In Wisbech, we are not particularly well blessed with what could be called stately homes. Peckover House is very grand, but the next in line might be Needham Hall in Friday Bridge. The present building is on the site of a much older house which was pulled down in 1804. The last owner of the old house was Dr. John Fountayne, Dean of York, and his daughter Catherine lived in the new house until her death in 1824, at which point it passed to her nephew, Richard Fountayne Wilson, M.P. for Yorkshire 1826–30. The 1861 census records that the house was occupied by Frederick Easton Fryer, his large family and a house full of servants. By 1901 the house – and farm – had been bought by Walter Wooll West (left), and it is with the West family we shall stay.
Walter Montagu West (above), elder son of Walter Wooll, was killed at Ypres in 1915, and eventually ownership of the farm passed to the younger son, Charles. Incidentally, Walter senior was knighted for public service, and seems to have retired to 75 Harecroft Road (just two doors on from my house) where he died in 1952. It is Charles West who is at the centre of a story which made headlines in many national papers in 1956.
The story, as you will soon see, is not one of the tragedies of which I have written before. Rather, it has elements of comedy about it, and it has at least two of the elements that would have instantly attracted newspaper editors – a blonde, and a gun.
Charles West (59) was divorced, and lived with a woman – Ella Grundman – who had been cited as “the other party” in the divorce case. His father, Walter Wooll West was a farmer, yes, but also someone of substance in the county, and kept a large household and employed dozens on the farm, as the photo below (copyright Wisbech & Fenland Museum) reveals. It was taken on the occasion of Sir Walter and Lady Grace’s Golden Wedding anniversary in December 1940.
It seems that by 1956 social niceties at the Hall were not so much Upstairs Downstairs as Kitchen Sink. One evening in late April, Charles West was having drinks in a downstairs room with his cowman and a gardener. They were apparently celebrating a very pleasing evaluation of the Hall, farm and estate. Things, however, went rather pear-shaped. The emerging story tickled the fancy of more than one newspaper editor, and The Birmingham Mail reported:
“A wealthy Fenland farmer was threatened with a shotgun and a carving knife by his 38 year-old lover a court was told yesterday (Friday 27th April). It happened in a tiff over cigarettes at his family seat said the prosecution at Wisbech.
The farmer, 59 year-old Charles West, of Needham Hall, Wisbech, said that he had accused her of stealing cigarettes. Afterwards, they were found in his desk. “I would like to apologise,” he said.
But Mrs Ella Grundman, smartly dressed in a pink grey-dotted suit, did not glance at him as he gave his evidence.
She is accused of shooting with intent to murder, and of causing Mr West grievous harm. Mr David Hopkin, prosecuting, said that the couple were celebrating with a gardener and a cowman at the Hall.
A quarrel began over the cigarettes.Mrs Grunman asked West to open a roll-top desk. He refused.
She fetched a carving knife, put it to his back and pushed him round the room until one of the men took the knife away. Ten minutes later, she was back with a shotgun. She pointed it at West and said: ”Now you’re going to give me the keys, or else.”
One of the men struggled with her, but the gun went off, peppering the wall and telephone with shot. Mr Alec Whitwell, the cowman, said that later he found her scratching his employer’s face, holding him by the hair, and banging his head on the sofa. Mr West, son of a former High Sheriff, said he could not remember much of what had happened – “I wasn’t drunk, but I had a lot more to drink than was good for me.”
Haltingly, he said, “ In the washroom I was being hit by Mrs Grundman with either the candlestick, or the ash tray stand, or both.”
Mr West told Kenneth Land, defending, that he had known Mrs Grundman for two years. She had lived at the Hall since last December and before that had lived in his houseboat at Hilgay, Norfolk.
Mr Land said, “She is a hefty woman and strongly built. If she had really wanted to do him harm, she could easily have done so. Neither knew the police had been called, and as far as they were concerned, the quarrel was over, and they were all tucked up for the night.”
As, inevitably, Wisbech magistrates decided that Ella Grundman must be tried at the next Cambridge Assizes, the Sunday Mirror couldn’t resist a bit of fun.
THE MORTAL REMAINS OF MINNIE MORRIS were laid to rest in Walsoken Cemetery on the afternoon of Friday 19th July 1912. The newspapers reported:
The officiating clergyman was the Rev. G. A. A. Finch, of Loughborough, who is in charge of the parish whilst the Rector (the Rev. J. Young) is on his holidays. The first part of the service was conducted in the church. The funeral was largely attended, it being estimated that there were quite 300 fruit pickers -from all parts of the district present.
The scene was a very impressive one, for many of the pickers, who are generally so light-hearted, were greatly touched by the solemn ceremony, and numerous were those who were moved to tears as the coffin was lowered into the grave. The chief mourner was the mother of the girl and for her much sympathy had been shown in the parish, a collection on her behalf amounting to £1. The girl’s sweetheart, a London bricklayer, came down to see her body, but was unable to wait for the funeral. There were nearly a dozen floral tributes, one from the mother, and the others, from pickers. Most of the wreaths were made by a Mrs. Love, wife of the copperman at Mr. J. S. Batterham’s farm, where the girl had been working.
On the spot where the body of Morris was found, a cross has been cut in the turf and flowers have been laid on the cross. On Sunday hundred, of people visited Burrett Road to see the spot. The charge of murdering Morris which has been preferred against Robert Galloway. – of No. I Angola Mews, Babington-road, North Kensington, to be investigated at a special sitting of the Marshland Magistrates at Wisbech today (Friday).
The inquest on the body of Morris was conducted at the Bell Inn, Old Walsoken, on Wednesday 24th July. Presiding was the District Coroner (Mr. R. A. Wilkins). Supt. Powles represented the police. The morning was to be dramatic. The victim’s mother. Mrs. Springfield, was the first witness to be recalled, and when she entered the room she looked at Galloway, gasped for breath, and then crying said between her sobs:
“That is the villain.” Stating that her husband was outside ill. she signed the deposition. As she was rising from her seat she said:
“My sister said she would look after her; What this man wanted to kill my daughter for. I don’t know. She never did anyone any harm. He got into the company of the girl, and I quite understand he got jealous. Oh God love her.”
The Coroner: “Do not get excited.”
Mrs. Springfield: “It is cruel. Look at the man. (Then to Galloway): Look at me – look at her mother. (Lifting her hands as a warder stood in front of her, and between her and Galloway): I would if I dare. You scamp, you dirty dog, you villain.”
The witness, who was crying as she was speaking, then left the room. It transpired that the man who cut the cross on the spot where the body was found, and filled the cross with flowers, was James Long, an employee of Mr. Blunt. The Coroner said it was a very nice idea. and quite refreshing after the brutal things they had been listening to.
The grim wheels of the legal process ground ever onwards. The next stage in the process was the police court in Wisbech on 1st August. The findings were never in doubt, but Galloway’s behaviour remained bizarre. He had now decided to opt for an insanity plea.
Galloway remained under lock and key for the next three months, but in October he had to face the finality of justice. At the Norwich Assizes in October his belated attempt to plead insanity cut no ice with either the jury or Mr Justice Darling (right). He was sentenced to death and on the morning of Tuesday 5th November he had no option but to keep his appointment with Thomas Pierrepoint and his assistant George Brown. Newspaper reports said:
“He walked firmly to the scaffold, and death was instantaneous.”
Prior to 1887, Norwich prison – and its gallows had been within the walls of the castle, but Galloway’s last days would have been spent in the institution on Knox Road, and his remains presumably lie therein.
Minnie Morris’s body lies in a quiet corner of Walsoken cemetery, forgotten, unmarked and unvisited. Her family were poor, and unable to afford a headstone. Thanks to the efficiency of the District Council we know her last resting place, and I was able to put some flowers on the spot. If you click on the media player at the bottom of this feature, you will hear a lovely old hymn, written by Ira D. Sankey, which reminds us of our mortality.
THE STORY SO FAR . . . July 1912. Wisbech, Cambridgeshire.Two Londoners in their 20s – Minnie Morris and Robert Galloway – have come to the Fenland town for the fruit-picking season, and are working for a local farmer. J.S. Batterham. They are in a relationship, of sorts, because Minnie is very attractive and enjoys male company. Sadly, Robert Galloway is prone to jealousy, and every word Minnie exchanges with other young men is a dagger in his heart.
On 16th July both had been drinking. Licensing restrictions were only to be introduced a few years later, as part of the effort to boost munitions production in WW1, and both The Black Bear and The Bell Inn in Walsoken were “open all hours”.
The pair went for a walk after a lengthy session in the pub. They followed Lynn Road. and then turned right into Burrett Road. At some point, Galloway’s jealousy and – perhaps – Minnie’s indifference triggered a violent response. Galloway throttled Minnie, using a handkerchief she had been given by another admirer to make a fatal tourniquet around Minnie’s neck. It seems that Galloway then headed back to seek solace in alcohol.
Witness reports in subsequent court hearings tell their own tale:
Bertie Ash, labourer, Walsoken, said that on Tuesday afternoon, 16th July, he was cycling along Burrett Road,. towards the Black Bear, and his attention was attracted by a woman lying flat on her back on the grass with a man kneeling over her. They were on the left-hand side of the road. He did not know what the man was doing. The man’s left hand appeared to be on the woman’s mouth or breast, and a cap was over the woman’s face. He did not stop, but proceeded to Mr. J. S. Batterham’s farm, where he stayed 10 minutes.
He returned the same way on his bicycle and that the woman was lying in the the same position, but the man had gone. She was not moving, and was alone. He did not stop. He thought they were a young couple courting, and that the woman was asleep. When he first passed the couple they did not appear to be struggling at all.
William Frusher, labourer, Old Walsoken, said that on Tuesday, 16th July, he was walking along Burrett Road in the direction of his home, which was away from the Black Bear. It was 5.10 p.m., and he saw woman lying on the left-hand side of the road. She was on her back, and was not moving. He stood for a moment and looked at the woman. He could not see her face as a man’s cap was over it. He felt her hands, and they were cold. He removed the cap and saw there was a lot of brown froth around her mouth. She was not breathing. He did not move the body, and left it just as it was.
He went away and returned with a sack to cover the woman. That was about ten minutes after he first saw her. He returned with a man named Lankfer and remained by the body until the police arrived. He did not notice a letter until P.C. Taylor came. It was in the waistband of her skirt. The woman’s head was bare and her hair was light coloured.
Galloway was either drunk or obsessed. Having walked into Wisbech he spoke to the first policeman he found:
PC. Jacobs, of Wisbech, said that at 6.45p.m. on Tuesday, 16th July, he was on duty on Wisbech Market Place, and the prisoner came up to him and said: “Have you heard of a murder on the Lynn road, Walsoken? I have strangled a woman. I thought you were looking for me. 1 am ready to suffer for what I have done.”
Galloway was arrested and secured in police cells, and at no time did he deny what he had done. In fact, Police Sergeant Arthur Webb, of Walsoken, stated that when he received the prisoner into custody, Galloway said: “Is she dead? I hope so. You can take that down.”
IN PART THREE
These days when Fenland fruit needs picking, the hands that do the work will belong to people who come from places like Vilnius. Klaipeda, Varna, Daugavpils, or Bucharest. Back in the day, however,the pickers came from less exotic places like Hackney, Hoxton or Haringey, and the temporary migration of Londoners to the Wisbech area was an established part of the early summer season. In the autumn, the same people – predominantly women and children, might head south to the hop fields of Kent, but in the July of 1912 the Londoners were here in Fenland.
One of the farms in the area which welcomed the London visitors was that of John Stanton Batterham, of Larkfield, Lynn Road, Walsoken. His house still stands:
He was to play no direct part in the tragedy that unfolded on the afternoon of 16th July, 1912, but some of the people who worked for him – and two in particular – were key players.
Minnie Morris has been hard to trace using public records. Her mother, Minnie Gertrude Morris had married (a re-marriage) John M Stringfield in the autumn of 1911, but the 1901 census has her living with a Henry Morris (who was almost twice her age) in Grays Inn Buildings, Roseberry Avenue, Holborn. Also listed is a daughter, also called Minnie, born in Hoxton in 1891.
Minnie junior is hard to locate in 1911, but on the other side of town, in North Kensington, a young man named Robert Galloway was living with his large family in Angola Mews:
To call Robert and Minnie “star-crossed lovers” is probably pushing the Shakespeare analogy a step too far, but their paths crossed in the summer of 1912. Both turned up, from different parts of the country, to pick fruit for Mr Batterham. It seems that the hours were flexible, and there was money to be handed over the bar in The Black Bear, and the Bell Inn. The Black Bear still thrives, despite the curse of lock-down, but the Bell Inn is long gone. (below)
William Tucker, labourer, Old Walsoken, said he came from London in May last for fruit-picking. He knew Minnie Morris for a few months, and he met her in London. He saw her in the Bell Inn Walsoken, in June. He used to meet her about four times a week and was fond of her. He used to give her grub and spend evenings with her.”
Galloway was described as a seaman in contemporary reports, but there is no evidence to support this. Perhaps the term suggested something exotic and dangerous, and journalists at the time would be as aware of ‘clickbait’ as we are today, even though they might have used a different term. He was clearly violently jealous, and anyone paying court to Minnie Morris was regarded as a mortal enemy.
On 11th July there was a clashing of heads in the Black Bear inn.
Galloway saw William Tucker and Minnie Morris drinking together in the Black Bear inn. Galloway said: “Minnie. I want to speak to you.“
She replied: “I’m all right where I am.”
Tucker and Minnie Morris then went out of the inn and stood talking. Galloway said the girl:
“If I don’t find you I’ll find him”, meaning William Tucker.
Over a century later, it is hard to come to any other conclusion other than that Robert Galloway was obsessed with Minnie Morris, and his feelings were that if he couldn’t have her, then no-one could.
IN PART TWO
A fateful stroll
A case for the police
1953 had not begun auspiciously for East Anglia. Overnight on 31st January a fierce storm had brought devastating flooding to the coast from Lincolnshire to Norfolk. Amost exactly a year earlier, King George VI had died at Sandringham, and the preparations for the June coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth were well advanced. Wisbech Town were struggling in the Midland League, but did manage to beat Gainsborough 5-3 on Easter Saturday, 4th April.
On Thursday 2nd April, Claude Butter arrived at his mother’s house in Wisbech, having traveled down from his lodgings in Church Street, Blackpool. The 51 year-old was a civilian instructor at RAF Weeton, in Lancashire. He had been away from home since he was 16. When his father died he was abroad but in a later statement he said:
“I tried to get home, but I understand that the then Superintendent of police said my presence was not necessary. That sort of gave me the impression that I was not really wanted.”
81 year-old Susannah Elizabeth Butter lived on Summerfield Close, in a modest 1930s council house in a set of terraces built around a circular green. Her other son, Charles, lived either in Milner Road, Wisbech, or with his mother – newspaper reports differ.
That Sunday, 5th April, was Easter Day. On Easter Monday, Mrs Butter and her sons sat down to supper. It was to be her last meal. At 7.45am the next day, Mrs Butter’s next door neighbour was roused by a frantic knocking on the door. When he answered the door, he saw a dishevelled Claude Butter, who said:
“Fetch the police. I have killed my mother. I am mad.”
Mr Jackson and his wife went into number 74, and found Mrs Butter slumped at the foot of the stairs, her head a bloody mess. Claude, meanwhile sat slumped at the kitchen table, muttering:
“To think I should have done this.”
Several times he also said,
“I sent her to heaven. God rest her soul.”
When the doctor arrived, Mrs Butter was pronounced dead. The police had found a poker near to her body, and subsequent tests revealed that it was stained with the old lady’s blood.
When Butter appeared in Wisbech Magistrate’s Court on 22nd April, the national press were preoccupied with the misdeeds of a certain John Christie, who had been arrested on 31st March. While the full horror of what Christie had done would only emerge over the next weeks and months, Butter’s crime was relatively cut and dried, the only question being “why?”.
Being a trial for murder, business was transferred to Cambridge Assizes, and on Tuesday 20th May, Claude Butter was found guilty of his mother’s murder, but declared insane, and sentenced to be detained “until The Queen’s pleasure be known.”
Police and solicitors struggled to find a motive for Butter’s senseless act. Defending Butter in court, Mr George Pettefar called Charles Butter to the stand. Butter said:
“The accused man, my brother, was a bachelor whose life had been centred round our mother. The relationship between them was of the highest and there was genuine affection on both sides.”
(Pettefar) “Would you agree he would not have killed her had he not had a brainstorm of some kind?”
“What he did that morning was to kill the nearest and dearest person to him on this earth?”
There was little for the police to do except take Butter to a secure place and try to fathom out what had possessed him to kill his mother.
It was disclosed in court that Claude Butter had made the following statement to police:
“I was not the fellow she thought I was or who anyone thought I was. I didn’t want her to know. I do things on mad impulse. All my life I have been bewitched by the devil.”
Summing up the case for the prosecution, Mr Jardine reminded the jury:
“One thing you may think is lacking in this case is any evidence of any motive for the crime. It is not essential for the prosecution’s case to prove motive, and in this case I am unable to produce any evidence of motive.”
The inner torment which drove Claude Butter to kill his mother can only be guessed at. His death was registered in the St Pancras district of London in the summer of 1960, which suggests he spent the final years of his troubled life in one of the capital’s longest established mental health institutions, St Pancras Hospital.
It was also alleged that after the woman was in this fearful condition, Day did nothing to help extinguish the fire except to pour some water on the woman from a small teapot. He was also said to have threatened do the same for a man who was trying put out the flames if he made fuss about it. There was no other possible conclusion at the inquest other than that Frances Parlett had met her painful end through the violent actions of John Day, and that Day must face trial for murder.
The past is never far away, and it is interesting to note that the initial defence for John Day was conducted by Mr TR Dawbarn – a distinguished Wisbech name. One of the chilling things about this case is the fact that, before she died, Frances Parlett was able to give a lucid account of events. At the trial of John Day, she spoke from beyond the grave:
“I live in Wisbech with the accused. About one o’clock this morning I and accused were alone together downstairs. I woke him up as he had fallen asleep. We had no words during the evening. He said “You ….. cow. 1 will blind you.” He then took the lamp up off the table, which was alight, and threw it at me. I caught fire, and everything I had on was burnt. I was burnt, too, almost all to pieces. I screamed and ran out. but he has knocked me about so that the people took no notice it. He is always at it. The accused did nothing, not even attempt put the fire out. Mr. Brightwell, the next-door neighbour, put it out. The accused threw some buckets of cold water over me, but not before my clothes were burnt off me. I cannot remember anything else. We have been living together nearly two vears.’’
At Day’s trial in June 1905, presided over by Mr Justice Bucknill, (left, as caricatured by ‘Spy’) much was made of the fractious and often violent relationship between Frances Parlett and himself. The poor woman did not die until the next day, and in the immediate aftermath of the attack initially defended Day, but then the following exchange was relayed to the court. Sergeant Watson took the prisoner upstairs to see the deceased, and they had a conversation.
“Frances, did I do it ?”
“Yes, you bad boy, you know you did it,”
“You did, you bad boy, you know you did.”
She was also heard to say,
“You murderer, you have done it this time. You have had a good many tries, and you have done it this time.”
In the event, the defence barrister for Day made great play on the grave responsibility that the jurors held. If they found Day guilty of murder, he would surely hang. In the words of the newspaper report, Mr Stewart, for the defence, remarked that the punishment for the crime with which the prisoner was charged was death, and it was not necessary to say more than that to bring home the jury the great and terrible responsibility that rested upon them. The onus of proof against the prisoner lay with the prosecution, and it was for them to satisfy the jury beyond the possibility of reasonable doubt that the prisoner was responsible for the deed. He contended that this had not been done. The statement of the woman was not in nature of a dying declaration, and it ought not to regarded as more important, or have more credence attached to it than was attached to any of the evidence called before the Court during the day.
Wisbech is a small Cambridgeshire market town on the banks of the River Nene. It is Spring 1905. The Mayor is Mr H.C. Elgood, patriarch and owner of the local brewery. The Rev. R.E.R Watts, Vicar of Wisbech is retiring due to ill health, and his grateful parishioners have raised the sum of £224.19s as a testimonial. Sadly, due to the cleric’s infirmity, there is to be no public presentation.
Away from the rectories and grand villas, the world goes on. In the insanitary slum courts off the main thoroughfares, men get drunk. their women goad them, and there is violence a-plenty. One such instance is the tragic – and painful – death of Frances Parlett. Most of the following narrative is taken from contemporary newspaper reports.
Frances Parlett was married about six years previously, but left her husband, and for two years she had lived with the John Day at 18a Carpenter’s Arms Yard. At one o’clock in the morning May 2nd they were in their living room, one of two rooms in which they lived. Day, having fallen asleep, was awakened by the woman, and it was said that either in sudden anger or with malice aforethought, he seized a lighted paraffin lamp which was on the table, and threw it at her. She was at once covered in flames, and screamed and rushed to the front door.
A very worthy man who lived near, and who often heard screams, went out and saw the poor creature. With remarkable courage and pluck, this elderly man rushed hack into his house and secured some blankets, with which he put out the flames. Next day the woman died, fearfully burnt. The evidence was that the accused, about 11 o’clock that night, was heard to say to her that he would do something to her when he got home.
Nothing remains of Carpenter’s Arms Yard today. It was a narrow lane running off what is now West Street, and it ended just short of Tillery Field, which in those days was a cemetery. Its position was more or less where St Paul’s Close is now. By all accounts it was one of the meaner streets of the town. I have been unable to find any image of Carpenter’s Arms Yard, but it is safe to imagine that it would have been narrow, dirty and the tiny terraced houses would have been packed with residents who were at the bottom end of society.
The photo on the right is of an existing Wisbech alley which, due to its central position has survived more or less intact, and gives us an idea of what the Yard might have looked like. Carpenter’s Arms Yard was earmarked for slum clearance in the late 1920s along with its near neighbour Ashworth’s Yard, and both were gone before the outbreak of World War II. What is now St Peter’s Road was probably more prosperous than either of the Yards, and its terraced houses were spared the redevelopments of the 1930s. It is tempting to look back and wish that more of old Wisbech had been preserved, but we would do well to remember that conditions in these old houses would be awful, even by standards of the time. Damp, insanitary and built on the cheap, these grim places contributed to the general poor health and high death rate of the time. The cemetery at the bottom of the slight slope of Carpenter’s Arms Yard was actually instituted as an overflow burial ground when a cholera epidemic struck the town earlier in the 19th century.
Back to the terrible events of May, 1905. Sadly, Frances Parlett died of her burns the next day, and the wheels of the law began to grind. The first step was a Coroner’s Inquest. At the inquest, it was reported that:
“Deceased was suffering from extensive superficial burns, extending from the knees to the armpits, and the front part was worse than the back. If deceased had been sitting at a table and the lamp capsized one would have expected more severe burns at one particular spot. There were no marks on her face or chest to show that they had come in contact with a hard substance, and would have expected to have found some marks on the body if it had been struck by the lamp with much violence.”
In answer to the Foreman, a witness said he thought the lamp could be thrown with sufficient force on the steel of the deceased’s corsets to break the lamp and not mark the body. The skin was discoloured too much to see any bruise. Herbert Brightwell, bootmaker, of 19a, Carpenter’s Arms Yard, said he heard the deceased and Day come home about 11 o’clock on the night in question. At about one o’clock he was awakened by the shuffling of feet, but he heard no voices. Immediately afterwards he heard a woman scream, and saw a bright light flash across his window. The woman continued to scream, and he went downstairs. When he opened the door of Day’s house the deceased, who was in flames, fell into his arms. Brightwell attempted to put out the flames by wrapping blankets round her.
Brightwell asked Day to assist him, but he did not do so, and said nothing. Having put out the flames, Brightwell ran to tell Frances Parlett’s sister, and Day ran after him, saying:
“What the **** are you exciting yourself about. If you don’t come back here I will jolly well put you through it as well.”
NEXT – John Day is tried for murder,
and faces an appointment with Henry Albert Pierrepoint
Part Two of A WISBECH TRAGEDY, will go live on the evening of Friday 24th July.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The 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.