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THE FIVE LITTLE MARTYRS . . . Part two

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The story so far. “SCHOOLBOY GANGSTERS ROUNDED UP!”  screamed the local papers. According to Dr Meacock, who chaired the Special Children’s Court, the boys,

“constituted a centre of vice in the town,and they must be dealt with drastically.”

John Bull

Those of you who follow my posts will remember that Dr Meacock was at the very heart of the controversy surrounding the life and death of Dr Horace Dimock, twenty years earlier, an unfortunate situation which resulted in the infamous riots. So, who were these five desperadoes, and what were the Industrial Schools to which they were to be packed off, until they reached the age of 16?

Firstly the names of the boys. I received this information from the County Record Office. I imagine they are all now deceased, but at the time their names would not have been available in the press, for legal reasons. They were:

Horace Stephen Freear, age 7
Frederick Hunt, age 8
Stanley Johnson, age 9
Harry Rivett, age 10
Harry Worth, age 10

Their sentence? To spend the years in an Industrial School, until they reached the age of 16. For Worth and Rivett – a 6 year sentence; for Johnson, 7 years; Hunt would serve 8 years, and Freear a staggering 9 years.

The words ‘Industrial School’ have a vaguely worthy ring to them. There’s a suggestion that they were places where youngsters could learn a trade, benefit from a healthy lifestyle, and be taught the errors of whatever ways had led them to become inmates. Older readers will remember the words ‘Reform School’ and ‘Borstal’. These days we skip around the  truth with phrases like ‘Young Offenders Institution’, but the fact remains that Industrial schools were usually grim places which probably served as training grounds for future lawbreakers. The industrial schools were invariably grim and forbidding places but it doesn’t seem that one existed in Cambridgeshire, with the nearest one being in Suffolk.

IS

To their eternal credit, there were those in Wisbech who thought the sentence handed down to these boys was excessive. To use modern parlance, they may well have been “thieving little scrotes”, but even so, this was a draconian sentence, even by the standards of 1933. Spearheaded by a Baptist minister, the Reverend R N Armitage (pictured below), a fund was started to appeal the boys’ sentence.

Armitage

Then, the big guns turned on Dr Meacock and the other people alongside him who actually were magistrates. It seems that Meacock had no business being in that court, and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the infamous Old Pals’ Act was alive and well in Wisbech. The popular national periodical, John Bull, said its piece. After repeating the findings of the magistrates, the journal then let rip.

Montage3

Martyrs clippingThe case of the Five Little Martyrs is not simply one of a wrong being righted. It has a curiously modern feel to it, with its far-reaching echoes of relatively minor misdeeds being met by extravagant punishment. The boys were clearly beyond parental control. and their group had a velocity and dynamic all of its own. Yes, the hauls from their thieving – ten bob, some pig serum, cycle lamps and a packet of Aspros (remember them?) seem comical.

However, you only need to follow local Facebook groups nowadays to read accounts of similar misdemeanours, on the same streets as the Infamous Five frequented, to read violently worded responses from people who feel that ‘feral youths‘   (a term not yet invented in 1933) are making their lives a misery. The people who ran Wisbech in 1933 – in particular Dr Meacock – don’t emerge from this saga with any honour. Sadly, some things never change.

I write as someone who lives in Wisbech, and I can tell you that in 2020, eighty seven years on from the events I describe in this feature, modern day versions of Dr Meacock are alive and well, still with theirhands on the tiller.

So, what became of The Five Little Martyrs? The records tell us that a Horace Stephen Freear died in 1978, and that a Frederick Hunt died in 1971. Of the others, no-one knows what they did with their lives after they, briefly, became national figures.

THE FIVE LITTLE MARTYRS . . . Part one

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It is the Autumn of 1933. The summer had seen the cinema release of The Private Lives of Henry VIII featuring Charles Laughton, and an out-of-favour politician called Winston Churchill had made a speech warning of the dangers of German re-armament. In Wisbech – an unremarkable town in Cambridgeshire’s Fen country – a criminal case was the headline in the Wisbech Standard. The repercussions of this vaguely comical affair would later bring Wisbech into national focus.

Headline cropped

Let the report in the Wisbech Standard tell the tale of these ruthless gangsters and their reign of terror which had the honest Fenland folk cowering in their beds and in fear of their lives.

“For five hours Dr H. C. Meacock (in the chair) and other magistrates sat, on Tuesday, at a special Wisbech Children’s Court listening to the evidence in an amazing series of thefts extending over two months, committed by a gang of young Wisbech schoolboys, five of whom were eventually ordered to be sent to an industrial school.”

Those who read – in an earlier Fully Booked True Crime feature – the sad tale of Horace Dimock, and the tragic events in Wisbech some twenty years earlier, may recall the name of Dr Meacock. It could be said that he had ‘previous’. Wasn’t he the man who, twenty years earlier, was most prominent in the sad case of Dr Dimock and The Wisbech Riots? He was, the very same. One of his fellow magistrates was a certain Mr Savory, seen here on the right of the good doctor.

Meacock Savory

So, what was the nature of the criminal career of these five lads? Were they emulating the deeds of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker who were in the middle of their legendary crime spree a few thousand miles across the Atlantic? The crimes of The Wisbech Five were rather more mundane:

The defendants were first charged with stealing a purse containing a ten shilling note and 2s 6d in silver from the dwelling house of Annie Ward, at Wisbech, on September 5th.

Annie Ward, of Little Church Street, Wisbech, stated that she left her house at 11.55 am to go to a nearby baker’s establishment. When she returned five minutes later she found her purse missing from the mantelpiece.

Inspector Bush gave evidence of the enquiries he pursued after being informed of the loss, and read statements which he said were made by the defendants when he interviewed them.

The next charge was one of stealing a box of ante-serum for pigs and 5s worth of groceries, the property of Bert Clifton at Wisbech on September 1st.

Bert Clifton, a farmer, of Gedney, said that about 8 o’clock he left his motor car against the Canal railings near the Empire Theatre. In the car were some drums of ante-serum, which he valued at 22s 8d, and 5s worth of groceries. He was away from his car between 8pm and 10.45pm, and on leaving the Theatre he went direct to the car and did not miss the goods until he reached home.

Inspector Bush stated that on September 11th and on subsequent dates he interviewed defendants, one of whom he said took the groceries out of the car and handed them to another of the defendants, who threw them into the canal. Witness added that one of defendants’ parents had rendered every assistance in trying to retrieve the goods from the canal (pictured below)

Canal

All the defendants pleaded guilty except one, whose father said that he was in the house at the time of the alleged crime.

The same boys were then charged with stealing a rib of beef and a carton of cream belonging to Susannah Winters, at Wisbech on the same date.

Susannah Winters said that she left her cycle in Clare’s Passage at about 6-40pm. On the handlebars was a basket containing a joint of meat worth 2s 3d, and a carton of cream, which had disappeared when she returned to her cycle at 6.55. Inspector Bush spoke of interviewing defendants, one of whom said that one of the others took the meat home and had it cooked. This was denied by the parent. Mr A R Bennett, headmaster of the Queen’s School and Mr A V Thompson, headmaster of St Peter’s School were present when witness interviewed defendants.

Five of the boys were then charged with stealing cycle lamps at Wisbech on September 8th and 9th, the property of William Callaby, James John Harrop, Kate Rose, and another. Inspector Bush gave evidence in each case.

A charge of stealing two purses and 9d in money, the property of Ivy Irene Hurst, and another, at Wisbech on September 9th was brought against four of the boys. Ivy Irene Hurst said that she went to the Swimming Bath on the date in question, with a friend. After she had left the water, and dressed, she took her shopping bag, which contained her own handbag, inside which was her friends purse, and placed it in her friend’s cubicle. A few minutes later they both went back to the cubicle and found that the purses had been taken from the bag. Witness valued the handbag at 7s 6d. Jean Parlett corroborated the previous witness’s evidence. Inspector Bush said he interviewed defendants, who admitted being there.

Another summons was for stealing half a pound of butter, a box of Aspro tablets and two cycle spanners, at Wisbech on September 9th. Dolly Mary Willimott Barber stated that she left her cycle outside 6, The Crescent at about 6-15pm. On returning at 6-40pm, she found the articles were missing. In his evidence, Inspector Bush said he saw the defendants on September 10th, and one said that they had all shared “the white sweets, which did not taste nice.”

Five of the boys were also charged with stealing a leather handbag containing 2s 7d in money, certain photographs, and one NP match-box, the property of Ivy may Hurst, at Wisbech, on September 1st. Ivy Hurst, of Broad Drove, South Brink, Wisbech, said that at about 9-15am she left her perambulator, in which was her handbag containing the articles, outside Dr Gunson’s House. She visited Dr Gunson’s surgery at 10-10, and when she came out at 11 o’clock the handbag was not there.

Inspector Bush said that when he interviewed defendants one of them said that a boy took the bag out of the perambulator and hid it under some stones near St Peter’s School. All the boys admitted they were there when the theft was committed.

Two of the boys were finally charged with stealing 2s in silver and 4d in copper, the monies of Barbara Joyce Bush, at Wisbech, on September 9th. Barbara Joyce Bush, of the Police Station, Harecroft Road, Wisbech, stated that she left her cycle outside Peark’s shop. On the handlebars was a basket, in which was a small bag containing the money. She was only in the shop about three minutes, but when she came out her bag was missing. Inspector Bush spoke of the previous witness reporting her loss to him, and the subsequent enquiries he made. One of the defendants admitted taking the money and sharing it one of the other boys. They bought some sweets with some of the money.

This hearing took place at Sessions House, a familiar Wisbech landmark.

Sessions House

IN PART TWO
(live on Friday 26th June)

The summing up and sentencing …
The horrors of the Industrial Schools…
The town – and the nation – responds …
The five boys named for the first time ….
The ‘judge’ who had no business being in the court

THE STRANGE DEATH OF HORACE DIMOCK . . . part two

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The Great and the Good (minus one or two of the medical fraternity from Wisbech) gathered to pay their last respects to Horace Dimock, in his home village of Stretham. There had been a kind of ‘lying in state’ in the family home, before the mourners assembled at the church, ready to make the procession up the hill to the village cemetery. A beautiful old funeral bier still exists inside the village church, and may well be the one which carried Horace Dimock’s body on its final journey.

Bier

The newspaper commented thus:

Many of the mourners came the other side of the Isle, where, week after week, Dr. Dimock had served his patients faithfully and well. The mourners assembled outside the family residence in Red Lion Street, where the young doctor lay dead, and few of them were allowed look upon his face for the last time. Dr. Dimock, in a will made prior to one of his sea voyages taken for the benefit of his health, expressed a wish that flowers should be sent by the family in the event his death, and this wish was respected on the present occasion. Floral tributes, however, came from elsewhere, chiefly from Wisbech—and the inscriptions on them showed the high regard which the doctor was held by those amongst whom he had laboured. One wreath bore the following inscription, which fairly represented the feelings of Wisbech: “In loving sympathy, for one who worried the few, but loved the many.”

Funeral 3

The report continued:

It was expected that the funeral of the late Dr. Horace Dimock would be largely attended, but the villagers of Stretham were scarcely prepared for the crowds that trooped into their midst on Friday. One of the oldest inhabitants, in conversation with our representative, looked upon the attendance at the funeral as a fine tribute to the popularity of Dr. Dimock, and said he had not seen anything like it in the village before.”

The mourners were met at the churchyard gate by the Rev. S. Stuart Stitt and the choir, one of whom acted as cross-bearer. The surpliced churchmen led the mourners into the sacred edifice, and the coffin, covered with beautiful wreaths, was taken thither on a wheeled bier, which was placed near the entrance the sanctuary. The service was conducted by the Rector. The choir sang“On the Resurrection Morning.” and Now The Labourer’s Task Is O’er. You can listen to the tune of this lovely old Victorian hymn by clicking the media player below.

Hymn

WreathsThe floral tributes included the following:

“In deepest sympathy and loving memory of The People’s Doctor, from members of the Wisbech Working Men’s Liberal Association.”

“With deepest sympathy, from the residents of Gorefield and Leverington; With united, sincere, and deepest sympathy, from the staff and employees of the G.E.R., Wisbech.”

“With deepest sympathy, from the parishioners of Elm— “Greater love hath no man than that he laid down his life for others”

‘With deepest sympathy, from the Rev. and Mrs. S. Stitt; For Dr. Horace, with love, from Hilda: With deepest sympathy for our late beloved doctor from the M. and G. Joint Staff, Wisbech—”Gone but not forgotten.”

The newspaper account concluded:

“The cinematograph was at work during the afternoon, and one photographer more bold than the others of his fraternity, erected his apparatus on top of a churchyard monument. The interment took place in the cemetery after the first part the service had been held in the parish church. The proceedings were orderly, with the exception that one Wisbech man gave vent to some strong language, which had reference to the way which Dr. Dimock had been treated. The police, of whom two were in plain clothes, had an easy task to perform, as compared with what might have happened under certain circumstances.”

Postcard 3A century or more later, what do we make of the affair? What happened to the participants who survived? Reading contemporary accounts, it is difficult to believe that Horace Dimock was a totally innocent party. It would have been perfectly possible for him to have won the hearts of his patients, many of them from the poorer side of society, at the same time as conducting a hate campaign against those fellow professionals against whom he bore a grudge. The less lurid of the postcards allegedly sent by Dr Dimock were reproduced in the press, along with detailed evidence by so-called handwriting experts.

The ordinary people of Wisbech were not sitting on the fence, however: to them, Dimock was a victim of a vile conspiracy, and a modern martyr. It must also be remembered that this was not a period in British history marked by many episodes of popular unrest. This was still the Golden Age of the British Empire, and despite his death three years earlier, the benign spirit of Edward VII still hovered over his subjects. Within twelve months of Dimock’s suicide, Europe would be torn asunder by a terrible war which would lay waste to a generation of young men.

What of Dimock’s fellow Wisbech doctors? Dr Meacock, who was the most vociferous of Dimock’s detractors, was to make the headlines again, some twenty years later, but this time in his capacity as a magistrate. Dr Gunson went on to serve with distinction in The Great War. He survived to return to general practice, and is remembered in a street sign near his former home, which was one of the targets of the Wisbech mob in the dark November days of 1913.

Ghost Passage

And now, in 2020? The Dimock home in Stretham has long since been demolished. Horace Dimock’s grave lies next to that of his father, who had died three years earlier. His father’s tombstone is still clear, but the inscription beneath Horace’s cross is barely readable. It is only by comparing the original funeral photographs with modern images that we can be certain of Horace’s last resting place.

Final montage

 

THE STRANGE DEATH OF HORACE DIMOCK . . . part one

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It all started with the National Insurance Act of 1911. For the first time people paid
into a scheme which gave them some protection against sickness and unemployment. It was the beginning of the Welfare State. Among doctors a
sequence of events was set in train. In Wisbech, an unassuming town in the Cambridgeshire Fens, it would end with tragedy and riot. Before 1911 there were private GPs who gravitated towards wealthier areas. The 1911 Act provided insurance cover for about 12 million workers earning less than £160 a year and included the free services of a GP. The individual became a ‘panel patient’. The difficulty lay in finding a private doctor prepared to work at panel wage rates.


Postcard 3In Wisbech this was a problem
because no doctor would do it. A new doctor, Dr
Horace Dimock, was drafted in to help clear the case-load. Though the poor of
Wisbech took him very much to their hearts, his arrival created hostility among the
other doctors. Dimock was a local man from the village of Stretham, but the local
private doctors, fearing a cut in their incomes, turned their backs on the Government’s health reforms.
In October 1913, Dr Dimock’s already difficult relationship with other doctors became impossible. These other doctors were receiving malicious postcards and anonymous letters supporting the wonderful work of Dr Dimock and criticising them. One of the doctors receiving the hate mail, Dr Meacock, informed the police and Dr Dimock was arrested. He was taken before local magistrates and was remanded on bail. Dr Dimock appealed to the Medical Defence Society but discovered they were already acting for the other doctors. Dr Dimock returned tired and distressed to his home village, Stretham. The next morning he was found dead. He had taken an overdose.

 

On 30 October 1913, the news broke in Wisbech of the death of Dr Dimock. A crowd gathered and rushed to Dr Meacock’s town house by the river and stoned the windows. The local police called for reinforcements but the situation got out of control. Eventually the Mayor of Wisbech read the Riot Act and the police went in with their truncheons.

This is how the riot unfolded, according to one newspaper.

“There was tremendous excitement and grief when the news reached Wisbech. On Thursday evening, October 30th – two days after Dr. Dimock’s death – four or five thousand people attended a meeting in the Market Place. The meeting was orderly enough, although the speaker declared that Dr. Dimock had been “persecuted from the day he came to Wisbech”. Tributes were paid to his services “especially to the poor”, and the crowd, standing with heads bare and bowed, passed a resolution of sympathy with his relatives and then sang “O God our help in ages past”. But, said a reporter “apparently an undercurrent was at work”.

“Hundreds of people went & stood in front of Dr. Meacock’s house on the North Brink. There were cheers for Dr. Dimock and loud boos for Dr. Meacock. Then stones were thrown, and several windows were smashed before the rush from the police broke the crowd up. But they crossed the bridge over the river and reassembled again in front of Dr. Gunson’s house in the Crescent where,  booing and hooting, they smashed all the windows. The police charged again and drove them away – only for them to return to Dr. Meacock’s house.”

 
This is the obituary from the British Medical Journal, for the unfortunate young doctor.
Obit

Before we continue with the saga of the Riots, it should be mentioned that the new welfare measures were a national issue not confined to the Fens. The Riots were widely reported in newspapers up and down the land, and the matter of doctors’ panels in the town had been raised in Parliament earlier in 1913. This is the report from Hansard, and if at least one of the names seems familiar, he was Captain William Benn, MP for Tower Hamlets and Junior Lord of The Treasury. He went on to serve with distinction in The Great War and was, of course, the father of the late Tony Benn.

WISBECH MEDICALPANEL

HoraceSo, the people’s favourite, Dr Horace Dimock (right), was dead by his own hand, as a result of persecution form his fellow medical men in Wisbech. Was it as simple as that? Had the other doctors received hate mail? Did Horace Dimock have ‘previous’? Here is another side of the story, widely reported in the press, up and down the land. Was Dimock a victim of a concerted plot organised by the establishment, or was he a foolish man with a hatred for anyone who dared to disagree with him?

“As soon as he (Dr. Dimock) came to Wisbech, anonymous postcards of all degrees of scurrility and obscenity were sent the secretary of the hospital, to the doctors, and to various lay members the community. These postcards in (hand) printed characters, not script, were found to resemble most closely those used some nine years before in a number of scurrilous documents that were sent to a medical student at St. Thomas’s Hospital (London)who was living in the same lodgings also occupied by Dimock. A writing expert considers that the St. Thomas’s Hospital documents and the Wisbech documents were, undoubtedly written in the same hand, and anyone who examines the two sets of documents must agree with this. These documents were sent in such a fashion that the wives of the Wisbech doctors saw them. The police, then taking the matter in hand, saw Dr. Dimock post documents at certain pillar-boxes, which were kept under careful observation until the officials of the Post Office could open them. In both cases postcards or similar documents were found near the top, addressed to Wisbech doctors, in the suspected writing, and of a libellous nature.”

But then on the other hand, one of Dr. Dimock’s admirers spoke up in his defence.

“Who are the authors of the anonymous and libellous letters and postcards written to the late Dr. Dimock, which he received from the first day he began to work in the town ? Why have colleagues called him “blackleg”, boycotted and ignored him? Who repeatedly pulled down and defaced his brass plate, and were they acting for others? Who threw the gate to his back garden off its hinges, and who smashed his windows? Who repeatedly called him the telephone at night to attend to distant cases which not exist? and What evidence have the police regarding the secret persecutors of the doctor, which, it is hoped, may lead to an arrest?”

Not to be outdone, Dr Meacock was not slow to reply in the press.

CLIPPING 1

Sadly for our modern tastes, the salacious postcards allegedly sent by Dr. Dimock were not revealed in their full glory in Meacock’s letter, as newspaper readers of the time were expected to use their imagination much more than we are today. It was also evident, according the outraged Meacock, that Dimock was something of an amateur artist. Dr Meacock finished his letter regretting that Horace Dimock had died – if only because that sad fact had prevented justice from being done, and seen to done.

CLIPPING2

Meanwhile, the public disturbances had continued, not without a few moments of unintentional humour.

“Since an early hour this evening a mob has been parading the streets and demonstrating alternately before the residences of Dr. Meacock and Dr. Gunson. At nine o’clock a double police cordon was drawn across the bridge which gives access to the street front of Dr. Meacock’s house, and the crowd, which must have numbered about 1,500 strong, concentrated upon Dr. Gunson’s in the Crescent .The Police who barred the way were subjected to a fusillade of squibs and detonators, the explosion of which, though harmless, sounded remarkably like revolver shots. An arrest in Bridge-street before ten created some disturbance, and three or four stones were thrown at Dr. Gunson’s windows, one or which was broken. About ten o’clock night there was a recrudescence of the rioting in the neighbourhood of the Market-square. A crowd numbering several hundred invaded Market-street, and in a few moments had broken every window in the surgery.”

Further rioting took place on Saturday night. The streets were crowded with people, but there was no trouble until nearly ten o’clock. Then the people formed into mobs, and powerful explosives were discharged. Several of these exploded perilously near the faces of some of the police on duty. One bomb was so strong that it smashed the window in a jeweller’s shop. That was the only damage to property during the evening, the crowd seeming to be more anxious to attack the police than damage the property of residents. This was probably due to the fact that the police had been too vigorous in  their handling of the crowd on the previous evenings. From ten o’clock until two this morning there were continuous conflicts between the police and civilians in various parts of the town, and the mob was really more riotous than it had been on any previous occasion. The rioters attempted to rush the cordon of police guarding the approach to Dr. Meacock’s house, but the constables used their batons, and the crowd was repulsed, several men and women being knocked down and others receiving hard blows from the batons. A number of police were struck in return.”

The worst disturbance took place about 11.30 in the market-place. About 2000 people were assembled, and a rowdy element commenced throwing explosives and empty bottles at the officers. Three or four of the bottles struck policemen, inflicting nasty cuts their faces. Then the police drew their batons and charged into the crowd. They hit hard, and several of them were struck heavily in return. One aged man was hit on the head with such force that he sustained a bad wound, and was treated by doctor. The man alleges that he was standing at the top of the passage where he lives and was struck without any provocation whatever. Another man received a blow in the mouth and some of his teeth were knocked out. Order was restored in the market-place about one o’clock, but when the police attempted to clear the streets there was a renewal of the disorder. Blows were freely struck, and there were instances of of stand-up fights between civilians, while police constables on duty in the outskirts of the town were attacked at several points by villagers returning home. It was not until two o’clock this morning that order was restored.

One former Constable clearly was a gamekeeper turned poacher.

“There was a sequel to the recent disturbances yesterday at a local police court, when Ernest Langford, an ex-policeman, pleaded guilty of having assaulted the police, and was fined 20s. Constable Wallace said that on Saturday night the police had just cleared the demonstrators from the Bridge, when Langford rushed across and hit the witness on the head with a stick. The blow knocked off his helmet plate and also the chain. The defendant ran away, but fell down, and was stopped by another constable. He was rescued, however, by the crowd and got away. The Defendant expressed regret, and stated that he had been a police officer, and was discharged from the force with a good character.”

PART TWO – DIMOCK’S FUNERAL and AFTERMATH
will follow on Saturday 20th June

TRUE CRIME … The killing of George Belverstone

 

wisbech-the-canal-c1955_w115020
I have always had a morbid fascination with canals
. There is something sinister about the unnatural way they snake into towns and cities, often hidden between and beneath buildings. The water is always murky and impenetrable; it could be three feet deep, it could be ten feet deep; the latter is, of course unlikely, but the awful possibility remains. I associate canals with death. Dead bodies. People who have had enough. Rivers are capricious things. They flow, they run shallow, they run deep; they are unreliable. But the canal is different. For someone contemplating what is surely the most awful method of suicide, drowning, the canal offers stillness and silence. The canal will be unlovely, unvisited, and a place where the past hangs heavy. For a killer, wishing to dispose of a body, the same attractions apply. Even as I write, an urban legend grows in strength. People believe The Manchester Pusher is a serial killer (click the link to read the story) who haunts the cold, bleak and dark canal network that runs through the city. There are few lights along the canal towpaths. There is no-one to hear you when you scream. Figures from the Manchester City Area coroner’s office show there have in fact been 35 drownings over the past decade. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) say there have been 22 such deaths in the city centre since 2009.

Wisbech had a canal. It was dug out of the Fenland soil in the dying years of the 18th century, and was relatively short, but connected the tidal River Nene with the Great Ouse and was, in its prime, a way to transporting the valuable fruit and vegetable produce of the Fens to the coast, and then onward to other markets. In 1853, the canal remained a viable thoroughfare for farmers. merchants and traders. It was also still enough, cold enough and deep enough to embrace human bodies in its watery arms.

In the grey dawn light of May 29th 1853, a body was found floating in the canal. A witness at the subsequent court case stated:

“I heard someone shout, “There’s a man in the water.” I did not get up until I heard someone say, “It’s young Belverstone!” I knew Belverstone well. I knew Wilson by his nickname ‘The Russian Hog’, but I was not well acquainted with him. I had been brought up with Belverstone from a child. When I heard the cry that he was in the water, I went downstairs and went to the canal side. I then saw Wilson, with several other people. The body was out of the water, and on the bank. I asked Wilson to let me see the body, but he refused. When I asked him who it was, he said, ‘Young Belverstone.’ I asked to see his face, but Wilson said, ‘No – you are a female, and don’t want to see him. When I afterwards saw the body, it was young Belverstone.”

Suspected murder

Frederick Wilson, as his nickname might suggest, was a fearsome local brawler. Built like a heavyweight, he held court in several Wisbech pubs. Belverstone, (24) was not unused to pub life, as his father, William, was landlord of another local tavern, The Wheatsheaf.

Belverston

It seems young George had been drawn to Wilson’s circle of hard characters and female hangers-on, but they saw him as gullible and a prime target for jibes and jokes at his expense. Again, another witness statement from Wilson’s trial for murder:

“At about one o’clock, I was in bed, but woken up. I thought the noise was in our yard. People were laughing, larking and scuffling about in the lane. I went to the window to look. There was a gas lamp in the lane, fifteen or twenty yards from where I was looking. I saw the prisoner and Belverstone, and two women. I didn’t know the women. I saw Belverstone knocked up against Mr Oldham’s door by Wilson and the two women. They did not appear to be angry, but seemed to be all larking. I then saw young Belverstone knocked down on the ground several times. I don’t mean knocked down with fists, I couldn’t see that. They all kept about him larking. He was pushed down three or four times, and then they helped to pick him up, as far as I could see. One of them kept saying, ‘Pick him up, pick him up!’ I don’t know that he was drunk. Once, when he was knocked up against the door he cried out. I saw Wilson strike Belverstone once or twice, but whether by the fist or the back of the hand I cannot say.”

Belverstone’s fatal final evening had been spent in a back street pub called The Bowling Green Tap. It was demolished in the 1970s, but local people still recollect it fondly:

Memories

Back in May 1853, it seems that the hapless young Belverstone had supped well but not wisely. He had chosen the company of people who sought entertainment through his vulnerability. In court, the evening’s merrymaking at The Bowling Green Tap was described thus:

“I left about six persons in the house. Belverstone was drinking, and was not sober. He was so tipsy that he fell off his chair, but did not hurt himself.” Mr Power asked, “How would you know?” Mallet replied, “I fancy he didn’t.” The judge asked, “Was he so tipsy that he couldn’t sit on his chair?” Mallet said, “Oh he could sit very well, and he was laughing to see another man so drunk that he fell down.” Mr Power then stated, “Ah, so one man was so drunk that he laughed so much at another drunken man that he could not retain his seat!” Mallet said, “Yes, but there was no quarreling when I was there.”

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It seems that Belverstone was struck down by Wilson, who was clearly acting up to impress his female entourage. Somehow Belverstone ended up in the canal. Wilson was arrested and detained on suspicion of murder. His trial was held during the Cambridgeshire Summer Assizes in the July of 1853. There were two key questions which needed answers; Did Belverstone drown, or was he killed by a blow from Wilson? How did he come to be in the canal?

The local surgeon who carried out the post mortem on Belverstone provided an unequivocal answer to one of the questions. He said that the dead man had received a violent blow to the skull, just behind the ear, but saw nothing to indicate death by drowning. As for how Belverstone found his way into the canal, a prisoner called Peter Brett who talked to Wilson while he was on remand seemed to solve the mystery.

“I have known Wilson for two years. I am a prisoner from Wisbech. I met Wilson in prison. He asked me how long I had to stop. I said I was in for a month, and asked him what he was in for, and he said, ‘murder’. He said no more that day, but I saw him a few days after (the 5th of June) and he said, ‘ I have thrown a man into the river.’ I asked him what man, and he replied, ‘George Belverstone.’’’

1stLordWensleydaleAfter an elaborate summing up by Judge James Parke, 1st Baron Wensleydale, (left) the jury retired to consider the precise cause of Belverstone’s death. Not for them days of deliberation, or purdah in some hotel away from the public eye. After a full five minutes, they returned and the foreman stated that George Belverstone had been killed by a blow from Wilson’s fist. The prisoner, at this point, must have had visions of the hangman’s knot swimming before his eyes, but the 1st Baron Wensleydale was minded to differ. Unbelievably, he was of the opinion that although Wilson struck the fatal blow, “the violence was attributed to accident,” and pronounced:

“Frederick Wilson, I quite approve of the verdict of the Jury. You have aggravated your offence by adding the guilt of falsehood to your crime of having deprived a fellow creature of life whilst in state of intoxication; I punish you now only for the blow inflicted ; It does not appear that you were in state of anger at all, and there are other mitigating circumstances in your case. I therefore sentence you six months’ imprisonment, with hard labour.”

Six months in jail for killing a man? I believe that those who rail against what they see as the soft sentences handed out to modern criminals should study legal history. The law is, always was, and ever will be – an ass.

My thanks to the members of the Facebook group Wisbech Pictures Old and New, particularly the family of the late Geoff Hastings, Andy Ketley, Roger Rawson, Steve Williams, Andy Ward, Patricia Warden and Pat Prewer for their photographs and memories.

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DEATH IN THE FENS – the killing of John Auger

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WISBECH HAS HAD ITS FAIR SHARE OF MURDERS.  Some might say more than its fair share. In recent times, we have had, in no particular order, Una Crown, Virginja Jurkiene, Jolanta Dumciuviene, Dainus Kigas, Christopher Garford, Erikas Ulinskas, Alisa Dmitrijeva, Emily Bates and, if you include manslaughter, Fred Barras. For a town with a population of 30,000 or so, this might seem excessive, and you are free to draw your own conclusions from the list of names. But Wisbech was not always an idyllic rural paradise, despite the rosy memories of some residents. In 1967, a brutal killing happened in the area which, although the perpetrators were eventually convicted of manslaughter, achieved national notoriety, and resulted in the case being handled by top detectives from Scotland Yard.

Woodlands

 

 On the night of March 10th, 1967, The Woodlands, (above) an old, sprawling farmhouse in Outwell, was invaded by three men wearing stockings and balaclavas over their faces. The owner, John ‘Robbie’ Auger. a wealthy fruit farmer, was beaten to death with an iron bar, and his safe was dragged out, and put into his truck, which the killers drove away. Auger’s wife had been bound and gagged during the attack, and the crime was discovered when Auger’s daughter Audrey, aged 33, returned home to find her stricken father and helpless mother. She alerted a neighbour, saying, “Come quickly, Dad’s been attacked..”

 

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WITHIN DAYS the investigation into Auger’s death was moved ‘upstairs’. None other than Detective Superintendent Wallace Virgo, of Scotland Yard, was brought in to spearhead the search for the killers. At this point in the investigation, there were over sixty officers involved in the search for the perpetrators. Days passed, as the police rounded up ‘the usual suspects’. At first, based on the initial eyewitness accounts, police were looking for five men, and the search was beginning to focus on the Waterlees area of Wisbech. Two weeks after the death of Mr Auger, the police swooped.

David Warden, of Guild Road Wisbech, was arrested in a betting shop in Hill Street on March 23rd, and said, “I suppose somebody has squealed. I was there, but you will have a job to make this one stick” He is also alleged to have said,“You will look sorry if you’ve got the wrong Warden.” and “Even if you are from the Yard, you won’t prove anything. I was there….but there was nothing left behind and you know it.”

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Patrick Joseph Collins had been arrested at his parents’ home in Moseley, Birmingham. He said, “If only I could turn the clock back I would not have done what has been done. I will tell them about it when I get to Wisbech.” When arrested, he had tried to hide under the bed, and was told he was being arrested for housebreaking. He said, “Thank God: I thought you had come about something else” He said he had been at Outwell, but denied doing “the thumping” The third man arrested was Barrie Paul Cooper, who lived with his schoolteacher mother at the School House, Sutton St Edmund.

The initial legal proceedings took place at Taverham Magistrates’ Court, and the three men were represented by Mr Kenneth Land (Southwell, Dennis and Land) When the case was moved to Terrington Magistrates’ Court, a new element entered the proceedings. It became apparent that witnesses were being threatened, and here there is a distinct similarity to the events surrounding the trial of Tony Martin, over thirty years later. Wallace Virgo said, “Members of the public who have come forward as witnesses in this case have been threatened and intimidated.” On March 31st, the men were remanded after threats to intimidate witnesses at Terrington St Clement Magistrates Court (below).

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Later in the proceedings, Kenneth Holman of 134 Lynn Road was called to the witness box, but refused to take the oath. He later returned, and gave evidence. He was  declared to be a hostile witness. On April 20th, Collins said, after unsuccessfully applying for bail, “I have had time to think about this. As far as I am concerned, I know nothing about anyone being threatened, and I think the Superintendent should not have said that”
The eventual trial took place at Hertford Assizes, where the Presiding Judge was Mr Justice Glyn-Jones , who had represented the parents at the Aberfan enquiry. Other people declared to be hostile witnesses were Valerie June Foley, who was asked if she lived at 24 Guild Road, but denied it. She refused to look at a statement she had previously made to the police.

Friends of the suspects leapt to their defence. Warden said he had been to the fair, went to his parents’ home, watched TV and then fell asleep in the chair. John Richard Warden, of 33 Bath Road, said he had come home to find his son asleep in the chair. Grace Evelyn Warden corroborated the story. At the time David Warden was living with Sandra Setchfield, but was always “popping in and out.”

At the trial, Mr Michael White, the landlord of The Bowling Green said that Cooper and Warden had been in there drinking, but did not return as they usually did before closing time. They had been whispering, and talking to each other outside. Cooper claimed that on the night of the murder he was trying to break into a garage in Lynn Road, Wisbech, to steal cigarettes. Due to give evidence, Kenneth Osborne Holman failed to arrive, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Holman was widely believed to have been intimidated into silence and he was later sentenced to three months in jail. Cooper was known as a local thief, had been in prison, but had no record of violence.

Against a background of intimidation, local loyalties and the fear that hardened criminals inspired amongst Waterlees residents, there were eventual convictions. The verdict was that the men were guilty of manslaughter. Glyn Jones said that it was “One of the worst cases of manslaughter ever to come before me.” Cooper was judged to be the planner and was sentenced to fifteen years for manslaughter and five for burglary, to run concurrently. Warden, who used the violence received twelve and five, as did Collins. No-one, apart from the criminals themselves, has ever suggested that there was a miscarriage of justice in 1967. In his statements, Warden seemed to be saying that yes, he had done it, but the police would be hard pushed to prove anything, as the killers had been meticulous about leaving no traces.

VirgoAnd yet, and yet. In 1977, Commander Wallace Virgo (left) head of the Serious Crime Squad, was convicted of corruption, and sent to jail . As the ensuing corruption investigations widened, the obscene publications squad was replaced in its entirety with a new group of officers drawn from the uniformed branch, and in all over twenty detectives were dismissed or required to resign. When the cases ultimately came to trial in 1977 the presiding judge Mr Justice Mars-Jones summarised those involved as having engaged in “corruption on a scale which beggars description” Ten years earlier, had the case-hardened and confident London detectives arrived in the relative backwater of the Fens and ‘done a job’ on some local men who were certainly career petty criminals, but not very bright?

The jury’s verdict was certainly unequivocal, and the three men were perhaps lucky to have only been convicted of manslaughter. The last executions in mainland Britain had been in August 1964, so the three were never going to face the death penalty, but they were certainly reprieved from a much longer life sentence. The killing of John Auger is by no means an unsolved crime, but the suspicion remains that there were others involved who did not face justice.

FOR MORE TRUE CRIME IN THE FENS, go to our podcast section, where there is enough murder and mayhem to satisfy the most ghoulish local historian.

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MURDER IN CRAB MARSH

The town of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire prides itself on its connection with the Fens, the primeval flatlands of huge freshwater lakes, interspersed with reed beds and small settlements clinging to the occasional patches of high ground. The truth is, of course, that these Fens have been Fens in name only for two hundred years or more, since the great engineers and speculators of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries drained the meres to make it the finest farming land in Britain.

Locals – and geologists – will quickly set you right on the fact that Wisbech sits on the very northern edge of the old Fenland. To the north of the town was Marshland, which was still wet, flat and featureless, but with the crucial difference that the water was salt water, and the reclaimed land was very different from the fertile peat of the Fens.

Wisbech sits on the River Nene, which rises on a lonely hill in Northamptonshire, and flows into The Wash some ten miles north of Wisbech. In medieval times, the outflow of the Nene was a treacherous delta of ever-changing creeks and channels, and it is part of folklore that King John’s baggage train was swept to its doom when local guides took a chance with a capricious incoming tide. By the mid nineteenth century, however, a succession of engineers had imposed their will over nature, and the river from Wisbech to the sea was safely confined between high banks.

In the autumn of 1885, a man murdered his wife by the banks of the river. Listen to the podcast to hear the full story. Be warned – the story ends in a grisly and gruesome manner.

 MURDER IN CRAB MARSH

THE KILLING OF JOHN AUGER

Outwell

This is a tale of brutality – and total incompetence. An elderly man is battered to death, and his killers escape with a safe containing small change. Get the full story by clicking the podcast link.

THE KILLING OF JOHN AUGER

DORIS FLORENCE REEVE … podcast

Doris Florence Reeve

THE PHILOSOPHER AND AUTHOR PASCAL MERCIER said:
“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place,
we stay there, even though we go away.
And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”

And sometimes, the past is uncomfortably close to the present. Even 80 years on from a tragedy, someone was moved, on a September weekend in 2014, to reach out to the wider world with a reminder of what had happened to their family. To listen to an account of the events of that dramatic weekend in 1933, when Doris Reeve (below) was murdered, click

HERE

Doris

 

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