1890: in the Worcestershire county market town of Pershore, at the Talbots’ Lodging House, a recently arrived guest dies in mysterious circumstances. Detective Inspector Samuel Ravenscroft and his colleague Constable Tom Crabb are called in to investigate. However, as the two policemen start their enquiries, they are faced with their most difficult case to date. As events unfold, Ravenscroft and Crabb uncover many secrets, and an old case from Ravenscroft's past threatens to cast long shadows over the present in this highly entertaining sixth title in the Victorian Inspector Ravenscroft series.
About the Author
Kerry Tombs is a genealogist, lecturer, and bookseller. He is the author of the Inspector Ravenscroft series, which includes The Droitwich Deceivers, The Tewkesbury Tomb, and The Worcester Whisperers.
Read an Excerpt
The Pershore Poisoners
By Kerry Tombs
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2014 Kerry Tombs
All rights reserved.
LEDBURY, SEPTEMBER 1890
'What is this, my dear?' asked Ravenscroft looking over his spectacles at the bowl of thick, dark liquid which lay before him on the dinner table.
'Brown Windsor soup,' replied Lucy.
'You don't like it?'
'No ... er ... it's just that —'
'I can tell that you don't approve.'
'No, it's just that it is rather on the thick side,' said Ravenscroft submerging his spoon once again into the brown mixture.
'I think it is quite nice,' smiled Lucy after taking another mouthful.
'I expect that I shall probably grow to like it.'
'I think Susan has done rather well. I believe that it is a favourite of Queen Victoria.'
'Ah well, if it is good enough for Queen Victoria, then I am sure that it is certainly good enough for us,' smiled Ravenscroft before bringing the spoon to his mouth.
'There is no need for frivolity, Samuel. I can tell you do not like it. It does have some of the Madeira in it,' said Lucy trying to sound enthusiastic.
'No, it's not the Madeira, it's just ... well ... just before we sat down I was reading the evening newspaper. It seems that a whole party of guests staying at one of the lodging houses in Pershore fell ill after eating a meal of Brown Windsor soup, pheasant pie and cheese.'
'Could it have been the pheasant pie?' suggested Lucy.
'Perhaps, but then it could have easily been the Brown Windsor soup. I suppose the dense, brown viscosity of the dish could hide anything of a suspicious nature.'
'I saw Susan prepare it – beef, lamb, vegetables, faggots of herbs.'
'Certainly a great deal of things.'
'Did any of these people die as a result of this meal?' asked Lucy becoming irritated by her husband's questioning.
'Yes, apparently one of the guests died during the night after eating the soup.'
'Well don't eat it if you don't want to. I'll ring for Susan to take it away,' said Lucy thrusting her spoon back into the bowl with a clatter
'No, don't do that. I'm sorry. I'm sure it is all right,' replied Ravenscroft taking another sip of the liquid. 'Actually it is quite pleasant.'
'I do wish you would make up your mind, Samuel.'
'I have. The soup is fine.'
'You are only saying that so as not to hurt my feelings.'
'No, not at all. It really is very good.'
'Now I come to think of it, it does have a rather peculiar odour,' said Lucy after taking another mouthful. 'I think we should leave it. Perhaps the lamb was not as fresh as it should have been. I will have a word with the butcher.'
'If you say so, but don't reject the dish on my account.'
'No, I don't like it. We should definitely leave it,' said Lucy ringing the small hand bell on the table.
'Now you are annoyed with me,' said Ravenscroft. 'I am sorry. I should not have mentioned it.'
'Ah, Susan, I think we have had enough of the Brown Windsor. If you would take it away please,' said Lucy ignoring her husband's last remark, and addressing the maid as she entered the room.
'Yes, ma'am,' replied the maid casting a suspicious eye at the half-full bowls.
Suddenly, the loud noise of the front doorbell being pressed broke the silence of the room.
'Surely that cannot be Tom Crabb again? It seems that every time we sit down to eat, our meal is interrupted by some police matter or other,' said an annoyed Lucy.
'Shall I tell him to wait, Mrs Ravenscroft, until after I have served the main course?' asked Susan.
'No, I suppose you had better let him in,' replied a resigned Lucy.
'I'm sorry, my dear. I am sure it must be something of great importance for Tom to call upon us at such a late hour,' suggested Ravenscroft hoping to placate his wife.
The maid left the room and returned a moment or two later. 'Please Mr Ravenscroft, it's not Constable Crabb. It's a young lad. Says he must speak to you most urgently.'
'Strange. Did this youth give his name?' asked Ravenscroft.
'No, sir,' replied the maid.
'Then I think you should instruct him to visit the police station. Tell him we are dining and cannot be disturbed,' instructed Lucy.
'Sorry to intrude, Mister Ravenscroft,' said a young man peering round the doorpost.
'Stebbins!' exclaimed Ravenscroft.
'Sorry for the interruption, Mister Ravenscroft, Mrs Ravenscroft,' said the smiling, fresh-faced youth removing his cap and stepping into the room. 'I knows you is dining, sir, but I thought you would want to know as soon as possible.'
'Who is this young man?' asked a bewildered Lucy.
'This is Stebbins, the boots whom I first encountered at the Tudor when I first visited Malvern,' explained Ravenscroft. 'What is it, Stebbins? You can see that we are busy at the moment?'
'Terrible business, sir. Poisoned he was!' pronounced the youth with a flourish.
'Who has been poisoned?' asked Ravenscroft regretting that he had asked the question, even before he had uttered the words.
'Him that ate the Brown Windsor, only he didn't. Him at Pershore. Maisie said he didn't eat it.'
'Stebbins, you are not making any sense. Wait in the kitchen until after we have finished our meal. Have you eaten?'
'No sir. Came as soon as I heard the news.'
'Then, Susan, you had better give him some food,' instructed Ravenscroft. 'May I suggest some of the Brown Windsor?'
'Thank you, Mister Ravenscroft. Don't like the look of that soup, though, if you don't mind my saying so,' replied Stebbins casting a glance at the halfempty bowls and turning up his nose. 'Looks a bit murky to me.'
'Here, young man, you mind what you are saying,' reprimanded the maid.
'Take him to the kitchen, Susan,' repeated Ravenscroft.
The lad followed the maid out of the room.
'What a strange looking young man,' said Lucy after the door had been closed.
'He has rather a vivid imagination I'm afraid. Still he was helpful to us at Tewkesbury earlier this year.'
'How old is he?'
'Oh, about thirteen or fourteen I believe.'
'And you say you first met him at the Tudor in Malvern?' asked Lucy.
'Yes, he looked after me there. He was quite useful in providing me with food late at night, when the so called "cure" prevented any indulgencies.'
'Sounds as though you had better see what he wants after dinner.'
'Now then, Stebbins, what is all this about?' asked Ravenscroft striding into the kitchen some minutes later.
'It's that gent in Pershore. Him that drank the soup, only he didn't, if you see what I means,' said Stebbins looking up from the table, his mouth full of bread and cheese.
'I take it you are referring to the party who suffered ill effects from consuming the Brown Windsor soup?'
'Yes sir, they all had the soup and were ill, but the gent didn't, and he was the one that died,' announced Stebbins.
'I think you had better start at the beginning,' said Ravenscroft sighing as he sat down on one of the chairs. 'I did not know that you were living in Pershore. I thought you were still employed at the Hop Pole in Tewkesbury?'
'So I am sir.'
'Then how do you know what is going on in Pershore?'
'Ah well, Mister Ravenscroft. It's all on account of Maisie. She knows,' replied the youth tapping the side of his nose before cutting himself another large chunk of cheese and cramming it into his mouth.
'And who is this Maisie?' asked Ravenscroft wondering where all this line of inquiry was going.
'Maisie is my girl. She works at Talbots' Lodging House. Scullery maid she is. She saw everything.'
'Well Maisie says that all the guests sat down that night to eat the Brown Windsor, and that they was all bad afterwards. Some of 'em worse than others. Only the gent that died, he didn't have any of the soup, but he was dead in his bed the next morning. Dead as a cold cucumber he was. All stiff and white he were. Been frothing at the mouth, his face all twisted in agony,' said Stebbins warming to his subject.
'Yes, yes, spare us the graphic details, Stebbins.'
'Well he were dead, as I said, Mister Ravenscroft. Dead!'
'And you say that the guest who died did not partake of the soup? Was the scullery maid sure on this point?' inquired Ravenscroft becoming more interested in the lad's account.
'My Maisie, she's a sharp one. She don't miss anything. If she says that gent didn't eat the Brown Windsor then he didn't,' said Stebbins springing to the maid's defence.
'It could have been the pheasant pie?' suggested Ravenscroft.
'Don't understand you, sir.'
'Well it could have been the pie, and not the soup, that was the cause of the guests all being ill, and perhaps the deceased gentleman ate rather more of it than the others? Do you know if this gentleman ate any of the pie?'
'Don't know,' muttered Stebbins looking deflated.
'Well there you are then,' said Ravenscroft rising from the table.
'My Maisie, she had some of the pie,' said Stebbins hopefully.
'And was she ill?'
'No. So you sees, Mister Ravenscroft, it wasn't the pie at all. Nor was it the soup.'
'Did the scullery maid, this Maisie, did she eat some of the Brown Windsor – and was she ill afterwards?'
'No sir, she didn't have any of the soup,' said Stebbins helping himself to the last piece of cheese.
'So it must have been the soup, and not the pie that made all the people ill.'
'Yes Mister Ravenscroft, so you see that the gent must have been poisoned! One of them folks must have poisoned him! You has to do something about it,' pronounced Stebbins.
'Look, Stebbins, we don't know that anyone was poisoned. We do know that everyone who ate the soup was ill afterwards, but that they all recovered, and that the only person who died was the person who did not partake of the soup.'
'Exactly! So someone must have killed 'im off!'
'The gentleman who died could have been taking some kind of medicine for a particular ailment, and for one reason or another he accidentally took rather too much of it before he retired. People are sometimes very careless with their medicines and how they use them. So you see there may be a perfectly fair explanation for all of this. You and this Maisie, Stebbins, must not go around telling everyone that the deceased was poisoned on purpose, when there is no evidence to suggest that this was the case,' said Ravenscroft seeking to curb the youth's enthusiasm.
'You wouldn't say that, Mister Ravenscroft, if you had seen 'im the morning after.'
'No – but my Maisie did. It were 'er that found 'im.'
'Tell me what happened the next morning, after the maid found the deceased?'
'Well Maisie, she told Mister Talbot that gent was dead. Then they called the doctor.'
'And what did the doctor say?'
'Said he had eaten too much of the soup.'
'They took him away, to the undertakers.'
'I take it that the deceased man was all alone. There was no one who had accompanied him to the lodging house?' asked Ravenscroft.
'Not as far as I knows,'
'And how long had this gentleman been staying at the establishment?'
'Maisie says, about a week or so. What's that got to do with it?'
'Well if this gentleman was hardly known to any of the other guests, why would any one of them wanted to have poisoned him? No, it does not make any sense, Stebbins. What do the local police make of it?'
'Policeman who came after the doctor, asked a few questions, took away some of the soup, and that were it.'
'So the police have no reasons to investigate further?'
'Ah, but they don't know what you and I and Maisie knows, that the gent didn't eat any of the soup.'
'Then why on earth did Maisie not speak up when the policeman was there?' asked Ravenscroft.
'She couldn't do that.'
'Why ever not?'
'Cause she was out when the peeler came. She were getting the vituals for the evening meal.'
'So why didn't anyone else in the lodging house inform the policeman that the deceased had not eaten the soup?' sighed Ravenscroft.
'I don't know, does I? I weren't there at the time.'
'Look, Stebbins, I think that this is all rather fanciful.'
'No, sir. They killed him. You has to do something about it Mister Ravenscroft. They be burying him tomorrow afternoon. Be too late then. You has to do something. You can't let them get away with it!' implored Stebbins jumping up from the chair and looking Ravenscroft directly in the face.
'Stebbins, please don't tell me what I can and cannot do,' replied Ravenscroft firmly as he turned away and opened the door for the youth.
'You 'as to do something. Please, Mister Ravenscroft. My Maisie is straight as a ruler. If she says something, it must be right. He were poisoned!' entreated the youth.
'All right, Stebbins, I think you have said enough for now. I'll think about it overnight. If there is nothing else on in the morning, then Constable Crabb and I will travel over to Pershore and make inquiries.'
'Lord bless you, sir! You won't regret it, Mister Ravenscroft.'
'Now, good night, Stebbins,' said Ravenscroft walking towards the front door and gesturing that Stebbins should leave.
'You mark my words, Mister Ravenscroft, he were done in, was that gent, and one of them folks in that place did it.'
'Good night, Stebbins,' said Ravenscroft opening the front door and indicating that the youth should step outside.
'Nice juicy case this one will be, I'll have no doubt, and remember it were Stebbins that told yer about it in the first place. You call on Stebbins if you need anything, Mister Ravenscroft. Stebbins is yer man.'
'Yes, good night, Stebbins,' sighed Ravenscroft closing the door on his uninvited guest.CHAPTER 2
'Of course all this could be a complete waste of time, Tom. You realize that.'
'The lad's been right in the past, sir.'
'It all seems a bit too fanciful for me. However, it's a fine day, no crimes committed overnight, and we have nothing else to occupy our minds at the present, so it will do no harm to make inquiries,' added Ravenscroft as the trap made its way along the country lanes that lead from Ledbury towards the county town of Pershore.
'So Stebbins never saw the body then?' asked Constable Crabb as he encouraged the horse to quicken his pace.
'No. It is all rather second-hand evidence, passed on by the scullery maid to Stebbins, and no doubt embellished by him. We shall probably discover that the dead man died from eating the Brown Windsor soup after all, and that there is nothing for us to investigate,' said Ravenscroft.
'Funny thing, soup. You never know what's in it, 'specially the cloudy ones.'
Ravenscroft smiled as the trap crossed the Severn at Upton.
An hour later the horse and trap made its way through the busy market place with its stalls and groups of people, and along the main street of the town lined with its elegant Georgian buildings and coaching inns, until Crabb pulled up the horse outside a drab looking building at the end of the road.
'Let us go and see what the local men have found out,' said Ravenscroft alighting from the trap and pushing open the door of the police station.
'No one about,' remarked Crabb following on behind and looking around the empty office.
Ravenscroft called out, and upon receiving no reply, the two men entered the smaller inner room.
'No wonder the office was unattended,' said Ravenscroft looking down at the armchair where a stocky, ruddy-faced, uniformed figure lay snoring loudly.
'Must have had a late night, sir,' smiled Crabb.
'Confound the fellow. Wake up, man!' shouted Ravenscroft.
The figure merely made a grunting sound before continuing with his deep snores.
'This is intolerable!' exclaimed Ravenscroft leaning forwards and pushing the man's shoulder with a violent shove.
'Eh ... what ... the deuce ...' stuttered the uniformed officer.
'Wake up, man. Pull yourself together!' instructed Ravenscroft.
'What? Oh sorry, sir,' replied the man springing to his feet. 'I'm sorry, sir. You must forgive me. How can I help you, sir?'
'Don't you know that such conduct is a gross dereliction of duty?' reprimanded Ravenscroft.
'Sorry, sir. And you are?'
'Ravenscroft. You have heard of me? Detective Inspector Ravenscroft.'
'Oh my God!' exclaimed the embarrassed policeman growing even redder in the face as he quickly brushed down his tunic with his hands and attempted to straighten out his collar. 'I'm sorry, sir. Please excuse me. I don't know what came over me.'
'You know you can be sacked for this,' joined in Crabb.
'Yes, I'm sorry, sir. It will not happen again I can assure you. This has never happened before. You must —'
'Stop babbling on, man,' said an annoyed Ravenscroft.
'Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.'
'Who are you?'
'Hoskings, sir. P.C. Hoskings,' replied the policeman shuffling his feet and growing even redder in the face.
'Well, Hoskings, where is Sergeant Braithwaite?'
'Ill, sir. Laid up with a broken leg in Worcester Infirmary, sir.'
'I see. So you are in charge?'
'Yes sir. Until they can find a replacement.'
'Well Hoskings, I suppose you will have to do. Now what can you tell Constable Crabb and myself about this poisoning case?' asked Ravenscroft.
'Poisoning case? Oh yes, sir. Nasty case of food poisoning at Talbots Lodging House. Everyone ate the soup and was ill afterwards. Brown Windsor I believe. Only one gent ate too much and died as a result. Wonder they didn't all die.'
'And you went to investigate?'
'Well, what happened, man?'
'Doctor Homer was already there when I arrived. The man was lying on his bed. He was quite dead. Seemed he had eaten too much of the soup.'
'Only he hadn't,' interjected Crabb.
'Go on,' urged Ravenscroft.
Excerpted from The Pershore Poisoners by Kerry Tombs. Copyright © 2014 Kerry Tombs. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Pimlico, London 1870 9
Chapter 1 Ledbury, September 1890 24
Chapter 2 Pershore 33
Chapter 3 Ledbury and Pershore 51
Chapter 4 Ledbury 82
Chapter 5 Pershore 88
Chapter 6 Pershore 99
Chapter 7 Pershore 115
Chapter 8 Ledbury 125
Chapter 9 Pershore 138
Chapter 10 Whitechapel, London 161
Chapter 11 Pershore 169
Chapter 12 Worcester 180
Chapter 13 Ledbury and Pershore 195
Chapter 14 Pershore 210
Epilogue: Pershore, The Next Day 221