The Mysterious Drowning of Madam Edith Bockel and her children

On a sunny August day in 1895 a body of a young boy was discovered in the Willabroeck canal in Neder-Over-Heembeck near Brussels.  But why was this sad story reported in such great detail in, “The Bury and Norwich Post?”  Of what interest could it be to the average East Anglian reader?

At first the identity of the boy was unknown but when, on the following two days, a young girl and then a woman were also found drowned in the same location, they were linked to a family who had disappeared from a local hotel a few days earlier.  The manager of the Hotel de la Marine believed they matched the appearance of a lady who had checked into the hotel, with her children, as Marie Louise Weilers from Richmond in England.  But this person was untraceable so evidence from her clothing was investigated.  On the band of her bodice could be read, “Miss Jor...costumier..Lynn,” and her shoes were labelled, “H. R. Powell, 32, St James’s Street, Kings Lynn.”

Help was sought from the Kings Lynn police force.  Immediately Chief Constable George Ware, never one to delegate active police investigations, travelled to Belgium.  He discovered that although the drowned woman had checked in as Marie Weilers, she had left in her hotel room, a notebook and a hat bearing the name Maria Bockel.  This gave him her true identity.  Madame Bockel, age 36, was the widow of Frédéric Bockel, a Belgian national but she had been born Edith Helen Harrison in Downham, Cambridgeshire.  Her children were Marie Jeanne Bockel age 12 and Frédéric Bockel age 4.  After her marriage to Frédéric Bockel senior, Edith had moved with him to Brussels where he was manager of the public baths at 67 Boulevard Hanspeck.  Sadly, while Edith was pregnant with young Frédéric in 1890, her husband died.  At first she remained in Brussels but understandably, after three years, Edith returned to her family in Kings Lynn.  There her father John Harrison was a successful butcher, having previously been a London cattle salesman.

What was unclear was why Madame Bockel had returned to Brussels and why she wished to remain incognito.  George Ware needed to ascertain whether this was a case of suicide, accident or murder.  He discovered that in her pocket a new purse, purchased locally, had been found.  It bore the stamp of Magasin Lepoint.  Madame Lepoint believed that the deceased had been accompanied by a man and that she had made several purchases.  She remembered that they were either English or American.  This tied in with the discovery of a man’s waistcoat in the canal but no other body was found.

The newspaper account gives considerable detail of Edith’s clothing.  “Her stockings were black and the garters were of silk elastic, pink in colour.  Her gloves were of black merino with four mother-of-pearl buttons.”  She had a handkerchief embroidered with the letter B and wore a plain gold wedding ring.  On her dress was a silver brooch of a dove and there were three small keys in her pocket.  Her daughter wore a bracelet with three hearts attached, her fair hair was tied with white ribbon and her dress was grey with a lace collar.

The local police believed that the family had sailed to Belgium on the steamer, “City of London,” but they were unable to trace the vessel.  Edith had told her parents that she was taking the children to meet relatives and that she needed to speak to her husband’s executors.  She seemed to be, “in excellent spirits,” and a letter she wrote to them, “showed no signs of despondency.”  Although in receipt of £200 per year she was known to have money concerns.  Despite this fact her family did not believe that she would have taken her own life.

Chief Constable Ware, my great grandfather, had a history of successfully solved crimes during his time in Kings Lynn; since his appointment, at the age of 26, as Superintendent of police and also previously as a Police Inspector in Leeds.

So George was determined to find out what had happened to the tragic family.  He was surprised to discover that Edith had not made contact with any of her many friends and relatives in Brussels. Madame Heder, who described herself as the “bosom friend” of Madame Bockel could not believe that the family would visit Brussels without staying with her.  George enlisted the help of the village schoolmistress to examine the badly decomposed bodies.  This brave woman was able to confirm that the clothing of Madame Bockel and her daughter had not been disarranged or interfered with.  Before leaving the hotel on the eventful day Edith had placed an empty purse, the leather wristlet she normally wore and her gold watch in a drawer but there was no sign of twenty five City of Antwerp Corporation Bonds or £10 in gold which she kept in a handbag.  Perhaps it lies still at the bottom of the canal.

Despite his conviction that Edith and her children were the victims of foul play, this could not be substantiated.  Although she had strayed from the respectable, scenic area of the town into an industrial canal side where tramps lurked, no screams had been heard and the victims were uninjured.  The Belgian police believed that, “down and outs,” might have obtained Edith’s bag after she and the children accidentally fell into the canal, so they continued their endeavours to find three tramps already wanted for attacking a carriage in the vicinity, a few days earlier.

The bulletin from the Belgian police, in which it was said that Madame Bockel had checked into the hotel as Marie Elise Weilers, disappeared and the hotel waiter who booked her in, “may have been labouring under a misapprehension.”  Miss Laura Harrison, Edith’s sister, who had also arrived in Brussels, said that Madame Bockel had gone to collect interest on railway and other stocks that she held but no trace of these was found.  Laura gave more useful evidence which was reported in “The North Eastern Gazette” on Wednesday August 7th.  Apparently five years earlier Frédéric Bockel senior, being unwell, had sold the Public Baths which he managed.  One night, the couple retired to bed but when Edith woke, she found her husband dead by her side.  The shock caused her paralysis from which she gradually recovered.  Had the paralysis returned when she went back to Brussels or did her son, who, according to Laura, was very “frolicsome”, slip into the canal so that his mother and sister had to attempt a rescue?

More was revealed in “The Rotherham Independent.”  We learn that Frédéric Bockel met Edith Harrison while he was a porter in a Belgian hotel.  At the time Edith was a travelling companion to an English family.  After his death Frédéric left her 13000 Francs and life interest on a further amount, Monsieur Bockel’s close friend M. Beckers, who was appointed guardian to Frédéric’s children, expressed the view that Madame Bockel had also gone to Belgian for a medical consultation since she believed that she was suffering from cancer.

On his return to England on 16th August, George Ware gave an interview to the press which was reported in “The Morning Post”.  Although he had traced Edith’s movements from her departure from Kings Lynn on July 26th to her arrival in Brussels the following day where she asked the cab driver to recommend a hotel, he was unable to reach a definite answer as to the cause of the three deaths.  They had left the Hotel de la Marine at 5.45 that evening and had not been seen again.  It would seem that Edith had a very small income and had gone to sell her Corporation Bonds.  In his words, “The incidents of that day remain an unsolved mystery.”

More about policeman George Ware
Times Digital Archive
“Glimpses of Fiddaman’s Lynn” by Rosemary & Stan Rodliffe


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed (if that's the right word) - thank you!

  2. I know what you mean. I wonder if there are descendants of Edith Bockel's sister who nothing of what happened in Belgium.

  3. I enjoyed the article. I am living in Belgium, not far from the canal where the drowning occurred. The event did not take place in Willebroek, but in Neder-Over-Heembeek, a suburb of Brussels. The canal however is called 'canal of Willebroek', hence the confusion.

  4. Thank you Frans, that is really useful information. I will update my account in the next few days.