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A CHAPTER OF HORRORS . . . A tragedy from 1890 (1)


ACOH header1I have been researching and writing
about true crimes for many years now and, by their very nature, the events I have described rarely make easy reading. On display is a journey through the very worst of human character, from weakness, via jealousy and insanity, through to pure and simple evil. I can say, however, that the story I am about to tell has been hard to write. It contains descriptions of madness and physical violence which may not be to everyone’s taste, so, if you are squeamish, then maybe this is not for you. Every word of this story is taken from contemporary newspaper reports and transcriptions from a criminal trial that horrified readers in the early summer of 1890.

We are not quite in Louth, but just a few miles south east, in the gentle landscape on the edge of The Wolds, and bordering the former marshland which stretches out to the coastal settlements of Mablethorpe, Trusthorpe and Sutton. South Reston is a modest village now, as it was then. In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described South Reston like this:

RESTON (South), a parish, with a village, in Louth district, Lincoln; 2 miles N N E of Authorpe railway station, and 6 S E of Louth. Post-town, Louth. Acres, 710. Real property, £1, 312. Pop., 235. Houses, 51. The property is divided among a few. S. R. Hall is the seat of W. Hay, Esq. There is a brick and tile manufactory. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Lincoln. Value, £180. Patron, the Duchy of Lancaster. The church was rebuilt in 1865; and is in the early English style. There are chapels for Wesleyans and Free Methodists, a parochial school, and charities £7.

It is the family of William Hay of South Reston Hall (pictured below) that concerns us in this story. The Hays were a landed family spread across the county as far north as Scunthorpe and Brigg. The Hall itself is on an ancient site that dates back to pre-Domesday times. Strangely, in the 1881 census, the inhabitants of the Hall are listed as Lizzie Hay, aged 20, as Head of House, with her younger siblings Walter and Mary. You will notice the name of John Crow living close by. He was to be a witness to the dreadful events about to be described. In 1891, a few months after the dreadful crime about to be described, the Hay family seem to have been all together again.

Although it is not illegal, we are, nowadays, justifiably squeamish about first cousin marriages. Where it does occur – mostly in immigrant families – it is a proven cause of child deformities and mental health problems. The Hay family, however in the second half of the 19th century, had no qualms. George Dawson Hay, elder son of William and Elizabeth had married his first cousin, Louisa Hay. The 1881 census has her, aged 14, living with her farming family in Humberston, just south of Cleethorpes. Also named is Thomas W Hay, aged 13.

George Hay had been gifted a house and land on which to farm. South Reston Grange sits near the junction of Willoughby Lane and Scrub Lane, a little way south west of the village. The household comprised George Dawson Hay junior, just a year old, his two year-old sister Ethel, and – strangely – Louisa’s brother, Thomas.

It seems that mental illness was not uncommon in the Hay family. A Thomas Hay, of Yarborough, had died eighteen months earlier in Bracebridge Asylum, Lincoln; George Hay’s older brother, William, had died at the Hall in 1886, while his younger brother, Sidney, was undergoing treatment for what was termed ‘melancholia’. George Hay himself had spent some time in New Zealand, and had confessed to trying to do away with himself there.

On the early morning of 24th May, the staff of South Reston Hall were astonished to see George Hay enter the building. He had apparently been sleeping in a stable. but his clothes were soaking wet, and he was covered in mud from head to foot. His mother came to his aid, and he told her that he had been to the nearby village of Withern, where he had tried to drown himself in the Great Eau (pictured left), a narrow but swift flowing stream which eventually dissipates into the marshes near Saltfleet. Mrs Hay packed him off to bed with a glass of whisky, realising that this was the latest manifestation of mental troubles of which George had been complaining for some weeks. When she went up to see him, a little later that morning, he was still awake, but barely coherent. He asked her just one thing:

“I think you had better go down to The Grange, and see how they are getting on there.”

A simple request from a concerned husband? What the visitors to The Grange found would scar them for the rest of their lives.

IN PART TWO – A TRUE CHAPTER OF HORRORS

DEATH COMES TO NEWMARKET . . . A savage murder in Victorian Louth (3)

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PART THREE

SO FAR – On the evening of Sunday 7th March, 1875, 22 year-old Louisa Hodgson is stabbed to death in the family home on Newmarket. Her killer, suitor Peter Blanchard, has been arrested and is awaiting trial at Lincoln Assizes.

It is worth, at this point – with Louisa dead and buried and Peter languishing in a prison cell – to examine the background – to the killing. It emerged during the investigation that all was not well between Louisa and Peter. While Mr Hodgson kept out of things, Louisa’s mother was beginning to frown on the relationship., partly because Peter Blanchard was subject to epileptic fits.

There is also the question of Peter Blanchard’s jealousy. Was there a rival for Louisa’s affections? At the inquest, evidence was given by John Campion:

“I am a farmer residing in Brackenborough Lane, Louth. I was at Mr. Hodgson’s house from eight to nine o’clock the previous evening. I saw Peter Blanchard there. He came into the kitchen to light his cigar. I left about 9 o’clock and when going out I could hear Blanchard and the deceased talking very loud. I thought I heard Blanchard say ” I will.” and the deceased burst out crying. I am a friend of the deceased’s brother and I had offered to keep company with her. I believe Blanchard was jealous of me and he had threatened to give me a good thrashing as he was going to chapel on Sunday night.”

The Spring Assizes at Lincoln was only a few days after the murder. The case was presented, but adjourned until the summer, to give more time for evidence to be gathered. The Summer Assizes opened at the end of July 1875 and, as usual, the jury was made up of men of ‘reputation and good standing.’

Trial

It might be thought that when Peter Blanchard came to take the stand, proceedings would have been relatively brief, given that there was little doubt that he had killed Louisa Hodgson. His defence team, however, lead by Mr Samuel Danks Waddy, knew that their only hope of saving Peter Blanchard from execution was to convince the jury that he was insane at the time of the murder, and so there was a long debate about the prisoner’s mental health. The jury eventually retired and returned with a verdict of ‘guilty’, but with a recommendation that Blanchard should be spared the hangman’s noose. Before the judge gave his verdict, Peter Blanchard was allowed to speak:

“My Lord and Gentlemen, – I have a few words to say. I did not not know what I was doing, or else I could not have done it. I loved her so much, and never believed it was true that I had killed her till I got one of her funeral cards, for I had never anything against her. I would take my place in hell if her dear soul might go to heaven, for I would at any time sooner suffer myself, than see her suffer. I should be thankful if you would give my parents my body to take to Louth, in order that I may laid by the side of my dear Louisa. I wish to give one word of advice to you. my dear young friends, both men and women. You have come here to see me. and hear sentence passed upon me. Keep out of bad company. That was my ruin. My first failing was that I was soon persuaded to smoke ; from that I got to drinking and then to gambling, and then to neglect to go to a place of worship. Then I lost my senses at times, and then the fits came on. Let this be warning to you all. Look to Jesus, or some of you may be standing where I am next year. And if parents would look after their own families they would find plenty of work, without looking after others. After naming a man who. he said, had caused him many restless nights, the prisoner continued : I pray to God that this may be a warning to you all, and I hope my Heavenly Father will permit me to meet you all in heaven, to part no more. I shall soon be in heaven, and I am sure to meet my dear Louisa there. Young and old. come to Jesus, for he will help you in the time of trouble. Good bye to you all.”

Mr Justice Lindley was not empowered, to be merciful, however, and was only able to put Peter Blanchard’s fate in the hands of the Home Secretary:

Verdict

Screen Shot 2021-03-22 at 19.36.24Sadly for Peter Blanchard and his family, the Home Secretary, Richard Blanchard Cross (left), was not inclined to be merciful, and Peter Blanchard was executed on Monday 9th August 1875. This newspaper report tells the melancholy story:
“Peter Blanchard, a tanner, of Louth, Lincolnshire, was executed yesterday morning at Lincoln Castle for the murder of Louisa Hodgson at Louth in March last. The prisoner was examined by Dr. Briscoe on Friday, by order of the Home Secretary, with the view of ascertaining whether the jury’s recommendation to mercy, on the ground of his mind having been weakened by fits, could be acted upon. The result, however, was unfavourable to the prisoner, and the law was allowed to take its course. The crime for which Blanchard was executed was committed in a fit of jealousy arising out of a love affair. The young woman whom he was courting disregarded his attentions, nor was he looked upon favourably as a suitor by her parents. On Sunday evening, the 7th of March, she was accompanied to church by a young man, and on returning home they were met by Blanchard, who walked the remaining distance with her. When he took his departure she went to the door with him, and he suddenly drew out a knife and stabbed her to the heart, death being instantaneous. He then left and called on a neighbour, to whom he said, “I have done it.” Since his conviction Blanchard has slept well, and has been most attentive to the ministrations of the clergyman daily. On Saturday he had a final interview with his father and mother, his four brothers, and a friend. He acknowledged the justice of his punishment, and stated he had no wish to live. He averred that he did not know at the moment what he was doing when he committed the deed. Yesterday morning he was quite resigned to his fate, and walked unsupported to the gallows. He shook hands with the gaol chaplain and officials, and the last words he was heard to utter were, “Good-bye, my dear fellows; I am quite re- signed, and hope to meet you all in heaven.” He slept well on Sunday night, rose at six yesterday morning, breakfasted at seven, and wrote a short letter to his parents and brothers. He died almost without a struggle. Mr Marwood was the executioner.”

DEATH COMES TO NEWMARKET . . . A savage murder in Victorian Louth (2)

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PART TWO

SO FAR – On the evening of Sunday 7th March, 1875, 22 year-old Louisa Hodgson is stabbed to death by a man – Peter Blanchard – who had been courting her for four years. She dies almost instantly after Blanchard’s knife pierced her heart. The pair had been together in the sitting room of Louisa’s family home at 29 Newmarket (below) Blanchard has fled the scene.

Painting

William Turner, a dealer in poultry, lived with his wife Emma in their small house in Vickers Lane. It was 10.30pm, Emma Turner had gone to bed, and William had locked the house up and was preparing to join his wife, when he heard someone trying the front door. He went to investigate, and found Peter Blanchard. Blanchard was clearly in a state about something, and asked if could come in. Turner’s evidence continued as follows:

“He asked if I would give him some whisky. I said my wife had gone to bed, but I would call her down and see if we had such a thing in the house. She came down and said we had not She gave him glass of brandy instead. He said, “I have done It”. I told my wife to take the bottle away and give him no more.

I said, “Done what Peter ?” At first he made no reply, but on my again asking him, he said, “I have stabbed the missus.” These were his exact words. I said, “What with ?” and he replied, “With a butcher’s knife. If I had not done it with a butcher’s knife I should have done it with this, putting his hand into his pocket and pulling out a razor. He put it back into his pocket. He first opened and shut it again. He was very excited and irritable. I could not say he was drunk. He had the use of his limbs as well as I have mine now.

My wife prevailed upon him to take the razor from his pocket and give to me. I told my wife to call my son to fetch Peter’s father and mother, and also to go to Mr. Hodgson’s and inquire what it meant. On my son’s return he said “She is dead.”

Town Map
Locations

The Hodgsons had already sent for the police, and Sergeant Wilkinson and Superintendent Roberts were at the scene when 16 year-old Thomas Turner arrived. He immediately informed the officers that Peter Blanchard was at the house in Vickers Lane. When Wilkinson and Roberts arrived, there was a scene of complete confusion. There were several members of the Blanchard family in the house, as well as the Turners and their five other children. Superintendent Roberts then arrested Blanchard. This was his evidence:

“On my seizing the prisoner he said, “I’ll go”. I’ll go without the handcuffs”.
He then said, “Is she dead?
I said, “Yes she is, and you are charged with killing her, but keep yourself quiet”.
He was a in a very excited state. He answered me:
It’s a good job, and I’m glad.”
We then brought him to the police-station, where I told him he would be detained on a charge of wilful murder. To this be said ,
“Oh, I did it and I’ll die like a man for her.”

I told him that what he said would be taken down and given in evidence against him.  I  cautioned him and expressly warned him that whatever said would be taken down and produced against him. I did not put any questions to him. The exact words I used were these, when he was in the cell:
“When I told you that you would be charged with this serious offence, I did not know for a certainty the girl was dead. You will be charged with the wilful murder of Louisa Hodgson”’
He then said: “Is she dead?” and on my replying, “I have already told you so” he said:
“God bless her.”
He was undoubtedly under the influence of drink; but my impression was that be knew well what he was doing.”

New map

At the Magistrate’s Court the next morning, Monday 8th March, Dr Higgins gave his account of Louisa’s injuries:

“I am a registered medical practitioner, practising in Louth. I was sent for to see Louisa Hodgson at about a quarter past ten o’clock. I went at once and found her dead. I saw a wound on the chest but did not then make further examination. This morning I made a post mortem examination. The wound was situated about half an inch below the nipple of the left breast. It was an incised wound about one inch in extent. I traced the wound which had penetrated the chest wall between the fourth and and fifth ribs, passed through the interior margin of the upper lobe of the left lung, and entered the left auricle of the heart.

I found a considerable quantity of blood effused into the pericardial and pleural sacs. The wound was sufficient to cause death rapidly, almost instantaneously. The heart would only beat a few seconds after it was inflicted.

I believe the knife produced would produce a similar wound to one described. It might have penetrated four inches.”

Blanchard had thrown away the murder weapon (a butchers’ knife) but it had been recovered in Aswell Street. He had taken the knife from his landlady’s kitchen. The magistrates committed Blanchard to be tried for murder at the next Assizes in Lincoln.

Louisa Hodgson was laid to rest in Louth Cemetery on Wednesday 10th March.

Funeral

In PART THREE – trial and execution

DEATH COMES TO NEWMARKET . . . A savage murder in Victorian Louth (1)

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PART ONE

It is March 1875. Mr Disraeli is the Prime Minister, and in Louth, local architect James Fowler is Lord Mayor. At No. 29 Newmarket lives agricultural blacksmith John Hodgson, his wife Jane and their large family. Elder son Charles has moved out but there are still seven other young Hodgsons at home, the oldest being Louisa, aged 22.

For the last four years, Louisa has been courted by a young man called Peter Blanchard, aged 25, the elder of another large family who live at 29 Charles Street. Peter’s father, Peter senior, with whom he works was described as a fellmonger, an old word for someone who deals in animal skins. Peter the younger had moved out of the family home and was living in town with a woman called Mrs Baker who kept a lodging house on Eastgate.

Photograph of Free Methodist Church, Eastgate, Louth, Lincolnshire [c.1930s-1980s] by John Piper 1903-1992


The Hodgson family were devout churchgoers, and their chosen place of worship was the imposing Free Methodist church on Eastgate (above). This had been built in the 1850s after the so-called ‘Free’ Methodists split from the mainstream Wesleyan church. On the evening of Sunday 7th March, the Hodgson family attended the evening service in Eastgate. Peter Blanchard was standing across the way from the church, outside Mrs Baker’s house, and he came over to talk to Louisa but did not join them when they went into the church. At about 7.45 pm, the family left the church, to find Blanchard waiting for them. Mr and Mrs Hodgson went to visit friends in the town but Louisa, Blanchard and the two younger Hodgson girls – Alice and Harriet – walked up the hill to Newmarket.

Mr and Mrs Hodgson returned home at 9.15, along with another young man called John George Campion, a farmer who lived on Brackenborough Road. Louisa and Blanchard were  together in the sitting room, but the rest of the family were in the kitchen. Contemporary newspaper reports can do a much better job of describing what happened next that I can. These were the words of John Hodgson:

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In PART TWO – an arrest and a funeral

THE ST MICHAEL’S ROAD MURDER . . . The madness of a daughter (part 2)

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Louth. February 1950. Gladys Hirschberg is living with her mother Alice Wright at 32 St Michael’s Road (below). 55 year-old Gladys has had an eventful life. She married a soldier, Victor King, in 1916, was widowed the next year, and then went to Rhodesia with a new husband, and took his name, von Hirschberg. Gladys returned to England at the beginning of World War Two and served with the ATS. After a brief return to Rhodesia, she came back to Louth in 1946.

32 St Michaels

On the morning of Sunday 19th February, Mrs Lena Gibson who was a neighbour of Gladys and her mother answered a frantic knocking on her door to find Gladys, shaking and white faced. Gladys said to Lena:
You had better come and see. I have killed my mother. I hit her on the head with a hammer.”
Entering No.32, Lena was horrified to see Alice Wright unconscious on the sofa, with a dreadful head wound.

Todd

An ambulance was summoned and the police came and took Gladys into custody, She was formally charged with attempting to kill her mother. The senior officer who read the charge was none other than Superintendent George Todd (above), Gladys Hirschberg’s co-star in the Louth Playgoer’s production of The Winslow Boy in April the previous year.

Alice Wright never recovered consciousness and died two days later, so when Gladys Hirschberg appeared at Louth Magistrates Court on 21st February, the charge was murder. After another hearing on 11th March, Gladys was committed for trial at Lincoln Assizes in June.

It seems that Gladys was in such a bad way
that she was sent to Winson Green prison in Birmingham, because it had a secure mental unit, and it was from there that she came to trial at Lincoln on Tuesday 6th June. The presiding judge was George Lynskey.

This is the newspaper report of proceedings:

In court she wore a black coat and a grey jumper. She looked pale but seemed composed. She pleaded not guilty in a clear voice. While the Jury was sworn in she stood with bowed head and downcast eyes between two women prison officers. The courtroom was crowded, the majority there being women.

Hirschberg was defended by Mr. R. C. Vaughan. K.C.. and Mr. W. K Carter. Mr S.L.Elborne, prosecuting, said that Hirschberg had been living in Rodesia and had returned to England to look after her mother. Later, after living at home and then working in London, she had an offer of another job in Rhodesia, and her mother was going with her. The home and furniture were to be sold. Mrs Wright was over 80, and apparently the accused thought she was doing right by moving her to Rhodesia.

Hirschberg then became more troubled about the situation, and February 19th she told a neighbour that she had hit her mother on the head with a hammer and had killed her. Mrs Wright was found with severe head injuries and died later in hospital.

The neighbour, Lena Marjorie Gibson said Hirschberg had worried about taking her mother to Rhodesia and felt she was taking away her security by selling the house. Hirschberg had been widowed in the first war, married a Belgian and had said this marriage was unhappy. She had sought refuge in Army work during the war and became a junior commander in the ATS.

Mrs. Gibson described how Hirschberg became more worried, had financial worries when her husband stopped her allowance, and felt she was a failure and her life futile.

She had fits of depression and on one occasion was seen crouching in an animal attitude with staring eyes and twitching face.

“I was afraid she was no longer sane.” said Mrs. Gibson. She had also said herself she felt her mind was going. In statements to the police Hirschberg was alleged to have said that her mental state made her want to escape from her responsibilities. She tried to gas herself, and then decided it would be best if they both “went out” because some aspects of her life had been a failure.


“Quite suddenly a cloud came over me and 1 felt I must end it all for both,” Something in her brain told her she must do it but only part of her knew what she was doing with the hammer. She had hit herself on the head with the hammer. The last few weeks had been a terrible effort as if her hands and brain had not co-operated without terrific effort.

Clipping

Called for the defence, Dr J Humphreys of Birmingham prison said Hirschberg considered herself a failure in her job in London and had a feeling of guilt that her friends were having to do things for her mother which she felt she should have been doing. She was suffering from an acute sense of chronic depression which was a mental disease. While in prison,said the doctor, Hirschberg swallowed five needles because she said she wanted to suffer physical pain instead of the anguish she was feeling.

She had told him she was an outcast and dare not approach God in prayer – which was born out by the fact that she refused to go to the prison chapel or see the chaplain.

When she committed the act she would not know that what she was doing was wrong. Evidence that she was suffering from a mental disease was also given by Dr. M. Sim, a psychiatrist at a Birmingham hospital.


The prosecution didn’t challenge the assertion that Gladys Hirschberg did murder her mother whie insane, and she was sentenced to be detained “at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.”

There is a poignant postscript to this sad tale. A few years later, Messrs Falkner & Co, Solicitors, of 17 Cornmarket, Louth acted for Gladys Hirschberg as she applied to change her surname to King. This was of, course, in remembrance of Victor Algernon Robert King, her young husband who had perished in Flanders thirty seven years earlier. In this legal claim, her address was given as Crowthorne, Berkshire, which is home to the secure mental hospital known as Broadmoor.

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THE ST MICHAEL’S ROAD MURDER . . . The madness of a daughter (part 1)

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Gladys Wright was born in Louth in 1894. Her father, Edward Wright was a schoolmaster, and the census of 1911 has the family living at Egmont – No. 4 South Street, Louth. Edward Wright went on to become Headmaster of St Michael’s School, where his wife Alice also taught.

Wright census
In December1916, Gladys married a young man named Victor King, in Richmond, Surrey. Their marriage was to be short lived, however. Victor was Second Lieutenant in The Machine Gun Corps, and on 29th September, he was killed during the Third Battle of Ypres, better known perhaps as the Battle of Paschendaele. His name is one of 34,000 others inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, which indicates that if he was given a battlefield burial, his grave was later lost. A grimmer option is that his body was simply destroyed by shellfire.

Like so many other young widows, Gladys had the rest of her life to live, and at some point between the end of the Great War and the beginning of World War Two, she met and married a man called von Hirschberg. It seems that they tried to begin a new life in what was then Rhodesia, where the von Hirschberg family had lived for decades. Whatever happened to the marriage was never recorded publicly, but by World War Two, Gladys was back in England and serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service – the ATS – a volunteer unit for women. After the war, the ATS became the WRAC, but Gladys chose not to continue with service life and, after another brief spell in Rhodesia, returned to Louth to live with her widowed mother Alice in her house in St Michael’s Road.

Gladys, now in her 50s, was a keen amateur actress and a member of the Louth Playgoers group. The only surviving photograph of her dates from 1949, when she played the role of Mrs Winslow in Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play, The Winslow Boy. One of the strange ironies of this story is that the gentleman playing Mr Winslow in the play was George Todd. When he wasn’t learning his lines, Todd was better known as Superintendent Todd of Louth police. He and his co-star were to meet again a year later in rather different circumstances.

Gladys031
Part two of this story will go live at 6.00pm on Sunday 21st February

A LOUTH TRAGEDY . . . Part Three

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ON SATURDAY 23rd JULY, 1927, Bertram Horace Kirby was told in Louth Magistrates Court that he would be sent to the next Lincoln Assizes to be tried for the murder of his wife on Tuesday 11th July. Throughout the hearing, Kirby had spoken only once, to tell the court that he was handing everything over to his solicitor, and would have nothing more to say, other than admitting that Minnie Eleanor Kirby had died at his hands. Meanwhile, poor Minnie had been buried in her home town of Boston.

Cemetery_Church,_Boston“The funeral of Mrs. Minnie Eleanor Kirby, Louth, took place at Boston Cemetery on Friday afternoon last. The coffin was conveyed in motor hearse, there were one car and a motor-car for the mourners, who numbered six. The most pathetic figure was the deceased’s son, Mr. Harry Kirby, tall and fair haired, who appeared very distressed, particularly at the committal portion of the service. The remains were first of all taken into the little church, where a short service was conducted by the Rev. O. K. Wrigley, who also officiated at the graveside. The floral tributes were both numerous and beautiful. Included were the following: “Mother,” with fondest love from her boys, Harry, Ralph and Norman; To darling Minnie, from her sorrowing sister, Emilie; “Pax ; At rest ” darling sister Minnie with fondest love, from Edith; to dear Minnie from her sorrowing brother and sister, Charlie and Judy, Gillingham ; Auntie and Uncle; Phoebe: In affectionate remembrance from L. A. and M. Kirby ; with deepest sympathy from L. A. and A. C. Kirby; Kate; Mr. and Mrs. G. A. Brough and family; R. Watson; B. and W Took ; Miss Carter and Miss Teanby.

The events surrounding the killing of Minnie Kirby became clear following witness statements in front of Louth magistrates. On the morning of 11th of July, at 7.30 am, Mrs Kirby had taken delivery of some letters from the postman, and a little later, 8 year-old Norman had set off to school. At some point during the morning she had been sitting at the table writing a letter to her son Ralph, who had emigrated to Canada. Bertram Kirby had fetched an axe from the woodshed and struck one savage blow to the base of her neck, probably killing her instantly. Kirby had made some effort to clean up the blood around his wife’s head, but had made to attempt to move her body.

He then walked into Louth where he called at the home of Mrs Took, where his older son Harry was a lodger. He asked Mrs Took if young Norman could come for his dinner, as he himself had to go to Grimsby on business and his wife had travelled to London by a morning train. On the way to Mrs Took’s house, he had called in at The Brown Cow pub, at the junction of Church Street and Newmarket and asked the landlady, a Mrs White if he could leave a bag and a parcel with her. She testified that Kirby looked “pale and agitated in his manner”.

On several occasions during the 11th and 12th July, Kirby took various parcels of women’s clothing to a little second hand shop run by Mrs Ryley, at 8 Eastgate, and exchanged them for cash. On the evening of 11th July, Kirby went to the Wheatsheaf Inn and played dominoes for most of the evening. He then walked back to the bungalow and spent the night sleeping in the same house as the corpse of his wife. As we have already read, he was then arrested on the evening of 12th July.

Gordon_Hewart,_1st_Viscount_HewartWhen the case finally came to trial at Lincoln Assizes on 2nd November, it was a brief affair. Representing Kirby, Mr T.K. Fitzwalter Butler did his best to persuade the jury that Kirby was insane, reminding them that he had joined the army – The Leicestershire Regiment –  in 1914, but by early 1915 was in a mental facility at Netley Hospital, Hampshire, after attempting to commit suicide, and had subsequently been discharged as unfit for service. The Lincoln jury, however, were having none of it, and after retiring for just twenty five minutes to return a verdict of guilty. Mr Justice Swift (right) promptly donned the small square of silk known as The Black Cap and sentenced Kirby to death.

Kirby’s date with the hangman was originally scheduled for December, but a plea for a reprieve was lodged with the Home Secretary of the time, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, was not in a giving mood, and he dismissed the appeal. At 8.00 am on Wednesday 4th January, Kirby made the short walk from the condemned cell (apparently after eating the proverbial hearty breakfast) to the Lincoln Prison gallows, where Albert Pierrepoint tightened the noose under his ear and pulled the fatal lever.

This is a strange case, and a horrid one, as the killing took place yards away from where I spent many happy hours as a youngster. No-one ever established a plausible motive for the murder. Kirby was clearly in a dire mental state, but what did he hope to gain from his wife’s death? Between the killing and his arrest he claimed to have sold the bungalow, but there was no evidence of this. I have no idea what became of the bungalow – a fellow train-spotter, now old like me, remembers going to it as a dare to see if he could see the ghost. And what became of the boys? Ralph may have lived the rest of his life out in his adopted Canadian home, and there is a record of a Harry Kirby dying in Colchester in the 1960s, but of young Norman, not a trace. Minnie lies in Boston Cemetery, in a rather overgrown grave (below) which can be found with a bit of effort and help from the cemetery keeper.

MinniGrave small

And Bertram? His grave is probably marked by one of these modest little headstones in the prison burial ground with the walls of Lincoln Castle.

Graveyard

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

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