The Henley Poisoner

The Henley Poisoner

On a visit to Oxford Castle, I was particularly intrigued by the tragic story of Mary Blandy, who was executed for poisoning her father in Henley-on-Thames, which is close to where I live. Although this case took place in the 18th century (outside my historical comfort zone), I decided to investigate…     Mary Blandy was born in Henley, around 1720. Her father, Francis Blandy, was a successful lawyer and the town clerk. The family lived at 29 Hart Street (now a dental practice) in the town centre. Mary’s mother died about 1749, but by this time, Mary had already met her future husband. Captain William Henry Cranstoun was a captain in the army. The son of a Scottish nobleman and some 20 years her senior, he had met Mary when his regiment was in the district. The couple fell in love and planned to marry, but there was one major obstacle: William already had a wife. Captain Cranstoun returned to Scotland several times to try to have his marriage dissolved and, in the meantime, he sent letters and packages to Mary, whose father disapproved of the match. In August 1752, Francis Blandy fell ill, complaining of bowel pain, a sore throat and ‘a stench in his nose’. As his condition worsened it became apparent that his daughter had been adding a white powder to his porridge. The powder had come from her lover, Captain Cranstoun, who had sent her ‘Scottish powder’ to clean some pebbles that he had given her to be set into earrings. It is unclear why Mary was adding the powder to her father’s food,...
The Bembridge Smugglers

The Bembridge Smugglers

My Isle of Wight smuggling trail has already taken me to Shanklin and to St Helens, where I discovered the scandalous story of Sophie Dawes. I have uncovered many secrets of the Island’s shady past and visited some very atmospheric smugglers’ pubs (I wanted the full experience!). My next stop was Bembridge, where I enjoyed a delicious alfresco lunch in the Crab and Lobster, and came across some female smugglers.     Bembridge is a small village at the easternmost point of the Island, overlooking the Solent. In the 18th century, along with most places on the Isle of Wight, it was renowned for smuggling or ‘free-trading’. Fishermen sailed from Bembridge harbour across the English Channel in small vessels to France, landing in Cherbourg and Honfleur, to stock up on tobacco, brandy, gin (my favourite tipple) and other luxury goods, which they then transported back to the Island without paying the exorbitant duties. High above the village, Bembridge Windmill, which was built in 1700, served as a marker for the returning boats.     An estimated two thirds of islanders took part in smuggling, and the raids were usually organised at meetings in public houses, one of which was the Crab and Lobster. Perched on the cliffs above the shore near Bembridge Harbour, it is the perfect spot for night-time operations. Once the goods arrived on the beach, the local community helped to shift the goods, ready for concealment, re-distribution and sale on the mainland. When I was researching smuggling activities in Bembridge, it came to my notice that many of the women of the village were caught taking...
The Whitby Hand of Glory

The Whitby Hand of Glory

On a recent trip to Whitby (full details here) I encountered one of the most fascinating and gruesome artefacts I’ve ever seen in a museum. There is a clue to what lurks in this eclectic collection on the signpost, which draws you in to its sinister attraction: Whitby Museum has the only known surviving Hand of Glory.     A Hand of Glory was a charm made from the hand of a hanged man (not sure about women too). If the executed man was a murderer then his hand could be used, when combined with fat from the same corpse, as a magical tool. The instructions were published in a French grimoire, Petit Albert, in 1722. It was vital to use the hand that committed the crime, which was then dried and preserved in an earthenware pot, with nitre, salt and long peppers. Next you had to make a candle out of the felon’s body fat, using virgin wax and sesame. When the candle was placed in the hand it cast a sleeping spell over other people in the vicinity, with the exception of the carrier, which meant that burglars could use it to enter a property to steal household goods, while the occupants were ‘sleeping’. The only antidote was to extinguish the candle with bloodied milk.     The name ‘Hand of Glory’, or ‘Main de Gloire’, in French is probably a corruption of ‘mandragore’, also known as ‘mandrake’, which is a deadly poisonous plant associated with magic. A relative of Deadly Nightshade, it was used in tiny quantities to induce sleep or relieve pain, but too much...
A weekend with Dracula

A weekend with Dracula

I’ve always fancied going to Whitby, in North Yorkshire, to explore the Gothic setting for Bram Stoker’s iconic novel, Dracula. Last weekend, my sister and I set off on our own Dracula-inspired adventure to this infamous seaside town in pursuit of mysterious death, bloody horror and of course, scampi and chips. Our accommodation of choice was The Black Horse Inn, right in the heart of the town. One of the oldest public houses in Whitby, it has a fascinating past, including as a funeral parlour and a brothel, making it entirely appropriate for our stay! The tiny serving bar, believed to be one of the oldest in Europe, had an astonishing range of alcoholic beverages, including several types of gin, which suited me perfectly. Fortunately, after our five-hour road trip we were sufficiently tired to sleep deeply enough to be unaware of any bats buffeting their wings against the window in the dead of night. The next day, we were ready to explore….     Our first stop was the world-famous Whitby Abbey. We climbed the 199 steps up to this magnificent ruin, which looks out over the harbour and the North Sea. In Dracula, on the night of the storm, when the Demeter made its way into the harbour through the sea-fog (we saw some sea-fog too), the searchlight of one of the lighthouses revealed a corpse lashed to its helm with a string of rosary beads and a crucifix. As soon as the ship arrived, a huge black hound jumped ashore and fled up the steps to the abbey. I have to admit that it was quite hard...
The Scandalous Love Life of Sophie Dawes

The Scandalous Love Life of Sophie Dawes

I love a good smuggling story and I’ve been exploring the Isle of Wight in search of secrets from its shady past. When I visited the village of St Helens for the first time, I had no idea that one of its past inhabitants was a courtesan, self-styled aristocrat, and maybe even a cold-blooded murderer. Looking out onto the green at the centre of the village, a few doors along from The Vine Inn, there is a small wisteria-covered cottage with a blue plaque. This is the humble birthplace of Sophie Dawes, a smuggler’s daughter who became Madame de Feuchères and frequented the court of French king, Louis XVIII. Her astonishing history is a real-life rags-to-riches story, with a rather sinister twist at the end.     Sophie was born at Freefolk Cottage, in St Helens, around 1792. She was one of the ten children of Richard ‘Dickie’ Dawes, a fisherman and renowned smuggler. When her father died, Sophie aged 11, was forced to enter Newport Workhouse with her mother and surviving siblings. It was there that she learned to read and write, as well as basic domestic skills, which would change her life forever.     After about two years in the workhouse, Sophie left and travelled first to Portsmouth, where she worked as a chambermaid, and then to London. A few years later, she was working in a brothel at Piccadilly, where she met the exiled Duke of Bourbon, who had escaped to London in the aftermath the French Revolution. Allegedly winning the attentions of young Sophie in a game of cards, when the 54-year-old duke returned...
Inside Reading Prison

Inside Reading Prison

I first visited Reading Prison when it was still a young offenders institution. I had a fascinating tour with one of the warders who shared stories from its long history, including some ghostly sightings. Now that it has been decommissioned, Reading Prison has opened its doors to the public and this time, I was able to wander…. The prison seems to be mostly unchanged since I was last there, although it looked like main entrance corridor had been painted. As you make your way in to the prison, past a row of innocuous-looking office doors, there is no warning that the convicted’s cell and drop room were once housed behind them. On my first visit there were plaques recalling the original use of the rooms, but these have now been removed.       The prison is a typical Victorian penal institution constructed on the model of Pentonville Prison, with wings radiating from a central hub. The structure is more or less unchanged since its opening in 1844, with narrow metal gantries and steep staircases, from the top of which there are dizzying views of the interior. There are three wings, each with three floors joined by the clattering iron stairways. The passages are so narrow that you can hardly pass by another person, all adding to the rather claustrophobic atmosphere. Incarceration there was even worse for the Victorian inmates who were forced to wear a Scottish cap, in keeping with the ‘separate system’. Developed at Pentonville this harsh régime kept the prisoners in isolation and, when they were allowed out of their cells for brief periods, they wore...