Ascot’s Royal Assassin

Ascot_4The first stone rebounded off the wall, just missing the window.
The second, larger and much heavier stone didn’t. It went straight through the open window, striking the man inside directly on his forehead, causing him to stagger back and cry: ‘Oh! God, I am hit.’

The unknown assailant had been about to hurl a third missile, but he was grabbed by a naval officer and others nearby rushed to do the same. He was in danger now of being assaulted by an angry crowd but was taken into custody by Bow Street police officers.

He was detained and appeared before Sir. F.A.Roe, the Chief Magistrate of Westminster, within minutes of the assault. Meanwhile, the victim, hit by a jagged flint-stone, regained his composure and reappeared at the window with his wife – his hat apparently having saved him from the full impact of the assault, although a red swelling had appeared on his forehead.

The missing information that puts this curious tale into context is that the location of the incident was the royal enclosure at Ascot racecourse; the injured man was King William IV; and the date was 19th June 1832. The race crowd of course, numbered several thousands, many of whom witnessed the assailant’s attack on the king.Ascot_5_ladies

There were numerous police on duty, and the custom was for Chief Magistrate of Westminster to be in attendance on all such occasions, just in case. Now that moment had arrived, and he was needed to hold court in a room under the grandstand at Ascot.

Meanwhile, rumours spread rapidly around the racecourse about an assassination plot against the king, the noise of the crowd becoming deafening as their gossip and shouting breached the walls of the improvised court room. The mystery assailant took on different guises according to the rumour. Large, swarthy and ogre-like; a military man from across the seas; a strange foreigner;Ascot_3_ROAD

Even a policeman was in the bidding in the crowd’s desperate guessing game as to who, why, and how.

  Those able to squeeze into the courtroom under the grandstand could not believe their eyes when they saw the man being detained on a committal charge of, “Having feloniously and traitorously assaulted our Sovereign Lord the King by throwing a stone with intent to kill his said Majesty.” The penalty for such a crime was certain death, and here, before the instant Ascot court stood the plaintiff.

He was short, looked very old – at least in his seventies – and was dressed in the tattered garb of a sailor. His most striking feature. however, was a crudely hewn wooden leg.ASCOT_WOODEN LEG_2Theories of swarthy foreigners, ogres and villainous plots were starting to collapse all around. Here was a real mystery: why on earth would such a wretched old man, hindered from escape by a wooden leg, commit such a serious crime?

He was very composed before the assembled crowd, which consisted mainly of those working for the royal family and attached to the royal suite. He chose to say nothing about his attack on the king, only to supply his name, which was Dennis Collins. Was he insane? He did not appear to be so. Moreover, he had walked all the way from London, slept in a shed at Windsor the previous night, and then walked to Ascot to attack the king. He was committed to Reading gaol for further questioning.Ascot_3_ROAD

The eager press would have to wait until the following Tuesday to find out the declared motive of one Dennis Collins, would-be assassin of King William IV.
Tuesday came, the magistrates came, the press came, but Collins did not appear as scheduled at the Wokingham Court. More rumours abounded. Had he escaped? The public wanted to see this mystery assassin. Under orders from Mt. Maul – solicitor to the Treasury, Collins had been kept at Reading gaol and would undergo his hearing there away from the public view. This fuelled the public imagination even more; he must truly be a dangerous man.

By 2 pm on Wednesday, June 27th, a dozen magistrates or so arrived at the Reading hearing to serve their king and see justice done against the traitor. A substantial part of that afternoon was spent arguing amongst themselves as to who would be the named magistrates on the hearing paper and sign a high treason warrant for committal to Abingdon Assizes: they couldn’t all do it.

Once the pecking order was agreed, and the many witnesses again described the stone throwing attack.ASCOT_WOODEN LEG_1

Dennis Collins was asked what he had to say in his own defence. Was this going to be the final exposure of a long-standing conspiracy to assassinate the king, with Collins as the ringleader?

With confidence, he told the story of how, last December, as an out-pensioner of Greenwich Hospital, he had an argument with the ward keeper, telling him he had no business sweeping the room more than once a day. This led to blows, and Collins’s expulsion and the confiscation of his naval pension. As an old injured sailor, that was all he had to live on.

‘I might was well be hanged or shot, as go about starving,’ he said. Every attempt he had made since December to restore his right to his pension met with refusal, including his petition to the king himself on April 19th. The reply from the admiralty was that the king could do nothing for him.

‘I suffer from arbitrary power,’ he concluded and then apologized for attacking the king. This, however, could not save him from committal to  Abingdon Assizes on charges of high treason.

When his trial began on August 22nd, the indictment read that he did, “Compass. imagine, devise, and intend the death and destruction of our Lord the king.”Ascot_William IV
King William IV

This was just the beginning of a long list of charges that referred to his malicious and traitorous intent against the king. The Attorney General was prosecuting and he reminded the court that, ‘The prisoner was charged with the highest crime known to the laws of England.’

The prosecution was without complication. Collins was seen in the act of assault: two stones were thrown and a third found in his hand. Witness after witness could testify to the facts of the crime; they were not in dispute. The whole case for the defence had to rest on intent. Did this old pensioner intend to kill His Majesty or cause bodily harm?

Mr Swabey for the defence, undertook a job of peeling away the persona of the assassin to substitute that of an old serving sailor, “Ground down to the soil by poverty.” He went on to say, “Hunger had deprived him of his reflection and he hazarded his life in the incomprehensible gratification – incomprehensible to the sane mind – of throwing a stone at the king.” The final flourish was to claim his client was ‘non compos mentis’ at the moment he committed the act. The only conspiracy was with himself. The problem for the defence was the fact here was an old man with a home-made wooden leg, who had managed to walk all the way from London to Ascot, arm himself with stones, and proceeded to attack the king. It did not have the element of spontaneity and impulse claimed by Mr. Swaby. A second defence lawyer, Mr. Carrington, used a different tack, claiming his client had no opportunity of escape or concealment, and the weapon chosen was hardly that of an assassin.

The jury took fifteen minutes to find Collins guilty, not of wanting to destroy His Majesty, but to cause bodily harm. To the jury’s obvious dismay and shock, this was to make no difference to the sentence pronounced by Mr. Justice Bosanquet, who told Collins. “That you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, and that you be hanged by the neck till you are dead; that your head then be severed from your body , and your body divided into four parts to be disposed of as His Majesty shall think proper, and may God Almighty soften your heart and bring you repentance.”

The jury did not intend this and immediately signed a petition to spare Collin’s life, “As the assault arose from ignorance.”

Collins languished in Reading gaol awaiting a decision to this surprise appeal for leniency. It came the following year, on Saturday 16th March 1833, when a much stouter, fitter and more colourful seventy-five year old Collins appeared before Berkshire Assizes.

The Devizes and Wiltshire  Gazette, Thursday March 28th, 1833 reported thus:

“Dennis Collins, the old pensioner who threw a stone at His Majesty, is ordered to be transported for life – so that the poor old man will have the satisfaction of being once more on the element on which he passed so many years of his life. During his confinement at Reading gaol, his personal appearance had undergone considerable alteration. He had become considerably stouter, and his rough, hard-looking, weather-beaten countenance had assumed a florid complexion and a plumpness, which destroyed much of the marked character of his features. His dress, since his conviction, was most grotesque, all of the right side of it being bright yellow and all of the left side of a purple brown. His wooden leg – a new one worn for the first time on his trial – was painted sky-blue and to complete the tout ensemble he wore a blue cloth cap with a red border and a white tassel on top.”

Ascot’s one-time assassin died at Port Phillip in Australia in the spring of the following year.

Ascot_trader joe

At least he left a “legacy” of colour at Ascot .














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The Petit Beurre Mystery*

Wycombe abbey_2crop‘Stands there a school in the midst of the Chilterns
Beech-covered hillsides encircle it round
Ivy and creepers entwine the old Abbey
Health and contentment within are found.’
(Wycombe Abbey School Song, 1901)


The icy waters closed over the girls’ heads as they screamed and thrashed about.
Desperately they struggled to survive but the powerful winter currents had other plans. Cries of anguish, terror and pain wrought the air, ‘Please help us, don’t let us drown.’

The young schoolmistress woke with a start. She sat alone in her sparsely furnished room, trembling with shock at the scene she had just witnessed. It was a recurring nightmare so real that she had to do something about it. However, she had not worked at Wycombe Abbey School very long, and she did not want the headmistress to think she was strange or unstable.

Whenever these vivid dreams occurred, all she could do was to remain awake. She would sit in bed for the rest of the night, sipping tea and munching her favourite petit beurre biscuits to take her mind of that terrible vision. The girls in her nightmare tragedy were clearly from the school. There was no mistaking their distinctive dark blue uniforms. She even recognized some of their faces, or thought she did.

They seem to blur into one special girl whose eyes, filled with fear, would look directly at her, pleading for help as the water closed over her head. Eventually this dream became a torment that she carried around with her day after day.


Was it a warning, she wondered, a premonition perhaps? Before long she plucked up courage to speak to Miss Dove, the headmistress, about her experience and the terrible worry she felt. Miss Dove was sympathetic, if a little concerned about the mental anguish this young teacher was suffering. She always put the girls first and her staff were expected to sacrifice everything to ensure that the welfare of the pupils was paramount. No one could give of their best while coping with sleepless nights and such anxiety. However, the teacher felt better having shared her burden and the dreams did begin to fade and then stop altogether.

Unbeknown to that young teacher, Miss Dove herself had experienced dreams that also saw her girls in the fast flowing waters of the River Thames. But, in Miss Dove’s dream the girls were not in difficulties; on the contrary, they were accomplished rowers. She had dreamt that she was standing on Marlow Bridge when she noticed an eight-oar boat coming towards her. She too recognised the Wycombe Abbey School colours, and, again, was able to make out the faces of individuals girls.
 Dame (Jane) Frances Dove (1847–1942)

All this had left Miss Dove with one important thought. If her dream could come true, as she hoped, so could the terrible tragedy witnessed by the young teacher. She had already considered instituting swimming lessons as part of the school’s activities. but now they were essential. There was to be no boating on the nearby River Thames until all the girls had learned to swim.

The school prided itself on producing the finest educated young ladies possible, but with much more than just academic talents. Miss Dove believed strongly in the fostering of athletic skills in girls, curtly dismissing any claim that such activities were only male prerogatives. In a remarkable statement for its time and only two years after her pioneering work in the founding of the school in 1896, Miss Dove had written an essay entitled, ‘The Cultivation of the Body, in which she said “We do not desire girls to be brainless athletes any more than we wish that they should be delicate or stunted blue-stockings.’
Right from its late 19th century beginnings, Wycombe Abbey had become a much sought after public school for girls. The enterprising and far-seeing Miss Dove, true to her principles that girls were at least equal to, if not better than boys, based her school on the male public school model and then took it that much further in terms of the ‘Health and Contentment’ so heartily sung about in the school song of 1901.
Dove_3She also allowed a great deal of fun to be had at the school: “Let us have games of all kinds, lawn tennis, fives, bowls, croquet, quoits, golf, swimming, skating, archery, tobogganing, basketball, rounders and hailes,’ she wrote.
Wycombe Abbey School Cricket Team 1906

For Miss Dove there was ‘no finer exercise than swimming.’ That and her passion for Swedish Gymnastics, that claimed to provide systematic training of all the body’s muscles.

True to progressing her dream, Miss Dove, had, by 1904, encouraged the formation of a ‘boat committee’ which took every advantage of the magnificent school lake. A few pupils even took to the waters of the Thames in July 1904 under the scornful gaze and sarcastic comments of the ferrymen at Townsend’s Wharf at Bourne End.
When, led by another young teacher, Miss Batchelor, the girls asked for two poles and two paddles, one boatman said in a scathing tone. ‘Oh you be going to do some work, you be?‘ and the men all laughed.

It was, however, on another visit to that same wharf in Bourne End a few years later, in the winter of 1907, that our main story unfolds.

It was a crisp, frosty Saturday on February 2nd 1907. The girls awoke earlier than usual just to be sure that the weather hadn’t changed. Squeals of excitement told that it had not. The school grounds were covered in a heavy white frost and the lake was frozen solid.

Today they were going skating.

Skating on the school lake, however, was much too dangerous and strictly forbidden by Miss Dove. But this didn’t matter because their trip was to be much more exciting. The whole school of two hundred girls was going to a popular skating area in Bourne End called Cockmarsh.
dove-cockmarsh meadow
This damp, boggy piece of land was transformed by frosty winter weather into a magnificent natural skating rink, totally safe and fantastic fun.
After a swift but nutritious breakfast – Miss Dove had very specific views on the value of porridge to start the day – they set off to catch the 8.28 am train from High Wycombe to Bourne End. All of them were under strict instructions to represent the very best image of the school.

With their skates tied around their necks, they clutched their packed lunches, lots of chocolate and other goodies to ward off the cold. This was going to be a great day out. There was plenty of excited chattering and giggling about the great time they were about to have and the boys they might bump into – literally.

The train chugged through the frosty winder morning, steam billowing across the frozen landscape and in a matter of twenty minutes they were alighting at Bourne End Station. Already people were arriving from all directions to enjoy a Saturday on the ice. To reach Cockmarsh, however, there was another exciting adventure to experience. A ferry ride across the Thames. The river’s flow was too fast to allow it to become frozen enough to walk on so this was the only way to reach the skating meadow on the opposite bank.

Ferries were already busy plying their trade from Townsend’s Wharf across to Cockmarsh, and soon it was the turn of the Wycombe Abbey girls to cross. They split into groups and the first set off to arrive moments later on the Cockmarsh side of the river.
Wycombe Abbey girls break for lunch at Cockmarsh, Bourne End (1919)

The second party soon filled up the punt with excited girls anxious to join their companions already on the other wide, who were busy putting on their skates.  The ferryman swung the punt around so that the bow faced the opposite bank and had just set off when, in the words an eyewitness, ‘Two or three impetuous spirits thought they might fill up a small vacant place so they jumped for it.
Immediately this happened, the stern was forced below the fast flowing freezing cold water of the Thames. It rushed into the punt, swamping the occupants and tipping around thirty of them into the icy cold river. All was panic and confusion and screams for help.

Some of the young women had been thrown into deeper waters than others, whilst those who could, scrambled out, pulled by willing hands. Those in deeper water were forced to brave the shock of their sudden cold immersion and swim to the bank. Some girls were certainly out of their depth and screaming with shock but, encouraged by shouts from those on the bank, made it to their eager helpers who pulled them shivering from the river. ‘ Here is a press report the following Monday Febuary 4th 1907
Dove_paper_Nottingham_shadowSource: Skating Tragedies . The Nottingham Evening Post (Nottingham, England), Monday, February 04, 1907; pg. 5

When it became clear that all had survived, it also seemed clear that Miss Dove’s insistence on learning swimming skills had paid off. One group of shivering girls was rushed to the nearby Ferry Hotel where the landlady, Mrs. Cleve, wrapped them in blankets  beside the pub fire, The other group hurried to the Railway Hotel and were also made warm and comfortable. Messages were sent to Wycombe Abbey School for dry clothing to be dispatched as quickly as possible and a mixture of all sorts of cosy, warm clothes eventually arrived at both hotels.Dove_paper_shadow_1
Source : “Skaters’ Peril” Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (Manchester, England), Monday, February 04, 1907; pg.

All subsequent reports of the incident agree that the girls were very brave and in remarkably high spirits given the nature of their ordeal. They were much sadder, however, when they saw their friends who had made the ferry trip safely, returning from their skating fun, but in their own way, they knew they had experienced a remarkable adventure and a fortunate escape.
However, whilst the South Bucks Free Press,the following Friday,played down the danger and reported  ‘An Exciting Incident and Amusing Adventure.‘ the eyewitness reporter for the South Bucks Standard provided a more realistic assessment.

Under the headline, ‘Startling Accident near the Ferry: Young Ladies Immersed’,  it took a far more more serious line. Taking into account that there was an exceptionally heavy frost that day and the girls had been tipped suddenly into icy waters wearing heavy coats, boots, scarves and gloves, carrying skates and packed lunches, then under some circumstances this might have ended more tragically. What the South Bucks Standard referred to as the possibility of ‘…a fatal termination.’

The report paid tribute to ‘....the brave and healthy outlook on life and its happenings which their school precepts induce them to hold.’

After congratulating the victims on their escape and plucky behaviour, certain others at Wycombe Abbey got to thinking about the young teacher who had now left the school and how she awoke startled on so many occasions with her terrible dream until she had the courage to mention her fears to the headmistress. We do not know if, secretly, Miss Dove paid silent homage to that teacher’s second sight which had led her to issue the all important directive that, without exception, every one of her girls must learn to swim.

There is, however,one more intriguing part to this story – a piece of information that does not appear in the newspaper reports about the Bourne End ferry incident. A piece of information that, at first glance, seems relatively trivial and can be found only in the school’s own termly journal, The Gazette of June 1907.

Recalling what happened on the morning of February 2nd under the heading ‘Skating Holiday,’ it records the accident very much as the newspapers had except they blamed the ferryman for allowing too many to board and then pushing off from the bank too suddenly. Whoever was to blame, however, makes no difference to what follows in The Gazette’s report. Apart from the hats, gloves, scarves and other items of clothing that were left floating in the river, the magazine records:

There were innumerable “Petit Beurre” biscuits, which, had been bought for lunch, in the water and when the other lost articles were collected and sent back to Wycombe, some industrious individual carefully gathered together all the scraps of biscuit and returned them as well. They have since been much enjoyed by the swans on the lake.

Who on earth would bother to do such a thing as collect scraps of broken, soggy Petit Beurre biscuits from an icy river and take the trouble to return them, anonymously, but neatly wrapped, to the school? Was this the final mysterious sign that those endless nightmare nights endured by the young teacher had achieved their purpose?
petit beurre

Second sight is a rare gift indeed. It was now up to Miss Dove to realise her dream.


*This true story was first published in 2003 in a collection entitled Buckinghamshire Tales of Mystery and Murder researched & written by David Kidd-Hewitt and published by Countryside Books in Newbury Berkshire. (


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The Other Side of Roald Dahl


High over the Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden, the morning sun casts its glow across the sloping, grassy churchyard that dips down towards the early bustle of the school run and commuter traffic. Shadows slide across flowers, toys and tributes of all kinds that mark the memories and emotions of many whose loved ones now lie untroubled by the frantic scrambling in the valley below. Extraordinarily large footprints lead off into the morning dew from the comfort of a warmly weathered circular seat inscribed with the names of Olivia, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, Lucy, Neisha, Charlotte and Lorina.

Whoever the visitor was, their stride was as gigantic as their footprints. Closer examination reveals that the footprints are cast in stone and not, after all, transitory clues left by an early morning visitor paying their respects. Follow the footprints down, vainly trying to match the stride, and you will reach a polished granite memorial marked like many others with a small container of silk flowers.

Before you can read the inscription, you will, as likely as not, notice this memorial is not, after all, like many others. For this smooth dark green surface set into the gentle slope is scattered with an assortment of sweets: two damp cellophane wrappers revealing love hearts; a tube of Smarties; some chocolate bars in various stages of disintegration; a toffee or two; and perhaps a note accompanying one or more of the sugary gifts. For these sweets are both gifts and memorials – an ever-changing tributary collage created by the young (and sometimes not so young), who revere and continue to enjoy the everlasting magic and adventure they have been given by the man who now rests in peace in this parish churchyard. The footsteps, guiding the way, belong to the Big Friendly Giant, and they halt almost as if he were standing there, gazing at the inscription carved deeply into the stone

13 September
23 November

By the Giant’s side, those who choose can see little orphan Sophie; she shared the BFG’s adventures, which began in this very village of Great Missenden.

‘What happens when a giant dies?’ Sophie asked.
‘Giants is never dying,’ the BFG answered. ‘Sometimes and quite suddenly, a giant is disappearing and nobody is ever knowing where he goes to. But mostly us giants is simply going on and on like whiffsy time-twiddlers.’
The BFG, 19821

Whiffsy Time-Twiddling

Whatever brief moments of imaginative flight one may enjoy, courtesy of the genius of Roald Dahl, when you take time to look behind this most loved, successful and well-known children’s writer; when you engage in a modest amount of ‘whiffsy time-twiddling’, you discover you are in the presence of a true hero.

Before the literary fame which was to transform his life and bring so much reading pleasure to children and adults everywhere, Roald Dahl had already proved himself an extraordinarily intricate, engaging, courageous and inventive character. Frighteningly diverse, he was able to turn his hand to almost anything he cared to and certainly was always able to take control of the most difficult personal situations. Dahl had the drive to pluck and push solutions through the darkest tunnels and out into the light.

To explain this side of Roald Dahl, we need to see him, not as a world famous author, the lone figure in his writing hut, sleeping bag around his legs, board across his lap, yellow pad and sharpened pencils at the ready, but as perceptive inventor, philanthropist, and, when the occasion warranted it, a tenacious fighter and deeply affectionate family man. It is only then that all the rest makes sense, when his legacy is fleshed out beyond the confines of the book cover and film script.

Childhood, Hot-Bottomed Fagging and Chocolate

Before we reach this ‘other’ Roald Dahl, we need to get to know the boy born in Llandaff Wales on 13 September, 1916.
Harald Dahl and Sofie Hesselberg from Norway had married in 1911. Harald was the co-owner of a shipbroking business in Cardiff. Roald had four sisters but as a three-year-old was faced with two family deaths when his eight-year-old sister Astri died of appendicitis and his father died of pneumonia, both in 1920. His mother, Sofie, was so precious to him. The importance of being loved and not being alone was a theme that was to occur frequently in his career as an author. He was always clear that his mother ‘….was the absolute primary influence on my own life. She had a crystal-clear intellect and a deep interest in almost everything under the sun. She was the matriarch, the materfamilias and her children radiated round her like planets round a sun.’ (Memories with Food, 1991)

Change ‘matriarch’ to ‘patriarch’ and we can begin to see in this observation an indication of what Roald himself would become to his own family. His intellect, fired by a vivid imagination, would lead not only to fantastic tales, but to Dahl the inventor, and is beautifully illustrated in the opening to his book of childhood and adolescent memories entitled My Year:

‘When I was a little boy, I had a tiny boat made of tin (there was no plastic in those days) which had a very small clockwork motor inside it, and I used to play with it while I was having my bath. One day the tiny boat developed a leak in its hull and it filled with water and sank.

For many weeks after that, I would lie in my bath worrying about whether my own skin would develop a leak in it just as the little boat’s hull had done, and I felt certain my body would fill with water and I would sink and die. But it never happened and I marvelled at the watertightness of the skin that covered my body.’
My Year, 1993

This was a boy who, aged nine, created a Conker Practising Machine, capable of taking on six conkers at a time. A boy who, excited by his Christmas gift of a Meccano outfit, decided not to follow the many examples of what marvels you can construct, but to create something that had never been built before and, more than likely – by any stretch of the Meccano imagination – has not been built since. By stretching a wire from the roof of his house, over the top of a footpath to a nearby fence (around 100 yards), he was able to use the special grooved wheel and metal struts to make a device capable of speeding down this sloping wire with a hanging cargo of five used Heinz soup cans – cans now filled to the brim with water. A string leading back to his eager hand would tilt the water out when jerked and, ideally, when passing over innocent pedestrians on the footpath.

‘Soon two ladies dressed in tweed skirts and jackets, and each wearing a hat, came strolling up the path with a revolting little Pekinese dog on a lead. I knew I had to time this carefully, so, when they were very nearly but not quite directly under the wire, I let my chariot go. Down she went, making a wonderful screeching-humming noise as the metal wheel ran down the wire and the string ran through my fingers at great speed.

Bombing from a height is never easy. I had to guess when my chariot was directly over the target, and when that moment came, I jerked the string.

The chariot stopped dead and the tins swung upside down and all the water tipped out. The ladies, who had halted and looked up on hearing the rushing noise of my chariot overhead, caught the cascade of water full in their faces. It was tremendous. A bull’s-eye first time.’
My Year, 1993

dahl_2_B&WThis one priceless example contains many of the traits of the adult Roald Dahl we are about to uncover: inventive intellect, doing something no one else has done, practical joking, perceptive timing, risk taking and bombing.

He survived a tough boarding school education, fraught with bullying but glistening with sporting success, particularly boxing – it seems a contradiction that this tall ‘soft-faced’ lad, who could box and play a good game of cricket and was excellent at squash, would become such a bullies’ victim. But for bullies read ‘Boazers’ – these were ‘career’ bullies, part of the English public school system which thrived on the rules and rituals of ‘fagging’. Perhaps we could even credit this bizarre system for encouraging his mind to ponder and wander, while warming the Boazers’ frost-covered outside toilet seat. He recalls Boazer Wilberforce’s pearls of wisdom on taking charge of a satisfactorily winter-warmed seat prepared by Dahl, ‘Some Fags have cold bottoms, and some have hot ones. I only use hot-bottomed Fags to heat my bog seat. I won’t forget you.’ (Boy, 1984)

What we can credit to his time at Repton is a love and amazing knowledge of chocolate. Inside the complex imagination of that teenage boy, who knows exactly when the seed was sown for the later creation of one of his most famous literary and film successes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? The famous Cadbury chocolate factory, in an ingenious marketing initiative for its day, would send new chocolate bar creations for the boys of Repton to taste, test and comment on. Dahl had found his forte and recalls a dream, ‘I used to picture a long white room like a laboratory with pots of chocolate and fudge and all sorts of other delicious fillings bubbling away on the stoves, while men and women in white coats moved between the bubbling pots, tasting and mixing and concocting wonderful new inventions.’ (Boy, 1984)

In this dream, Roald would go on to create the most miraculous chocolate taste in the world. From that time onwards, he kept his love of chocolate honed and always maintained that school history lessons would be better served by teaching the names, not of kings and queens and their reigns, but of chocolate bars and the dates they were created.

Going Solo

The clues are steadily emerging to understand this man’s remarkable persona. A man of great practicality and adventure, Dahl opted for a real challenge rather than reading for a degree and at 17 joined the Public Schools Exploring Expedition to Newfoundland. Here was adventure, excitement and danger, wandering into uncharted territory, blank spaces on existing maps – perhaps he might find a gold mine, he thought.

He didn’t, and in September 1934, aged 18, he joined the oil giant, Shell. Languishing in the London office, he was frustrated knowing that others were exploring the world on Shell’s behalf. His patience was rewarded, however, when after four years of tolerating this (and many chocolate bars later – he turned their wrappings into a giant silver ball, a surreal calendar of being office-bound), he was posted to Dar es Salaam. Camera always by his side, Dahl used the opportunity to store up experiences that would come tumbling out later in his writing days. It is no coincidence that the tarantula in a friend’s shoe and the green mamba sliding across the floor would be fodder to his hugely successful adult writings such as Tales of the Unexpected.

Less unexpected was the declaration of war in 1939. Now 23, Dahl immediately joined the Royal Air Force in Nairobi. Here, with difficulty, he bent his lanky frame into the cockpit of a Tiger Moth and learnt to fly over the Kenyan Highlands. His Meccano bombing ingenuity as a boy now saw him flying over the Iraqi desert; no empty soup cans filled with water this time, but real weapons as he spent six months learning to shoot, navigate and dive-bomb. Later, trying to land an unfamiliar plane – a Gloster Gladiator – for re-fuelling, he crash-landed and was engulfed in flames. Dahl had fractured his skull but managed to escape serious burn injuries. He was, however, temporarily blinded and remained swollen and in great pain for some time. With characteristic determination, he pushed to fly again with the now much depleted 80 Squadron and this time he would see action and emerge a hero. During April, 1941, flying a Hurricane, he took part in raids over Athens against the invading Germany military, resulting in dog-fights during which he succeeded in downing several enemy aircraft. Dahl is credited in the official records with having shot down six enemy aircraft which, in a hectic period of five weeks solid fighting, was of heroic status. He no doubt would have notched up more but blinding headaches from his earlier crash saw him reluctantly invalided out. Here were more experiences for the author inside waiting to emerge.

Dahl’s American Adventures

Following his heroic feats as a pilot, Dahl became bored. His imagination required feeding and so began an intense interest in collecting modern art. His boredom was staved off through this new passion and the celebrity network it encompassed.

Then a new posting came through. Dahl was appointed Assistant Air Attaché to the British Embassy in Washington, a post that would also connect him to the British Intelligence Services. His imagination would never go hungry again.

Dahl loved Washington and the celebrity party circuit in the States and women in particular loved him back. He was an injured fighter pilot hero, young, lanky, handsome, very witty, connected to the secret services, albeit very loosely, and he had tales to tell.

All RAF pilots were familiar with gremlins – they waited until you were airborne and then out they would gleefully come, as this extract from ‘Song of the Gremlins’, attributed to the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, testifies:

White ones will wiggle your wingtips
Male ones will muddle your maps
Green ones will guzzle your Glycol
Females will flutter your flaps
Pink ones will perch on your Perspex
And dance pirouettes on your prop
There’s a special middle-aged Gremlin
Who’ll spin on your stick like a top’.

During this time he became acquainted with the famous novelist CS Forester of Captain Hornblower fame, who encouraged Dahl to write about his experiences. The result was his first foray into professional authorship with ‘Shot Down Over Libya’, which appeared anonymously in the US magazine Saturday Evening Post in August 1942. But Dahl hooked a far bigger fish when his knowledge of gremlins reached the ears of a certain Walt Disney and now Hollywood was keen to meet this extraordinary story teller.

Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia were to give way to lightweight propaganda and training movies during these war years, but now Disney wanted Dahl’s gremlins. Except they weren’t Dahl’s gremlins; they belonged to the RAF who, to a man, claimed they existed. Gremlin lore as recounted by Dahl reached the bizarre stage of Disney attempting to confirm actual sightings, descriptions and even accent. It was a masterpiece of a spoof with Dahl pulling as many legs as he could. When Disney’s animators at Burbank tried to capture their likeness, Dahl told them, ‘I am very glad to see that you had no definite views about Gremlins not wearing bowler hats, but their omission in your drawings did cause a little trouble.’ Disney titles for the project ranged from ‘Gremlin Gambols’ and ‘Gay Gremlins’ to ‘We’ve got Gremlins’.

‘Stalky’, as Walt Disney called Dahl, was in his element, living an expenses-paid life in Hollywood and pulling so many legs it’s a wonder Burbank didn’t collapse. In the event, the film was never made but the story was published as a picture book in 1943 entitled, Walt Disney: The Gremlins (A Royal Airforce Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl).

The author inside had finally made his debut – this was Roald Dahl’s first book. He signed with a literary agent and articles came tumbling out for the likes of Harpers, Cosmopolitanand The Ladies’ Home Journal.

Dahl was on his way to fame, fortune and Great Missenden but there were many tragedies to overcome on the way

The English Village Idyll

Roald’s mother Sofie had moved from Kent to Buckinghamshire, firstly to Grendon Underwood, then to Grange Farm, Great Missenden and then to Amersham. Roald settled in at his mother’s Grendon home determined to continue as an author. As she moved, Roald moved with her. At the Amersham address and as restless as ever for other interests, he took up greyhound breeding with the local butcher Claud Taylor. This friendship led to other pastimes such as tickling trout and poaching pheasant. The contrast with Hollywood couldn’t have been greater and brought Dahl into the Buckinghamshire village idyll he was to adore for the rest of this life. Sometimes he pretended not to enjoy it because that always got a reaction and he thrived on reaction. As he increased his output of short stories for adults and developed broadcasting contacts with the BBC, he was relentless searching for a niche he couldn’t quite identify. He also still suffered back pain from his flying accident which would always remain with him.

While the author blossomed, there was another passion inside Dahl. Together with an equally passionate, influential, multi-millionaire friend from his Washington days, Charles Marsh, a newspaper and oil tycoon, he created a charitable trust in 1949 called the Public Welfare Foundation. This philanthropic work was originally targeted at 200 needy families in Limehouse, London to assist the acquisition of education and medical care. Philanthropy continues to flourish in his name under the Roald Dahl Foundation based in Great Missenden, and aimed at the whole of the UK, and nowadays focussing on grants for literacy, and the medical areas of haematology and neurology. The original Public Welfare Foundation, however, was quite an amazing achievement and a tribute to Dahl’s caring nature – a trait not often enough realised as it could be swamped by his penetrating, jagged humour and satirical wit. For example, rejecting his friend Marsh’s offer of vitamins to give to the poor, Roald is claimed to have said that the poor, ‘do not give a **** for vitamins and do not understand them, they wouldn’t eat them even if they were told they were aphrodisiacs.’

Love and Marriage

At 35, Dahl found himself back in America ‘house-sitting’ for Charles Marsh and writing hard. His thoughts turned to Buckinghamshire as he wrote a series of local stories under the titles, ‘The Ratcatcher’ and ‘Rummins’. He was, however, receiving his fair share of publishers’ rejection letters which displeased him. What did boost his ego and turn his head was his meeting with Hollywood actress Patricia Neal. It was at a party hosted by Lillian Hellman and she provocatively seated them together. If she had a plan, it worked and they became inseparable and married at Trinity Church, New York, in July 1953.

Great Missenden visits followed to meet the Dahl family (Roald’s sister Else and her husband John lived nearby) but New York soon claimed them back. Patricia’s career was not only based in the States but her fairly substantial income put her as the main wage-earner. Roald was writing but not earning a great deal from his efforts. News of Pat’s pregnancy in the summer of 1954 brought them back to Great Missenden where they bought ‘Little Whitefield’, now famous as Gipsy House. This was to become the life-long base of that other author waiting to emerge – Roald Dahl, children’s author.

Meanwhile, as a short-story writer, Dahl was doing exceptionally well, his macabre adult humour scoring a record publishing run for Someone Like You. The New York Times compared him to Saki and O Henry, Maupassant and Maugham. To his satisfaction it won a Mystery Writers of America Award. On 20 April, 1955, Olivia Dahl was born in a Boston Hospital. Roald was elated, his friends impressed by his rapid transformation into a doting father figure. This was to be a hectic period of trans-Atlantic crossings between Great Missenden and New York, while Roald continued writing and Pat got back into acting.

At Little Whitefield, Dahl looked after Olivia, and, with his practical nature at the fore, built his now famous writing hut in the substantial garden of this lovely Georgian house. This was his writer’s ‘womb’ as he termed it. It was a place to disappear from one world to create another.

He also added the equally famous Gipsy Caravan as a restoration project. While Dahl’s practical side flourished, the creative juices were not delivering at the same pace and depth – he sensed that another direction awaited him but he could not tie it down. Pat was busy in America and Roald was completely absorbed in establishing their Great Missenden home, and in particular, a vegetable garden. Onions became his passion. Indeed, vegetables and fruit were one day to be transformed into all kinds of new varieties in children’s fictional worlds yet to emerge – quite literally, the seeds were being sown for that moment when snozzcumbers and flying giant peaches would be known the world over.

Dahl the Dad

In April 1957, Tessa Dahl was born in an Oxford Hospital. The Dahls were a close family, particularly as Roald’s mother Sofie, now in her seventies, was also living nearby in Great Missenden with Roald’s sister Else and her husband John at a house called ‘Whitefields’. Pat continued to be frantically busy making films and working in live theatre. Elstree to Broadway to Missenden to Hollywood became familiar routes and then once more she was pregnant. By the summer of 1960, baby Theo joined his two sisters.

Dahl’s short stories were becoming increasingly popular in England and good reviews led to satisfactory sales. Ironically, American reviewers were becoming less kind to him but the adult public on both sides of the Atlantic loved him and his short story collections such asKiss Kiss flew off the shelves in the early 1960s and began to interest European publishers. Then he put his first step on the bottom rung of what was to be his most successful literary ladder. His early sense that there was another direction, that there was another author inside, now had the necessary catalysts to release the other Roald Dahl.

Olivia and Tessa, now aged five and three, quite literally set their father’s imaginative chemistry fizzling and bubbling with joyful, scary stories especially created just for them. What could be more enthralling at a cosy bedtime moment than when Dad recounted the story of orphan James, escaping his cruel aunts by hiding in a magic peach which falls to earth squashing and killing the pursuing aunts. Then by air and by sea the magic peach takes James and his new-found insect friends to America, ending up on top of the Empire State Building. He was to turn this bedtime story into the manuscript for James and the Giant Peach but first, Dahl and his family were about to enter one of four very long and painful episodes – dark tunnels that required all of Roald’s undisputed ingenuity to reach for the light at the end.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

It was 5 December, 1960. Roald was in America working on ‘The Centipede Song’ for James and the Giant Peach when Pat burst into the room with devastating news. Cosy in his pram, four-month-old Theo had been out with his nanny who, tightly clutching Tessa’s hand, was on her way to collect Olivia from nursery school while Pat enjoyed some shopping. In a sickening instance of carelessness, a taxi-cab rounded the corner just as the nanny crossed the road pushing the pram ahead of her. Screams and screeching filled the air as the taxi shunted and crushed the pram into the side of a bus. Theo was horrifically injured and rushed to hospital. To make matters worse, a second instance of carelessness occurred when a nurse overdosed this frail and seriously injured baby with an anticonvulsant which had to be pumped back out. Theo hung on to life but developed hydrocephalus, a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid pressure to his brain.

At this stage, understandably, 99.9% of parents would have to watch and wait while the medical experts took charge. Roald represented that point one of a percentage of a parent who could not do that. Although Theo would live, the constant draining of fluid from his brain by a small tube and inefficient shunt valve was not reliable. Any blockages could create blindness and fevers and possibly worse. Dahl reached into his creative practical depths and, like the boy who exhibited such ingenuity with a Meccano set in a fun moment, the adult, in this most serious of times, was determined to re-invent the mechanics of this clumsy technology. As a great organiser, networker and inventor all rolled into one, together with Pat, he worked to raise money for Theo’s exorbitant medical bills, delivered the finished manuscript for James and the Giant Peach and then retreated to the relative safety of Great Missenden. Theo rested at home, the inefficient shunt inside his head of great concern to Roald and Pat as it had to be replaced by invasive surgery eight times over a 30-month period.

Tessa was enrolled at the local Gateway nursery school and Olivia went to nearby Godstowe, just outside High Wycombe. In these early days of Theo’s recovery, Dahl the inventor re-emerged. He remembered the times that he used to go to Amersham to fly model gliders, making the acquaintance of Stanley Wade, a hydraulic engineer, also a keen model plane flyer. This turned Roald’s mind more than ever to the possibility of working with Stanley on improving the valve technology that was so crucial to Theo and many others like him. The Great Ormond Street doctor treating Theo, Kenneth Till, shared Dahl’s concerns for better technology. Between Wade, Till and Dahl, sketches and ideas flowed as they sat at the kitchen table at Little Whitefield, or met in Stanley’s machine shop near High Wycombe.

Within little more than a year and a half, they had not only patented the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve, and had been featured in the foremost medical journal, The Lancet, but had brought it out as a working product on the medical market at cost price (they all agreed not to take a profit) and it became a world-leader, able to safely relieve conditions such as Theo’s. Fortunately, Theo was to get much better over the next few years and no longer needed such a device, but many thousands of other children across the world did.

Charlie is Born, but Death takes its Toll

During the early 1960s, Pat was happily ensconced in their Buckinghamshire home, now renamed Gipsy House, enjoying village life with her newly-minted children’s author, and their three children. The book James and the Giant Peach, still available only in the United States, had sold a staggering 6,500 copies – a great success. Roald’s Repton days began to invade his writing hut in the smell, texture and fantasy of chocolate and those bubbling laboratory vats he had dreamt of as a teenager.

Charlie’s Chocolate Boy, which he had already submitted as a work in progress just prior to Theo’s accident in New York, was now retitled and revised as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He was hopeful of even greater success with this new story. But, no sooner out of Theo’s tunnel, the family were plunged back again into dark days. An outbreak of measles at Godstowe caught up with Olivia and, despite emergency medical care, she died. It was 17 November, 1962 and the family mourned her deeply as she was laid to rest in Little Missenden.

Dahl withdrew into himself and we can never know what torments he endured in his ‘writer’s womb’ and at Olivia’s grave-side. Pat was equally devastated but also concerned about Roald’s mental condition. He needed to know that heaven contained dogs for Olivia to be with and not just humans – and sought ecclesiastical advice from the Archbishop of Canterbury, his old Repton headmaster. He was angry not to get the confirmation he sought. Writing children’s fiction no longer featured in his thoughts. Pat, on the other hand, needed to be busy to cope with her mental anguish and she threw herself into as many roles as she could land, both television and film. A year later, Pat was pregnant once more.

Cruelest Fate and Truest Love :Growing Fame

Dahl’s third daughter Ophelia was born in May 1964. His son Theo was much better, the shunt which had been given to him to alleviate his hydrocephalus had now been totally removed, and Roald began storytelling again, this time to Tessa and Theo. The world of children’s fiction, however, was soon to taste the wonders of Mr Willy Wonka and his mysterious chocolate factory. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in America in September 1964 – the first print run of 10,000 copies sold within four weeks. The second rung of his new ladder had been reached.

The fame of his wife Pat – actress Patricia Neal – had also been growing and her love of their Great Missenden home and being with her family made being away in the States difficult. However, her income was substantial compared to Roald at that time and could not be forfeited. The film Hud, with Paul Newman, had the film critics acclaiming her performance for which she received an Oscar. Hollywood was pulling her back.

Both Pat and Roald were at new beginnings in terms of international fame and recognition yet, to Dahl’s considerable annoyance, UK publishers had had to be persuaded to publishJames and the Giant Peach, which appeared in 1961, or 1964’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. By February the following year, there were still no takers for the new Roald Dahl, and the family followed Pat to Hollywood for her latest film role with John Wayne calledSeven Women. Only Roald and Pat, of course, knew she was pregnant once more but no one could have known about the third, dreadful, dark tunnel ahead.

Disaster Strikes

Only four days into the shoot of Seven Women, Pat was enjoying sharing bathing Tessa with the family nanny when a thunderbolt of a pain tore through her head. Roald did not hesitate for one moment and immediately contacted the neurosurgeon that had dealt with Theo, Charles Carton. Within the space of that phone call, Pat was unconscious, her body convulsing. In hospital, she murmured, ‘Who is in this house? What are the names of the people in this house please?’ and then she slipped into a coma. Pat was pregnant and close to death; it was a stark reality.

In all, Pat had suffered three strokes and Carton’s team worked through the night to remove the haemorrhaged blood threatening her brain. This operation severed the temporal lobe which controls speech and movement. It was a gamble to save her, but, should she survive, her condition would be a serious one. Survive she did, but it took over two agonising weeks before she came round. Amid the family’s unbridled joy at her recovery, her transformation was truly startling.

Wearing an eye patch, unable to speak, unable to move her right side, her hair cruelly shaved away, her mouth twisted to a slight curl; it was a difficult image to store in place of the real Patricia Neal, Oscar-winning Hollywood actress and mother to her three surviving children. More important, she was still pregnant. Roald, the ultimate patriarch, came to the fore, and took charge of who could and could not see Pat. He set about organising her recovery, because he could not envisage anything other than a full recovery. He would lead them all back into that light at the end of the tunnel once more and that light would be in Buckinghamshire, not California.

A Village Pulls Together

Great Missenden saw a dejected and depressed Pat. She had lost everything that made her a beautiful Hollywood actress – her looks, her voice and her memory and, as if things couldn’t be any worse, her right leg was now encased in a brace.

Roald pushed and prodded her into village walks, conversations and shopping – he was convinced that softly, softly would not work and for some appeared to be over-zealous, even cruel.

Village neighbours were recruited to help Pat learn to read again, but of more immediate importance at that time was the safe delivery of her baby. In surgeon’s gown and mask, Roald watched the birth of their daughter Lucy Neal Dahl on 4 August, 1965. Now Lucy was safe and healthy, Roald orchestrated his master plan. He needed to work and to bring in money and to realise his prediction that Pat would make a full recovery. Luckily, work came quickly in the form of an offer to write the screenplay for a James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. Roald took up the challenge.

Village neighbour, Valerie Eton-Griffiths, who he had learnt had recently recovered from a thyroid complaint, received a phone call ‘out of the blue’ from Roald asking if she would ‘work’ with Pat.

Unclear what ‘work’ meant in this context, Valerie recounts: ‘I came down to Gipsy House and there was Pat sitting at the kitchen table staring – the saddest face you’ve ever seen. I did not know what to do but for some strange reason when Pat saw me walk through the doorway, I knew I was going to help her.’

She couldn’t have been more perfect as Pat’s saviour. In fact Valerie worked with Pat for five days a week for the next two years, transforming her abilities to speak and enjoy life once more. Valerie’s experience with Pat not only led to their deep and continuing friendship, but she went on to pioneer The Chest and Heart Association which became the Volunteer Stroke Service that continues to undertake so much invaluable assistance to stroke patients today. Even the present-day aims of the VSS reflect exactly what Valerie had made possible for Pat during those dark days in the mid 1960s, ie: ‘improving quality of life by building confidence and improving morale.’ Of Roald, Valerie recalls: ‘I thought it was a magnificent effort, the way he worked and managed Pat and the children – he took over the lot.’

In fact, the ever-inventive Roald arranged for Pat and Valerie to go to Hollywood to make an information film called Stroke/Counter Stroke to show the world that recovering from such a severe set-back can be achieved. Roald had firmly but safely negotiated their way out from that dreadful tunnel.

The film You Only Live Twice was a smash hit and Roald could quite rightly bask in his script-writing glory. Thanks to Valerie, Pat was well enough to take on a film role in early 1968, less than three years since her stroke. It was called The Subject Was Roses. Valerie worked with her as script-prompter. Thanks to Pat’s talent as an actress and Valerie’s sheer hard work on script prompting, Pat was nominated for an Academy Award. In the event her co-star got it, but what an achievement by Pat and Valerie – no award was needed to appreciate that.

Stormy Times

Sadly, on 17 November, 1967, the anniversary of Olivia’s death, Roald’s beloved mother Sofie died aged 82. Roald himself was in extreme pain from his old plane crash injury and it seemed his ever stalwart spirit was fading. Even he could only take so many knocks.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang appeared to come to his rescue: his second venture into film script work. Was he now on another new rung of the ladder? As it turned out, he wasn’t. Script disputes between Dahl and director Ken Hughes led to him disowning it.

In fact the next few years were characterised by Dahl pushing to enhance his own film-scripting reputation, but finding working with directors often as volatile as himself, who had the power to alter and criticise his work, a major irritant. Roald regained his stride with the 1970 publication of best-seller, Fantastic Mr Fox, a book he dedicated to the memory of Olivia.

During the 1970s, stormy times started to build. Roald’s frustration with UK publishers reluctant to fully launch him in his home country was understandable, given his emerging US successes. They certainly acknowledged and published Dahl, the writer of adult stories, but continued to give the impression they thought he was merely masquerading as a writer for children. Even Dahl himself was confused about how to balance the two genres and continued to attack both. He needed his definitive UK success badly.

Stormy times also began to characterise his marriage to Pat. She had been steadily working to rebuild her career and had now added TV commercials to her repertoire. They bickered, argued, chased their own careers, came back together, bickered and argued – the spiral of a collapsing marriage spun and spun. Perhaps they had been through too much together – too many dark tunnels – and they were plain tired.

Roald was in pain, his back and hips could be agonising and his often abrasive manner not always eliciting the empathy he secretly craved. His stern outer shell was a formidable armour against soft intimacy. Even the children did not see their father as a ‘cuddler’. Granddaughter Sophia Dahl was later to recall, ‘He was not a big hugger’.

The storms crackled and broke when Roald met Felicity Crosland. Felicity, Liccy to her friends, was responsible for organising Pat’s wardrobe for the Maxim coffee television commercials. Emotionally it was both a complex and engaging time as Liccy became a friend of the family at Gipsy House and gradually more than that to a smitten Roald. Liccy found him very romantic, his family found him wanting in his honesty about his feelings for both Pat and Liccy.

Meanwhile, Roald continued pushing his UK publishers and by 1975, Danny the Champion of the World was in the bookshops, followed in 1977 by The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. In the same year, Roald’s physical pain was eased somewhat by a hip replacement. His mental anguish, however, about the future of his marriage, and his relationship with Liccy, continued to complicate life. It was now 1979; he retreated to his famous writing hut, sleeping bag around his legs, writing board across his lap, pencils and yellow pad to hand, souvenir hip-bone on his desk, and became the ultimate children’s author once more. One year later he had created The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine and the foundation for what would become Revolting Rhymes. The year 1980 was a watershed in Dahl’s future, both personally and professionally.dahl_1981
Roald Dahl :Illustrated London News (London, England), [Saturday], [December 26, 1981]; pg. 24:

Divorce and Marriage: Reaching the Top of the Ladder

Pat and Roald divorcedin 1983 and Liccy and Roald were married that same year. Liccy and her three children, Neisha, Charlotte and Lorina, were now firmly part of Roald’s life alongside Tessa and Theo, now in their twenties, and teenagers Ophelia and Lucy. Pat was living at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Professionally, Roald flourished and from that hut at the end of a pleached lime walk across the garden from Gipsy House emerged the works that would finally place him at the top of the ladder of children’s fiction: The BFG, The Witches and Matilda.

It was also the period when the superb illustrations of Quentin Blake, already used in some of Dahl’s early work, came into their own, and are now inextricably welded into the Dahl magic.

Also in 1983, Dahl won the Whitbread Prize for The Witches, a book he dedicated to Liccy. He generously donated the £3,000 prize to a children’s hospice in Oxford. His philanthropic character would always surface where children were involved, personally ensuring that his donation went to buy equipment for disabled children or into research for neurological disorders and dyslexia. By the late 1980s Roald had the great satisfaction of seeing virtually everything he had so painstakingly created and crafted published all around the world and in many languages.

The international fame he had always sought came in abundance and the family gatherings at Gipsy House were now ones of much more contentment and implicit conciliation. Roald was a familiar figure in the village and much sympathy was elicited when, in 1985, he had two operations for cancer of the bowel which left him debilitated. In fact Roald was becoming ill with leukaemia. A fourth and final tunnel lay ahead. It was 1990, Roald continued writing and any rift that had existed between himself and Pat, or between Liccy and Pat, was now healed as Pat flew over for Theo’s 30th birthday. She would never see Roald again.

Tragic events were still to haunt them as Liccy’s 26-year-old daughter Lorina died from a brain tumour. Less than eight months later, that autumn, Dahl was in an Oxford hospital very seriously ill and in agonising pain, the family in great distress. Roald Dahl died from a rare blood disorder on 23 November, 1990. He was 74.

Dahl’s English Village Legacy and Beyond: A Galaxy of Dreams

In his memory, two major Buckinghamshire-based creations have been constructed, everyone involved somehow conscious of this punctilious world-famous children’s author looking over their shoulders to check what they are doing in his name. Liccy has no doubt that he would have loved the Roald Dahl Museum in Aylesbury that opened in 1996. It is constructed for children, not for adults. The latter are certainly not allowed to crawl along Fantastic Mr Fox’s tunnel, but can possibly peer into The Giant Peach with their children’s permission.

In the village he loved is a very special creation that opened in June 2005. It is the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre – a tribute to his working life and there to promote his favorite cause, literacy and literature for children. It is housed in a cleverly restored old coaching inn, its historical facade now brightened by an image of the BFG looking towards the very orphanage windows into which he blew his dreams and where his adventures with Sophie began.

‘If you is really wanting to know what I am doing in your village,’ the BFG said, ‘I is blowing a dream into the bedroom of those children.’
The BFG, 19821

Across the world, this remarkable author and children’s hero has blown a galaxy of dreams into children’s lives and given them literary enjoyment beyond measure.

The sun slowly relinquishes its command over the day, the last flickers of its gaze leaving a warming caress over the circular seat so lovingly inscribed to the children he loved. Carved into the paving slabs that are set around the base of the seat is a very special rhyme that requires the reader to walk around each of the children’s dedicated seats starting from Olivia, past Tessa and Theo and on to Ophelia, then Lucy and Neisha, to Charlotte and finally to Lorina.

We have tears in our eyes
As we wave our goodbyes
We so loved being with you we three
So do please now and then
Come and see us again
The Giraffe and Pelly and me

As you ponder the significance of this special family tribute, a last glance down to the polished granite memorial reveals yet another change of scene to the tableaux of affection that continue to move across its surface. Three giant onions nestle next to a butterfly on a stick and a small bag of sand and seashells. Wedged by the bag is a hand-written note covered in children’s signatures. It is a note that only children can create, one of great simplicity yet hosting emotions of startling depth and profundity. It reads:

We send you a few grains of sand from the Mediterranean Coast – this blue and hot sea that has always been the origin of such civilisations. If you could put some of that sand on the grave where Roald rests, our memories stay in every one of its grains.
Lots of kisses
6th Level Class
Cami del Mig School
Barcelona, Spain

Dahl_3_1Rest in Peace – Roald Dahl, 1916-1990

1Extracts from Dahl’s works used by permission of Dahl and Dahl Ltd.


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WATCHMANThis blog is very specific in its intentions to reinforce (once again) that nothing is new in this world, merely re-arranged.
For example, the constant questions about,’What are prisons for? Or ‘Should we invest more money in rehabilitation?’ Immediately followed by ‘What is rehabilitation?’ Other old chestnuts such as ‘What are the police for?’ – ‘How should they be best organised and funded?’ have also dominated my fairly long career as a criminologist – but really nothing changes and the frustrating part of all of these questions and many more of the same ilk – is that they are raised by politicians and statutory bodies as if they are fresh and new and nobody had thought to ask or research them before.
Whereas the truth is that these same political policy-makers are really not interested in innovative policies, new, effective, equitable & just workable suggestions or stumping-up the funding for what would be long-term budgetary savings – they’d rather cut resources – often to the bone – and go for the short term-immediacy of a cost-cutting political agenda. This is not mean to be a rant or a politically biased piece but hard figures continually show that cost-cutting measures, particular for policing, decade upon decade, involving all political parties, have become the props of political prestidigitation.

I recall interviewing one of my professional criminology ‘icons’  – Professor Keith Bottomley as he prepared to take on the Presidency of the British Society of Criminology in 1999 and he encapsulated the situation perfectly that I was feeling at that time (and still do – just change the dates) [1]

“I think that in the 1980’s, for criminologists who were interested in trying to put their ideas into practice – to change the system – things changed very significantly. For example in the various ways in which the academic community were consulted: the Advisory Council on the Penal System was abolished by the Conservative Government, and it felt as if, in the 80’s, irrespective almost of what policies the Conservatives brought in, criminologists were being sidelined, or marginalized or rejected.
So, that was, and continued to be, (almost up to 1997) quite dispiriting.
Very much like a midlife crisis.”
WATCHMAN_8[Criminal Justice Matters no. 34 Winter 1998/99 pp. 19]

In fact when Professor Bottomley went on to develop this point with me, and provide a specific example of his own research team’s work at the University of Hull, it was clear that the ‘tick-box /archive’ mentality of the government that I was experiencing with my own Home Office funded research was far more serious than I had realized.[2]

No-one seemed to care  about the findings and suggestions, merely that the exercise had been carried out under a proclaimed government policy initiative. The initiative seemed to be, to  carry out the research but for goodness sake take no notice of its findings – that’s not in the political job-spec and is bound to cost money.

“Professionally there was a sort of mid-life crisis for some of us within academic criminal justice studies,” continued Professor Bottomley.  “You wondered why you were there. Most of the policies that were introduced by the Conservatives in the 80’s and early 90’s seemed to have no regard whatsoever for evidence-based research. They were very much driven by ideology, by their concern in the latter years to go along with public opinion in terms of their perceptions of crimes and the policies about crime prevention and offenders. You felt that there was a risk, on the applied side, of criminology being put on the scrap heap.” [ibid p. 19]

I then asked Professor Bottomley: “Do you have an example of this  ‘side-lining’ affecting your own research work?” His answer provided exactly the point that I feel we are stuck with today and as mentioned earlier, has also been my experience when working with my research team on ‘Violence in the Workplace’ for the Home Office. [3]

“One of the more recent research projects for a team of us from Hull was a commission to evaluate The Wolds, the first private prison quite near to Hull.”
Photograph by Roger Gilbertson:  H.M. Prison Wolds, Everthorpe, East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Date 22 May 2006.

“When we were commissioned to do this by the Home Office, the Conservatives were opening Wolds Prison and said this would be an experiment to see how the privatization of prison worked. ‘We’ll wait to see the outcome of the evaluation before we decide on whether it should be extended.’ – they said . Almost within months of our project starting, and certainly within a year of The Wolds being opened, the Government decided, irrespective of any sort of evaluation, either political or professional, to go ahead with the programme of contracting out prisons. So what was the point of this research?” [Ibid p.19]

Now, my  reason for the title of this blog ‘Stand By The Watch’ is the real déjà vu I experienced reading that same title in 1949 publication called Mr. Gay’s London, written by A.P. Herbert [3]

I  say déjà vu  but this is not strictly true as the piece I now want to re-produce from Herbert’s book is from the year 1733 and I was not – to my knowledge – part of that society and yet when I read it – it makes me think of the relationship between all the current political funding issues surround the policing of the metropolis in 2018 and the pleas being made by their earlier incarnation – The Watch – and their inadequate funding and similar cries for proper recognition of the extremely valuable role they play. I’ll not comment on it further but reproduce it word-for- word and it is compelling reading.

I would be really interested to learn if you see the beginnings – two hundred and forty-five years ago –  of ‘the same -old, same-old’ that we are experiencing today. Also the sense of police pride and commitment in doing their job for ‘their inhabitants’ as they refer to them, is impressive – their altruism to protect their ‘patch’ from roguery is clear but their future funding is not – hence their plea to ‘Stand by the Watch.
 Implicit in this piece is a message for any serious, so-called democratic government that wants effective policing in the twenty-first century, let alone the late eighteenth century, when pleas for proper policing support were also paramount.
{Please note that use of capital letters and other punctuation/spelling used below are reproduced as originally written}

“Proceedings At the Sessions of the Peace, and Oyer and Terminer for the City of LONDON and County of MIDDLESEX: 1772/3

WILLIAM RAVEN was indicted for stealing an Iron Rail, value 2s. the Property of Arabella Scattergood*, March 22nd 1733.

William JamesThis Bar fell in the Airey, and alarmed me and the Watch.

James Fleming I am Watchman in Cavendish Square. As I was standing in my Watchbox between 2 and 3 in the Morning. I heard the fall of an Iron Rail, and running out I saw the Prisoner coming from the Steps at Madame Scattergood’s Door with a Bar in his Hand.  As soon as he perceiv’d me, he took to his Heels, and I ran after him.
He threw away the Bar and ran by the Duke of Argyl’s down King-street. I cry’d out, stop Thief, he got past the first Watch, but was stopped by another Watch, and he was not out of my Sight till he was taken. The Moon was up, but it was a little cloudy, though not so much but I could see him.
Jonathan Dickenson, Watchman. As I called Two o’Clock in Marlborough-street, I found a bar of some Pallisades bent, and looking farther I found another in the same Condition. Upon this I thought there was some Roguery going forward; so I planted my Lantern in the middle of Blenheim-street, that my Inhabitants might see I was upon my Duty and then I went aside and stood upon the Watch, and presently I heard a cry of stop Thief.
Says I to my brother Watch, You go down Tyler-street and I’ll go down Little Marlborough-street. and so we did. I met the Prisoner running with his drawn Sword (for he is a soldier) and I knocked him down.
My Liberty has lately been very much robbed, which is a sign that it is pestered with Rogues: I have lost a great deal of Iron and Lead – not that it was my own, but my Inhabitants; and as several Attempts have been made, they had lost a great deal more if it had not been for the Care of the Watch, which is a Sign that the Watch have not neglected their Duty; and if the Watch should sink, by consequence my Inhabitants cannot stand.
And therefore, pray my Lord, stand by the Watch whatever you do, or else my People will be undone; they will be robbed, and have their Throats cut and their Houses burnt about their Ears.

WATCHMAN_10.jpg The Prisoner has threatened to be even with the Watch; but he did not say which one of them; therefore I hope the Watch will be protected. When I knocked the Prisoner down, he reeled six Yards before he fell, and then said I had killed him.WATCHMAN_4.jpg

Luke – Watchman. I heard a cry of stop Thief and met the Prisoner running with his drawn Sword; I made a blow at him, but he put it by with his Sword; I called out to Jonathan Dickenson  who knocked him down. The Prisoner was upon Guard, and had his Accouterments on. I found this Chisel in his Cartridge Box.

The Jury found him Guilty

He was transported.



[1] Kidd-Hewitt, D., ‘Digging For the Truth: Keith Bottomley* talks to David
Kidd-Hewitt as he prepares to take up his role as president of the British Society of Criminology.’
 Criminal Justice Matters  no. 34 Winter 1998/99 pp. 18-20
*At the time of my interview Professor Keith Bottomley was Head of the Centre for Criminologyand Criminal Justice at the University  of Hull and President
elect of the British Society of Criminology

[2] Kidd-Hewitt, D., Consultant & Research Director (Centre for Social & Evaluation Research {CSER} for UK Home Office Report on Violence at the Workplace funded under the government’s ‘Safer Cities’ initative (1991)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Herbert, A.P., Mr. Gay’s London, Ernest Benn Ltd, 1949.pp. 135/6 – Taken from “Proceedings at the Sessions of the Peace, and Oyer and Terminer for the City of LONDON and County of MIDDLESEX in the Years 1732 and 1733″

*No – you can’t have her name! – Already taken in my new series The Remarkable Adventures of Arabella Scattergood

p.s. Apologies for the gap until my latest blog made it to the publish button. I am working on a new historical fiction but more exciting is that I have been fortunate to be invited to host  “The Afternoon Show” on award -winning local radio station Wycombe Sound 106.6 fm – available on radio player wherever you are – every Wednesday 13.00 to 16.00 hours – hope to meet you there. Wycombe Sound_1

Release your Literary Leanings; experience Poignant Moments; hiss at Dastardly Deeds; tingle at Gentle Hauntings – what more could you want on a Weds afternoon? Well maybe a little mischief & great music. Join me, DKH 13.00-16.00 every Wednesday  on multi-award-winning Wycome Sound 106.6 fm



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Don’t Let My Music Die

Miss Lilian Pretoria Marks felt life was passing her by. What future was there for a young lady working as a grocery assistant on thirty shillings a week in the market town of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire in England.

It was 1920, the Great War was over, and fun times should be around the corner, not just shelves stacked with groceries and the promise of the local ‘palais’ at the week-end. An excursion to the Grande cinema in Desborough Road to see a Pearl White adventure or a visit to the Jolly Butcher in ‘The Narrows’ was the nearest life got to excitement until, at the end of August that year, she came across a bizarre advertisement in The Bucks Free Press that caught her imagination:BAILEY 001_A.jpg
Bucks Free Press 27th August 1920

Writing back could do no harm and she could learn a new skill. She fitted all the personal qualifications, so why not? She wrote and she received a reply that requested her to visit  a house in Furlong road, Bourne End any evening after 6pm. This was, after all, the new decade of adventure and excitement following the privations of the war, so why not live for today and see what this highly paid job was all about.


After a long weekend thinking about it, she decided that come Monday evening after work, she’d pay a visit. So it was, on that Monday September 6th 1920, young Miss Marks, grocery assistant of High Wycombe, found herself outside this Bourne End address contemplating the possibility of being involved in something that would change her life for ever.

The door opened and a smiling, clean-shaven man in his early thirties introduced himself as George Bailey and invited her in.
George Bailey_resizeHe wasted no time in enthusiastically explaining what lay behind his unusual advertisement. Ushering Miss Marks into the front room, he told her that he was setting up a musical academy in nearby Little Marlow. He explained that he had invented a new way of learning and teaching music and if she studied his system hard for two weeks she could then advertise it and take on her own pupils. He wanted to recruit around seven or eight young ladies to be his pupils at the new academy so they could become proficient enough to spread his remarkable invention of a new musical notation to others. This would revolutionize the teaching of music, he claimed, as his system did not use sharps or flats and was written in one key.
To his question of whether she was at all musical, Miss Marks asked if he meant piano or singing?
“Piano,” he replied.
He assure her that he could teach her all that she needed to know. He then moved on to the part of the advert that referred to her build and asked her to take off her hat and stand against the door so he could examined her figure more clearly.

Miss Marks took off her hat and unfastened her coat. Bailey also took hold of her hands and examined them. Clearly satisfied, he said he would pay her three guineas a week. She should give in her notice to the grocery store in High Wycombe, inform her parents of this new opportunity and write to him again when she was ready to start as his pupil alongside the seven or eight other young ladies he expected to employ at his Little Marlow Musical Academy.

He also added that it would be more practical for her to stay overnight on two or three occasions a week with some of the other young ladies under his tuition so it could be a proper learning experience and not broken up by long journeys between High Wycombe and Marlow.

Miss Marks promised to consult her parents and let him know. In the second week of September, she received a letter from Mr. Bailey, dated September 10th, thanking her profusely for her visit and inviting her to start tuition with him in the week commencing 27th September. The letter asked her to bring all she needed to stay overnight at his new academy and to arrive for an early start so he could draw up a suitable timetable of instruction. The final agreement was for Miss Marks to meet George Bailey with her overnight bag on the morning of Wednesday 29th September in Little Marlow.


Complete with businessman’s bowler hat and raincoat. George Bailey greeted his new pupil as arranged and took her to his ‘academy’.

This turned out to be Barn Cottage in Little Marlow. As he politely ushered her into the drawing room, Miss Marks felt much more at ease to be introduced to two other young lady pupils – a Miss Winifred Field and a Miss Gladys Edwards. This certainly looked as if Mr.Bailey’s promise that she would be a pupil with other young ladies was indeed correct and in the corner of the room was a piano. Bailey wanted to start immediately, so without showing Miss Marks to her room, he began explaining to his class of three, the nature of his newly invented musical system. Part of the instruction involved Miss Field playing the piano from traditional music notation whilst he explained on paper sheets how his invention would change this and make it easy for anyone to learn and teach music. All three concentrated on George Bailey’s enthusiastic introduction until around one o’clock in the afternoon.

The only brief distraction that morning was the sound of a young child talking in an adjoining room and also Miss Marks thought she caught a glimpse of a dress or possibly an apron passing by the drawing room door, which was slightly ajar. So there are others living in this house she thought. Anyway, instruction was over for the morning and it was arranged that Miss Field and Miss Edwards should leave and return the next morning for the second tuition session and that Miss Marks would stay overnight as planned. Bailey asked Miss Marks what arrangements she had made for lunch but she said she had left it up to him what should be done. He then gave her four shillings  to buy lunch in Marlow and was very clear that she should not under any circumstances, return to Barn Cottage until 7pm that evening.

Miss Marks set off into Marlow and spent the afternoon and early evening there, waiting to return and unpack her portmanteau. It was rather a long time to wait but, things were turning out just as Mr. Bailey had promised and she was excited.
bailey-cottageAt 7pm sharp, Lilian Marks knocked on the door of Barn Cottage. George Bailey greeted her and showed her into the dining room. He explained that while she had been out, two more pupils had arrived from Scotland and being very tired after their long journey, had gone to bed. In fact there should have been a third pupil arriving but for some reason she had not done so. Anyway, tuition would begin the next morning and now there would be five pupils, possibly six if the missing lady turned up. The academy was taking shape.

George Bailey then picked up Miss Mark’s case and led the way to her room so she could settle in before supper. She heard a child crying in the next room and called down to Mr. Bailey, asking if she should go and see what was wrong. “No, I will see to it,” he replied immediately, making it clear she was not to investigate.

She unpacked and heard him next door soothing the child, who did eventually stop crying. She went back downstairs and had supper in the dining room with Bailey who occasionally popped out to see if the missing pupil was to be seen. He would not talk about the child except to say, rather mysteriously, that if the child cried again, he would have to go through Miss Mark’s bedroom to comfort it. He did not reply as to why that was necessary when he could use the main door as before rather than cross her room to the interconnecting door.

Miss Marks joined him outside on the lawn for about three-quarters of an hour, both looking out for another young lady on her way to Barn Cottage, but no one came. It was coming up for 9pm, so she decided it was time for her to go to bed.

Bailey said he would stay up until 11pm in case the new pupil had caught the last train to Bourne End. From her room, Miss Marks heard Bailey going up and down the stairs and about 11 pm he shouted upstairs that the other girl had not arrived.

Lilian went to secure her door but found it was not possible to lock it. She could comfort herself with the knowledge that two other young ladies were in the house and everything he had promised so far had happened. She was however, puzzled about the child, and her brief glimpse of a woman passing the door. Was he married? She blew out her candle and tried to sleep after what was turning out to be quite a strange adventure.

Moonlight streamed through her window and, half asleep, Lilian was aware of the latch on her bedroom door slowly being lifted. Creeping past her bed was George Bailey wearing an overcoat over his pants. He made straight for the child’s bedroom.

Miss Marks did not know what to do. He had said he was going to pass through her room to check on the child, so once more he had done exactly what he had told her. She was probably worrying over nothing.

A little time elapsed and George Bailey re-appeared in her room and whispered, “Miss Marks, have I disturbed you?”

Lilian Marks said nothing, she did not know what to say.

George Bailey went to the side of her bed and once more asked if he had disturbed her as the child had cried out. Miss Marks knew this to be a lie because she would have heard the child had it cried. She was now worried and said to him, “No it has not or I should have heard.”

Bailey, ignoring her comment, said, “I’m going to ask you a very great favour.”

She asked what it was, and he said it was “ sit on the armchair behind the door.”

This was now seriously wrong, thought Miss Marks, who began to panic. George Bailey questioned her about why she could not go back to sleep and she told him she could not while he remained in the room and he should go. He explained that he needed to ask her a question, which was, “What do you think of the cottage?”

This was now getting gravely out of hand, thought Miss Marks, and said she did not want to discuss this now and he should leave her room. Bailey ignored her protests and said, “How would you like to be the mistress of the cottage?”

Miss Marks was now highly agitated at the way this was going but he went on to add that he had come for one thing and if she couldn’t decide it, he would and he sat on the side of the bed and then quickly tried to climb into bed with her and to rape her.

She fought him off but he was very strong and he pushed her down each time she tried to prise him off. She struggled hard and did manage to escape from the bed and run to the window shouting for help but Bailey pulled her back and said there was no one to hear her cries.

By now Miss Marks was hysterical and George Bailey was talking fast and furious, saying that he wanted her to be the mother of his children. She shouted he was to leave her alone and he had tricked her. He admitted that there were no other young women in the house and he had come to her room solely for the purpose of having sexual intercourse with her so she could have his children. She said, in her confused state, “It is ridiculous talking, that can never be.”

Throughout the night Bailey made repeated attempts to assault her. She sustained bruises on her arms chest and legs but he did not succeed in raping her. Towards dawn while Lilian Marks cowered, terrified from him, he stayed silent and then he asked, “Are you going to say anything about what happened?”

Miss Marks did not reply and he stayed there in glowering silence.

Dawn broke, Lilian not daring not to  sleep or further antagonize him. Bailey, sitting on the armchair was muttering. By 8am, Lilian thought it was best to humour him, so asked if she could go downstairs and prepare breakfast. He agreed she could do that while he went and had a shave.

Whether Lilian thought about making a run for it and changed her mind is not clear, but she did go downstairs and began to prepare breakfast as if nothing had happened. Bailey came downstairs for breakfast and he brought the young child who she had heard crying, introducing her as Hollie, aged three. He asked if the child looked like him.

Lilian said she did. He explained that he was the child’s uncle and Hollie’s mother was unwell and living in Swindon. Lilian asked if he was married and Bailey said that he was not.

Breakfast over, Lillian cleared everything away and, as if nothing had happened, he asked her if she was ready to begin lessons. She explained that she was too upset and shaken by events and wished to leave. Bailey then asked her to go to the village for him and buy some ham, fruit and cakes for lunch as he was expecting Miss Field and Miss Edwards at any moment. He gave her six shillings and sixpence to make the purchases.

Miss Marks went to her room rather than the village, got everything ready to leave and stayed there until 11.30am when there was a loud knocking on the front door and Bailey answered it. It was Miss Field and Miss Edwards.

Quickly Lilian put on her coat and slipped out the back door, heading for Cores End about two miles away and went straight to the vicar’s house where she blurted out to a startled Reverend Allen all that had happened to her.

The vicar arranged for her to get home to her parents and once her father learnt about what had happened to his daughter, he cycled all the way from High Wycombe to Cores End to speak with the Revd Allan.

Around 3pm that afternoon, the vicar went to Barn Cottage to talk to George Bailey. Bailey answered the door but claimed not to know a Miss Marks amongst his ‘thirty pupils’. As the Revd Allen prepared to leave, Bailey suddenly recalled a Miss Lilian Marks visiting him in a state of great distress. The vicar, however, had not mentioned to Bailey that Miss Mark’s first name was Lilian. A distressed woman appearing on a doorstep would hardly reveal her first name to a total stranger. When Revd Allan returned to Cores End he found Mr. Marks waiting for him. They decided to report George Bailey to the police.

It was the afternoon of Thursday 30th September when Superintendent George Kirby from Wycombe and Inspector William West from Marlow received from Mr. Marks a complaint of a serious assault against his daughter. Inspector West visited Barn Cottage the following morning to speak with Mr. Bailey but there was no one there and the cottage was locked, although some windows were open upstairs.

Superintendent Kirby agreed to meet Inspector West the next morning, Saturday, at Barn Cottage to investigate further. The truth about George Bailey was about to emerge. He was already under police surveillance by Marlow police who had witnessed some thirty women calling at either Furlong Road or Barn Cottage in response to his advertisement. They tried the doors but all were locked. However, the Inspector climbed through the window, saw a front door key on the mat and was able to let Superintendent Kirby in.

No one was about and in fact the table was laid ready for tea with bread and jam, butter and cakes and some kind of pudding. This was hardly the scene of someone leaving in a panic knowing that they are likely to be reported for a serious sexual assault. Upstairs told a different story. In the back room where Lilian had heard the child crying were two camp beds, one of which was covered by a large counterpane and underneath that particular bed was what appeared to be a large bundle of sheets. When the officers investigated more closely, they found the body of a young woman who had obviously been dead for a couple of days and whose flesh had a strange discolouration. They immediately arranged for two doctors to attend from Marlow and they both agreed it was death by poison. The cottage was sealed off as a crime scene and the hunt began immediately for George Bailey.

On Sunday October 3rd, the famous Home Office pathologist Doctor Spilsbury carried out a post-mortem at the crime scene, removing the contents of the stomach for analysis at his London laboratory, but one thing was clear, the young woman was in an advanced state of pregnancy, so there were now two victims of this tragic crime.
Doctor Bernard Henry Spilsbury: Home Office Pathologist

The body was identified as Kate Lilian Bailey, aged 22, Bailey’s wife of just over four years. Bailey’s real job was as a milkman for Mr. Hall the local dairyman, who had only recently taken him on. He had said he used to be a milkman for the Express Dairy Company, which turned out to be true. He did, however, omit to tell Mr. Hall that in 1913, he was arrested and sentenced to six months hard labour for embezzling money from them.


The milk may have been guaranteed absolutely pure, but there was lots more to learn about George Arthur Bailey, or should it be Arthur George Bailey, or even Ronald Gilbert Treherne, or perhaps Tremayne? He had been known to various police forces since 1908 when he had spent many spells in prison for fraud, forgery, and embezzlement and had become an army deserter to add to his crimes. His unfortunate pregnant wife had also suffered committal to prison as a result of his crimes for passing cheques he had forged and young Hollie, who Miss Marks wanted to comfort that terrible night, had been born in Winchester Prison.

Now Hollie’s mother was dead, poisoned, so where was Hollie now and more to the point her father, George Bailey?

It was in fact on Saturday evening October 2nd that P.C.Poole of Marlow police, who knew what Bailey looked like, spotted him and together with Detective Sergeant Purdy of the Berkshire Constabulary, arrested him at Reading railway station. P.C. Poole had been sent there just in case Bailey turned up, and he did. From Reading police station, he was taken to Marlow, questioned and charged with the wilful murder of his wife Kate Lilian Bailey.
But where was the child? Bailey had been to Swindon and left Hollie with his sister there and was apparently intending to return to Barn Cottage. On Monday, 4th October, Bailey appeared at Marlow Police Court for committal proceedings, was charged with murder and remanded to Oxford Prison.
bailey_oxford prison
He made a second appearance at Marlow the next morning and was then sent back to Oxford Prison to await his trial at Aylesbury Crown Court.

Daily Mail for October 5th, 1920, led with the following story:Bailey_Daily Mail.jpgAs a result of the inquest discovering Mrs. Bailey had been poisoned by prussic acid in her tea, and now the revelation that Mr. Bailey attempted to rape Miss Lilian Marks at that same house having seemingly murdered his wife there, the newspapers were becoming more and more incredulous as this bizarre and tragic story unfolded. Here is the Nottingham Evening Post for October 28th 1920, page 4

The trial began in January 1921 and Bailey pleaded ‘Not Guilty’ but the evidence against him was overwhelming. Miss Field and Miss Edwards both appeared in court and described their dealings with Bailey, corroborating everything that Lilian Marks had said about the recruitment process and the music. Further damning evidence was that he had actually been in possession of four bottles of the same poison at the time of his arrest at Reading railway station. Also a letter was found on him addressed to the coroner via the police. In it he admitted to poisoning his wife and it went on to outline his intention to return to Barn Cottage to give her a last kiss, murder baby Hollie then kill himself “I should like our three bodies laid together,” he had written.

On Monday 17th January, 1921, the judge sentenced George Bailey to death. [1]

The fact that he had murdered his wife and intended his daughter Hollie to suffer the same fate was horrific enough but the trial revealed something else that sent shudders around the court and put into stark context the reasons for his trespass into Miss Mark’s room on the night of 29th September which resulted in his assault on her.

On the afternoon of the 29th September when Miss Marks was in Marlow waiting to return to the cottage, Mrs. Bailey had been seen by a neighbour apparently in good spirits. She had indeed been the woman who Lilian glimpsed through the doorway that morning while she was receiving tuition with Miss Field and Miss Edwards. Bailey had slipped stramonia* in her tea that very afternoon and when she felt unwell because of this drug, he had put her to bed in the back room where he fed her with prussic acid and, in a perverse attempt to ease the agony of that poison, gave her chloroform.

*Datura stramonium, known by the English names jimsonweed or devil’s snare, is a plant in the nightshade family.

In answer to the counsel’s question, “Where was your child then?” Bailey answered “In bed with my wife.”

The court was horrified as he went on to explain that he left his little girl next to her murdered mother and then had to concentrate on not letting Miss Marks enter that same room to comfort the crying child. That’s why he insisted on entering her room and staying with her until the next morning.

When Miss Marks went downstairs to prepare the breakfast, he had bundled the corpse under the bed and brought Hollie downstairs pretending that she was his niece. That three year old child had spent fourteen hours lying next to her murdered mother and Miss Marks had spent the night with that same murderer in her room who then attempted to rape her and make her pregnant.

Only a little over four months had passed since Miss Marks answered what the newspapers referred to a “a curious advertisement” in the Bucks Free Press, but things would never be quite the same for Lilian Marks. That advert certainly did change her life.

Hollie was brought up by her grandmother in Devon and the subject of her real parents was a forbidden area of questioning. Her own imagination and snippets of overheard conversations led her to believe her parents had died in some sort of suicide pact. Three marriages and five children later, she began to seek the truth about her parents.

Discovering she had been born in Winchester Prison, she also checked up on a vague memory about Oxford Prison and found her father had been executed there for murder in 1921, She obtained her mother’s death certificate which recorded death by poisoning.

So it was, at the age of 66, she wrote to the Bucks Free Press asking them to help her find out the truth about that day in Little Marlow when she was only three years old. Robert Perrin, feature writer at the paper listened to her story and together they visited Barn Cottage. Hollie recounted how she used to have recurring nightmares where she would be clawing at a mound of earth because she knew a body was underneath but would stop before uncovering it. Now knowing the tragic reasons for that horrific dream, she was starting to understand the torment of her thoughts over the preceding years.

As for her father’s claim to have invented ‘the musical notation of the future’, it had been dismissed in court as, ” Grossly grotesque, resembling a crude drawing of a trail of tadpoles seeking an incubator.”

Bailey,  however, passionately defended it to the end. After an unsuccessful appeal against his death sentence,George Arthur Bailey was executed on March 2nd 1921 at Oxford Prison. His last words were revealed by his High Wycombe solicitor and they were, “Don’t let my music die.” [2]



[1] It was also a significant case as women had only recently been permitted serve on juries and this was the first case in which women jurors condemned a man to death.
bailey_jurors.jpgSource: Daily Mail January 18th, 1821 p.4

women jurors
First mixed jury  waiting to be sworn in at the Central Criminal Court old Bailey: Source: Illustrated London News, Saturday, January 22, 1921

[2] Also in the same paper was the following editorial which relates to the sexist attitudes that have prevailed when it comes to women and the law: It really is worth reading in order to understand the context of this case in relation to the changes in allowing women to sit on the jury in a  murder trial:



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The Mystery Of The Death Of Judge Albert Prince & The Stavisky Affair

democideWell, since the recent events at Salisbury, when the cloak and dagger activities of possible state-sponsored assassination attempts began to rattle around that Cathedral City, I’ve been waiting to see the rare use of the word ‘democide’ but it seems Rudloph Rummel’s (1932–2014) excellent definition is still waiting in the wings, ie: “the murder  of any person or people by their government, including genocide, politicide and mass murder.”NERVE_POSTER

This double-agent story, of course, triggered memories of the 2006 murder of Alexandar Litvinenko in London, but as a criminologist, I was taken back further to another controversial case of the 1930’s known as,”The Stavisky Affair,” in France.

However, this was not a double-agent cold-war spy case at all, but an incredibly intricate and clever embezzlement that engulfed major French political figures forcing the Premier of the time, Camille Chautemps (1885-1963) to resign. En-route we have a government-run pawn-shop swindle; a bogus medical clinic scam, duping pregnant women; a murdered judge and fashion model, and two innocent children and apparent ‘suicides’ of the Russian-born instigator, Serge Alexandre Stavisky and other ‘players’ – dying in mysterious circumstances and mysterious places. Also the sheer scale of this scandal encompassed not only France and Russia, but Spain, America and England and is so intricate and complex a mere blog cannot cope with it!

So why am I even going there?

Two reasons – firstly you may well like to set off on your own volition and have a deeper a look this if it’s a new story to you – it really is worth doing, but my second reason was to re-visit one unsolved mystery that occurred as part of this whole scandal – the mysterious death of Mr. Albert Prince, a judge of the Paris Court of Appeal and to do this by paying tribute to the excellent Illustrated London News of March 17th 1934 by using their skilfully- crafted illustrated investigative ‘adventure’ – taking their readers some way into the murky shadows of what appears to be some form of state-sponsored murder [1]

[Just to add,  in the light of the recent Oscar winning film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, – this case even contains a similar tactic used to expose the French police with a  campaign of inflammatory posters bearing the name of the Independent Deputy for Marseilles, Simon Sabiana, accusing him of standing back from solving Judge Albert  Prince’s murder case because of a police cover- up about its own involvement. [2]

Okay, for the moment assume you’ve dipped into a TV soap having never watched an episode before. Here is the Sunday Times piece for March 18th 1934 (p.21) that can quickly give you the gist of how sensational it all was and you’ll notice  a mere passing mention of the murder of Monsieur Albert  Prince. That’s where we will stop and take our detour courtesy of the London Illustrated News, eight-four years ago this week.

SUNDAY TIMES_PRINCEb.jpgAlso – here is a brief extract from a very competent précis of the whole set-up to start you on your own journey if you wish to take it: “A colossal swindle perpetrated by Serge Alexandre Stavisky brought scandal and ruin down on the heads of some of France’s most esteemed government leaders in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II.  L’affaire Stavisky filled reams of official court transcripts as prosecutors attempted to sift through conflicting evidence to learn how it was possible for a Russian-born swindler operating out of a government-supervised pawn shop to cause so much chaos in the marketplace. As the court pondered, hordes of angry citizens standing outside the Chamber of Deputies chanted, “Assassins! Thieves! Staviskys!” A new word had entered the French lexicon of popular slang.”

Are you ready to enjoy some wonderful (rare) sketch illustrations and start your criminological journey to try and solve this ‘cold-case’ murder of 1934? This reconstruction is the work of writer, M. M. Albéric Cahuet (1877-1942) & artist, André Galland (1886-1965) to which full credit and admiration is duly given.

Overview by Albéric Cahuet– 

On February 21st 1934, the mutilated body of Mr. Albert Prince, A Judge of the Paris Court of Appeal was found on the railway line near Dijon. From June 1925 until October 1931, Mr. Prince was at the head of the financial section of the Public Prosecutor’ s Office and therefore he might have been able to throw considerable light on certain aspects of  The Stravinsky Affair. For that reason it was at once assumed that he had been murdered in order that his lips might be sealed. The first results of the post-mortem showed there were no knife or bullet wounds on the body. Later, Dr. Khun, having examined the body and made various tests, affirmed that he had found in the tissue traces of a toxic substance of a narcotic nature. The police were baffled and as this is written, the mystery remains unsolved. The following points may be made in connection with this very plausible reconstruction. In January a stranger presented himself at the house in which Mr. Prince’s mother lives in Dijon, asking after Madame’s health and was told the name of her doctor – Dr. Ehringer. Evidently, it is argued a careless note was made, for in telegraphing to his wife on arrival at Dijon, Mr. Prince, presumably given the name by the stranger, who is thought to have met him there, wired it as ‘Hallinger’. On February 20th some person unknown rang up Mr. Prince in Paris and told him that his aged mother was to be operated on in Dijon that evening and begged him to come at once. Thereupon the Judge, never doubting the authenticity of the message, caught the 12.32pm train from Paris. He reached Dijon at and six minutes later sent the telegram to his wife saying that his mother was going  on as well as could be expected and that he was starting for the nursing home. His movements between the time he left the Hôtel Morot, Dijon and the time his dead body was found on the line at Combe-Aux-Fées are unknown. The argument advanced is that he was lured nominally to “La Providence” but actually to  Combe-Aux-Fées to meet his death – death which must seem to have been caused by a train; even, it may have been due to suicide. But the knife found by the body was blood-stained but the body had no mark of a knife wound. The conclusion is that the knife was left as a symbol – a sign of revenge and a threat to the living who might be called to given evidence in the Stravinsky Affair. A motor-car with dimmed headlights was seen standing near the railway close to the spot where the body was found, at the presumed time of death. Mr. Prince’s mother was never a patient at “La Providence.”  Here is the reconstruction by artist André Galland.


Stavisky_2On February 20th, 1934, Albert Prince left Paris for Dijon, summoned to his mother’s bedside by an authoritative telephone call. At the Gare De Lyon, Monsieur Prince caught the 12.32 pm train for Dijon. Was he being shadowed? An important witness has stated that he was. During the journey from Paris to Dijon, Mr. Prince it  may be assumed dealt with notes and documents carried in his portfolio  – possibly, indeed with material concerning ‘The Stavisky Affair’. Was he spied upon in the train?Stavisky_4
The train reached Dijon at 4.44pm and Mr. Prince got out. Everything suggests that he was stopped at this moment by a stranger who introduced himself as a messenger from the doctor named as attending Mr. Prince’s mother. (Possible the owner of the authoritative voice that send the judge on his death-journey)Stavisky_5
At the station post-office, Mr. Prince sent a telegram to his wife, saying that his mother was reported as being as well as possible after her operation and that he was going to the nursing home. The name of his mother’s doctor was incorrectly spelt, Hallinger instead of Ehringer.Stavisky_3
Leaving the station. Mr. Prince walked to the Hôtel Morot close by. Apparently the mysterious messenger who had met him on his arrival, took good care not to be seen with him in the telegraph office or at the hotel thus guarding against future identification.At the Hôtel Morot, Mr. Prince booked a room and filled in the particulars required by the registrar, desposited his suitcase (but not his portfolio which was found by his body, minus certain papers,) and went out. It was evident that he was in a hurry.Stavisky_6Here theory begins: Mr. Prince allowed himself to be driven into the country in the belief that he was going to “La Providence” to which he had been told his mother had been removed. Its wall is on the left.Stavisky_7
But the car passed “La Providence” (possibly with Mr. Prince stunned or drugged) and continued up the Chèvre-Morte Road, and, by way of the Route Nationale and under the little railway bridge to the Combe-Aux-Feés. At the Combe-Aux-Feés, Mr. Prince’s death was assured and the body was borne up a short incline leading to the little wall beside the railways line.On the right is a hut in which the body could have been hidden in an emergency.Stavisky_8
The wall having been crossed with ease, the murderers, seeking to place the body on the line, slid and dragged their burden by way of a patch of small loose pebbles. Ten minutes latter a goods train passed crushing and breaking the body which had a broken cord around one of the ankles.Stavisky_9
One reconstruction of the last stage of Mr. Prince’s death-journey: The judge was driven to and past “La Providence” – the car then traversing the Chèvre-Morte Road,and turning righr into the Route Nationale to reach the  Combe-Aux-Feés
A second reconstruction of the last stage of the death-journey: The car went past Talent following the Troyes Road until it reached a lonely spot sat which Mr. Prince (drugged or already dead) could be secreted until he could be borne to  Combe-Aux-Feés by night.
A dog on a neighbouring farmstead was heard howling about the time of the death – reacting traditionally to the passing-by of a dead body (note from me: this may be a translation quirk or there’s some kind of folk-lore insertion purported here by Albéric Cahuet– surely he means the dog was merely alerted by strangers passing!)


X – point where body found: (1) Paris-Dijon railway line (2) Combe-Aux-Feés quarry in which a car would be moved about or left without being seen from the road  (3) The shortest incline leading to the railway line (4) The Fountaine-Aux-Feés (5) Inaccessible road down the valley (6) Cultivated ground near Talant (7) The Rover Ouche.


Well- there you have the story as presented to the readers of the London Illustrated News week-ending March 17th 1934 – a really intriguing piece of history enacted eight-four years ago. Interesting that traces of a toxic substance of a narcotic nature were found by one doctor and immediately that line of inquiry was shut down and the doctor taken off the register. This is all gold-dust to conspiracy theorists – but probably,  in this case, genuinely so.  What do you think?


[1]The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, April 01, 1934; pg. 13; Issue 5790.


[2] Poster Campaign against Police.  The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, April 01, 1934; pg. 13; Issue 5790.


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The Diabolical Murder of Ann Pullin


“Give ear ye tender Christians all, and listen unto me,
While I relate a deed of blood and great barbarity;
A murder of the blackest dye I know I now repeat in rhyme,
That was committed by George King, a young man in his prime.”
Source: The Trial and Confession of Geo. King: G. Smeeton, 1834.

Wantage in old Berkshire, England, was the location of this ‘deed of blood and great barbarity,’ and it can be said, without exaggeration, to be the most horrific tale of murder of an innocent victim. It is also a tale of outrageous behaviour by some of the victim’s family in exploiting this terrible misfortune.

But first let’s meet the perpetrator, George King, aged nineteen, a native of Cumnor a small hamlet in old Berkshire, (now Oxfordshire). His job as an itinerant fruit picker, bean and pea-reaper took him to work in Court Hill Farm just outside Wantage.KING
It was Friday 30th August 1833. Around seven o’clock that evening, he finished the arduous task of bean-cutting. This entailed a skillful severing of the bean stalks with a razor-sharp hooked blade and King was fast and accurate, harvesting the beans without damage to the long tender crops to the satisfaction of the foreman, John Heath. It was lonely tiring and thirsty work.

On his walk back to Wantage, King decided to stop off at the Squirrel public house in Grove Street for a well-earned beer. Then it was on to his lodgings at the White Hart in nearby Newbury Street. This was the home of forty year old Mrs. Ann Pullin, who lived with her six-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old stepson. It was a neat house, set slightly back from the street, with a small garden and comfortable accommodation for the occasional traveller and casual farm worker such as King.

The pub was quiet that rainy evening; one man had left almost as King arrived, and another sat supping his beer, his dog by his side. Ann Pullin was a widow and the man with a dog had taken a shine to her and had been engaged in a little courtship when he was interrupted by King’s return and his request for food and beer. He decided to leave now that King was back for the evening and, so it was, that George King was left alone with Ann Pullin.

His kindly landlady cut him a rasher of bacon which he frizzled on the point of his knife by the log-fire while she poured him another ale. All in all a peaceful scene on a rainy night at the end of August and there it might have ended but what was to happen next was sudden and startling.

After his supper, King went out to use the toilet in the yard and, on his return, Mrs. Pullin went over and bolted the door shut for the night. In the cosy warm serenity of her small pub, her two children asleep upstairs, Ann Pullin felt no need to be wary of her hard-working lodger. But how wrong can you be?

Whether it was on the spur of the moment or had been planned for some time is not known, but King decided he needed money and the widow had what he wanted. Warmed, fed and refreshed, King took his curved bladed bean-cutter, raised it high for the last time that day and in a moment sliced Ann Pullin’s head clean off her body.bean knife

With his knife, fresh from cooking the bacon the kindly women had given him not many moments before, he then cut off her apron pocket containing her purse and freed the pub keys from her belt. His confidence left him as he struggled with the keys in an attempt to unlock the door. In his panic, the candle dropped out of its holder and he trod on it rendering it useless. As he fumbled in the dark, it was some little time before he could find the bolt. At last he wrenched open the door and stumbled down the steps into the street, clutching the severed pocket, keys and the ferocious murder weapon dripping with Ann Pullin’s blood.

The scene he left behind was horrific.
The decapitated body of Ann Pullin lay in a crimson pool of blood, her head lying some four feet away staring sightlessly toward the doorway through which King had fled. The Berkshire Chronicle was later to describe the walls and floor as being covered in blood so it would seem likely that King would also have the blood of his innocent victim on his clothes and possibly his face and hands as he made his escape that rainy Friday night.

It was this sight that was to greet Ann’s twelve-year-old son James in the kitchen parlour the next morning. Calling out for his mother, he entered the kitchen around seven o’clock exciting about the prospect of a day’s fishing with his friend Thomas Gregory, the milk boy. One cannot imagine the horror that confronted that young  boy to see his mother’s decapitated body and then her head, lying some distance away, her face frozen in the agony of death, her life blood now turned to crimson stains on the floors and walls of the kitchen.

At that moment, his friend Tom was coming up the pub steps. The door was open from King’s escape the previous night, so Tom went straight in. He and James stood together as statues, transfixed by a sight that would never leave their memories. The lifeless gaze of James’s mother, her crisp white bonnet still tied under her chin in a bow, with just a trickle of blood running down her cheek, adding to the horror and the feeling that at any moment she might cry out in anguish.
Then the friends fled the scene to fetch help.

But what of George King? He had deserted his lodgings, so it would not be long before he was sought for questioning. What happened to him that rainy night after he had slaughtered his landlady with – according to the Reading Mercury,as much smoothness as could possibly be effected by a Turkish scimitar.”

He had rushed out in a panic and set off towards Falcon Corner, tossing the stolen keys aside as he did so. He’d taken the widow’s purse from the severed apron pocket, discarding the torn cloth in the village pond, and then headed up towards the churchyard. Some fifteen to twenty minutes after leaving Newbury Street, he returned, not to the scene of his crime – the White Hart – but to the Blue Boar another public house almost opposite.BLUE BOAR_1

Was a plan formulating in his mind to brazen it out, to play the innocent labourer going for a drink before returning to his lodgings and then discovering his landlady murdered? He would often drink elsewhere before returning home at the Squirrel or the Sparrow where he had a bar-tab so this was not behaviour out of character.

It was around nine-forty-five that evening when George King entered the Blue Boar. The first thing that the landlord noticed when King entered was, that despite heavy rain, he had his coat doubled up on his arm. Why would you carry your coat on such a night? It would certainly be a useful way to hide a bloodstained waistcoat or perhaps a coat sleeve. It seems that King’s mind was working overtime to construct an alibi.

Whether his decision to go to the Blue Boar was spontaneous or pre-planned is difficult to tell. One thing common to almost all violent murders is the unexpected emotional turmoil that actually committing the murder triggers in the perpetrator – the unforeseen jittery behaviour and seemingly confused manner. Trying too hard to act normally can draw attention.

King went up to the bar and ordered a pint of beer, spilling cash onto the bar from which he paid a half-penny. William Betteridge, the landlord, noticed that despite carrying his coat over his arm, King was not very wet. He had obviously not been outside for long enough to be soaked to the skin or had possibly taken his coat off just prior to entering the pub which was an unusual action. Great observers, landlords!

LANDLORD.jpg King was still carrying his bean hook and also, according to the landlord, a hooked stick. King did not drink the beer but asked if he could have a bed for the night. By this time the landlady had appeared to have a look at their new customer

She saw a young man with a strong sinewy frame. He was short around five-feet two inches tall. He had a rather forbidding sullen look; his eyes were small and sunken and his ears projected very noticeably. He was not an endearing sight and she told him no, there was no room for him, but it was likely that he could get one at Mrs. Pullin’s opposite, at the White Hart.

King fell silent; he had not expected to hear his victim’s name coming back to haunt him so soon. He took his beer over to some others drinking at nearby table and bade them have it. He no longer wanted it, but had he wanted to act normally, he was not doing a very convincing job giving away his freshly drawn beer to strangers only minutes after arriving.PUB_MEN

Perhaps he realized this was a foolish move because he then offered to play anyone in the room at a game of skittles. Was this another attempt to persuade himself he would survive his murderous deed and ingratiate himself with the pub regulars, perhaps playing for time to further develop an alibi?skittles_king

Without the forensic skills we use today, and without the precise time of death that contemporary medical investigations are able to provide, it was much more difficult to accurately connect a suspect to the victim and the crime unless the deed had been witnessed or the suspect found to be in possession of goods stolen from the scene of the crime. Even bloodstains could be explained as rabbit blood acquired during poaching or as a result of an accident while harvesting.

We know King had Ann Pullin’s money on his person, but if he kept it well hidden and stayed in the pub until closing time, he might still claim innocence when Mrs. Pullin was discovered. He could even say that he had not yet been back to his lodgings – too busy visiting pubs and playing skittles. The landlord though, wanted to close shortly and refused to allow any more skittles to be played that night. It was now approaching ten-fifteen and there were only five other customers in the pub at that time – all, of course, witnesses to King’s restless behaviour.

One was a young French lad called Charles Marriot, who was working as a bellows-boy with a local blacksmith called Frampton. He was sitting alone when suddenly King went over to his table and struck up a conversation. He had an unusual proposition for him.


Claiming that he was without shelter for the night, he said he hoped to find somewhere to stay at Hanney around four miles north of Wantage where he had been working at Court Farm. He offered to pay the young French lad one shilling for his companionship on the journey. King was a desperate man; he also carried a fearsome weapon in the form of a bean-hook, so it was not surprising that Marriot refused. King then asked Marriot if he would help him find another tavern to lodge at and this time Marriot agreed. They set off into the rainy night.

The White-Hart, opposite, was in darkness, a black shroud hiding its gruesome secret from the innocent Marriot. How King must have hurried him past onto other Wantage taverns to try their luck. But it wasn’t to be. All were closed or closing and not available to last minute lodgers.

Further pleading by King and his strange admission that he was frightened of being alone in the dark, plus the promise of money, led Marriot to reveal his own resting place in a nearby stable in Back Street. King agreed to pay Marriot sixpence to stay with him.

After a night of restless mumbling and thrashing about, including a threat to hang himself, which kept Marriot awake, King was on his way by early light, telling Marriot that he was off to Hanney. Marriot was relieved to see his unwelcome guest leave and later described him as being ‘all in a fidgit.’

While the headless body of Ann Pullin lay in a bloody mess on her kitchen floor, her children now orphans, still asleep in their beds, King had already been wielding his lethal bean-hook up at Court Farm that bright Saturday morning. Indeed, King had noticed it had blood on the blade as he started his work. The candlight in the Blue Boar had not revealed this tell-tale clue, but the early morning light clearly showed the stain of his murderous deed of the previous night. The morning dew soon cleaned it though, and he also washed in a nearby river and secreted his coat under a bean-sheaf.

Meanwhile, back at the White Hart, James and his friend Tom, had run to fetch family and friends, who in turn alerted the police and the Wantage surgeon, Henry Osmond. Word spread around the neighbourhood about the terrible beheading of Ann Pullin.
Villagers jostled amongst themselves to see the site of the slaying, while police constable Thomas Jackson did his best to keep them from interfering with the crime scene.

It was now seven-forty-five in the morning on Saturday August 31st, as Dr. Henry Osmond examined Ann Pullin’s body. He was in no doubt that the beheading had been caused by a single powerful blow from a sharp blade, severing it at the second vertebra. He could not see any notches on the bone that would indicate several blows being made in order to part the head from the body as might result from a wood-axe or kitchen knife, for example. This had been carried out with a finely-honed blade such a pea or bean-hook he correctly concluded, able to cut cleanly through the bone. He also noted that the deceased had a very small neck so it would not have required much force to severe the head from the body, merely a very sharp instrument and a blow at the correct angle.

The coroner, Edward Cowcher, arrived at midday, having been busy calling together a jury for an immediate inquest into Mrs. Pullin’s death. Together with the county magistrate, Thomas Goodlake, they viewed the body and spoke with Dr. Osmond.JURY_1a

It did not take long for the finger to point at George King who had, in fact, been seen by young Tom Gregory entering his friend’s house – The White Hart – around nine o’clock  the previous night. Others could confirm that around thirty to forty minutes later he was in the Blue Boar, in an agitated state and carrying a bean-hook. In fact two men were implicated, George King and Charles Marriot, both having been seen setting off together late the previous night from the Blue Boar.

Things started to move fast: two local labourers were sworn in to assist the coroner and set off towards the village of Hanney and Court Farm. They located the foreman, John Heath, who accompanied them to the bottom field. There was King, slicing the beans from the rows as if nothing was wrong, nothing had changed – just an honest farm labourer at work on a Saturday morning. Thomas Crane, one of the labourers sworn into service by Mr. Goodlake, told King they had come to arrest him and take him back to Mr. Goodlake’s. King did not desist. When they got there it was noticed that he had no coat. Crane asked him if he had a coat and King said he hadn’t. Asked again where his great-coat was, as it was know that he had one – King admitted that it was secreted under a bean-sheaf in the field where he had been working and he would fetch it. It was worth a try, but King was securely detained while Thomas Crane was sent to find it.

Then in the presence of the examining magistrate, Thomas Goodlake, Crane and Heath searched King’s coat. It was damning evidence against him. It was bloodstained and the pocket contained a women’s purse holding money to the value of twelve shillings, together with a bent old silver six-penny piece. If possession of a woman’s purse was not implication enough of his involvement in Ann Pullin’s murder, the crooked sixpence held a significance way beyond its monetary value.sixpenceLittle did King know that this was not just any old sixpence which he had attempted in vain to straighten, possibly to give to Marriot, but Ann Pullin’s precious love-token seventeenth century lucky sixpence dated 1624 from which she was never parted. Here it was lying on the magistrate’s desk shouting, ‘Murderer’ to those who knew its story. It would have to wait for Ann’s friends, Rachael Sandford and Eliza Clench to give it its voice and for King to realise its powerful but silent testimony against him.

King was formally arrested by police constable James Jones and taken into police custody. During that afternoon, it was Marriot’s turn to be apprehended as a murder suspect.

A great deal of circumstantial evidence began to build up during the inquiry as testimony was received from those, including Ann Pullin’s stepson James, who knew King was lodging at the White Hart. William Betteridge, landlord of the Blue Boar was able to explain about the meeting between Marriot and King and confirm that they were not partners in crime as far as he was aware. Marriot himself explained how King offered him sixpence to stay with him in the stable on the night of the murder, and said that he ‘appeared to be in a fidget and said he was going to hang himself.’

King was in a corner and he fought back. He told the inquest that he knew who did the murder. He had gone to the White Hart with a man called Edward Grant, who went in and ‘struck off the old woman’s head by a single blow.‘ He went on to describe her falling and the spouting of the blood, and provided an accurate description of the position of the body and the severed head. He claimed he had been standing by the door and was not involved in the murder at all. It was all by the hand of Grant, who had been working with him and who came from Reading. Why King felt this would help his case is difficult to fathom. It was clearly a panic delaying tactic, but it was taken seriously by the magistrate who dispatched messengers to locate Edward Grant and the hearing was adjourned.

By Sunday morning, when it was clear that no one called Edward Grant was known in the area, King was struggling to explain away his possession of Ann Pullin’s purse, and more significantly, his ownership of her lucky sixpence, identified as such by Wantage washerwoman Rachael Sandford and her friend Eliza Clench. He also had blood on his clothes, and many witnesses had testified to his irrational behaviour on the night of the murder.

As the inquest progressed on Sunday, King became more and more implicated and Marriot less and less so. Also, other events, difficult to believe, were taking place back at the White Hart where Ann Pullin still lay in her dreadful state.

While the coroner, Edward Cowcher, together with Dr. Ormond, County Magistrate Thomas Goodyear and local citizens sworn to jury service worked tirelessly to resolve this brutal murder and complete the essential legal preliminaries for a murder trial, Ann Pullin’s mother had other ideas. Far from mourning the loss of her daughter in the most extreme and brutal circumstances, she and other relatives set about organising sightseers into a paying queue. PULLIN_FAMILY

For the price of a pint of beer, they could walk past the grizzly scene, taking in the spectacle of Ann Pullin’s severed head and rigid body and the pools of dried blood. They could pass as close as possible through the back kitchen into the street. It was a peep-show for ghouls and they came late into the night. Meanwhile the inquest continued and by Monday morning, September 2nd, King, having given up his story about Grant was now trying to pull Marriot back into the frame, but it was too late for another red herring. The jury had no doubt that Marriot was an innocent caught up in the investigation of a murder he knew nothing about.


At two o’clock Monday afternoon, the inquest returned a unanimous verdict of ‘wilful murder‘ against George King and him alone and he was committed for trail at the next Reading assizes which would not be until the end of February the following year. Until then he would languish in Reading goal.

Now that the inquest was over, Ann Pullin could be buried. However, the disgusting, money-making peep-show organised by the murdered women’s own mother and certain other family members had continued even when Ann was placed in her coffin as reported by the local Berkshire Chronicle.PULLIN._EXHIBITION
SOURCE: Berkshire Chronicle: Saturday Sept. 7th, 1833, p. 3

As Ann Pullin was not due to be buried until two o’clock the following afternoon, the prospect of even more profit seemed to be of greater comfort to her mother than any condolences that Rachael, Eliza and other of Ann’s friends could offer her for the tragic loss of her daughter.

Meanwhile, the spectators and others left their morbid peepshow to jeer at George King that Monday afternoon as he was placed into the police cart for transportation to Reading goal. Although it seems clear that the outcome of the coming trial would be a foregone conclusion, this tale has yet another unexpected ingredient to relate that occurred on King’s journey to his incarceration at Reading goal. Police constable Thomas Jackson together with P.C. James Jones, guarding King in the police cart, stopped at the Bull Tavern in Streatley to obtain water for the horse and some refreshments for themselves.

BULL-STREATLEY Author: Colin Smith: August 2008

Apparently King was drawn by the sight of a painting hanging just inside the public house. Here is what happened next as explained by P.C. JacksonKING READING_1KING

Whilst the horse was still feeding, King began confessing to P.C. Jackson. He adopted a strange mixture of joking and despair as he recounted his fatal attack on Ann Pullin. He recalled how he had meant to hit her with the back of the hook and he said that as soon as he had given the blow, he fell back against the parlour door as if someone had lifted him. He recalled how Mrs. Pullin’s eyes, after a rapid quivering, appeared to fix on him. Her head had rolled towards the fireplace and her body in the opposite direction, rolling over twice before coming to its final rest. He then recounted how he had sprung forward again and torn her pocket off. All the other details fell into place as, for once, King told the truth.

Even the squashed candle he accidentally trod on during the escape would later be found as he described and used by the prosecution to corroborate his account of the horrific events of that night. He also told P.C. Jones that he had asked Mrs. Pullin to spend the night with him whereupon she said she would give him a knock on the head with a poker. He confessed that he severed her head with his bean-hook, adding “Twas not much of a blow” as if somehow this would provide some form of mitigation. He asked the police constables to write to his father explaining what he had done as he could neither read nor write. King’s confession to the two police officers whilst at Streatley sealed his fate and would no doubt ensure a more rapid ride to a guilty verdict at the forthcoming trial.

The Trial opened on Thursday 27th February 1834 before Mr. Justice Patterson’


George King, aged nineteen from Cumnor was charged with the ‘Wilful murder of Ann Pullin at Wantage on 30th August last.’ In a steady voice, with no faltering, King pleaded “Not Guilty“. Right to the last he was going for the outside chance that some idea might occur to rescue him from his fate despite his having provided a full confession to the murder to two police constables the previous September.

The most poignant evidence at King’s trial was given by Ann’s stepson James, now thirteen yeas of age. Only six months ago he had witnessed a scene that would live with him forever. He told the court:

“I and my sister went to bed about eight or nine o’clock. My mother used to go to bed at ten. On the next morning, I got up between six and seven. When I went to bed the night before, I left my mother alone. When I came downstairs I went to the front door and then went into the kitchen and saw my mother’s head lying against the fireplace and her body towards the door. There was a great deal of blood in the room. I went to the front door and met the milk-boy coming up the steps. My mother kept her money in a dirtyish bag, she always kept a crooked sixpence which she called her lucky sixpence.”

It would take more than a lucky sixpence to help George King as the evidence so patiently evaluated at the original inquest now poured forth in greater detail and without the hindrance of the emotional turmoil of that long week-end in Wantage at the end of August 1833.

The bean-hook was held aloft as a key exhibit as the details of the murder were relayed to the court by the prosecution. King glanced at it but showed no emotion. There were no witnesses for the defence and King declined to comment or attempt to defend himself. He was, as of right, provided with a legal defence team – Mr. Carrington and Mr. Stone.

Their task was hopeless but with surprising guile, Mr. Carrington cross-examined P.C. James Jones, trying to establish that his client had been threatened that, if he did not confess to the murder of Ann Pullin, “A staple would be driven into the door of the White Hart and he would be chained to the dead body all night.

It was soon established that no one had heard such a threat or inducement to confess. A last, pathetic thrust by the defence was to say that throughout the trial no evidence had actually been provided to prove, in strict legal terms, that the deceased was in fact Mrs. Ann Pullin of Wantage, so no case had been made out.

This legal technically was soon remedied by the coroner Dr. Cowcher.
King had come to the end of the road. His manner in court seemed to suggest that he had admitted to himself that there was no escape, no plan, no one else to blame and he appeared to switch off in readiness for his inevitable fate. The newspapers described his sullen apathy and indifference as he was sentenced to be executed on Monday 3rd March 1834 at the county gaol, Reading

It was a violent hanging.
When the trap bolts were pulled just before midday it was clear the fall was too short and King suffered very slow strangulation as he thrashed and struggled for some minutes before he gave a last compulsive shudder and died . It was rumored that the evil nature of his deed ensured the hangman would not oblige him with a clean hanging and the public seemed to approve.


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