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HORROR IN HOLLY STREET . . . A shocking murder in 1901 Leamington (3)

HIHS HEADER

SO FAR – Bessie Lockyer has been sentenced for committing murder while insane. She virtually decapitated her baby son with her husband’s cut-throat razor, and has been sent to Broadmoor. Normally, with these true crime cases, that is the end of the matter, and the killers invariably die in captivity, either by their own hand or other illnesses. Here, though we have something of a turn up for the books. I found a record listing a number of prisoners detained in mental institutions. There are four columns at the right hand side of the page, and they are headed Recovd. (recovered) Reld. (released) Not impd (?) and Died. Against Bessie Lockyer’s name there is written 4th September ’04, and a tick in the Recovd. column.

Broadmoor

‘Recovered’, just three years after murdering her baby? I thought there must be an error, but looked for the Lockyers in the 1911 census. Astonishingly, Bessie and Thomas were reunited and living at 6,Park Drive, Ilkeston, Derbyshire. Not only that, they had two young children, Stanley Walter Lockyer, aged 5 and born in Fulham, and Edward Norman Lockyer, aged 1 and born there in Ilkeston.

Ilkeston 1911
Redemption is not something often found in these stories, but it seems to have happened here. What became of the family after that is not so clear. There is a Bessie Lockyer recorded as dying in Spen Valley, Yorkshire in 1949 at the age of 74, and also a Stanley W Lockyer dying in the same district in 1968, at the age of 62. Both of these records fit what we know of the family. As for Thomas, there is little certainty about what happened to him. Searching the 1939 register proved fruitless.

All we can be thankful for is that Thomas and Bessie Lockyer had the chance to rebuild their lives together – and took it –  after that terrible morning in Holly Street, back in September 1901.

HORROR IN HOLLY STREET . . . A shocking murder in 1901 Leamington (2)

HIHS HEADER

Brighton CottageSO FAR – Thomas and Bessie Lockyer, a young couple originally from Bridport in Dorset, have settled in Leamington Spa, where Thomas is working as a reporter for The Leamington Chronicle. They live in a rented house in Holly Street, and have a six-months old son, Arnold Edward. It is Sunday morning, 1st September 1901. Thomas has gone to sing at the morning service at Spencer Street chapel. Bessie, in a state of extreme distress, has gone to her her next door neighbour, Mrs Wiggins, to tell her that she has harmed her baby. Mrs Wiggins can’t believe that Bessie has hurt Edward, but she goes with Bessie back to No. 17.

On the floor, in the back room of 17 Holly Street, was a large enamel basin. In the basin was the dead body of little Arnold Edward Lockyer. His head had been all but severed from his body. The horrified Mrs Wiggins immediately sent for the police, and found someone to go and summon Thomas Lockyer from his chapel service. Let The Leamington Spa Courier take up the story in its edition of Friday 6th September 1901, when it reported on the appearance of Bessie Lockyer at Leamington Magistrates’Court.

“About a quarter twelve he (Thomas Lockyer) was informed in chapel that was required at home. He went home fast as could. When got there he found his wife in the care of two ladies. They were Miss Wiggins and Mrs. Makins, as far as he could remember. His wife was in state of partial collapse, and having been informed of what had occurred did what he could to comfort his wife. She did not seem to realise what had happened. After some reflection, she seemed to have a dim recollection of what had taken plaoe. Dr. West arrived about the same time and jointly they put questions to the accused. She said she had injured the baby, and added she had cut it. She also drew attention to blood-stains on her right wrist.

Thomas Lockyer was so much upset that he hardly knew what he was asking her. The body of the child was afterwards removed by the police. Dr. West informed him that the baby’s head had been all but severed from the body, only a small quantity of flesh being untouched. P.C. Cope and P.C. Hobley were in the house when he came home. P.C. Hollands came up with him, having met him in Holly Walk. His wife was taken to the Police Station and charged.”

These two extracts, again from The Courier, make for painful reading, 120 years since they were first written. First, the evidence from the policeman who was called to the house.

PC Hobley

Then Dr. West addressed the court.

Dr West

When in police custody, Bessie Lockyer had made an extraordinary statement, which had been transcribed verbatim. It was read to the court.

Screen Shot 2021-09-22 at 18.59.38“Yes. I did it Why did I do it? I believe I was cutting the beans. I undressed him. I cut him there (pointing to her throat). I could not get on with my work. As regards my little baby, I cannot tell. I can look back; I cut him, Tom. What made do it Tom ? It was in a bowl. Yes, it was, Tom. It seemed as though I had pressure like a cap all round here (pointing to her head). Sometimes mother fidgetted me. Some times I cannot keep him clean, and you know we cannot pay. When the baby was born they wanted me to go to chapel. Now when I was going to Chapel at Bridport. I had such a pressure round my head. When I went to chapel father always took me. Why did he take me, Tom? Why didn’t he let me go alone?”

The magistrates had no other option but to indict Bessie Lockyer for murder, and sent her back to prison to await trial at the next Warwick Assizes. When that came round in December, the presiding judge was Mr Justice Bigham (right). Despite his forbidding appearance, he was not a monster and, recognising that at the time of the murder, Bessie Lockyer was insane, he judged that she was unfit to plead and ordered her to be confined “during His Majesty’s pleasure.” Bessie was sent to Broadmoor.

Court record

TO FOLLOW – the case takes a remarkable turn

HORROR IN HOLLY STREET . . . a shocking murder in 1901 Leamington (1)

HIHS HEADER

Bessie Farr was born at 92 West Street, Bridport, Dorset, in 1875. She was the seventh of the eight children of Edward and Jane Farr. The main industry in Bridport was making twine for fishing nets, and the 1881 census tells us that Edward Farr was the foreman at one of the mills. Not far away, in the village of Allington lived the Lockyer family, Thomas, Mary, and their three sons of which Thomas Alexander, the youngest, had been born in 1874. The 1891 census has Bessie, then 16 years-old, apprentice to a dressmaker while, Thomas, still with his family in Allington was training to be a journalist.

Bessie 1891

We know nothing of the courtship between Bessie and Thomas, but in April 1900 they were married in Bridport. By the following year they had moved far away from their Dorset home, and were living in the bustling Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa, and they had a young son, Arnold Edward, born in February 1901. Thomas had served his apprenticeship and was now working as a full time journalist for The Leamington Chronicle. They rented a house, 17 Holly Street East, also known as Brighton Cottage. The 1901 census, taken on 1st April, also shows Bessie’s mother Mary as being in the house.

1901 census

Bessie, who had been a bright and lively young woman before the birth of their son, seems to be have suffering from some form of post-natal depression. She had tried to breastfeed the little boy, but had to resort to giving him artificial milk, which increased her anxiety thus, in turn, further diminishing the chances of her feeding him naturally. She had also become worried about keeping the house clean, and fretted constantly that there was insufficient money coming into the home to keep them all safe. She had taken the baby, with Thomas’s blessing for a holiday back in Dorset over the summer, and had returned, so it was thought, in brighter spirits.

MWA2401On the morning of 1st September, Thomas Lockyer left the house in Holly Street to walk the mile to the church where he sang in the choir – the Congregationalist Chapel in Spencer Street (left). At about 11.30, Mrs Alice Wiggins, the Lockyers’ next door neighbour at No. 16 was surprised to answer the door to a clearly upset Bessie Lockyer. The Leamington Spa Courier later reported:

“About half past eleven on Sunday morning Mrs. Lockyer came into her house. She knocked at the front door and then came through the house to. the back room, which was a kitchen, where Mrs Wiggins was was. She seemed excited and said,
Oh Wiggins I’ve hurt my baby.”
Mrs Wiggins replied “You could not have hurt him. In what way?
Mrs Lockyer said, ” I’ve cut him.
Mts Wiggins answered, “ I don’t think you would hurt him, but let’s go and and see.

Mrs Wiggins accompanied Bessie Lockyer to her house, and went into the back room. She could not see the child at first, and asked where it was. Bessie Lockyer pointed to the floor, and it was a sight that would haunt the neighbour for the rest of her life.

TO BE CONTINUED

THE HANGMAN’S SONG . . . Executions in 19th century Warwick (2)

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PART TWO

WillsOn 6th April 1863, Henry Carter, aged 20, was hanged for the murder of his sweetheart, 18 year-old Alice Hinkley, in December the previous year. The murder occurred in Bissell Street, Birmingham, and was relatively unusual for a ‘domestic’, as it involved a firearm, in this case a double-barrelled pistol. When the case came to Warwick Spring Assizes Carter’s defence was that the pistol had been discharged accidentally, but the jury was having none of it. They found him guilty, but with a recommendation to mercy. Mr Justice Willes (left) donned the black cap, and told Carter”

“I must implore you not to entertain any fond hope that the recommendation can save your life from the consequences of so awful and dreadful an act.”

He was right to be pessimistic. Home Secretary Sir George Grey was disinclined to be merciful, and Henry Carter was hanged. The newspaper reported thus:

“Yesterday morning Henry Carter was executed at the County Gaol, Warwick, in the presence of an immense assemblage of persons. It will be remembered that the culprit was tried at the recent assizes on the 28th ult. before Mr. Justice Willes, for the wilful murder of a young woman named Alice Hinkley, to whom he was paying his addresses, at Birmingham. He admitted when taken into custody that he had shot the unhappy girl. The execution took place at ten minutes after ten o’clock, and it is understood that the culprit confessed his crime ; but as Warwick is one of the gaols from which the press is rigorously excluded, any details are impossible to be given.”

Another account had more detail:

“Henry Carter, brass-founder, aged about twenty, was executed in front of the County Gaol at Warwick, on Thursday, for shooting with a pistol Birmingham, on the 4th of December last, his sweetheart. Alice Hinkley. The facts of the case have been recently reported. Carter had been Sunday-school teacher at Car’s Lane chapel, Birmingham, and spent the chief part of his time since his condemnation in religions devotions. On Thursday week a petition was forwarded the Secretary of State praying for commutation sentence, the grounds of Carter’s youth. An intimation that the the law must take its course was received on Saturday, and the warrant for execution once made out.

The services of Smith* of Dudley, Palmer’s executioner, were retained as hangman. The ceremony commenced shortly before ten o’clock on Thursday morning, when the prisoner attended prayers in the chapel of the gaol, then formed one of the procession of the prison officials to the pinioning room, and thence on to the scaffold. He was asked whether the pistol went off accidentally, and he said, “No. There was no quarrel between us while talking. I shook her hand, and kissed her before parting, and then shot her. It was through jealousy.” On reaching the scaffold in his prison dress he addressed the crowd below, warning them not to give way to similar feelings lest they should meet the fate which he was about to receive. and which, he well deserved. He then repeated a prayer from a book entitled “The Prisoner’s Memorial,” after which the bolt was removed and the drop fell. Death ensued almost instantly.”

George-Smith*George Smith (1805–1874, pictured right), popularly known as The Dudley Throttler , was an English hangman from 1840 until 1872. He was born in Rowley Regis in the West Midlands where he performed the majority of his executions. Although from a good family he became involved with gangs and petty crime in his early life, and was imprisoned in Stafford Gaol on several occasions for theft.

Carter was the last person to be publicly executed in Warwick, and the last to die in front of the old gaol. A new prison was built on Cape Road and the old gaol was converted into a militia barracks. There were to be seven more executions, the last being William Harris on 2nd January 1894. Harris, also known as Haynes, had murdered his girlfriend, Florence Clifford in Aston, Birmingham in September the previous year. The 17 year-old girl, tired of Harris’s brutal behaviour towards her, had decided to leave him, and went to her mother’s house to collect some clothes. Harris followed her there, and murdered her with an axe. He then went on the run, but gave himself up to Northamptonshire police. At his trial, he said:

“I wish I could have chopped the girl’s mother up, and then I should have been satisfied. I would have chopped her into mince-meat, and made sausages of her. I am ready for execution now.”

Defiant and unrepentant during his trial, Harris cut a sorrier figure when he went to the gallows.

Harris execution

It is worth remembering that the death penalty was widely available for a large range of offences until penal reforms in 1835 saw the end of capital punishment for crimes other than murder or attempted murder. The chart below gives an analysis of executions in Warwick during the 19th century. “Uttering” was, basically what we would now call fraud, while “coining” was the crime of counterfeiting or otherwise interfering with currency. It was also considered to be high treason.

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THE HANGMAN’S SONG – Executions in 19th century Warwick (1)

THS header

PART ONE

I was at Warwick School in the 1960s, and our regular cross-country running route was up Gallows Hill, which runs between the Banbury Road and Heathcote Lane. It is certain that it was a place of execution long ago, but my story here is about relatively more recent times when executions at Warwick Gaol were a source of great entertainment for the population. The gaol was situated in what is now Barrack Street, and was rebuilt on that site in the late 18th century. You could be executed for all manner of crimes back in the day (see closing paragraphs of Part Two) but I am focusing on several executions for murder which were carried out between 1820 and 1900.

Dial House

To be a parent and have to suffer the pain of having one of your grown-up children executed for murder must be considered, at the very least, unfortunate, but to have two offspring die in the same way is a tragedy. Such, however, was the fate of a Mrs Heytrey, a widow living in Charlecote. Her daughter Ann, 21, was a servant in the house of Mr and Mrs Dormer who lived at Dial House, Ashow (above). On the evening of 29th August 1819, while other members of her family were out for a walk, Mrs Sarah Dormer was sitting in a chair, reading. For no apparent reason, and without any provocation, Ann Heytrey came up to Mrs Dormer and punched her hard on the head, knocking her onto the floor. Dazed, Mrs Dormer staggered upstairs, but Ann Heytrey, wielding a large kitchen knife followed her, and slit her throat from ear to ear.

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When the family returned, they found Heytrey “in a great state of perspiration” with blood on her apron. Mrs Dormer’s body was discovered, Heytrey was arrested and duly tried for murder and Petty Treason – the crime of violating the authority of a social superior. She was found guilty and, as decreed for any crime of treason, bound to a hurdle (a kind of gate woven with sticks) which was then drawn by a horse to the place of execution. She was hanged in front of Warwick Gaol on 12th April 1820, and a final indignity was visited on the hapless woman’s body in death, as while her body was still warm, it was cut down and sent to Kenilworth to be dissected by doctors. The travails of her mother in Charlecote were not over, however.

On 14th April 1821, the Warwick crowd was entertained by a quadruple hanging. Henry Adams, Thomas Heytrey (brother of Ann), Nathaniel Quinney and Samuel Sidney had been convicted of the murder of a wealthy landowner, Thomas Hiron, in November the previous year. The reports of the killing were sensational:

“On Saturday, the 4th instant, at an early hour in the evening, a ferocious and murderous robbery was committed within a few miles of the borough of Warwick, upon Mr. William Hiron, a gentleman residing at Alveston, about two miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. The deceased had on that day dined with his nephew, Mr. Thomas Hiron, surgeon, of Warwick, and set out from his house, to return home, about seven o’clock. Between seven and eight the next morning, Mr. Hiron’s horse was found at the stable door, when search was instantly made after its master.”

Hunscott

“”On the road leading from Wellesbourne to Alveston, near to Little Ham Bridge, about half mile from the house, his keys, gloves, and stick, were found upon the ground, near to which lay a quantity of blood. A short time afterwards the unfortunate gentleman was found lying in a senseless state, without his hat, in a deep ditch in Hunscott Lane, by a woman who was passing that way. She immediately procured assistance, and he was conveyed home. It is supposed that he had been attacked by some villains at the place where the blood, and other articles belonging to him, were discovered, and that, after beating him about the head in a most dreadful manner, they had robbed and then left him. It was also supposed that Mr. Hiron, after lying some time, recovered a little, and had attempted to find his way home, but, from the state of confusion which he must have been in from the nature of his wounds, instead of taking the road for Alveston, went towards Charlecote, and becoming faint from the loss of blood, had fallen into the ditch. The deceased, we most sincerely regret to add, lingered till Tuesday night, nearly in a senseless state, and then expired. His executors immediately offered a reward of two hundred guineas to any person who would give such information as should lead to the conviction of the offenders. Four men were apprehended in the neighbourhood of Alveston, on Thursday, on suspicion of having committed the murder, and, it is added, that they have confessed the horrid deed.

The account of the closing day of Warwick Spring Assizes for 1821 begins with this:

Warwick Assizes

And continues:

“Thursday was principally occupied with the trial of Quinney, Adams, Heytrey, and Sidney, for the murder of Mr. William Hiron, in the parish of Alveston On the 7th November last. lt appeared in evidence that Mr. Hiron had been in Warwick on the day in question, to give his vote to Mr. Lawley in the late county election, and left that place about eight o’clock in the evening, on his return home. When he got to Little Ham Bridge, six miles from Warwick, and about half mile from his mother’s house, the prisoners attacked him, put a large hook, in the form of a shepherd’s hook, round his body and pulled him off his horse. Mr. Hiron sprung upon his feet, when three of them attacked him. (Heytrey being hid behind the hedge) and beat him with large bludgeons until he was senseless. They then robbed him of two or three pound notes and his pocket book, and left him in the road to all appearances dead. Mr. Hiron, in the course of the night, recovered a little, got up, and endeavoured to go home, but missing his way, he went up Hunscott lane, where fell into a ditch. In this situation, nearly senseless from his wounds, loss of blood, and cold, he was found about eight o’clock the next morning, lying upon his back. The prisoners had made separate confessions before the coroner, Mr. Hunt, acknowledging the murder, and the part each of them had taken in the barbarous deed. These confessions, added to the corroborative evidence given by the respective witnesses, left no doubt whatever in the minds the Jury, or on a very crowded Court, of their having committed the murder. The Jury found them all guilty, and in pursuance of their sentence the unhappy men underwent the dreadful penalty of the law shortly before twelve o’clock on Saturday morning.”

As a sad postscript, it was reported that Mrs Heytrey had “died of a broken heart” even before her son had breathed his last.

IN PART TWO …. The last public hanging and a new gaol

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.

THE STEN GUN KILLER . . . A brutal murder in 1949 Leamington (2)

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SO FAR – It is January 1949. Two men, Edward Sullivan (49) and Gordon Towle (19) have been working on a Leamington building site near what is now Westlea Road. There has been friction between them, with Great War veteran Sullivan (left) apparently sneering at Towle because the latter had not done his bit in the armed forces.

The events of Tuesday 25th January 1949 were to shock and mesmerise local people. At Leamington Police Station on the High Street it was 10.20am, and senior officers Inspector Green and Superintendent Gardner were leaving to carry out a routine inspection, when a burly, broad-shouldered young man entered the station. He was carrying what appeared to be a Sten gun. He said, quite calmly and without drama:
“I have shot a man. I am ill”
Green said, with some incredulity:
“Do you know what you are saying?”
The young man, who identified himself as Gordon Towle, handed the Inspector the Sten gun, along with an empty magazine and a magazine loaded with live 9mm bullets, and said:
“He has been pulling my leg and something came Into my head. I do silly things when I am funny like that. I think I have killed him. He is on the Bury Road estate; go to him. My head went funny and I shot him. I was not in the Army and they got on to me”

Towle was placed in a cell, and the officers took a police car and soon arrived at the building site. There lying in a pool of blood was the body of a man, later identified as Edward Sullivan. Around his body were found no fewer than 24 empty 9 mm. Sten gun cartridge cases – a full magazine holds 28 – and digging operations brought to light more bullets. Some were also found embedded in a nearby timber stack. When the police surgeon Dr. D. F. Lisle Croft arrived and examined the body, he was only able pronounce life extinct.

Events now moved on at pace. Chief Superintendent Alec Spooner, Head of Warwickshire CID was called, but that was a formality; there was little or no detective work required here. The first member of the Sullivan family to be told of the tragedy was son John, home on leave from the army. He had the melancholy task of telling his mother, Katherine Margaret Sullivan, that she was a widow. Above right, Towle is pictured being taken to the preliminary magistrate’s hearing.

In a newspaper report of one of Towle’s appearance before the magistrates, the journalist certainly exercised his imagination. Under a lurid headline headline, he described the scene thus:

“An unusually strong winter sun shone through the stained-glass windows of the Town Hall Council Chamber Wednesday, etching on the floor pattern in deep scarlet and blue. As the minutes went by, the shadow moved slowly and silently across the linoleum, and equally inexorably, quietly and persuasively, Mr. J. F. Claxton (for the Director of Public Prosecutions) outlined the history of the Kingsway Estate shooting on January 25th. Beside policeman, sat 19-year-old Gordon Towle, husband of less than six months, charged with murder. According a statement alleged have been made by him, Towle could no longer stand the taunts of a workmate, and so produced a Sten gun and fired two – or three, for the number is In doubt  – bursts into the body of Edward Sullivan (49), Irishman, 6, Swadling Street, Leamington.

A full public gallery heard that Sullivan was killed outright by the ten bullets which entered his body in every vital part. The proceedings were intently listened by his widow and daughter – both in deep mourning – and his son, whose Army battle dress bore, the left arm. a narrow black band. In the afternoon, when only three of the fourteen called to give evidence remained to be heard, the Court had to move into an ante-room to make way for the tea organised by the Church England Zenana Missionary Society.

Only three members of the public, the widow, the daughter and one other lady, remained. Towle, dressed a sports coat and grey flannels, with an open necked cricket shirt, appeared to take a keen interest in all that was being said, but it was noticeable that at the end of the hearing, he blinked and then screwed face as if trying desperately hard to understand what was being said to him. He was asked if he had anything to say or any witnesses to call, and replied, quite firmly “No. sir.” — the only time he spoke throughout the hearing. But as he went to regain his seat, he stumbled little though about to fall. He sat down and heard the formality of his committal for trial at Warwick Assizes”

LynskeyGordon Towle’s time in front of Mr Justice Lynskey (left) at the March Assizes in Warwick was short – if far from sweet. Doctors gave evidence that he was quite mad, and he was sentenced to spend the rest of his days in a secure mental unit. The most puzzling matter for me was how Towle came to in possession of a Sten gun. He told the court that he had simply “pinched it” from the local drill hall, (probably the one in Clarendon Terrace) and stole the ammunition – police later found hundreds of live rounds in his house – from “an aerodrome”.

A postscript, which may bring a touch of humour to an otherwise dark tale. I can vouch for the inventive ways Army quartermasters had of “balancing the books.” regarding missing firearms. Back in the day, I taught at a public school in Cambridgeshire. The school Cadet Corps was being wound up, and an old sweat arrived from Waterbeach barracks to take an inventory of the firearms. To his dismay, he discovered that the armoury held one too many Lee Enfield rifles. This sent him into a lather, as it was apparently simple to account for missing guns on an inventory. They could just be written off as damaged or stripped for parts. But one too many? This was serious, and could only be remedied by a couple of squaddies rowing out in a boat one dark night on a local gravel pit, and dropping the offending item over the side, never to be seen again.

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THE STEN GUN KILLER . . . A brutal murder in 1949 Leamington (1)

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SwadlingSwadling Street in Leamington is an unassuming thoroughfare, with houses which were built on the old Shrubland Estate between the wars. It was named after a Leamington councillor of the 1920s, and in 1931 it boasted twenty addresses. In January 1949, number 6 was occupied by Edward Sullivan. A 49 year-old Irishman and father of six children – three sons and three daughters – he worked as a builder’s labourer. Known to his mates – inevitably – as Paddy – he was working on a council house building project on Westlea Road, which was another between-wars development on what had been the Shrubland Estate.

Just a couple of hundred yards away was Bury Road – again, named after a local civic dignitary – and number 120 was the home of Gordon Towle. He was 19 years old, and lived with his wife Lilian, who he had married just three months earlier. He worked on the same building site as Edward Sullivan. Towle was a Leamington lad, and had earlier applied to join the army, but had been rejected on medical grounds. At the age of 10, he had damaged his head in an accident, and went to hospital to have the wound dressed, but was sent home again during what he remembered as “the bad raids”. There were three air raids on Leamington on 1940. The first, in August, resulted in no casualties, but as a result of subsequent raids in October and November, 7 people were killed. It seems that Towle’s mother had a history of mental illness, and had been taken in care, which resulted in Towle and his two brothers being sent to live with family friends in Rugby.

It’s worth, at this point, to digress slightly and look at what Leamington was like in 1949. The great diaspora of families from the teeming terraces south of High Street up to the new builds in Lillington had yet to happen. Names of WW2 casualties had been added to the town war memorial but, thankfully, not in the number that the stonemasons had been tasked with in 1919. The damage caused by the Luftwaffe bombs in an effort to target Lockheed and Flavels factories had been cleared away and, despite the huge swing away from the Conservative party in the 1945 general election, Leamington still had faith in its pre-war MP, Anthony Eden. I was just 18 months old in 1949, so my memories are totally unreliable but I can tell you that our house in Victoria Street still had gas lighting, a pump in the scullery, and a large ‘copper’ in which water was heated for the weekly bath.

So, back to Edward Sullivan and Gordon Towle. The two men had clearly rubbed each other up the wrong way. Sullivan had mocked Towle for his lack of military service. We know that Sullivan had a son in the British army, and he himself had been a regular soldier with the Royal Army Service Corps during The Great War. He stayed in the army after the Armistice and did a further four years service out in India, returning in 1923. People tend to forget that men from what was to become the Republic of Ireland played a gallant part in The Great War. There were also some who fought for the British in WW2, and they were treated in a shocking manner by the Irish state after the war.

Whatever the reasons for the animosity between Sullivan and Towle, things were about to come to a dramatic and bloody head. Heaven only knows how or why, but Gordon Towle had, secreted in his bedroom a Sten gun and hundred rounds of ammunition. Most lads growing up in the 1950s with access to Commando comics and other bloodthirsty stuff, will have an instant image of what a Sten gun looks like. It was a brutally simple piece of engineering – a sub machine gun designed for destruction rather than accuracy. A full magazine contained 32 rounds of 9mm bullets, and at short range it was a devastating weapon. In part two, we will discover how and why Gordon Towle had a Sten gun in his possession and – more importantly – what he did with it.

Sten Gun

PART TWO will go live on Thursday 1st April

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