Thursday, 2 July 2015

Coldblooded Villainy

They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.

William Weare was a solicitor, gambler and murder victim.  His name is rarely mentioned but the Radlett Murder or the Elstree Murder, as it is also called, is notorious.  Accused of his murder were Joseph Hunt, professional singer and former keeper of the Army and Navy Coffee House in St Martin’s Lane, Mr Probert a former wine dealer who owned a cottage near Elstree and John Thurtell, a successful prize fighter who was the son of Alderman Thurtell of Norwich, 
Lion's Inn where William Weare had his chambers

All four men were well known in the murky world of gambling in early 19th century London.  Weare was a careful, successful gambler who was known to carry at least £1000 about his person.  He had won £300 from John Thurtell playing blind hookery, a card game. 

In October 1823 suspicions were aroused of a dreadful crime in the area of Gill’s Hill Lane in Elstree.  Shots had been heard on the Friday night and next morning, workmen found a bloody knife and a pistol in the undergrowth.  Local authorities investigated suspicious behaviour by men staying at Mr Probert’s cottage, who had been seen searching the Lane, saying that their gig had thrown them the night before.

It transpired that John Thurtell had invited Weare down to Probert’s cottage for a weekend’s shooting.  Probert and Hunt had travelled separately from Thurtell and Weare and they spent 45 minutes drinking five brandies at the Artichoke in Elstree.  Meanwhile, in a separate chaise along the road, Thurtell shot at Weare giving him a glancing wound on the cheek.  Running for his life, Weare promised to return Thurtell’s money, but his throat was cut and his skull caved in by the butt of a pistol.
Burial of William Weare
It would appear that only one man was guilty but the other two men were probably involved in the plot to attack Weare and they certainly helped to cover up the murder.  Arriving at Probert’s cottage at 9 pm, the men dined with Probert’s young wife.  After she retired to bed the men stayed up all night drinking and smoking but the servant, Susan Ann Woodrough said that they went out from 10 to 11 pm with a candle and a lantern.  This must have been when they collected the body from the lane, over the back of a horse and then concealed it in the fish pond by the cottage.

Next day Hunt and Thurtell returned to London, promising to be back at the cottage on Sunday. In town, Hunt bought cord and a new sack and on their arrival in Elstree, John Thurtell used the chaise to transport the body to Hill-slough pond, two miles from the cottage.  He used the cord and sacking to wrap up the body weighted down with stones.

Soon after his arrest, Joseph Hunt confessed to his knowledge of the murder and showed the Magistrate where the body could be found.  Probert also confessed to some involvement, telling how Thurtell shared out £24 from the dead man and put a gold watch chain round Mrs Probert’s neck.  The cottage had been full of a family party that Sunday so at first Mrs Probert, her sister Mrs Noyes and John Thurtell’s brother Thomas were also arrested.

Newspapers throughout the country were full of gruesome details about the brains attached to the pistol and John’s bloody clothing.  A partially dug 6 foot grave was found close to the cottage and testimony of Hunt’s purchase of 2 pistols and a new spade helped to incriminate him.  The Caledonian Mercury talked of the diabolical ferocity of the murder and the coldblooded villainy of the plan.

John Thurtell was condemned to death and hanged on January 9th 1824.  A waxwork of his body was exhibited at Madam Tussaud’s for 150 years, although his actual body had been dissected.  Joseph Hunt was also sentenced to death but this was commuted to Transportation.  After serving his term in Botany Bay, Joseph became a respectable police officer with a wife and two children.  Probert was released, a ruined man and his many crimes caught up with him, when in 1825 he was arrested for stealing a horse and was hanged at Newgate.

During the trial in 1823, Probert’s cottage became a popular place to visit.  The tenant charged one shilling per head and made over £200.  These visitors included the Marchioness of Salisbury and, a few years later, Sir Walter Scott.  The furniture was sold and the house torn down.

Although his hands were warm with blood,
He down to supper sat,
And passed the time in merry mood,

With drink and songs and chat.

Friday, 19 June 2015

A Veteran Tar

In 1866, one of the oldest inmates of Guildford Union Workhouse was allowed to sit with a glass and tell a yarn to his cronies by the workhouse fire.  At 86, John Ranger was hale and hearty and had some colourful tales to tell.

At the age of 24 he had volunteered to be a sailor, joining HMS Victory, under the command of Captain Hardy.  Soon, as you probably realise, he found himself at the Battle of Trafalgar where he witnessed Lord Nelson fall dying onto the deck.

He later had further adventures, when on June 1st 1813, while serving on the Shannon under Captain Broke, they engaged with the American ship the Chesapeake. He described how quickly they took the enemy ship, “We went into action at 4.30 and at five minutes to 5, I was on the deck of the Chesapeake and she was ours.”

The Chesapeake and the Shannon off Boston

John Ranger’s fame increased after an article was published in the West Surrey Times.  In 1822 he had left the navy very suddenly.  Disliking his task as part of a blockade against the slaving ships off the west coast of Africa, he jumped overboard and deserted.  This meant that he was ineligible for a place at Greenwich Hospital and thus he had ended up in the workhouse.

The article prompted Captain Egerton of HMS Victory to write to the newspaper offering to organise a trip for the old sailor to dine on the Victory on the anniversary of Trafalgar.  A fund was organised so that people could contribute, “a few Shillings to give an old fellow a treat, rigging him out in naval costume,” but did he go?  Captain Egerton required proof that Mr Ranger had indeed been a member of the crew that day and yet in the Muster Roll available now he is not named.

Monday, 8 June 2015

A family struggling to survive

One of the many families split up and spread across the globe in Edwardian times were the LARNER family. In 1858, Thomas Larner was born in Wokingham Workhouse in Berkshire to 16 year old unmarried mother Mary Larner.  By 1861 he and his mother were living with his grandparents Joseph and Ann Larner, but ten years later, 12 year old Thomas and his 75 year old grandmother were living alone, both working as agricultural labourers.

St John's Church, Merrow where many of the children were baptised

At some point after 1871, Thomas joined the army and on being posted to Aldershot, married Mary Jane Ellis from nearby Hartley Witney. They married in Guildford in 1885 and when Thomas left the army a year later, they set up home in 4 Swaynes Cottages in High Path Road, Merrow in Surrey and began, as many couples at that time, to have a great many children.  Mary Jane obviously didn’t like her plain name as her taste for the more exotic emerged in her choice of children’s names.  They were born as follows:

1884       Maria Frances Isabel
1886       Thomas Joseph William
1889       Frederick Ernest Edward
1891       Ivy Elizabeth May
1894       Lewis Leonard George                   died 1917 in Flanders
1897       Albert Henry John                          died 1915 in Flanders
1898       James David                                   died 1898
1899       Rose Kathleen Maud
1901       Violet Mary
1902       Lily Irene Daisy

In Merrow, Thomas Larner became a general labourer but with onset of the Boer War he returned to the army leaving Mary Jane to look after the family.  His son Thomas Joseph William Larner left his job as a gardener for Mr Fitzjohn at “The Warrens” and also joined the army.  

Meanwhile Mary Jane was in trouble.

Sussex Agricultural Express 15th April 1890
Barkingside Girls' Village
By 1902 the family were in disarray.  In the absence of her husband Thomas, Mary Jane could not cope with the large family.  Her four youngest children had been taken away.   By 1911 Albert was an inmate of the Gordon Boys School "for necessitous boys" at Bagshot, Lily was one of the few resident children of Guildford Union Workhouse, Rose had been sent by Dr Barnardos as a British Home child to Canada and Violet was a resident of Barnardos Girls’ Village at Barkingside in Essex.  Three months later Violet was part of the Barnardos party on board the Sicilian bound for Quebec.

Thomas had returned to his family and by 1911 he and Mary Jane were living in Aldershot where he worked as a fish hawker.  It is very unlikely that they ever saw or heard of Violet or Rose again.

British Newspaper Archive

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A Bundle of old Letters

Yesterday, when my daughter began to sort through my grandfather’s stamp collection which had been kept in shoeboxes, she made an exciting discovery.  She found family letters dating back to 1829.

The letters are all from members of our Hopkins family, who were lightermen on the Thames, living in Lambeth.  The oldest letter was neatly written by 9 year old William Hopkins, from his school, Lambeth Marsh Academy to his father, Robert Hopkins.  The neatness and formal vocabulary suggest that this was a school exercise and a year later he wrote a very similar letter to his mother Elizabeth Mary Hopkins (formerly Norris).

The next letter, chronologically, was written on December 26th 1838 by Elizabeth Palmer, my great grandmother, to the same William Hopkins, who by this time, was 18.  Three and a half years later they were married.  It is not exactly a love letter, as it describes, in detail, her journey, accompanied by her aunt, from Lambeth to Woodford in north London. As the coaches were all full they had to take a Fly and then walk a good distance, in wet weather.  However Elizabeth does remark that she cannot keep from writing to William, remembering their evening of playing cribbage together.  Pretending to her aunt that she is writing to her mother, she hopes that William “will favour her with a few lines.”  She concludes “with her kind love, Yours Affectionately.”

The next letter from E. Clutterbuck in Lewisham to Miss Palmer in Lambeth was written in 1841.  With the aid of Elizabeth and William’s marriage certificate and perusing the census returns for Lewisham, I established that this was 20 year old Emma Clutterbuck, a friend of Elizabeth who was a witness at her wedding.  Writing on May 6th, Emma accuses Elizabeth of having forgotten the route to her house.  She writes at length about the sweet briars she is nurturing as a present for her.  She suggests that Elizabeth bring William with her, “for fear anyone else should take a fancy,” to Elizabeth!  Emma remarks that she intends to stay single as she has not seen anyone she fancies.  In fact Emma did not marry until she was 43, when waterman, William Thomas, must have finally taken her fancy.

Finally there is a letter posted in 1879 from my great uncle Ted Talbot, aged 8, to his grandmother Mrs Hopkins, the aforementioned Elizabeth Palmer Hopkins.


I think I may have been over enthusiastic in trying to marry off Emma Clutterbuck as I seem to have found her in Hackney on the 1871 census, still single, living with her unmarried sister Jane and her widowed sister-in-law Harriet.  In 1881 Emma Clutterbuck died in Hackney.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Soprano who became an Admiral’s wife

High above the naval base in Singapore stands a beautiful building called Old Admiralty House which was designed by Edward Lutyens.  With views across the Straits of Johore it was destined to be the residence of the officer in charge of His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore.  Although completed in 1939, this Arts and Crafts style house was not used until August 1941 when Rear-Admiral Ernest J Spooner and his wife arrived on the island.

Old Admiralty House

Mrs Spooner was better known as Megan Foster, an accomplished soprano singer, who had performed in concert halls all over Europe including Carol Concerts in the Albert Hall and broadcasts on BBC radio.  The daughter of renowned baritone, Ivor Foster, she was, like her husband, Welsh by birth although they had both grown up in southern England.  Megan had been praised in the British press for her, “delightfully fresh and pure soprano voice and beautifully clear enunciation.”

Megan looked forward to decorating her new house tastefully although it was already furnished with jade green leather armchairs and an immensely long dark, walnut finished, teak table.  As soon as they had settled in, Ernest and Megan gave a cocktail party where 350 people were able to fit comfortably into the dining and drawing room.
Megan Spooner
Although Megan was used to being apart from her husband or travelling to Gibraltar to meet him briefly, now, in his senior rank, she accompanied him on the long voyage from Glasgow, through dangerous wartime seas.  Sensibly they had left their son in an English boarding school.

Mrs Ernest Hemingway had written of Singapore in Colliers Magazine describing how she saw it in August 1941.

Singapore Free Press & Mercantile Advertiser 18 October 1941
Even Rear-Admiral Spooner was probably unaware how quickly this idyllic lifestyle would end and he would certainly not have asked Megan to accompany him if he had known that Singapore would fall to the Japanese Army only 6 months later.  But fall it did. Megan was one of the lucky wives who managed to evacuate on the Empire Star on February 12th but by the time Ernest and his fellow officers boarded an escape vessel they were attacked by Japanese aircraft near Java.  Ernest Spooner died on Chibia Island of exhaustion and malaria and after the war he was laid to rest at Kranji Cemetery in Singapore.

Megan Foster, as she continued to be known to the public, arrived in Britain on May 9th 1942 and she returned to singing on the BBC Home programme.  It was some time before she learnt of her husband’s death at which point she sunk into grief until, encouraged by fellow singer Maggie Teyte, she began to perform again.  She was very popular at children’s concerts, enjoying singing English and French folk songs.  She received encores for her “perfect artistry” and “arrestingly dramatic quality.”

Old Admiralty House where Megan and Ernest lived happily, but so briefly, became a National Monument in 2002 but it was in danger of crumbling away before it was taken over by the FIS Institute School who have restored it beautifully.

Friday, 15 May 2015

The Romance of the Nation

My love of history began when as a small child I flicked through the pages of a large green book belonging to my father.  In fact there were two green books each packed with illustrations and they were bound copies of magazines first published in 1934.

There were detailed diagrams of how things worked, including my favourite, a castle.  This picture showed the attack and defence of a fortress in the days of Edward III when the first cannons were beginning to be used, but catapults and ballistas were still needed for accuracy.

Other illustrations are of famous peopla or events such as this one of Cardinal Wolsey at the height of his powers when he built Hampton Court Palace.

Originally 52 issues of the magazine were printed, edited by Charles Ray and you can read about his other publications here.
Ray described The Romance of the Nation as, "A Stirring Pageant of the British Peoples Through All the Ages."

If it had still been loose copies of the magazines, I might have been tempted to cut out and dress these medieval dollies.

I don't think I ever made any of the complicated models.