please bury darling Minnie and myself together. We have loved one another.”

He went on to write:

HEADLINE 5“I have fell across very hard times. My darling wife, who has been my greatest pal in life, has realised this fact as well. God bless her. No-one could wish for a better wife , mother or comforter than her. We have realised our financial state of affairs, and come to the conclusion that death is the only way out of the matter. I left the railway in order, as I thought, to better myself, and this failed. Eventually I found myself stranded with writs, etc, and we had nothing to eat at home.”

“I therefore volunteered to go away with the idea of obtaining work, but to no avail. After this, I walked from Louth to Boston. Here I say God bless my wife. God bless her. No man, whoever he was could possibly find a better wife than I have had. Anyhow, here is a point I wish the Coroner to take up, and when I say this I mean it to be published and not doctored, because it is absolutely the truth.”


He appeared to be passionately devoted to his youngest son, Norman:

“How pleased we are to hear you are little Norman. God bless him- how I love this little bairn – I am heartbroken. Will you ask my Auntie Julia- her name is under Mrs F Pocklington, “Eversleigh”, Carlton Road, Boston – to take during her lifetime my darling boy Norman. My Auntie Julia is the only relative he loves. He always wishes to see his Auntie Julia. Further, I wish to say my Auntie Julia and Uncle Fred have been my best friends throughout all my life – God bless them both. They have been the only faithful friends we have had through life. Please bury darling Minnie and myself together.. We have loved one another. Poor little Ralph out in Canada, and poor little Norman and Harry. Oh! he has been a good boy. God bless them all – Minnie, Harry, Ralph and Norman. God bless them all and Auntie Julia and Fred.”

This wish that Norman would be fostered by the Pocklingtons is rather odd, because they were both elderly. Indeed, Mrs Pocklington’s “lifetime” would not extend much beyond the murder, as she died two years later. It must have been immediately obvious to the town solicitor representing Kirby – and, later, to his defence barrister at Lincoln Assizes – that the only way Kirby would escape with his life from this tragedy was for his representatives to plead that he was insane.

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In Part Three
THE EVENTS OF 10th and 11th JULY REVEALED IN COURT
INSANE OR WICKED?
A DATE WITH ALBERT PIERREPOINT

A LOUTH TRAGEDY . . . Part One

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Back in the 1950s and 60s I was a regular visitor to Louth. Mother was a Louth girl, and my grandmother, although born in Yorkshire, had lived in the area since before The Great War, first in a cottage in the grounds of Tathwell Hall, where her father was Head Groom, and then in the town itself. I used to stay with her in Tennyson Road during school holidays, and blissful days they were. I had made several friends in Louth, and we did what most lads did in those innocent days – played football and cricket and went fishing. The most intense of all our passions was, however, trainspotting.

RunaboutEach summer, we used to buy what was called a Runabout Ticket. It cost twelve shillings and sixpence and was a small rectangle of stiff blue cardboard. On it was printed a stylized map of the railway network in the area. It meant we could travel on any train, between any of the stations, as often as we wanted, for a week. Crucially, it gave us access to the East Coast main line between Peterborough and Grantham, with its magnificent Gresley Pacifics and all manner of spectacular engines. At other times, however, we had to make do with the trains that ran through Louth on the Grimsby to Boston line, and one of our favourite places to trainspot was the level crossing on Stewton Lane. Between trains.we could muck about by the nearby stream where it ran through a little gully, which was known as Seven Trees Island. Happily undreamed of in those days was the fact that we were enjoying ourselves on the site of one of the most gruesome and tragic murder cases of the early twentieth century.

MINNIEIn 1927, just by the railway, there stood a small wooden bungalow, the home of Bertram Horace Kirby, 46, and his wife Minnie. They were not originally Louth people, both having come from Boston, where they had married – possibly in St Botolph’s – in 1905. They had three sons. The two oldest had left home. Harry, 21, lodged with Mrs Took in nearby Church Street, while Ralph, 17, had emigrated to Canada. There was a much later addition to the family. Leslie Norman Kirby was just 8 years old. Minnie Eleanor Kirby (right) was described as follows in subsequent press reports:

“Mrs. Kirby was tall, and of striking appearance. She was most friendly woman, and was liked very much by her neighbours. Her hobby was gardening. She had studied her subject, and she was an expert gardener, and passionately fond of her flowers. She was extremely well-read, and was a thoroughly cultured woman, clever in many ways, and musical. She was a keen churchwoman.

Mrs. Kirby was also an enthusiastic member of the Women’s Unionist Association, and canvassed in Louth at the last election. She had been educated in Boston at Miss Stothert’s High School, and for about 10 years she was head clerk at Mr. A. Simpson’s furniture store, in the Market-place. She was very well-known in Boston. At school, she was a very apt pupil, and we are informed that Miss Stothert “thought a lot of her.” During her schooldays the took part in “The Mandarin”, and other plays. She was extremely fond of rowing, and frequently enjoyed her favourite exercise on the Witham.”

KIRBYBertram Horace Kirby (left) was a year younger than his wife. He also had musical talent, and while they lived in Boston he had been church organist in the town, and the village of Frampton. He had applied himself to various trades while living in the Boston area, but had worked for almost ten years for the London and North Eastern Railway. By 1927, however, he had given this job up, and had attempted to strike out on his own as a commercial dealer.

In the early evening of Sunday 10th July , Harry Kirby called at his parents’ home, and took his mother for a stroll. Although he had moved out of the bungalow because he and his father “couldn’t get along” he had noticed nothing untoward in the atmosphere between his mother and father. He was later to admit that his father “was prone to violent tempers when he had taken drink.”

Despite all seeming well with his parents, Harry Kirby must have had a sixth sense that prompted him to visit the bungalow on Tuesday 12th July. He found the doors locked and the curtains drawn, and could make nobody hear. He walked into the town and asked for help from the police. He returned with Inspector Davies who must have also sensed something was wrong, and forced his way into the bungalow through a rear window. What he found confirmed Harry Kirby’s fears that a tragedy was about to unfold. Minnie Kirby was lying dead on the floor of the living room, on her stomach, with her head turned to one side. At the base of her skull was a savage wound which had almost separated her head from her body.

In Part Two
AN ARREST INTERRUPTS A GAME OF DOMINOES
ANGUISHED LETTERS

THE DARKEST PLACE … Between the covers

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There can be few tropes – either using visual imagery or words – to match the allure of an disused and desolate lunatic asylum. The more Victorian and ‘Gothick’ the building is, the more it is likely to attract both those brave but foolhardy folk known as Urban Explorers – and writers of atmospheric thrillers. Place the building on a desolate island off the south western coast of Ireland and we have a dream – or nightmare – location for a murder mystery. Then let the tale be told by one of our finest modern writers of crime fiction and, as Wilkins Micawber once said, “Result, happiness.” Happiness at least for those of us who love a good read, but there is less joy for the characters in Jo Spain’s latest novel, The Darkest Place.

TDP coverDublin copper DI Tom Reynolds is summoned from the dubious delights of his family Christmas to solve a murder. Readers of the previous three Tom Reynolds books might think there is little remarkable about that, but this time the corpse has been in the ground for rather longer than usual. Forty years, in fact. On the island of Oileán na Caillte, the pathologists have been disinterring corpses from a mass grave of the unfortunates who passed away as patients of the long-defunct psychiatric institution, St Christina’s. Those involved in the grim task discover nothing illegal, as all the residents of the burial pit were laid to rest in body bags, tagged and entered onto the hospital records. With one exception. That exception is the corpse of one of St Christina’s medical staff Dr Conrad Howe, who mysteriously disappeared forty Christmases ago. No body bag or tag for Dr Howe, but a rather surreptitious last resting place wedged between two other corpses.

For Howe’s widow Miriam the discovery comes as a shock but a release of sorts. For all the Christmases in between she has, like a latter day Mrs Hailsham, laid out the seasonal trappings in the same way each year, half hoping that her husband would return. Her children, now grown up, have humoured her in this ritual up to a point, as has a doctor colleague of her husband’s, Andrew Collins, who retains his connection to Oileán na Caillte. The fact that Collins has been hopelessly in love with Miriam all this time is not lost on Reynolds as he tries to discover who killed Howe with – as tests on his bones reveal – a length of electrical flex which left copper traces on his thoracic vertebrae.

Reynolds is no-one’s fool. As he pores through the almost indecipherable scrawl of Howe’s diary (we share that task with him, but minus the scrawl) he realises that the truth about who killed the idealistic physician involves not only the dead of Oileán na Caillte, but those who are still very much alive. One of the most telling lines in the diary says:

“It is though we are sharing this island with the devil.”

JSOther than that dark angel, the cast of suspects includes another former physician, now himself just days away from death, and others whose culpability in the inhuman treatment of St Christina’s patients has left psychological scars, some of which have become dangerously infected. Of course, this being, among other things, a brilliant whodunnit, Jo Spain (right) allows Tom Reynolds – and us readers – to make one major assumption. She then takes great pleasure, the deviously scheming soul that she is, in waiting until the final few pages before turning that assumption not so much on its head as making it do a bloody great cartwheel.

Jo Spain is a brilliant writer. It really is as simple as that. She takes the humble police procedural and not only breathes new life into it, but makes it dance and jitterbug like a flapper on cocaine. Not content with that, she shifts a heavy old stone covering some of the less palatable aspects of her country’s history, and lets us gaze squeamishly at some of the nasty things that click and scuttle about beneath, disturbed by exposure to the light.

The previous Tom Reynolds novel was Sleeping Beauties, and you can check that out by clicking the blue link. Do the same to see the review of her brilliant standalone novel The Confession. The Darkest Place is published by Quercus and will be available on 20th September.

Quercus

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