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William Ernest Greatrex

DEATH ON A QUIET STREET . . . The killing of James Frederick Greatrex (2)

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SO FAR: James Greatrex had retired from his Walsall saddlery business a wealthy man, and in the summer of 1892, he was living in Moss Close, a large town house on Guys Cliffe Avenue, Leamington. His wife Mary had recently died, and her sister, Rebecca Ryder, now lived in Moss Close. William Ernest Greatrex, aged 37, was the younger son of the former businessman. He had been set up in numerous ventures by his father over the last twenty years or so, in places as far afield as New Zealand, Australia and Texas, but all had failed. Now, William Ernest Greatrex was living in St John’s Wood, London, but still – as it was revealed later – harassing his father for more money by way of an improved allowance.

James Greatrex and Rebecca Ryder were in the habit of taking a morning stroll provided the weather was clement. Tuesday 31st May 1892 dawned bright and warm, and a little after 11.25, the pair walked down Guys Cliffe Avenue towards Rugby Road. They crossed Rugby Road and as they walked alongside The Coventry Arms (now The Fat Pug) Mr Greatrex stopped and turned round, as Miss Ryder had lagged a few paces behind and was removing a stone from her shoe. As he asked how she was getting on, a gunshot rang out. Struck in the chest, Greatrex staggered, and as he did so he was shot again, this time in the back. He fell to the pavement, bleeding profusely. Rebecca Ryder screamed in horror at the assault and was astonished to see, nonchalantly holding a large revolver, William Ernest Greatrex. He had concealed himself beside the wall of a large house opposite The Coventry Arms and, as his father and companion approached, had stepped out and fired the shots from close range.

Dr-ThursfieldThe stricken man was carried to a nearby house and laid on a sofa. Dr  Thomas William Thursfield (left) was a well known local doctor and politician (he later became Mayor) and a bystander attracted to the scene by the sound of gunfire noticed that Dr Thursfield’s carriage was outside an adjacent house. He was quick to attend to Mr Greatrex, but there was nothing to be done. The inquest found that one of the bullets had passed through the victim’s heart.

A labourer who had been drinking in The Coventry Arms had seized William Greatrex after the shooting, but there had been no resistance, and when Constable Crowther and Sergeant Hemmings, who had been in the vicinity, arrived at the scene, Greatrex calmly handed over the weapon and said:

“It is all right, officer; here you are. “The second shot did it. I have got him ; it ought to have been done years ago.”

When he was charged with murder at Leamington Police Station later that day, Greatrex made a formal statement:

“I would like to make a clean breast of it. No one knows the treatment I have received from my father. I ought to have done it years ago. He drove me out of the country in 1884. I have been in America five years, and had fever and dysentery, and was very ill. I came back to this country, and have tried to make friends with him, and to know how I stood in his will. He has tried to drive me out of the country again. I have not been home since I came to my mother’s funeral. I have tried to get satisfaction in every way, but have failed. I stayed in Warwick last night, and came on this morning to have satisfaction. Now I have got it. I am sorry I did not have time to take a dose of prussic acid.”

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Charles_Arthur_Russell,_Baron_Russell_of_Killowen_by_John_Singer_SargentAfter the formality of the local inquest and magistrates’ court appearances, William Ernest Greatrex appeared before Mr Justice Wright (above) at the August Assizes in Warwick. His legal team, headed by the distinguished QC Charles Arthur Russell (right) had but one job, and that was to establish that William Ernest Greatrex was insane at the time he shot his father dead. Russell did this after his people had conducted ruthless research into the mental stability of the male members of the Greatrex family, and so the barrister was able to make a convincing case, backed up by the medical officers of one or two large lunatic asylums. William Ernest Greatrex was found guilty but insane, and ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, and he was sent to Broadmoor.

Her Majesty’s pleasure in this sad case was not very prolonged. Records show that Greatrex died in December 1905, but even in death he was worth a tidy sum – in today’s money, over £170,000.

Broadmoor
Death
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DEATH ON A QUIET STREET . . . The killing of James Frederick Greatrex (1)

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The 1861 census has William Ernest Greatrex living with his family at 3 Victoria Terrace, Rushall, a district of Walsall. The house, below, along with its neighbour, No. 4, is a Grade II listed building which you can find more about here. William was born in the autumn of 1854, and the records tell us that was baptised at St Matthew’s Church on 27th December 1854. His father, James Frederick Greatrex, was the well-to-do owner of a family saddlery business in Adams Row Walsall. In all, James Greatrex and his wife Mary had five children – Robert Charles, Frederick James, and two daughters, Emily and Mary Augusta.

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It seems that the family home – at least in regard to William – was not a happy place. At the age of seven he was sent to boarding school, in Kidderminater. This was one of the things he later levelled  his ” Mater.” He said, “The school was nasty, the food was bad, the bread and milk made me feel sick.” He complained that he was most unhappy there but his unhappiness was just dismissed as, “complaints of trifling annoyances such as are met with by school boys generally.

A newspaper reported:

He left Kidderminster about eleven years of age, and went a school at Brewood, where he remained about two years, and then went to Malvern College, where he had inflammation of the lungs. He states he was lost there in consequence of not having sufficient pocket money. He is under the impression that his parents put him to these schools to get rid of him, and that they were persecuting him at that period of his life. After he left school, at about 15 years of age, he was sent to Hastings and Torquay on account of his health, and, at about 18, he helped in his father’s business, at Walsall, his father making him a small allowance.”

This matter of money was to weigh heavily on William Greatrex for the rest of his life. What shouts to us from the printed page over a century after the tragic events of 1892 is that James Greatrex spent a small fortune on his son, and considered it money well spent to keep William at arm’s length.

William’s career in the decades after he left school is a catalogue of disasters, one after the other. After working for a while as a commercial traveller for the Greatrex firm, he was sent to Australia at the age of 23 on ‘a sales mission.’ From there he was asked to go to New Zealand, where opened his own business. This failed, and after a brief spell at home he was again sent abroad, this time to America, where he was given money to become a partner in a cattle ranch in 1884. It was reported that Greatrex senior had sunk £6000 into this venture. Using the Bank of England online calculator, I can report that this is somewhere in the region of £800,000 today. The ranching venture, like everything else the younger Greatrex had tried, failed dismally and, eventually, after a spell in Geneva in 1889, William Greatrex returned to England, where he rented rooms in London, and began a concerted campaign to persuade his father to give him “just one more chance.”

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By this time, James Greatrex had sold the business and retired to Guys’ Cliffe Avenue, a quiet street in Milverton, a district of Royal Leamington Spa. The house, known in those days as Moss Close, still stands, but has now been converted into flats (above). It is within a stone’s throw of this house that the next chapter of this drama will play out.

IN PART TWO – A fatal revenge and an investigation into insanity

For more True Crime stories from Leamington, Warwick,
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