Murders in the Fens
As I mentioned on Friday, the talk that I gave at Sleaford Library was the last in my series of six talks about Murder in the Fens, four of which were prepared to celebrate National Crime Reading Month (NCRM). As I don’t like giving the same talk twice – I don’t believe it is ever possible to replicate the momentum if you deliver the same words again – for each of these talks I researched a different Lincolnshire murder that, in the eyes of the police, remains unsolved. This post offers a brief account of each of these ‘murders’ – though I think that only three of them deserve to be so called.
John Bailey was a country doctor who lived in Long Sutton and was murdered in April 1795. On Tuesday 21st April he went to Tydd St Mary, a village about four miles from Long Sutton, to visit a patient. Early the following morning, his horse returned home without him. Following a report by a servant girl that she had seen a man lying in the grass on the side of the road, a group of local residents went to look for Bailey and found him where the girl had indicated. Alive, but with horrific head injuries, he tried to write something in the silty soil, but could not do so and shortly afterwards died. The motive appeared to be theft, though only the doctor’s watch was missing. There was a nationwide search for his killers and several people were arrested, but no charges were brought. Arrests, incidents of mistaken identity and false confessions continued to plague his wife and son for many years afterwards.
In 1979, Gordon Snowden, a sixty-year-old petrol pump attendant at Sutton Bridge Motors, was attacked at 2 am on 17th April. The motive appeared to be robbery – the cash till with all the takings was stolen. The police made no headway with solving the crime and never announced any suspects. No longer even regarded as ‘cold case’, it has now been archived. In other words, however tragic Gordon Snowden’s murder and however outrageous, it has become a statistic. It will never be reopened.
On May 22nd 1934, Mrs Ethel Major, of Kirby-on-Bain, near Horncastle, made her husband Arthur his customary ‘tea’ of corned beef, bread and butter. Shortly afterwards, he became ill and was soon unable to stand or speak. Two days later he had a seizure and died. The police discovered that Ethel had received anonymous letters telling her that her husband was having an affair with Rose Kettleborough, their neighbour. Police eventually concluded that Ethel had poisoned her husband, using as their main source of evidence an anonymous letter from the same person who had written to Ethel about the affair – which might have been Rose Kettleborough herself. Ethel pleaded not guilty to murder, but was hanged on December 19th 1934 by Albert Pierrepoint, the crown executioner famous for the compassion with which he treated convicted prisoners. Ethel Major was the last Lincolnshire woman to be hanged. Today the evidence against her would be deemed insufficient – and there are many people living in the Horncastle area whose ancestors always doubted her guilt. Horncastle people apparently divided into ‘Rose’ and ‘Ethel’ camps – though there was only circumstantial evidence that either was to blame for Arthur’s death.
Beatie Simpson, who was twenty, and a nineteen-year-old girl who was not named by police were both employed at a tobacco factory in Nottingham. In 1922, they travelled to Mablethorpe for a fortnight’s holiday, which they rashly extended by one week, even though they knew this would result in dismissal from their jobs. According to the girl who survived, they made a suicide pact because they could see no way out of their dilemma and both took Lysol while they were still staying in their seaside boarding house, which was owned by a blacksmith and his wife. Beatie Simpson was badly burned in the mouth and stomach by the corrosive liquid, but the doctor who carried out the post-mortem said that it would have been the effects of the poison on her heart and nervous system that killed her. She left a suicide note. It is not clear why the nineteen-year-old girl survived, although when the girls were discovered attempts were made to force them to drink salt water to cause them to vomit, and apparently Beatie’s mouth was clamped so tightly shut that she could not be made to swallow it. The coroner ruled that the girl who did not die was guilty of murder, as suicide was illegal at the time. The logic of this is hard to understand today: the coroner’s rationale was presumably that if a crime had been committed and someone could be made to pay for it, they should. However, the nineteen-year-old girl was eventually acquitted.
Barbara Grice died from a ruptured liver following a trip to Billinghay Feast (a kind of fair held annually near Sleaford) on 17th October 1956. Tantalisingly, I can find nothing more about this crime – I don’t even know why the police classified it as a murder. Was Barbara Grice pushed from one of the fairground rides or attacked by someone? In any event, no one has ever been charged with her murder.
Lastly, a twenty-six-year-old man named Charles Trier died in Gainsborough in 1995 during a game of Russian roulette. The police charged one man with his murder, then released him owing to lack of evidence. From my perspective, this barely counts as an unsolved murder, although it raises some interesting questions: for example, if you play Russian roulette of your own free will and die as a result, is the cause of your death murder, suicide or an over-developed gambling instinct? If you were coerced into playing, that of course is a different matter. Lovers of ‘The Deer Hunter’ will no doubt have a view!
Of these six deaths, I think that only John Bailey’s, Gordon Snowden’s and, probably, Arthur Major’s – although forensic science was not as conclusive in his day as it is now – would today be classified as murders. Beatie Simpson’s suicide certainly would not, unless it could be proved that her faculties were weak and the nineteen-year-old girl had unduly influenced her; the circumstances surrounding Charles Trier’s death are too uncertain to determine whether he pulled the trigger of his own free will; and Barbara Grice’s demise, as I have indicated, remains shrouded in mystery.
Bewitched by Long Sutton library – and murder and tea with the vicar
On Monday, after a cloudy start, the weather suddenly started to improve, aided in my case by my travelling south to Long Sutton, which already had a head start in the heat stakes. It was a glorious sunny afternoon when I arrived in this old Fenland village with its ancient silver and grey church and mellow ‘city centre’ (that term beloved of satnavspeak that makes me smile when the ‘city’ in question has a population of 5,000 people😉).
As I was an hour early for my talk, I headed to the churchyard, intent on finding the grave of John Bailey, a surgeon from the village who was murdered in 1795. I spent an interesting half hour examining the gravestones, having quickly discovered the late eighteenth-century graves, but I could not find John Bailey. I knew he was there somewhere because I had seen a photo of his stone. A quick online search told me that it was inside the church. The church – which began to be built in 1170 – is magnificent; I recommend anyone who is passing through the area to visit. Luckily for me, on Monday it was unlocked and, having it to myself, I walked slowly up the aisle from the back of the church to the altar and then down the aisle on the other side, reading all the plaques on the wall and the gravestones set into the floor. I discovered tributes to several ‘vickers’ and members of the Fitzalan Howard family – the local toffs – but still John Bailey eluded me.
The time of my talk was approaching and reluctantly I decided I’d have to leave, Bailey still unfound. Outside the main door, I met a man dressed in black and wearing a dog collar – and, super-sleuth that I am, having honed my investigative skills through the medium of writing nine detective stories, I deduced that it was the vicar. He asked if he could help and when I said I was looking for John Bailey he led me straight to Bailey’s memorial stone, which was set in the floor very close to the altar and cunningly concealed by a chair.
The vicar told me a bit more about the church and said he would have liked to have come to my talk, but the parish meeting was taking place at the same time. He therefore had tea and biscuits to hand! Very hospitably, he made me a cup of tea which I had to drink quickly as time was running short. It was not exactly what you might expect of tea with the vicar – we drank standing up from recyclable paper beakers – not a bone china cup in sight – but it was hugely welcome after a long journey and the dusty ramblings among the tombstones.
On to the library, where I met Tarina and Alison, the librarians,
and a very lively audience made up of some of their readers.
As with my other Lincolnshire talks to celebrate CRM, the discussion following the formal part of the event ranged far and wide. I discovered, for example, that in the nineteenth century, the citizens of low-lying Wisbech were plagued with agues which they assuaged by taking laudanum made with opium from the boats that still sailed up the river from the sea. (I’ve never been to Wisbech, though my Great Aunt Lily lived there. I doubt if she was one of the laudanum set. She signed the ‘pledge’ when she was fourteen and thought my father, who could make the same bottle of whisky last across three Christmases, was a drinker because he indulged in the odd glass of shandy on his way to the coast.)
One of my audience is a curator at Bewsey Old Hall in Wisbech. I have been invited to give a talk there later this year. The vicar would also like me to return to talk to various groups in the village, so I am already looking forward to visiting Long Sutton again.
Huge thanks to Tarina, Alison, Jonathan Sibsey the vicar and my wonderful audience at the Long Sutton library for an enchanted afternoon. And thank you, John Bailey, for eventually emerging from your hiding place. I’ll write about you in a later post.
On an entirely unrelated topic, today is Bloomsday, the day that Leopold Bloom pounded the streets of Dublin in 1916 in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is a date that I remember every year. Joyce chose the date because it was the same day of the year in which he met his (eventual – they didn’t marry until they were middle-aged, after many years and two children) future wife Nora Barnacle in 1902. Barnacle really was her name – I’ve always been surprised that Joyce didn’t use if for one of his characters. She was a chambermaid at a Dublin hotel when they met. I envisage her as a homely, no-nonsense lady who did her best to keep Joyce grounded. He was one of the (slightly) more stable members of the brilliant but half insane generation of writers that included Virginia Woolf (his exact contemporary), Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott FitzGerald. Happy Bloomsday, everyone!