‘A Cold-Blooded Tragedy’

‘A Cold-Blooded Tragedy’

‘It appeared…a most startling thing that at so short a distance from Manchester, and in one of the most respectable suburbs of the town, in a public highway, well lighted…a policeman could have been shot down in his duty’ (Manchester Courier, 28 November 1876)   At midnight on Tuesday 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock was on duty in a leafy suburb of Manchester. It was a dry and cloudy evening, with little moonlight. The police officer had left Chorlton-cum-Hardy an hour earlier, and was approaching the end of his regular beat, at the intersection of three main roads, known as West Point, which bordered Chorlton, Old Trafford and Whalley Range. As he walked along a wide footpath overhung with trees towards the ‘Jutting Stone’, which marked the limit of his beat, two men accompanied him for the last few yards: another police officer, PC James Beanland, and law student, John Massey Simpson, who was on his way home after a night out.     The three men exchanged pleasantries before Simpson left. When he was 150 yards away, he heard two loud shots ring out in the night. The student turned round to see flashes of light behind him in the pitch dark and screams of, ‘Oh, murder, murder; I’m shot, I’m shot’ rang out in the night. Simpson rushed back where he had left the officers to find 21-year-old PC Cock slumped on the pavement near the garden wall of a large house. Even in the dim light, he could see the unmistakable stain of blood spreading across the police officer’s chest: Nicholas Cock had been shot. PC Beanland blew...
The Silent Killer

The Silent Killer

A keen collector of ‘crime artefacts’, I was thrilled to find an authentic Victorian laudanum bottle in an antiques emporium, and for only £6. It now sits alongside my poison bottle in my study. Recently I attended a conference on poison and poisoners, it piqued my interest in the lethal substance once sold in my precious bottles. Self-Medication was rife in the Victorian era and laudanum was the drug of choice for many. The narcotic was the most popular derivative of opium and was easily available over the counter. A mixture of powdered opium and alcohol (usually brandy) and flavoured with spices, laudanum was widely used as a stimulant. Costing about the same as a pint of beer, the Victorians bought laudanum from the local druggist a pennyworth at a time, to relieve the rigours of life. As well as being an effective analgesic, it was used to alleviate a variety of ailments, such as rheumatism, coughs, insomnia and diarrhoea. Highly addictive, the body soon became accustomed to the drug, requiring a higher dose to achieve the desired effects.     For some, laudanum was used to combat depression and ‘low spirits’ and, according to contemporary journalist Angus Reach, the most habitual users of laudanum were women. In 1862, Elizabeth Siddal, artist, poet and wife of Gabriel Dante Rossetti, died of a laudanum overdose. Other Victorian celebrities who took the drug included Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. Laudanum was also widely used for babies and young children. Druggists sweetened it with syrup or treacle and sold it as concoctions such as ‘Godfrey’s Cordial’, to make...
A Grisly Discovery

A Grisly Discovery

Whilst clearing out his mother’s loft recently, Richard Anderson came across a cardboard box with some very sinister contents: a package of brown paper and old newspaper, and a long piece of string. A label revealed that the items were evidence collected in the Amelia Dyer trial, in 1896, after she was arrested in Reading. Richard’s ancestor, Detective Constable James Anderson, was one of the investigating officers on the case, and the objects had been kept in his family home for 120 years. Here’s the story behind the grisly artefact: On 30 March 1896 bargeman Charles Humphreys navigated up the River Thames near Reading, towing a boat of ballast. He was moving slowly towards the Clappers footbridge, when he spotted a brown paper parcel floating in the water. Leaning over the side of the barge with a hook, Charles and his mate dragged the package through the water towards them. Humphreys’s companion unravelled the damp parcel, which had been tied with macramé twine. He cut through two layers of flannel and pulled back the sodden fabric to expose a child’s foot and part of a leg.     Later, the police unwrapped the parcel to find the body of a baby girl, aged between six months and one year, swaddled in layers of linen, newspaper and brown paper. Around her neck was a piece of tape, knotted under her left ear – she had been strangled. Her corpse had been weighted down with a brick. On examination of the dried brown paper, Detective Anderson found a name and an address: ‘Mrs Thomas, of 26 Piggott’s Road, Caversham.’ This led...
Murderous March

Murderous March

I was preparing a talk on Murder at Reading Gaol recently, when I realised that all the heinous events I was researching had a link with March. Not only were there trials and executions, but also some of the worst murders in the town’s history took place during this inauspicious month. Prior to 1971 in England and Wales, the most serious crimes were tried in the assize courts. Assizes were held twice a year, usually in Lent and Winter. Therefore, many trials took place in March, and as there was never much time between the serving of the death sentence and its execution, they too were in the same month. In Reading, 15 out of the 29 hangings between 1800 and 1913 were carried out in March.     The first public execution at the ‘new’ prison in Reading, which opened in 1844, was that of Thomas Jennings, on 22 March 1845. Earlier in the month, the 37-year-old farm labourer from Thatcham had been convicted of poisoning his young son with arsenic. Eleazar, aged 3, had died on Christmas Day of stomach pains and an exhumation of his body, following the sudden death of his younger brother in January, had confirmed the authorities’ suspicions. A year later, on 20 March, William Spicer was ‘launched into eternity’ by executioner William Calcraft, after having been found guilty of murdering his wife. Elizabeth Spicer, 60, had been found slumped in the cellar of the couple’s home. Her husband had alleged that she had fallen, but an analysis of the blood spatter pattern, had led to his conviction. The next execution at Reading Prison,...
Confession of a Killer

Confession of a Killer

In February 1879, convicted murderer Charlie Peace faced the death sentence for killing his former lover’s husband. Whilst he was waiting for his execution on 25 February, he made an astonishing revelation and committed to a crime for which someone else had already been convicted. In a written statement, followed by an interview with a priest, Peace confessed how he had shot Constable Nicholas Cock in Manchester during a burglary, on 1 August 1876. An expert in housebreaking, he had gone to the city to ‘work’ some houses in the leafy suburb of Old Trafford. He was walking down Upper Chorlton Road towards Seymour Grove and as he turned the corner, he saw two police officers talking to two civilians, at the junction of three main roads. Peace crossed the road and entered the grounds of a house. One of the police officers followed him and stood on the steps of the house with his bulls eye lantern switched on. Peace fled and as he jumped over the wall, he saw the other police officer coming towards him. Fearing capture, he fired one chamber of his revolver ‘to frighten him’.     Despite the danger, PC Nicholas Cock continued to rush at Peace, so he discharged another chamber: ‘My blood was up, being nettled that I had been disturbed, so I said to him; “You stand back, or I’ll shoot you.”’ The bullet struck the officer in the chest. As he was shot, Cock ‘threw up his walking stick saying “Ah! You bugger”’, and fell to the ground. Peace fled the scene by scaling a wall at the back...
Shanklin’s Secret Smugglers

Shanklin’s Secret Smugglers

I am very fortunate to spend time regularly on the Isle of Wight, especially in Shanklin where we have a small house. The village, with its historic thatched pubs and sandy beach, was one of the main centres of island smuggling in the past, and there are still traces of its secret history present today.     For centuries, smuggling was endemic on the Isle of Wight. Goods were brought in on vessels from continental Europe, concealed on the island and then moved to the mainland for distribution. At its height, it was estimated that two thirds of the island’s inhabitants were involved in ‘free trading’, from the fishermen and sailors who shipped the contraband to the women who decanted it into small receptacles for its ongoing trade journey. Tobacco was one of the most popular ‘imports’, as well as brandy, gin, tea, fruit and textiles. All these goods could fetch a high price in the UK, particularly if you didn’t pay the excise duty.     The smugglers’ pub was at the centre of local operations and there were several in Shanklin, which are still in business today. On the beach is the Fisherman’s Cottage, located at the bottom of the deep ravine of Shanklin Chine. It was built in 1817 by William Colenutt, who was also responsible for cutting a path through the dense foliage of the chine so that it could be opened to the public. Merchandise would be smuggled in from France, unloaded on the beach at Shanklin and then carried up the Chine, under cover of darkness.     Halfway up the Chine is...