This ghoulish look into the past takes readers on a sinister journey through Southend-on-Sea, from medieval times to the twentieth century, and featuring a rogues’ gallery of cutthroats, highwaymen, witches, murderers, and madmen.
Included are more than twenty notorious episodes offering fascinating insight into criminal acts and the criminal mind. And in addition to the eerie events of the past, the author explores grievous crimes from more recent times such as the Murrell fratricide, the brutal killing of Florence Dennis, the Watson bungalow murder, the Brown wheelchair murder, the Shoebury Garrison deaths, and many more.
Gordon’s chronicle of the dark side of Southend’s long history will be fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in the town’s rich—sometimes gruesome—past.
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Anyone attempting to track down crimes from as far back as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries meets a frustrating combination of legend, Chinese whispers and unreliable translations from French chroniclers such as Jean Froissart. Only among the aristocracy are such crimes recorded in any detail, not because they were more criminally inclined than the peasants (or working classes) – far from it – but because the misdemeanours of the latter went mainly unrecorded for posterity unless they impacted on their rulers and masters. Tracking individual crimes any further back is virtually impossible as the area was so sparsely populated, and the foul deeds that are on record are in respect of local battles – of Benfleet, say, or Ashingdon.
The first person whose foul deeds are on record in the Southend area is Sir Richard de Southchurch, known as Richard the Extortioner (c. 1227 – 94). The Sheriff of Essex and the King's Steward of the Liberty of Rochford, he held a 900-acre manor encompassing Southchurch, Prittlewell, Leigh, Shopland, North Shoebury, Sutton and Rayleigh. At least some of his wealth, however, seems to have resulted from his abuse of his position as sheriff. This role required him to provide military stores for the King's forces when they were in Essex, and he did indeed requisition large quantities of wheat, oats, corn, oxen, cattle, cheese and hams in the name of King Henry III. Added to this list were great quantities of chickens to feed the army's wounded, plus 400 eggs for poultices, linen and rags for bandages, and pickaxes and spades to break down the walls of London, held in 1267 by rebel supporters of Simon de Montfort. One interesting acquisition made during this struggle was of eight cocks which Sir Richard claimed would have fire tied to their feet and then be sent flying over London to burn the city. Not only did large quantities of such stores end up at his house in Southchurch, but Sir Richard also raised cash from the Exchequer by billing them for hundreds of marks for supplies that had cost him nothing. He was something of a Robin Hood in reverse. Regarded as an impudent and ingenious rascal, he is also alleged to have arrested innocent men and demanded that they pay for their release; this was not something that could easily be achieved without violence.
After the accession of Edward I in 1272 the men of Rochford Hundred brought a long list of charges against Sir Richard for his abuse of his position as a royal official during the troubled years following the breakdown of Henry III's government. Additional charges included appointing bailiffs to commit acts of extortion on his behalf, demanding excessive fines and refusing bail after taking the agreed funds. In 1279 he was charged with taking a hart without the King's authority, but it seems he somehow managed to evade punishment even though at that time the penalty for poaching deer or boar in Rayleigh, Rochford and Hadleigh forests was to be blinded. He did, however, serve some time in London's Fleet prison in 1285, and forfeited his manors at Eastwood and Hatfield Peverel to the King, so perhaps he did not escape scot-free. It would be good to think so.
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A nastier turn of events took place half a century later in the unlikely environs of Prittlewell Priory – or perhaps not so unlikely given the 1170 martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. William de Auvergnat, a monk from Lewes, was appointed Prior in 1311 but by 1314 had managed to embroil himself in some complex legal and financial difficulties including accusations of 'incontinency [unrestrained behaviour, often sexual] whilst in London'. As a result he was removed from office but he refused to accept this decision, regarding it as unfair.
In protest, Prior William invaded Prittlewell Priory with an armed mob and seized it, expelling the monks, breaking chests, appropriating the monuments and the common seal, damaging the convent's goods and committing other violent and inappropriate excesses. Realising his mistake, he then offered to renounce his rights before being judged. This offer was acceptable, both to the Prior and the King, but William, still angry, again forcibly entered the Priory, trying the King's patience. The King ordered his arrest, along with his supporters, but William refused to give up the struggle and was reinstalled, ejected and reinstalled again until in 1321 the Prior of Lewes determined to settle the matter once and for all.
While William was celebrating mass at the high altar, it seems that an armed force sent by the Prior of Lewes arrived to take possession of the Priory. William and his monks were outnumbered and the bloody battle that ensued ended with William and three of his monks being badly wounded. All were bound hand and foot and thrown into a cart to be carried off to Lewes, along with the Priory's common seal. Soon afterwards William died, no doubt because of the severe head wound he had received. It is not known whether any charges of manslaughter were brought, but it seems unlikely. Ironically, if William had survived he would probably have been restored to his coveted position as Prior of Prittlewell because of this last unauthorised attack.
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From Sir Richard and Prior William we move on to the insurrection that put peasants into recorded history: the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, which proved to be an important milestone on the road to freedom. The labour shortage caused by the Black Death of 1348 – 9 is thought to have given the peasants some bargaining power, and they were not afraid to use it. Following the imposition of a series of taxes intended to raise money to pay for the wars with France and to cover administrative shortfalls in the economy, the government attempted to collect a further groat (about 2p) from every poor person over 15 years of age. Commissioners were appointed to travel to various parts of Essex to compel collection of the tax. The inhabitants of Fobbing, Corringham and Stanford-le-Hope were summoned to Brentwood to settle their 'debt' but they arrived in hostile mood and refused to make any further payments. The Fobbing fishermen had been excused an earlier tax because of their poverty, but this time they resorted to threats of violence against the commissioner Thomas Bampton and his sergeants, driving them back to London. Fearful of the possible consequences of their actions, the villagers hid for a while in the woods, before hunger eventually drove them back home. Hailed as heroes, they soon began a campaign to rouse other villagers.
A few days later the Chief Justice of the King's Bench had another try at collecting the tax at Brentwood but a great crowd of protesters turned up and in the subsequent brawl six men (three from each faction) were killed. The violence escalated and John Ewell, an Essex officer (of property law), was beheaded at Langdon Hills and his head paraded on a lance.
It took just a week for more than 20,000 men from Essex and Kent to gather and begin their march on London, setting out on 11 June. The sheriff's manor house and the abbey at Coggeshall were looted. The manors of Milton and Barn Hall (at Downham) were similarly ransacked, as were those of Wakering Hall and Paglesham. Southchurch Hall was allegedly ransacked and burned, although no evidence survives other than references to the destruction of court rolls (presumably kept there). Hadleigh Mill was attacked and the King's books there were apparently seized. It seems these actions were part of an attempt by the marauding peasants to destroy the records of official precedents for duties and fines imposed on labourers.
Local men involved included John Messenger at Prittlewell, who was later indicted as a common disturber of the peace and supporter of malefactors in the rising. Others were from Shoebury (including John Hurt and John Syrat), Rochford (including John Glasiere), Prittlewell (Thomas Walston), Rayleigh (Henry Trecche), Benfleet (Thomas Spragge), Leigh (Thomas Treche), Hadleigh (William Bocher, Richard Bell, John Symond, John atte Marsh), Wakering (John Buck), Paglesham (Peter White), Stambridge and Canewdon. Ralph Spicer was among those hanged for taking part in the rebellion, but he was one of the luckier ones, bearing in mind that the revolt followed the introduction of the ultimate punishment: being hanged, drawn and quartered.
When they finally reached London, the men demanded the abolition of serfdom but the very young King Richard II reneged on his initial agreement to give them 'all you seek', instead threatening even worse treatment. Opposition to yet another tax had turned into bloody armed resistance against the King. Predictably, the peasants' ill-defended encampment at Rettendon was attacked by the King's army and at least 500 local rebels were killed. An amnesty of sorts followed, with the sparing of 247 men whose names appeared on a death list, but many had to forfeit possessions. One, Robert Eggot of Corringham, was obliged to surrender his homestead worth 40 shillings.
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Next we find an all-round nasty individual whose name reputedly 'stank in Essex nostrils' because of his own involvement in the slaughter of the oppressed fighting for justice. Blood-lust was seemingly one of his favourite leisure pursuits. John de Holland was Duke of Exeter and Earl of Huntingdon; a half-brother of Richard II, he was also a Knight of the Garter. The rack, that infamous instrument of torture at the Tower of London where Holland was Constable for a year, was not known as the 'Duke of Exeter's daughter' without good reason. Froissart, the French chronicler, portrays him as a violent ruffian.
In 1384 Holland was involved with the cold-blooded murder of a Carmelite friar, who was in his custody prior to an enquiry into some unsavoury allegations. Holland does not seem to have been indicted for this butchery. A year later, he murdered again. This time the victim was the Earl of Stafford's son, one of whose archers had slain one of Holland's esquires following a quarrel. The Earl of Stafford demanded revenge and Holland's lands were seized shortly after. While this could be construed as a possible 'punishment', the lands were restored to him a year later after he had done no more than arrange a church service for the repose of the soul of Stafford's son – or perhaps it was because he had, in the interim, eloped with and seduced John of Gaunt's daughter, resulting in a hastily arranged marriage. Gaunt's daughter no doubt needed some kind of dowry.
In 1397 Holland came to the Southend area. On the orders of Richard II, he ambushed the King's uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, the man who had taken control of the government by removing young Richard's friends and advisers. Woodstock was taken to Calais, where he was strangled with knotted towels and his body embalmed and cased in lead. His body was returned by sea to Hadleigh Castle. Legend has it that the coffin was held en route at Leigh-on-Sea, which is the most likely point for it to be off-loaded. From Hadleigh Castle poor old Woodstock was taken further north to Pleshey, where he was finally laid to rest. A version of this murder is chronicled in Shakespeare's Richard II without reference to John de Holland, but of course Shakespeare was not averse to omitting 'unsuitable' material or manipulating events to suit his plots.
Two years later the situation for Holland changed and it was his turn to be on the receiving end of a foul deed. Richard II was deposed, and his successor, Henry IV, regarded Holland as a traitor. So Holland fled from Oxford to Hadleigh, the seat of the Earl of Oxford, and from there to Milton Shore, where he tried to escape by sea but was driven back and delayed by bad weather (nothing changes). He seems to have taken refuge in Hamlet Mill (in the area now known as Westcliff-on-Sea) while waiting for conditions to improve. While enjoying dinner there with John Prittlewell he was besieged by local villagers, mostly from Milton Hamlet (now part of Southend). They 'arrested' Holland and took him to Pleshey where he was tortured and torn to pieces by Woodstock's tenants and servants in an act of savage vengeance. He was then beheaded, on the say-so of Woodstock's mother-in-law, the Countess of Hereford, and seemingly not necessarily with Henry's blessing, given that Holland was his brother-in-law. It was generally regarded as a well-deserved fate for a man of such violent character.CHAPTER 2
Murderers, Paedophiles and the Marian Martyrs
(1500 – 1699)
Although William the Conqueror banned executions throughout our green and pleasant land, they were brought back after his death in 1087, with hanging becoming the most acceptable form of capital punishment throughout Britain, rather than the earlier, messier, beheading. By the sixteenth century summary justice for minor offences was meted out not by central or local government officials but by constables elected by the parish. These constables were local representatives whose most important duty was probably to raise the 'hue and cry' after a robbery or murder had taken place. The parish constable was below the church warden in the parish hierarchy but he would have carried a staff of office and a pair of handcuffs. For nearly 300 years the constables were the main force in combating crime. The stocks were used to punish drunkards, with lock-ups to detain those awaiting trial in Chelmsford. There are records of such lock-ups in just about all the villages that preceded Southend, from Rettendon for example in the north, to Foulness in the east. The 'crime' of vagrancy was particularly common and by the end of the sixteenth century was punishable with a public flogging (for both men and women), but this was preferable to being branded and sold into slavery, which could have been the punishment had they been born in a different century.
By the seventeenth century some communities had progressed from lock-ups to small gaolhouses: there had reputedly been a gaolhouse in the Shoebury area for hundreds of years by this time, and there was another one in a terrace of three houses near the junction of Downhall and London Roads in Rayleigh. Every hamlet had its own stocks and whipping post for lesser offences. Stocks stood at Parsons Corner, Shoeburyness, and a set of stocks is preserved inside the building formerly used as a lock-up in Canewdon. Whipping as a punishment dates back to Saxon times, with vagrants singled out as victims by Henry VIII with his Whipping Act of 1530. Inside Little Wakering Church is an example of a whipping post, brought here from its original position for safe-keeping.
If the perpetrators of more serious crimes got as far as a court trial, then it was possible for them to be sentenced to death by hanging, a public event once regarded as something of a day out for the family. Records of such events are scarce, but Samuel Pepys gives a typical account in April 1664, describing how he stood 'upon a wheel of a cart' to get a good view, which cost him a shilling, as a 'comely-looked' man was hanged for robbery, with 'twelve to fourteen thousand people in the street'. The county gaol was originally at Colchester Castle, 30 miles north of Southend, but prison sentences were a rarity until the sixteenth century. The death sentence was common for offences that today seem relatively minor, such as petty theft, although stolen goods were often under-valued (at less than 12d) to avoid making it a capital offence. In 1576 it became a legal requirement for each county to have its own house of correction, and the first in Essex seems to be the one recorded at Corringham in 1587.
Records of local 'foul deeds', including murders, committed during this period are frustratingly brief, with no additional trial information accessible even from the National Archives at Kew. Early cases include the alleged murder of a 12-year-old girl, Joan Johnson, in 1559, at 'Cannouden', now Canewdon. The coroner, Thomas Knott, played a vital role in this case, as coroners often did. The accused were yeomen farmers, Elizabeth and [illegible] Heckesford senior of Canewdon. They pleaded not guilty, claiming that young Joan drowned herself, but they were accused of assault and murder. The coroner must have favoured the Heckesfords' version of events, because they were found not guilty.
In a 1592 case before Robert Clarke, Baron of the Exchequer, and Thomas Walmesley, Judge of the Common Pleas or Queen's Bench, Mary Crowche (spelt variously as Crouche), a widow, and Abraham Lynsey, a labourer, both of Paglesham, were indicted for murder after an inquisition held at Paglesham in June before Thomas Drywood, coroner, on the body of Thomas Blakbone of Paglesham, a tailor. It appears that Crowche and Lynsey attacked Blakbone in his house at Paglesham at about 11pm on 18 April, during which attack he was strangled by Crowche, abetted by Lynsey. Another tailor, Ambrose Duckford of Paglesham, was indicted as an accessory, although none of the three seems to have attempted to escape the scene after the murder.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths in & Around Southend-on-Sea"
Copyright © 2007 Dee Gordon.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
TRUE CRIME FROM WHARNCLIFFE,
CHAPTER 1 - Medieval Crimes,
CHAPTER 2 - Murderers, Paedophiles and the Marian Martyrs,
CHAPTER 3 - An Eighteenth-Century Enigma,
CHAPTER 4 - Highwaymen,
CHAPTER 5 - Witches,
CHAPTER 6 - Smugglers,
CHAPTER 7 - Wilful Murder, 1847,
CHAPTER 8 - 'Fratricide at Leigh',
CHAPTER 9 - Goings-on at Shoeburyness Garrison,
CHAPTER 10 - Two Unsolved Murders,
CHAPTER 11 - Two Attempted Murders,
CHAPTER 12 - The Wife Beater,
CHAPTER 13 - The 1894 Prittlewell Murder,
CHAPTER 14 - Peculiar People - and Peculiar Finds,
CHAPTER 15 - Double Tragedy,
CHAPTER 16 - Rural Double Murder,
CHAPTER 17 - Holiday Murders,
CHAPTER 18 - The McIlroy Mystery,
CHAPTER 19 - Arson, Poison, and a Cut Throat,
CHAPTER 20 - Patricide in Rayleigh,
CHAPTER 21 - Double Murder in Leigh-on-Sea,
CHAPTER 22 - Jealousy in Thorpe Bay,