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Lutton Marsh

THE STRANGE DEATH OF CATHERINE GEAR . . . A Lincolnshire murder (2)

Duddles header

SO FAR: On the afternoon of October 8th 1907, a strange weekday drinks party had been held in a tied cottage belonging to Guy’s Head Farm near Sutton Bridge. Some of the drinkers went home for tea, the tenant of the cottage, William Gear, departed in fetch more beer, leaving his wife, Kate, alone in the house with their lodger, William Duddles. When her returned, he found that his neighbours had found Mrs Gear lying on the floor of the cottage, mortally wounded, a bloodstained hammer by her side. Of Duddles, there was no sign.

The police went in search of Duddles, and he was soon found. A newspaper reported:

“Sergeant Taylor, of Long Sutton, went in search of him. and he was discovered in the Marsh, near to the sea bank. He was then charged with attempted murder, the deceased at that time not being dead. His hands and clothing bore marks of blood, and in answer to the charge he said, “A still tongue makes a wise head,” and made no definite statement.”

The same newspaper went on to say:

“At Long Sutton, on Wednesday, William Duddles, aged forty-seven, was charged with the wilful murder of Catherine Gear, aged thirty-six, at Lutton Marsh, on October 8th. Supt. Osborn, of Spalding, gave evidence similar what is stated above. Sergt. Taylor, stationed Long Sutton, said he charged the prisoner with the attempted murder of Mrs. Gear, in Lutton Marsh, that afternoon. Prisoner replied : ” I have never done anything wrong before ; I am a bad ‘un, I know. I have been put on.” A short time afterwards he said: “A still tongue makes a wise head ; I shan’t say nowt.”

“That morning, from further information, and after cautioning him again, witness charged him with the wilful murder of Catherine Gear, and he made no reply. The prisoner was remanded until Wednesday, the l6th. He appeared in court with a black eye and cuts on the left temple and over the left eye, which, it was suggested, indicated that the woman had tried to defend herself. The inquest was held on Wednesday evening, before Dr. Barritt the Spalding District Coroner, at Lutton Marsh. William Gear, the husband, said that he and his wife got on very well together. A lodger named Duddles had been with them about two years, he occasionally had some words with them when was in drink, and sometimes made imputations against deceased.”

“They had some words recently. Duddles called his wife some some abusive names, and witness, taking her part, struck him. On Tuesday, witness went out at four o’clock to fetch some beer, and upon returning found his wife lying on the floor with her head in a pool of blood, a coal hammer lying few yards away. She was not dead, but was unconscious. Evidence was also given by Edwin Hocking, living next door, and a neighbour named Towson. The inquiry was adjourned until Monday next, and a post-mortem examination was ordered. The hammer, with which the tragedy alleged was alleged to have been enacted was produced in Court; it is an engineer’s hammer, fifteen inches long, with a heavy head of iron.”

Church

The funeral of Kate Gear was a lonely and bleak affair:

Funeral

Justice moved swiftly in the case of William Duddles. He was swiftly indicted for murder, and sent for trial at the November Assizes in Lincoln. This was not before the national press had a few things to say about him.

Demon

IPNThe “diminutive man of repulsive appearance” was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death by the judge, despite the jury recommending mercy due to the prisoner’s mental state. One of the strange things about this case is that newspapers at the time normally reported verbatim anything said in court, either by the accused or his legal representatives. In this case, I have been able to find absolutely nothing. Defence barristers are known to this day for concocted elaborate excuses when pleading clemency for their clients, but here they either had nothing to say, or it was never reported. The obligatory plea for mercy was sent to the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone (son of the great former Prime Minister) but it fell on deaf ears, and William Duddles was executed on 20th November in Lincoln Prison. In charge of proceedings were the Pierrepoint brothers, Henry and Tom – father and uncle to the more celebrated Albert.


The classic mantra of solving murders – both real and fictional –  is ‘Means, Motive and Opportunity’. In the case of William Duddles, the means and opportunity are obvious, but the big question remains “why”? From the limited evidence that remains available through old newspapers, it is hard not to conclude that there was a sexual element in this murder. Out of consideration for the dead woman and her family, the newspapers would have remained silent, but it seems to me that Kate Gear was, in some way, tormenting Duddles over a period of time, perhaps promising much but delivering little, and the teasing became too much for a man of limited intelligence made dangerous by drink.


Does this excuse what he did? Never in a million years. He battered a woman to death and, depending on your views on capital punishment, was punished accordingly. There is a strange undercurrent to this case – the mid-week drinking binge being the strangest – that will remain a mystery. Kate Gear lies in the peaceful churchyard of St Nicholas, Lutton, while her killer is buried in the poignant little plot reserved for hanged men within the grounds of Lincoln Castle.

THE STRANGE DEATH OF CATHERINE GEAR . . . A Lincolnshire murder (1)

Duddles header

On a bright summer day, the table-flat marshland between Long Sutton and The Wash is beautiful. Endless blue skies, waving fields of wheat and skylarks singing overhead. On a grey autumn afternoon, however, the countryside takes on a much more menacing aspect. It was on such an afternoon in October 1907 that a brutal murder took place near Guy’s Head Farm. Two people are central to the drama, a 36 year-old farm labourer’s wife named Catherine Gear, and a 47 year-old man called William Duddles.

William Duddles was born in 1860 in High Toynton, just on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. In the 1891 census he is living with his mother and sister in Boston. Somehow he doesn’t appear in the 1901 census, but we know that in 1907 he was working on Guys Head Farm, on the left bank of Tycho Wing’s Channel, the arrow straight cut that takes the River Nene into The Wash. He was lodging with another farm worker in their tied cottage. William Gear and his wife Catherine, always known as Kate. They had married in 1898, and she was from the Bontoft family, born in Wrangle, between Boston and Skegness.

On the afternoon of Tuesday 8th October 1907, some employees of Guy’s Head Farm were, for whatever reason, not engaged in honest toil. In the Gear’s cottage Kate, William, Duddles and two other workers, James Towson and Edwin Hocking, were having a party which certainly involved drinking beer, if nothing more sinister. At some point, the beer ran out, and William Gear volunteered to walk the mile or so to Gedney Drove End and fetch more beer from one of its three pubs. By the time he returned, Towson and Hocking had, as they used to say, ”made an excuse and left”, leaving Kate Gear and William Duddles in the cottage on their own.

What William Gear found in his cottage when he returned with fresh supplies was not a convivial booze-up, but a dying woman – his wife. She had been battered about the head with something heavy and deadly. She lay on the floor, her life oozing away inexorably from a terrible head wound. Gear’s return to the cottage had coincided with neighbours hearing some kind of disturbance and going to the cottage to investigate. Their evidence was later reported in the newspaper:

“Whilst witness (Mrs Jane Hocking) was getting her tea a friend who was with her remarked, ” I think I can hear a scream,” and upon going into Gear’s house they found the woman in a dying condition. Robert Stebbings, labourer, of Lutton Marsh, said about the time of the tragedy he noticed William Duddles coming from the direction of Gear’s cottage, and at the same time Mr Gear was going an opposite direction, Duddles turned off to avoid him. When Duddles passed witness he noticed that he was in excited and frightened state, and witnessed confessed to being alarmed at his appearance. He stated that a fortnight previously he had heard Duddles say, ” I will be the death of the **** if I swing for it.”

The sensationalist newspaper, The Ilustrated Police News, were quick to have one of their house artists draw a dramatic reconstruction of the discovery of Kate Gear’s body.

IPN2

The police and medical help were summoned, but Kate Gear was beyond help, and she died later that evening without ever recovering consciousness. A heavy coal hammer, its head bearing the marks of blood, bone, hair and skin tissue had been discarded next to the woman’s body, and was obviously te murder weapon, but where was William Duddles, the obvious culprit? The Boston Guardian reported on Duddle’s movements – and the amount he had drunk:

After the murder

IN PART TWO:

An arrest, a funeral, an execution – and a mystery

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