Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

From dreams of Valentino to death on the beach

Rudolph Valentino, heartthrob of 1920s cinema


“Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?” (Sylvia Plath, Berck-Plage)

It was 1934, and a beautiful blonde woman named Rachel Mery was about to die.

Rachel was a romantic, who fell headlong in love, and who loved grand gestures. She was now about to embark on her grandest, carrying out a suicide pact with her lover on the beach at Berck, near Le Touquet in northern France. She was only 23 years old.

She was born in Paris, the ‘youngest and prettiest’ daughter of a wealthy estate broker. She was always a dreamer – a girl whose health was deemed so delicate that she had not been sent to school, but instead kept at home to read and dream, and given an unusual amount of freedom by her doting parents.

It is no surprise that, lonely and in need of romance, she had developed a passion for the cinema, being described as ‘cinema mad’. She became obsessive, not just about the cinema, but about its stars – and in particular, about Rudolph Valentino – as had thousands of others. When he died, prematurely, in August 1926, she had joined hundreds of these other mourning women to burn candles in his memory; she had also built an altar to him.

Valentino – as he was in his films – had shown Rachel an idealised view of men and of love. Having lived her life to date in books and in films, with their often unrealistic view of life and passion, she believed this is what life was really like, and the reality would never be able to match it. For the rest of her life, Rachel seemed to be searching for the dramatic, passionate love affairs that were the mainstay of fiction.

Paris in 1934

However, ‘real’ men failed to live up to her ideals. In 1929, she had fallen ‘violently’ in love again – this time with a well-known orchestra leader, Fernand Heurteur, of the Grand Kinema in Paris. Fernand was regarded as something of a Don Juan, and it is clear that this middle-aged, successful man would never be the soulmate of a romantic young woman.

A year later, then, unsurprisingly, Rachel found out that 41-year-old Fernand had, in fact, been living with another woman, and had never mentioned this fact to her. They had initially argued at his flat, and then, on his agreeing to go for a drive, they argued again.

As they bowled along the Rue de Pyramides, she asked Fernand to leave his lover, but he responded, “Never”. She then took her father’s revolver out from her pocket, showing it to Fernand and saying, “It’s either for you or for me.” An unphased Fernand answered, “I don’t care. You may kill me or kill yourself.” So Rachel chose to kill Fernand – and he had been killed instantly, leaving the car to career along the road and crash into a lamp-post.

The police arrived, and she calmly surrendered to them, saying, “He is dead. I shot him because I loved him too much.” She continued to tell them what happened as she powdered her nose. “He wanted to abandon me – I told him so,” she sighed, before pointing with her ‘daintily-shod foot’ to the revolver on the floor of the car.

She was sent to prison to await trial, but while incarcerated, doctors discovered that she had tuberculosis, which was causing her to lose weight drastically. She was taken to her trial on a stretcher, and, due to her health, was given only two years in prison, as a first offender, and was actually released immediately, on payment of 100,000 francs in damages.

A railway poster for Berck

She then went as a patient to a sanatorium near Berck. Whilst there, a 34-year-old man named Georges Veron was admitted, also suffering from advanced tuberculosis, and fell in love with her. They spent much of their time going for rides in a pony-carriage, and writing romantic verses to each other. On Sunday, 21 January, they went out again for a ride, but never returned.

A coastguard found the lovers’ bodies, still in their pony-carriage, on the sand dunes. Rachel was lying back with her arms folded, looking as though she was asleep. Georges was lying across her body.

It was found that Rachel had first drunk a vial of a sleeping draught, and then, once she was asleep, Georges had shot her in her right temple, before shooting himself in the mouth. Their intention to carry out the pact was set out in a bundle of letters Rachel had written and posted – they arrived with their recipients nearly a week after the bodies were discovered.

Rachel’s death was as romantic as she could have wanted. She had finally found a lover who believed in a big statement as she did; neither of them had anything to lose, as they were faced with death sentences anyway. They died on a windswept beach, their deaths making the headlines just as Valentino’s had less than a decade before.


Details taken from British newspaper accounts, 1930-1934, of Rachel’s escapades, found on the British Newspaper Archive.

An Edwardian bicycle advert

I love looking through newspaper reports of court cases, but some Edwardian examples I’ve found recently make me feel quite sorry for the individuals named, as they seem to have been fined for simply trying to have fun, or keeping fit. In just one newspaper from 1909, I’ve found:

  • Morris Keen, of 8 Kilburn Square, Kilburn, fined a shilling for playing cricket at Kilburn Square
  • Edward Baker, of Kensington, fined 2s 6d for riding his bike at night without lights
  • Nelson Gowlett, of 38 Mora Road, Cricklewood, fined 2s 6d for playing football in the street
  • Harold Peacock, William Mudge and Leonard Andrews, all of Kilburn, and Reginald Travers of Willesden Green, fined 2s 6d each for cycling on a footpath leading to a park

Some of these named men, at least, were in their teens at the time of these offences – Nelson Gowlett, for example, from what I can see on Ancestry, was only 17 at the time, and Harold Peacock and William Mudge were both 15.

Of course, rules and regulations had to be obeyed; but it all seems a bit trivial and sour-faced to me – but it also conjures up an image of Edwardian London, where local youths spent their time playing cricket or football, and cycling with their mates. Maybe the past isn’t a different country after all?

Source: Kilburn Times, 18 June 1909

Super Spooner and the Witchcraft Murder

A unsolved murder in 1945 haunted Superintendent Alec Spooner of the Warwickshire police force for the rest of his life…

Superintendent Alec Spooner (from the Birmingham Daily Post, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superintendent Alec Spooner, who joined the Warwickshire force in the 1930s after an earlier career as a Staffordshire miner, had conducted many murder investigations prior to his retirement in 1964. However, one stayed with him long after it had been given up as unsolved, and unsolvable. This was the so-called ‘Witchcraft Murder’ at Meon Hill, near Upper Quinton, in 1945, when a crippled hedge-cutter – 74-year-old labourer Charles Walton –  was killed by what newspapers described as ‘methods suggesting a ritual sacrifice’, with a cross carved into his chest.

Alec William Spooner was born in Amington, near Tamworth, in Staffordshire, the son of a hospital labourer. On joining the police, he served in Solihull and Sutton Coldfield, before being appointed as head of the county CID as a detective superintendent in May 1939, based in Stratford. One might expect Stratford to be a nice, gentle, patch for a policeman, but this was not the case.

On 14 February 1945, a cold, misty night in the middle of the muckspreading season, Charles Walton had been found in a field on the slope of Meon Hill, with his throat cut and a pitchfork thrust through his body. The murder weapon, Charles’ own trouncing hook, was still embedded in his neck.

Charles had married relatively late in life, aged 44, but had been widowed just 13 years later, and for the past 18 years, he had been living just with his niece, Edith Walton, in Lower Quinton. He was a harmless individual who spent time talking to the birds and animals he came across, and who was currently employed by Alfred Potter, whose farm, The Firs, had required extra labour.[1] There were signs of eccentric behaviour, for sure; he was once seen harnessing a toad to a toy plough and watching it drag the plough across a field. But that was the strangest thing that happened to Charles – until his death.

However, something odd had happened to Charles as a child. He was living then with his parents, Charles – an agricultural labourer – and Emma, and his siblings – Harriet, Mary, Martha, George and Richard – in Upper Quinton.  As was common amongst labouring families, the children were expected to start work young, and Charles was working as a ploughboy. On nine nights running, he saw a big black dog run across Meon Hill; on that final night, a headless woman walked past him in a silk dress, and the day after that he heard that his sister had died.

Coverage of the murder, from the following day, 15 February 1945 (Gloucestershire Echo, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superstition and a belief in ghosts was rife in the area at the time of Charles’ childhood, and it seems to have continued: shortly after Charles’ death, the famous Scotland Yard detective Robert Fabian, drafted in to help the local police with the case, saw the same black ‘ghost’ dog; and a few days later, locals found a black dog, dead, hanged from the branch of a bush by its collar, close to where Charles’ body had been found. This time of the year, it was noted, was the Roman Feast of Lupercalia, when dogs were sacrificed to ensure good crops.

Despite the victim being old and frail – facts one would have thought would make local people want to help the police, and think of clues – they in fact avoided participation; another police superintendent, Bob Fabian commented that when he tried to interview local people, they displayed, “Lowered eyes, [a] reluctance to speak, except to talk of bad crops or a heifer that died in a ditch.” The detectives were ‘baffled’ by this reluctance to speak, and a decided ‘attitude’ on the part of locals.

Mediums were keener to help, however, with several holding séances on subsequent Valentine’s Days in the hope that they might uncover information that would help the police; however, their involvement might help explain the villagers’ reluctance to speak out. Far later on in time, they said that ‘they have never ceased to be pestered by occultists, psychic researchers, writers, the morbidly curious and others’ when all they wanted to do was to ‘live out their lives quietly in one of the most attractive corners of the county.’

Alec Spooner continued to work on other cases – in 1948, for example, he received acclaim for breaking up a nationwide gang of car thieves, who were so numerous that their case had to be held at a special Assize court in Warwick. But the case of the Witchcraft Murder continued to haunt him. In 1954, the Birmingham Daily Gazette reported that Spooner ‘probably saw a murderer yesterday – the man he has sworn to catch for killing an old hedger at Upper Quinton on St Valentine’s Day nine years ago.’

This story focused on a visit Spooner had just made to the village; he spent six whole hours walking round it, talking to men and women he had talked to nine years earlier. “I have sworn to solve this murder, and I am not going to give up,” he told reporters, stating that he intended making such regular ‘sudden’ visits to the village in order to spook the killer, who he suspected lived, and still lived, in the village. He believed the murder was a ritual killing, as it was committed on a day regarded as ‘the witches’ Sabbath’.

The baptism of Charles Walton in 1870, from Ancestry

In 1959, Spooner, who had been in charge of the Warwickshire CID for 20 years, was transferred to Nuneaton as the Divisional Superintendent. This change was ordered by PE Brodie, the fairly new Chief Constable of Warwickshire (a former Scotland Yard inspector, he had become the Chief Constable in 1958), as part of a ‘routine’ personnel change. On then retiring from the police in 1964, Spooner continued to live in Nuneaton, working as a security officer for the National Coal Board. He died in the town’s George Eliot Hospital in December 1970, aged 66 and two months, after an operation.

At his funeral, policemen acted as pallbearers. It sounded like as lovely a service as funerals can be; as it was Christmas time, Sylvia Spooner, Alec’s widow, asked for carols to be sung, and Christmas decorations lit at the location, Nuneaton’s parish church. His obituaries in the Birmingham and Coventry newspapers still recorded him as ‘CID’s witchcraft hunt man’.

Sadly, the ‘witchcraft’ case remained unsolved; in 1975, an article to mark the 30th anniversary of the crime stated that Charles Walton’s murder had ‘passed into Warwickshire folklore’. Was the killer still alive in the village, or elsewhere? ‘Most probably, the vicious murderer’s secrets died, or will die, with him or (less likely) her.’

Today, Charles Walton’s body remains buried in St Swithin’s Churchyard in Lower Quinton, across the road from a large house that was, in his time, a row of old thatched cottages named Meon Cottages – one was his home. In 1975, one female resident of the village had told a Coventry Evening Telegraph reporter that “it’s time they closed the book” – but in 2018, the case of Charles Walton is still very much open.

Sources: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 24 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 14 February 1975; and other issues of the Coventry Evening Telegraph and Birmingham Daily Gazette, all on British Newspaper Archive; plus census returns for Upper and Upper Quinton and Tamworth, all on Ancestry.

[1] Although some sources stated that Charles was an elderly bachelor, he was, as his Wikipedia entry states, a widower. His wife had died on 9 December 1927 – this information was taken from Edith Walton’s police interview about her uncle. Charles married Isabella Caroline Walton – perhaps a cousin – in 1914, and FreeBMD records her death aged 45 in October-December 1927 (vol 6d, page 866). The National Probate Calendar on Ancestry shows that ‘Isabel Caroline Walton, otherwise Isabella Caroline, of 15 Lower Quinton’ left effects of £297 4s 3d to ‘Charles Walton, cowman’. Isabella was born in 1882 in Binton, Warwickshire, but her father George, a carpenter, was a native of Quinton; Charles Walton Sr was baptised at Quinton on 28 April 1844, the son of William and Mary Walton; in the 1851 census for Lower Quinton, both Charles Walton, 7, and George Walton, 1, are listed as the sons of William and Mary Walton, so Isabella could well have been the younger Charles’s first cousin.

The 1939 Register on Findmypast also clearly records Charles as a widower. It states that he was born on 12 May 1870, and was living at Lower Quinton with Edith Walton, born 23 May 1911, who later married a man named Goode.

A shorter version of this piece appears in the March issue of the Stratford Herald‘s Focus magazine.

Mrs Bryant’s execution: a study in class, sex and gender

Early coverage of the case in the Sunderland Daily Echo of 1 January 1936

Many murder cases of the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to be famous – or infamous – today, with books devoted to them, and television programmes salivating at titillating facts surrounding the cases. In many cases, the attraction of these murders perhaps lies, at least partly, in the fact that photographs survive of the protagonists in these stories. Photos of murderers and their victims bring a case to life, helping us picture who these individuals were, and why they might have done what they did.

Perhaps that also helps explain the relative obscurity of one case that grabbed the headlines in 1936. In the case of Charlotte Bryant, the case should have had a lasting impact on our consciousness. She was young – 33 – when she was hanged for murder on 15 July. She was that rare thing, a female murderer, and she had killed her husband after becoming dissatisfied with her marriage and starting an affair with her lodger.

And yet, she does not feature in many books or television programmes today – there is only the odd local newspaper story that occasionally brings up her story, and even Wikipedia remains silent when it comes to her.

In part, I think, that is because there are no photos of Charlotte; during her trial, it was noted that she turned her head away, or covered it up, when she saw the press photographers gathering like vultures; and also, her trial was not at the Old Bailey, but in the relatively isolated south-west, at the Dorchester Assizes, her hanging taking place at Exeter Gaol. There may have been fewer resources, fewer available photographers, or fewer willing to travel to Dorset and to Devon to attempt an image of this murderess than in London.

The other factor in this case that may have affected press coverage then and now was class. Charlotte was an illiterate, working-class woman, married to a humble cowman, and having an affair with a traveller – a gypsy, in the contemporary parlance. She was a mother of five young children, having been married young, and without a decent education.

As a working-class, poorly educated woman from south-west England, she was not a romantic figure, but a rather plain one to the press and public. Unlike Alma Rattenbury, acquitted of her husband’s murder a year earlier, pictured emerging from court in full length fur coat, she was not moneyed or glamorous. She was what she was: a poor woman who had poisoned her husband with weedkiller when the romance – if there had ever been any – had died, and she felt stifled by the monotony and grinding poverty of her life.


It was on 5 October 1922 that Charlotte McHugh married Frederick John Bryant in Somerset. She was just 19 years old, a migrant from Derry in Northern Ireland, now making a home in south-west England. Left at home in Derry were her parents, John and Sarah; now she was taking on Frederick’s family, who were based in the Sherborne area of Dorset. Her new husband, born in Sherborne, was a few years older than her, being 25 at the time of their marriage. He would be dead before 40.

Children soon arrived: Ernest Samuel in the winter of 1923; Lily Elizabeth two years later, George Alfred in 1928, William John in 1931, and Edwin Frederick in the winter of 1934.

My sympathies at this point are very much with Charlotte; a girl born in Northern Ireland in the early 20th century, good looking but without an education, who was brought up in a society where women were supposed to look good and get married, raise children, and to not expect much more than that.

She was brought up in an area where British soldiers – who may have represented something ‘exotic’ to local girls – roamed near Republicans; and where a young, attractive girl who got the attention of the soldiers might also cause resentment amongst others.

Modern coverage of Charlotte’s case has focused on her sexuality; Richard Clark, who runs the Capital Punishment UK website, has described her as having capturing the heart of her husband while he was serving as a military policeman in the Dorset Regiment. He is described positively as a ‘simple country lad’, yet Clark describes Charlotte, after their marriage, in the following terms:

Charlotte was very highly sexed and soon became bored with village life [in Dorset], compared to the excitement of life around the Londonderry barracks, with plenty of attentive and free spending soldiers and a good sex life. She didn’t work as such and spent her days drinking and indulging in a little prostitution – one feels as much for the sex as for the money.

This echoes coverage both in the early years of the 20th  century and since in terms of ascribing to any criminal behaviour on the part of women as being due to excessive and thus dangerous sexuality. There is also clearly a double standard; many men of the time would have engaged in casual sex – indeed, they were encouraged to sow their seed young, before marrying – but women were castigated for any similar behaviour, and it is often used later to demonstrate early signs of criminality or deviancy.

Charlotte is here described as spending her days drinking, when authors such as Clark freely admit that social life in a Dorset village at this time would have centred around the local pub, and so drinking would have been a common occupation for both men and women, and certainly not just for Charlotte.

Charlotte’s husband does not seem the epitome of respectability either, in terms of his alleged approval of possible casual prostitution; according to Clark, he told a neighbour that her earnings this way were substantially better than his own wages as a cowman.

And money must have been fairly tight for them (which suggests that Charlotte was not regularly soliciting, if at all); they took in lodgers, and in 1933, a horse trader and gypsy named Leonard Parsons became the family lodger. Charlotte started an affair with Leonard, and the menage a trois caused, unsurprisingly, occasional conflict, and suggestions that the relationship was one-sided, with Charlotte far more interested in Parsons than he was in her.

Headline in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 27 May 1936

Whatever the truth of this relationship, Frederick Bryant died on 23 December 1935, after several suspicious spells of illness over the course of the previous six months. He was found to have been poisoned by arsenic – a popular ingredient in weedkiller.

Charlotte was charged with murder, whilst she was being housed in the Sturminster Newton Poor Law Institution (workhouse), where she and her children had been taken after Frederick’s death to help avoid public and press attention – although it seems that this move would have been inevitable anyway, given her and her husband’s meagre household income.

Her trial, at the Dorset Assizes in May 1936, saw Leonard Parsons commit the ultimate betrayal of his former lover, detailing their sex life, and encouraging the jury to see her as a woman who had committed adultery and thus was disloyal towards her husband. Two of her children – Ernest and Lily – were also called to give evidence against their own mother; evidence that damned in describing how their mother may have owned and used bottle of poison.

Charlotte was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. An appeal failed, and she was sent to Exeter jail to await her execution. During the six weeks she spent here, she received more of an education than she had ever been given before, being taught to read and write by female warders. She was finally hanged on 15 July 1936.

There were no winners in her case; she only left five shillings to her children, and they were now left orphaned and destitute. They were taken into the care of the county council, becoming the legal wards of the Dorset Public Assistance Committee. (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936) At this time, they were aged between 18 months old and 12 years.

Richard Clark has stated that Charlotte’s ‘lowly status and acknowledged promiscuity’ may have influenced the decision to carry out the death sentence against her, rather than commute it or allow her appeal. But he then goes on to write,

Sadly, Britain was very much a class ridden society in 1936 and Charlotte was virtually at the bottom of the social pile – an illiterate, immoral slut.

No trial report described her as an ‘illiterate, immoral slut’ and I feel this is Clarke’s own interpretation of how he thinks 1930s England would have seen her, rather than actually what did happen. In describing her thus, however unintentionally, he reiterates the view that being interested in sex makes a woman a ‘slut’.

No press coverage of the trial or its aftermath that I can find refers to Charlotte as engaging in promiscuity or prostitution; indeed, the focus is on her status as a mother, desperate to see her children and check that they are being looked after, as she awaits first her trial, and then her execution.

Looking at the coverage of Charlotte’s case from the time, then, there is a more sympathetic, more nuanced, tone than Clarke takes. For example, on the morning of her execution, she was described as making a ‘despairing last-minute plea to the King’ via telegram, repeated in full in the Birmingham Daily Gazette, in which she refers to herself as the King’s ‘lowly, afflicted subject’. Rather than being depicted as a ‘slut’, she is simply ‘Mrs Charlotte Bryant, the 33-year-old mother of five children’. (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 15 July 1936)

Even when allegations were made about Charlotte’s life, it was as a transcription of what someone had said in court – for example, when the Sheffield Independent stated that Parsons ‘was the father of the appellant’s [Charlotte’s] last child’, it was directly quoting Lord Hewart, in announcing that Charlotte’s appeal was being dismissed, when he summed up what the murder case was about. (Sheffield Independent, 30 June 1936) There was a factual tone, rather than a condemning one.

In addition, when, in court, attempts had been made to highlight that Charlotte had been Parsons’ mistress, the Solicitor General had stopped them, ascerbically commenting, “You are not a court of morals.” (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Although Charlotte’s affair was brought up in court, it was not done so to depict her as a slut, or as an evil woman, but mentioned as part of a prosecution case to suggest that because Charlotte was in a relationship with Parsons, in love with him, and wanted to marry him, she was motivated to kill her husband. Killing him would enable her to marry her lover. This would be a common motive for murder, and thus an obvious approach for the prosecution to take. (see Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Charlotte’s class is, to me, more of a factor in how she was treated. She was unable to read or write; she had to have it explained to her what an ‘inquest’ was.  During her trial, she had to ask the prison wardresses to help explain procedure to her.

She suffered from a lack of education that gave her no prospects, and yet she was clearly an intelligent woman in that she wanted more than she knew she could get within the confines of Northern Irish or Dorset rural society; when given the opportunity to improve herself in jail, she made the most of it, taking only a short amount of time to learn to write letters; and she surprised the court when she appeared on the stand and gave a coherent, strong account of her actions.

The coverage of her execution in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette made no mention of her sex life, but focused on her lack of education; in the hour before her death, she had received the Sacraments in her cell:

‘During those last moments on earth, this uneducated and illiterate woman, who had never been taught to read or write or spell, recalled the faith which she learned when a child attending the Roman Catholic Sunday School in her native Ireland, and she murmured the responses to the Litanies in a low voice.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936)

My conclusion is that Charlotte had indeed killed her husband; she had made comments to friends that she disliked her husband, and was in love with Parsons – but could not face simply running away with her lover because she did not want to leave her children. If her husband lived, he would keep the children; so he had to die, in order for her to have both lover and loved children.

Her honesty and straightforward nature, however, hanged her:  she made it obvious that she was ‘forcing’ her husband to drink poisoned Oxo, at one point, and telling people, “I hate Fred” before bemoaning her plight, saying about another local woman, “She is lucky. She has not got a husband.” (Leeds Mercury, 28 May 1936).

But it’s not true that the jury convicted Charlotte because she was immoral, or a slut, or because they thought she was a prostitute. The most they appear to have heard in court was that she was the mistress of Parsons, who may have fathered her youngest child, if gossip was to have been believed. This appears to have been the only sexually-related gossip about Charlotte that was heard in court.

She was convicted, though, because the evidence against her was overwhelming. She had talked about her hatred of her husband, and her wish to not be married to him. She had spoken of her desire to run away with Parsons; she also feared that his feelings towards her had cooled. She was known to have had bottle of what could be weedkiller and arsenic; even her children said so. And she had been insistent on her husband drinking and eating certain food and drink even when he was ill and reluctant to do so. It was evidence such as this that convicted Charlotte, and the jury had even been warned not to act as a court of morals, but as a court of law.

Charlotte’s case frustrates me, because it seems that where it is written about in recent times, it focuses on rumours or speculation about her sex life, and assumes bias or prejudice on the part of her contemporaries towards her sexuality. In fact, in looking  at press coverage from the actual time, it appears that her life may not have been as salacious as some sources might suggest, or if it was, then that was not something that was brought up in court, covered in the press, or used to convict her of murder. It was one specific relationship that was focused on, and that was in order to build a convincing motive as to why she might have killed.

So it seems that some of the biases against female murderers such as Charlotte are not necessarily of their time, but of our own; we assume that our forebears must have demonstrated prejudice against certain lifestyles, and we assume that those convicted of crime must be more interesting than, perhaps, they were. Charlotte may have been a working-class woman who took a drastic, ill thought out action because she thought she was in love; but that did not make her a slut or a prostitute, then or now.



The wealthy London anti-capital punishment campaigner Mrs Violet Van Der Elst was reported as being keen to adopt all five children, although it seems that she only wanted to send them to a convent abroad for their education. She was concerned that going into council care would condemn the children to the same lowly life as their mother: ‘The County Council have no right to take these children. They are going to be taken to awful homes, and there is nothing worse.’ (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936).

She later told a reporter that she would find the children foster parents, and would pay for their maintenance and education; in addition, she would start a fund, giving it an initial £50,000, to ‘provide for the children of people who have been murdered or executed’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936).

Before Charlotte had been executed, there had been an attempt by the NSPCC to take the children to one of their homes, but Charlotte had refused permission via her solicitor, wanting them to stay near to her geographically. She had presumably hoped, at this point, that she would be freed to take back the care of her family. (Gloucestershire Echo, 11 February 1936)

After Charlotte’s death, an inquest was carried out to ensure that she had been ‘judicially and humanely executed’. The prison governor had suggested that the coroner’s jury might wish to donate their fees to the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society; when the jurors expressed a wish, instead, to give their fees to Charlotte’s five children, they were discouraged; the coroner stated that the fees were only small, and that ‘provision had already been made for the care of the children’. (Northern Whig, 16 July 1936)

Mrs Van Der Elst had stated that she wanted the children to be educated abroad ‘to that the circumstances of their parents’ death with never be known to them’, although the eldest children must have known about what had happened; especially as Charlotte had requested to see them whilst being held in prison, and that request had been granted.




Marriages, 1922, 5c 971; deaths Jun 1936, Sherborne – Frederick J Bryant, 39 – 5a 367; born Dec 1897 Sherborne, 5a 319).  [births for Ernest S Bryant, Frome, Dec 1923, 5c 585; Lily E Bryant, Frome, 5c 533; George A Bryant, Sherborne 5a 474; William J Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 467; Edwin F Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 426, all listed as having a mother whose maiden name was McHugh or MacHugh).

In a rather self-publicising post (sorry), I’m pleased to say that I have an article published in the new issue of the Law, Crime and History journal (vol 8, issue 1).

This is a special issue of the journal, devoted to a conference I attended last yearn Liverpool –  Lives, Trials and Executions. I spoke there about the Hampstead murder – when Mary Eleanor Piercey killed her lover’s wife and baby daughter, a crime she was executed for. My article follows on from that conference paper, looking at how the press depicted both Piercey and her victim, in ways that subverted the usual tropes of crime reporting.

My article can be accessed here; but the whole issue of this journal is, I think, great, and really shows the fascinating work being done by crime historians at the moment.


Raising the next generation of historians

The current exhibition at LMA incorporates a recreation of what it would have been like in the Old Bailey for defendants

One of the great things about being a historian in the 21st century is the many different ways in which you can both learn about, and disseminate, the history you’re interested in. Big data and digital history are two terms you may already be familiar with, with some historians – who I have to say I am in complete awe of – managing to crunch numbers and play with technology in a way I fear I will never be able to.

Other historians may team up with creative agencies and other non-historian individuals to find new ways to present aspects of our history – such as with the agency responsible for the Grim London interactive map and website (read an article about it here) – whereas others learn the skills themselves to push the field of Digital Humanities further.

Just a couple of the historians whose work is worth looking at are Adam CrymbleMelodee Beals and Tim Hitchcock; it’s also worth looking at Tim’s recent work on ‘recreating’ the experience of being at the Old Bailey in the past, based on written records, currently on display at London Metropolitan Archives.

But sometimes, there can be simpler, but still absorbing, ways of presenting history. Creative Histories (see the blog at Storying The Past), led by Will Pooley and Helen Rogers, has been a great way of learning about how historians, writers and artists have been seeking to find new ways of presenting history to us – from Ruth Singer’s Criminal Quilts project to Anthony Rhys’s artworks of ‘Upset Victorians’.

I am not throwing away my shot… etc.

Last year, I experienced history through the genre of the musical: firstly, with Lizzie – a punk rock retelling of the Lizzie Borden case in 19th century America (see my review of it here)- and then, this Christmas, getting to watch the much hyped Hamilton, where an incredibly enthusiastic London audience probably learned more about 18th century American history than they had at school. By subverting the traditional dry retelling of history by using different musical styles, from rock to hip-hop, history is made both interesting and universal.

The musicals share with recent books a desire both to write about history but also to understand it. Books such as Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done attempt to get inside the heads of those involved in crime cases, and in doing so, they get the reader involved in a way in which some traditional history books fail to do.

Purists argue that they play fast and loose with the facts, but the overall picture they give is still valuable. In Hamilton, the problem of Eliza Hamilton having destroyed her letters from Alexander, her husband, and her views being absent from the archival record, are actually foregrounded, both to show how we can never know her exact views, but have to guess at them, but also to highlight that women’s lives tend to be less recorded than men’s in history.

So what am I saying? I think that, as someone who was resolutely disinterested in history at school, due to a surfeit of royals and war – whereas I have always been more interested in the experiences of ordinary people in ordinary life – I would have welcomed these different approaches to history, and they would have both gained my interest and maintained it.

If we can get children interested in history, they’ll be interested in adulthood – and perhaps even create new presentations of history to get the next generation interested, too. And that’s got to be a good thing, in a time when our government seems resolutely disinterested in the value of the arts at both school and university level.

Event: Crime focus at SAFHS Annual Conference

If you’re into your crime history, it’s well worth signing up to this year’s Scottish Association of Family History Societies’ Annual Conference and Fair in April.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Was Your Ancestor A Convict?’, and there will be sessions on the making of the Fife Kalendar of Convicts (including the launch of a Convict CD and digital download) and on banishment and transportation, among other talks.

The conference takes place at The Rothes Halls, Kingdom Shopping Centre, Glenrothes, Fife on 21 April, from 10am until 4.30pm. There is a £20 conference delegate fee, but it costs just £2 to enter the family history fair (accompanied under 12s are free). This includes workshops, stalls, exhibits and ask-the-expert sessions. You can book online for the conference at

The Mysterious Murder of Florrie Little

Another 1920s murder case this week; and although all murders are upsetting, this one is particularly so, as it involves a young girl from Wales, and her killer was a boy who was himself still a child. I originally found this case in an issue to the Nottingham Journal (22 July 1921), that headlined its story ‘The Mysterious Murder of Florrie Little’.


Harold Jones, aged 15 (from the Dundee Courier, 22 July 1921)

Florence Irene Little, 11, was from Abertillery in Wales, and known as Florrie. Born in the early months of 1910, she disappeared on the night of 8 July 1921, and her body was later found in the attic of a neighbour’s house. She had been hit over the head, and her throat had been cut.

Her funeral was held less than a week after her disappearance and murder, on the afternoon of Wednesday 13 July. The funeral was said to have been the ‘largest ever seen in Wales’, with hundreds of schoolchildren following the small coffin tots grave. The entire student body from Florrie’s school had gone to the funeral.

The inquest  into her death was opened on 21 July, and adjourned until the following day. On its opening day, it was an unusual inquest, for in the coroner’s court sat a boy, wearing a brown tweed suit and an open-necked shirt, concentrating hard, taking notes of the witnesses’ statements. This boy was not just interested in crime and coroners – rather, he was suspected of committing the murder.

Harold Jones was a 15 year old boy who had a chequered past. In February 1921 he had appeared in court charged with the murder of a little girl named Freda Burnell, aged eight, who had been found strangled in a lane in Abertillery. Her screams had been heard coming from a nearby shed the night before.

Harold had been working in a poultry shop at that time, and Freda had been sent by her father, a popular member of the Salvation Army, to buy some ‘poultry spice and grit’ on the morning she disappeared. That evening, Harold had called round to the Burnell house, and asked her father if she had been found; Freda had been known to go to the Jones house to play.

Although Harold had admitted lying about various aspects of the evidence he had given, at the next Monmouth Assizes, he was acquitted of Freda’s murder, emerging from court to a hero’s welcome by locals. However, by that summer, he was at the Abertillery police court, being accused of another girl’s murder, before being remanded to Usk Gaol.


The 1911 census entry for the Little family in Abertillery

He now sat in on the inquest, and heard Florrie’s father, Arthur George Little, detail how on the night of Florrie’s death, the Little family had sat down to supper together late, finishing around 9.20pm. The children then went out of the front door to play.

At 9.45, Florrie’s mother, Elsie, had called out to her children, asking, “Where is Florence?”, but got no response. She then went to her neighbours, at number 10, as the girls had been seen playing on the pavement opposite that house, and another daughter Lillie, then aged eight, believed that was where Florrie had gone – but she returned without her eldest daughter.

Elsie Little gave evidence at the inquest that when she had gone to the Jones house, the door was, unusually for the place and time, locked, and it took a full two minutes for Harold to answer the door. When he did, he was wearing just his navy serge trousers, with his braces hanging down. He was holding a hairbrush in his hand, and told Mrs Little that he had been having a bath when she called. Smiling, he said to her, “Florrie’s been here, but went through the back way.”

Mr Little then started to search the streets, and at 10.35pm he had talked to Jones’ parents and sisters, who said they had not seen Florrie. Then Little and his friends and neighbours took their Davy lamps up into the mountains, searching the area until daylight.

Coverage of the murder in the Leeds Mercury, 12 July 1921

This was a close-knit community, where the local children were in and out of each other’s houses, and where families had relatives living close by – one child witness at the inquest, Ivy Davey, referred to visiting her ‘granda’ at number 13; her mother, Mabel, knew the Jones family well and had been to see Mrs Jones before it was known that Florrie was missing. The Jones’ had a lodger, William Greenway, who stated that “usually, if there was anyone in the house, the door was not locked.”

The children therefore had quite a lot of freedom, for their parents believed the community to be safe – and that other parents would help keep an eye out for them. The children also acted in ways that, to us, are rather adult; they kept late hours, they wandered around on their own – Harold Jones’s eight-year-old sister, Flossie, stated that she had gone to buy ‘some “pop” and cigarettes’ on the way to meet her parents on the evening in question.

But it wasn’t a wealthy community either, and families shared resources. Many of the local men were miners, and it was stated that in 1921, many of them were ‘idle’ – the context being that work was rather slack at that time, rather than it being meant in the more pejorative sense of being lazy. Florrie’s father was, like most of them, employed  at the local Vivian Pit – in 1923, there were nearly 900 men employed there.

When Harold Jones shouted to his mother on the evening of Florrie’s disappearance, claiming that his shirt had fallen in the bath, got soaked, and so he needed a clean one, Mrs Jones responded, “I’ve not got another one. You will have to have one of mine.”

When it was known that Florrie was missing, Harold tried to go out. His mother tried to prevent him, but Harold responded, “Give me a scarf and let me go out. We have had enough trouble lately.” Meanwhile, his father, Philip, was out drinking at the Bell Hotel; he claimed to have returned home by 10pm, and to have been home when Mrs Little called at the door, but she believed he was not there by that point.


Gaol records show Harold’ being accused of Freda Burnell’s murder in February 1921 (via Ancestry)

After Florrie’s funeral, police had dug up the back garden of the Jones house, but found ‘nothing of importance’. Despite this, however, on Thursday 28 July, after a two day hearing at the Children’s Court in Abertillery, Harold Jones was committed to the Monmouth Assizes to stand trial for Florrie’s murder. At the hearing, when asked if he wished to say anything, he ‘sprang to his feet, and stood erect. “Not guilty,” he said loudly and clearly.’

The facts, however, were against Harold. Florrie’s body had been found in his house, and she had been hit over the head with a piece of wood, before being stabbed with a knife that Harold had been given by his own brother. He had last used it, he said, to ‘kill a chicken’. Whilst doing this, he had cut his finger, and the blood had got on the knife. He had tried to clean it, but the blood wouldn’t come off. Or so he said.

There was blood both on Harold’s clothing, and on Florrie’s. The stains were fresh, and looked similar. There were bloodstains on the knife blade that were not from a chicken; on a saucepan in the kitchen; and on a wall of a passage in the house. Florrie had, in fact, died from a loss of blood.


By the time Harold arrived for the first day of his trial, in November 1921, he had realised that the evidence against him was overwhelming. His plea now changed from not guilty, to guilty. Not only that, but he now admitted that he had also killed the little girl whose murder he had been acquitted of – Freda Burnell.

After his acquittal for that crime, public opinion had made ‘some sort of hero’ out of Jones; it was now felt that this had given Jones such a sense of vanity that he killed Florrie in order to maintain that ‘fame’ he had experienced at the start of the year.

His father stated that at the time of his arrest, Harold had been about to “start writing the story of his life, with a view to selling it… Only a week ago, he had a photograph taken, which was intended to be used as an illustration” (presumably the illustration used at the top of this blog post). Jones, however, simply said he killed out of a simple “desire to kill”.

Jones, whose desire to kill and become famous resulted in the tragic deaths of two young girls – girls who trusted him as a local and as a friend – was ordered to be detained during His Majesty’s pleasure.

The charge against Harold Jones in the Freda Burnell case (from Ancestry’s gaol records)

Other sources used: Londonderry Sentinel, 12 February 1921; Nottingham Evening Post, 24 February 1921; Western Times, 26 February 1921; Derby Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1921; Birmingham Daily Gazette, 13 July 1921; Motherwell Times, 15 July 1921; Dundee Courier, 22 July 1921; The Scotsman, 29 July 1921; Lichfield Mercury, 4 November 1921; FreeBMD births, Bedwellty district, Jan-Mar 1910 (vol 11a page 93); deaths, Bedwellty district, Jul-Sep 1921 (vol 11a page 69). Newspaper reports list Harold Jones’s first victim as Freda Burnell and Freda Burnett; gaol records list her as Elsie Maud Burnell; however, FreeBMD shows that her full name was Freda Elsie Maud Burnell (FreeBMD deaths, Bedwellty district, Jan-Mar 1921 (vol 11a page 104).

*At least one paper referred to May Little as being older than Florrie; but the 1911 census for Penrhiw Garreg, Abertillery, lists Florence Irene as being the only child of her parents, aged 1; Arthur George Little and Elsie Jane Weeks had only married in 1909 (1911 census on Ancestry; FreeBMD for Bedwellty, Apr-Jun 1909, vol 11a page 206). Her other siblings were, as the birth records for Bedwellty show, younger – Cyril was born in 1912, Lillie in 1913, Harold in 1915, and Elsie in 1918.

Event: Courts, crime and punishment at the SoG

The Society of Genealogists is holding a half-day course on crime records.

The course, hosted by professional genealogist Antony Marr, will take place on 3 March, from 10.30am until 1pm, and will look at the records of courts, criminals, police, prisons and punishments throughout the 19th century.

Taking place at the SoG HQ – 14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London EC1M 7BA – the course costs £20, and you can book online via this link.

Why criminal ancestors sound so much more fun

Actor Lytton Grey, on the right in this image, was married to one of my ancestors; and attended her 18-year-old sister’s illegal marriage (© Criminal Historian)

Who would you rather be descended from – a worthy notable of a provincial town, whose munificence or moral rectitude resulted in a glowing obituary, or a city wide-boy whose exploits were recorded in newspapers and trial reports?

A few generations ago, you may well have said the former. Many people I’ve spoked to have grandparents who were horrified at the idea of having a criminal forebear, and who would have eagerly covered up the crimes – metaphorically, of course – with a focus on someone more deserving.

But times change, and now, it seems we all want to have a naughty ancestor caught stealing ladies’ underwear or even killing someone in a pub brawl. As long as it’s sufficiently in the past, it becomes a thing of interest, something that makes your family – and you – stand out.

I’ve been researching my family tree for years, and so far, it’s brought up a big, fat nothing in terms of trial reports or criminal records. On my father’s side, I am descended from generations of Dorset farmers, who were asked to be on juries, determining the fate of local miscreants, but who were law-abiding, middle-class individuals.

The worst thing I have found out about a member of this family is that the obituary of one of them insinuated that he was a bit annoying. That’s not really interesting enough, is it?

Gough Square – home of Samuel Johnson, and my ancestors (© Criminal Historian)

On my mother’s side, again, there’s little evidence of criminality, but much of being upstanding members of a community. One ancestor was one of the first policemen in Gloucester; he took on the job to help look after his aged, widowed mother financially (bless). Another was a neighbour of Dr Johnson‘s, living in Gough Square in the City of London. This ancestor is certainly listed on the Old Bailey Online website – but only as a jury member. A third represented his Oxford ward as a Poor Law Guardian, and had a keen interest in the welfare of the poor and conditions in the local workhouse.

The exploits of criminals – such as this 1936 murderer – are better remembered than the quiet achievements of the majority

I should be proud of having public-minded individuals as ancestors, who wanted to be involved in their local areas, and who helped ensure not only that local administration processes worked as smoothly as possible, but who helped put criminals behind bars. I am, honestly. Perhaps the problem is that these men, all good and true, do not have their achievements recorded to the same extent as criminals do with their offences.

Obituaries are key to remembering the achievements of local worthies, but mine were minor in their achievements, and of the two obituaries I’ve found for my Dorset lot, one is short and makes that slightly disparaging comment as though it is the most significant thing it can record about the individual; and the other exists mainly to note that my ancestor died in 1852, at the age of 96, from a ‘visitation of God‘.

So, weirdly to some, but perhaps inevitable given my research interests in crime, I’ve been really trying to find some evidence of criminality amongst my ancestors. As those who have read my book, Life on the Victorian Stage, will know, my great-grandfather had three sisters, all of whom were on the stage, and two of whom died at tragically early ages.

They sound good company: one eloped with an already married actor, the two marrying in an illegal ceremony in front of one of the other sisters and her (legal) husband; and one had an illegitimate child who she created a made-up father for, but who was given the name of her sister’s husband, making me wonder if he was actually the natural father of her child. But although fascinating, they weren’t ‘criminals’ in the sense that we usually mean it.

Their grandfather, though, shows more promise. He claimed to have been born in Hanwell, west London, but there’s no trace of his birth of baptism either there or anywhere, in fact. There’s no record of him existing prior to his marriage at a fairly advanced age. He claimed to be a captain in the British army, but The National Archives has no army records relating to him at all.

His wife had a substantial amount of money, and her family took steps to ensure that her husband wouldn’t receive a penny of it, instead passing it down to her daughters. Did they suspect him of only marrying for the cash?

And, most intriguingly, are two stories in the press that seem to refer to him, both later in life: in one, his wife is charged with assault after going after a woman she believes is having an affair with him; and in the other, he is charged with fathering a child by his gentry neighbour’s far younger servant. The newspaper reports how the court thought it hilarious that this elderly man could have possibly got up to anything with a young girl, let alone fathered a daughter; more intriguingly, it states that this man ‘calls himself a Captain’, as though they also doubted his origins and his claims of army employment.

The latter stories help flesh out this unknown ancestor – he appears to have been a ladies’ man, at least. The lack of records relating to him, his lack of family, mean that I can speculate that he was a fraudster, a man with an assumed identity, someone who desired money, and sex, and had affairs.

The reality might be more prosaic: the relevant records might not have been digitised; he may have been born in one place but baptised somewhere different, or been told he was born in a certain place when he wasn’t…. and so, perhaps, the unknown is sometimes better than the known, for with the former, you can create the person you hope your ancestor was; whereas, in truth, all I know for sure is that he, like so many of my other ancestors, was also another blooming Poor Law Guardian.


« Older posts

© 2018 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑