Tucker, James. “Secrecy rules in village of fear.” Sunday Times [London, England] 15 Apr. 1984: 4. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. (Web. 21 June 2017.)
This extract from James Tucker’s 1984 ‘Village of Fear’ scenario may have started out as a snappy headline for a quirky piece of Sunday Times journalism, hinting at dark deeds and perhaps even darker relationships in a remote English hamlet, but I wager even he, who went on to craft his own excellent crime novels under the pseudonym, Bill James, was staggered by the audacious plot line and denouement of this true murder mystery. Here is the crime story that proves Mark Twain’s adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
The small hamlet of Horton, near Chipping Sodbury, England, was buzzing with news of the explosion. Neighbours and villagers wished Maggie Backhouse a speedy recovery and were aghast at the news that this appeared to be a deliberate act of murder. Indeed, the detective leading the inquiry, Detective Inspector Tom Evans, was reported in the media as saying, “There has been a recent history of anonymous phone calls to the home threatening the husband and family.”
It was assumed by all, that the intended victim was forty-three year old Graham Backhouse, but on that morning of 9th April, 1984, it was Maggie Backhouse who set off from their home at Widden Hill Farm to collect supplies from the local vet.
Her husband, Graham had lent Maggie his car as her own had suddenly developed a fault. She turned the ignition key which triggered the bomb that nearly led to her death. She had managed to stagger away from the car before collapsing in agony and was then rushed to hospital.
Police examining Backhouse’s Volvo after the explosion (Weston Media Publishing)
Graham Backhouse was distraught as he had his doubts about how seriously the police had been taking the previous telephone threats to his family. He had made constant calls to them about these threats to his life and the explosion now proved how deadly serious they had been, not only to himself, but to his wife and their two young children, Harry aged ten and Sophie aged eight. They could have all been in that car that morning – it did not bear thinking about.
However, over the proceeding weeks, Detective Inspector Evans had been taking Graham Backhouse’s claims very seriously, that he was a victim of a conspiracy to murder. He had told the police of anonymous telephone calls, and showed them some letters clumsily printed in block capitals that threatened his life in no uncertain terms. It was reported that Backhouse admitted to having had a number of affairs with local married women and, as a result, certain people perhaps had reasons to dislike him intensely, but to want to murder him would seem to be excessive.
Prior to the car bomb, what had really brought home the gravity of the threat was an extremely gruesome discovery. On his rounds, a stockman at the farm had discovered the severed head of a sheep carefully impaled on a stake close to the farmhouse. There was a note attached. Written in block capitals were two words:
Apart from the prospect of an irate husband wanting revenge on the farmer for seducing his wife, there was, Backhouse claimed, a dispute over land boundaries and rights of way with a neighbour, Colyn Bedale-Taylor aged sixty-three. It is well-known for arguments over land rights to far outweigh any falling-out over sexual indiscretions.
This appeared to the police to be the strongest motive to explain the threats to Backhouse’s life. However, Colyn Bedale-Taylor denied any knowledge of such behaviour and there was no evidence against him whatsoever.
A forensic detective holding up the threatening letters Backhouse claimed to have received (Weston Media Publishing)
With Maggie Backhouse injured in hospital, and not knowing what the next action of the attacker might be, Graham Backhouse and his family were given twenty-four hour police protection while the investigation continued.
The analysis of the home-made bomb, believed to have been planted to kill Graham Backhouse, revealed two sections of metal pipe packed with powder extracted from around a dozen or so shotgun cartridges. Loaded with thousands of lead pellets, the bomb had been carefully positioned to face upwards through the driver’s seat. It was a miracle Maggie Backhouse had survived such a deadly booby-trap.
Now revealed by the local press as a village vendetta, locals awaited the next episode in the story with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.
On April 18th, when Detective Inspector David Edwards called to see Graham Backhouse, he told D.I. Edwards, rather ungratefully and curtly, that he was fed-up with the police presence and wanted to get back to normality. He suggested that while his wife was safe in hospital, and the children were with relatives, the police should withdraw their surveillance and this might tempt the ‘bomber’ out into the open and more likely to be caught. He was willing to take this chance to end the uncertainty. The police agreed to withdraw their surveillance on condition that they fitted a panic alarm button linked to the police station. Backhouse agreed.
On the evening of April 30th, the newly installed alarm did indeed alert the police to the fact that something was happening at Widden Hill Farm. When they entered the farmhouse they were confronted by a bloody scene.
The body of Colyn Bedale-Taylor was lying in a passageway and with a large bloody hole in his chest. He was clutching a craft knife tightly in his right hand.
Police constable Richard Yeadon recalls;
“I stepped over the body and saw Mr. Backhouse lying in a curled-up position in the entrance to the lounge. He was sobbing.”
The police constable could see extensive injuries to Backhouse’s chest and face. Backhouse looked up at the police officer and said several times, “I did not kill his son.”
Colyn Bedale-Taylor was clearly dead. He had been shot through the chest with a double-barrelled shotgun.
It seems that the vendetta had reached its climax – Backhouse’s mysterious, would-be assassin had been slain and Backhouse had survived. He and his family were now safe. But why had Bedale-Taylor attacked him like this? Why was Backhouse repeating over and over, “I did not kill his son.”?
Backhouse needed skilled medical attention to deep cuts to his face and body. In fact, one wound ran from ear to chin, and required eighty stitches. He explained to the police that Bedale-Taylor had called with a craft-knife claiming, rather oddly, that he had been asked to come and repair some furniture. Backhouse felt very threatened by this bizarre and unexpected visit and told him there was no furniture to repair.
He then claimed that Bedale-Taylor had said that God had sent him, and then accused Backhouse of being the cause of his son’s death in a car crash eighteen months previously. Bedale-Taylor then confessed that he had been the person who sent the threatening notes, rigged up the sheep’s head warning, and made and planted the bomb in Backhouse’s car.
Bedale-Taylor then lunged at him with the scalpel-sharp craft knife.
Backhouse had run inside, grabbed his gun and demanded that Bedale-Taylor leave immediately. He refused and continued his frenzied attack on Backhouse, accusing him of killing his son Digby.
Backhouse had then shot Bedale-Taylor in self-defence. He told the police, “I ran into the hallway and grabbed a gun; Bedale-Taylor was still after me. I shouted I had got a gun but he still kept coming and I shot him. He fell back and I shot him again and that was it.”
It all fitted the scene that had confronted the officers that night. It seems the case was closed.
For one man, however, Home Office forensic detective, Geoffrey Robinson, it was not as clear-cut as it appeared. He had been to the crime scene and made a painstakingly detailed investigation of that scene and the evidence left behind by the two men in their bloody, murderous confrontation.
In Robinson’s analytical mind was an image of Colyn Bedale-Taylor, a man possessed with extreme anger, according to Backhouse, a man clutching a craft-knife and lunging at his victim to slash and kill. Then there was Backhouse himself, a man taken aback by such a frenzied attack, running to grab his gun and, after first warning Bedale-Taylor to end his knife attack, shoots him as the only means to stop any more injuries to his face and his body.
Robinson was truly puzzled. He had a dilemma to solve between the physical scene and the forensic scene. What had really happened that evening was so vivid as a result of his investigation it was as if he had been there himself.
The key to his understanding was his expert analysis of the pattern of the many blood spills across the crime scene. He examined every single drop of blood wherever it lay. He knew that during frenzied fights, particularly when one person is being attacked with a knife, that by defending your face and body with your hands, blood will spurt, drop and splash in all sorts of ways that reflect the intensity and direction of fight and flight, or the desperation of the fleeing, twisting victim, trying to prevent death or serious injury.
For him, blood drips, oozes, sprays, smears and gets flung – so what is called blood spatter analysis (or bloodstain pattern analysis, BPA) will give a unique view of something that was not witnessed, yet leaves a picture almost as clear as if it had been.
Blood spatter analysis : typical patterns found at a crime-scene
Robinson also looked at how the furniture had been disturbed, fallen over or damaged as happens during a fight and its relationship to the sequence of events will show if a chair fell onto the blood, or the blood onto the chair, or gun butt, or knife handle or whatever was used. It depicts movement very clearly.
The puzzle for Geoffrey Robinson was that the blood droplets showed a victim who seemed to have stood still whilst being cut with a knife, rather than fighting off his attacker. Blood flung from such a fight such as Backhouse described would appear in exclamation mark shapes everywhere whereas the blood evidence in the room was in the form of circular drops, allowed to fall from someone standing still.
Kitchen chairs had been knocked over onto the perfectly formed droplets with ‘crenated’ or toothed edges. There was no blood splashed onto the chairs, except a long smear left on a chair back by Backhouse’s hand. Yet, despite this evidence of a bleeding hand, no blood at all was found on the gun he grabbed in desperation to shoot his attacker.
Geoffrey Robinson’s suspicions were confirmed by the position of Colyn Bedale-Taylor’s body in the passageway from the front door to the kitchen. There were no blood droplets along the passage to link with the those in the kitchen. The forensic picture was therefore, of Backhouse shooting Bedale-Taylor at point-blank range with no suggestion of any attack to support a claim of self-defence.
Backhouse then, (following Robinson’s forensic analysis), must have inflicted the craft-knife wounds upon himself while in the kitchen. Robinson conjures up an image of Backhouse standing still and steeling himself against the intense pain as he cut deeply into his own face and body, the blood dropping into tell-tale perfectly formed circles rather than the splashes, smears and exclamation marks of a genuine victim fleeing and fighting. Lastly,thought Robinson, Backhouse would have toppled the chairs to give the impression of a fight.
In addition to the forensic detective’s discoveries, Dr. Kennard, a pathologist, explained that one of Backhouse’s wounds – a cut that ran diagonally from his left shoulder to the right side of his waist – could only have been inflicted by an attacker if Backhouse had remained completely still while the perfectly formed arc was cut into him by his assailant. Also there were no ‘defence cuts’ on the backs of his hands received when you attempt to ward off a thrusting or slashing knife attack.
GRAHAM BACKHOUSE (Weston Media Publishing)
The clincher – if one were needed – was the fact that Colyn Bedale-Taylor’s right palm was covered in his own blood which could only have got there immediately he was shot as he instinctively clutched at his chest. If Bedale-Taylor had been clutching the craft-knife after he’d been shot, a portion of his right palm would have been less bloody where the knife had been held. More likely – had he been holding the knife when he was shot – it would have fallen from his grasp as he was blasted backwards. The craft-knife had obviously been placed in Bedale-Taylor’s hand after his death.
Detectives had also uncovered additional information about Graham Backhouse that swiftly turned into a motive for engineering the whole threatening letter scenario, and much more.
Their suspicions had been aroused from the moment he called the ambulance immediately after the car bomb went off. As detectives were to reveal later, Backhouse made a serious error when he telephoned for an ambulance. He told the control centre that his wife had been injured ‘in an explosion,’ yet at that time when news reached him from those working on the farm that his wife had been injured, no one had mentioned to him exactly how she had been hurt until after he had called for an ambulance and went to the scene and saw the the bomb damage to the car himself.
Graham Backhouse was seriously in debt, owing £70,000 or so, and needed money. Just prior to the car bomb incident, he had substantially increased his wife’s life insurance from £50,000 to £100,000. Mysteriously, her car had broken down and on that April day it was Graham who suggested she took the car he had booby-trapped deliberately to murder her.
Unfortunately for Backhouse his wife had survived, and now he had a problem to ensure the police had a suspect for this attack. No one knows how he enticed Colyn Bedale-Taylor to Widden Hill Farm on 30th April, to be murdered in cold blood, but it was planned and plotted just as all the alleged threatening telephone calls, notes, the decapitated sheep’s head and the attempt to murder his wife had been planned and plotted.
Backhouse was charged with the murder of Colyn Bedale-Taylor and the attempted murder of Margaret Backhouse. Right up to the end he continued to try and substantiate his original story. Even in custody at Horfield Prison, he persuaded another prisoner to smuggle out an anonymous letter to the editor of the Bristol Evening Post stating it was Colyn Bedale-Taylor who had been responsible for the vendetta against him. Unfortunately for Backhouse, the power of forensic analysis stepped in once more and proved the so-called anonymous letter had, in fact, been written by Backhouse. They had already discovered a note pad in Backhouse’s farm office that bore the impression of the words YOU NEXT.
A question posed by a neighbour in Jame’s Tucker’s original, speculative journalistic piece when all of this had only just began was now well and truly answered:
Tucker, James. “Secrecy rules in village of fear.” Sunday Times [London, England] 15 Apr. 1984: 4. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. (Web. 21 June 2017.)
Graham Backhouse was given two life sentences at his trial on the 18th February 1985.
Sex, sex and more sex. Caroline knew exactly what she wanted and she certainly went for it. Bedding her lover in sumptuous apartments around the world, as well as enjoying modest ‘bunks’ on a boat and a naughty night or two in a tent in the Syrian desert. And of course, bath-time was always a riot.
However, the issue that had to be faced was that Caroline was married and her lover was married. “So what!” you might say, “lots of people have affairs.”
True, but Caroline’s husband was King George III’s son, the Prince of Wales and, of course, heir to the throne, and her lover was an Italian servant, married with children, and she was cavorting around the continent – all expenses paid – with a royal entourage of titled chaperons and household staff to satisfy her every whim.
When Caroline visited Naples in 1814, her only whim became that of bedding Bartolomeo Pergami who worked for the household as a servant. However that desire needed a little subtle planning given her on-going ‘motherly’ duties towards a young lad named William Austin.
William Austin, a lad of six or seven years of age, regularly travelled with Caroline and shared the royal bedchamber (his own bed of course, it’s not that kind of story). He was the son she never had, and she looked after him as if he were. Rumours did abound that it really was her son and various fathers were the subject of speculation, but it was never proved and Caroline claimed she had adopted him from a Sophie and Samuel Austin who wanted their son to have a better life given their impoverished situation. Caroline did have a daughter already – Princess Charlotte (1796-1817) and even she believed ‘Willy’ was her mother’s illegitimate son. Tragically she was to die three years later in childbirth.
At the sight of Bartolomeo, Caroline soon got to work, organizing her lusty Italian to move from the domestic quarters to an adjoining room and young Mr. Austin – suddenly too grown-up to continue sharing the royal bedchamber – immediately inherited his own room within the domestic household. It seems Caroline had experienced love at first sight while her maid-servant discovered a perfectly made royal bed at first sight the next morning compared to Bartolomeo Pergami’s excessively rumpled, double-indented mattress.
A Pas de Deux or Love at first Sight
“How I ‘d love you all the day , Every Night, we’d Kiss and Play. If with me you’d fondly stray, Over the Hills and far away.”
Fast-forward six years, to the death of George III on January 29th, 1820, Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, was now constitutionally, “Queen of the United Kingdom” being the wife of the new King George IV. Caroline arrived back in England on June 5th 1820 eager to attend her husband’s coronation and thereby receiving ceremonial confirmation of her new royal status as Queen Consort. However, her husband had other ideas and, having failed with a bribe of £50,000* for her to stay out of England and out of his life, he decided to introduce a bill into Parliament known as ‘The Pains and Privileges Bill.’ *(£1 then = approx. £42 today)
This was shorthand for a bill that proclaimed its purpose “to deprive Her Majesty Queen Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of the Title, Prerogatives, Rights, Privileges, and Exemptions of Queen Consort of this Realm; and to dissolve the Marriage between His Majesty and the said Caroline Amelia Elizabeth.”
Its passage through parliament would reveal to all, via the rapacious media, the claimed long-term adulterous behaviour of his wife and – with witnesses called by its protagonists – aim to prove her sexual depravities and therefore George’s entitlement to a divorce. It was, in effect, to be a public trial of Queen Caroline.
The hypocrisy behind this is staggering in as much as Caroline had certainly enjoyed a extra-marital sex-life with Bartolomeo Pergami, but George, as Prince of Wales and then Prince Regent, was more sexually rampant across those same years with many mistresses such as Lady Jersey and Lady Hertford. Indeed a large number of mature woman were in his sights and his bed.
Having already been in an ‘illegal’ marriage at the age of twenty-three with the older, divorced Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, he made it clear from the outset of his arranged marriage to Caroline in 1796, that he will abandon any ‘unnecessary’ sexual contact with her, claiming she smelt, was disgustingly unhygienic and also repulsive to look at and he could only have conjugal relations with her when hopelessly drunk.
Thus began a media soap-opera of incredible popularity.
The Attorney-General’s next task was to address The House of Peers, and, on behalf of the new king, manipulate the law and religious morality to ensure that this marriage was ended. Consequently, on Saturday, August 19th 1820 he informed them that:
“The highest individual, as a subject, in the country is charged with one of the most serious offences both against the laws of God and man – it is that of an adulterous intercourse carried on under circumstances of the greatest aggravation.” (Source: The Attorney-General’s charges against the late queen: brought forward in the House of Peers, on Saturday, August 19th, 1820, p.2)
It was reported that as he spoke these words, a loud peal of thunder burst in rapid succession over the buildings in a freak August storm. It certainly set the atmosphere! And so it was, the full scandalous tale of Caroline’s sexual adventures since she left England to travel the world in 1814 was read out to a stunned House of Peers, who as a body, gasped in horror at tales of kissing, shared bath-times, public nudity and sexual encounters in a tent to name but a few ‘indiscretions.’
“Soon after, her majesty proceeded to Aum, a place in Syria,” explained the Attorney-General, “where again Pergami was treated with the same extraordinary familiarity. A tent was erected for her royal highness, and, a bed fitted up for her within it. While she was in bed in this tent, Pergami was seen sitting in his shirt sleeves and almost undressed on the side of the bed. From this tent he was afterwards seen coming in a state of undress.” (Source: The Attorney-General’s charges against the late queen: brought forward in the House of Peers, on Saturday, August 19th, 1820, p.12)
So a long and tedious process was put into gear to create what was called ‘laying a foundation‘ in anticipation that the King would gather enough evidence to legally divorce Caroline by proving an adulterous relationship with Bartolomeo Pergami, “a foreigner of low station.”
This is where the spies come in. Compelled to give evidence in this process was Theodore Majocchi, and Louisa Demont, household servants to them both in their sleeping chambers and daily ablutions. You can see them depicted in the very first caricature at the beginning of this blog (Installation of a Knight Companion of the Bath) peeping around the bathroom door. Majocchi is also seen handing Pergami a candle through the tent flap in the Aum ‘Tent -ation’ depiction.
The whole procedure became a muddle with both these witnesses (and some others) claiming that had overhead love-making between the couple and also glimpsed occasions of inappropriate nudity – but then obfuscating under questioning, to claims of, “Non mi recordo,” translated as, “I can’t remember.”
Claims of fake news were given by witnesses who undoubtedly knew it was not so, but they flapped and floundered under examination within these austere parliamentary walls. Caroline was gaining many fans among the general public as this circus of disenfranchisement of her rights by a womanizing, alcohol-fulled Prince Regent turned King, dragged on and on until November 9th, by which time the prime minister realized it was a lost cause to pass The Pains and Privileges Bill through the House – so it was abandoned and the King was speechless with anger and excessive brandy! Plus it is interesting to note Lucy Worsley’s claim that he also had an addiction to laudanum – a tincture of opium – of which she claims, “He’d take 100 drops in preparation for a public appearance, enough to knock most people senseless.” (Worsley, L.,
The Naughty Prince Regent, (2015) See http://www.lucyworsley.com
As for Caroline;
“She thereupon became the unlikely beneficiary of a wave of indignant public sympathy, being perceived as a ‘wronged woman’ who was bravely struggling to uphold her rights against a callous political establishment.” (Source: Jenkins, T., The Queen Caroline Affair: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org)
Now Caroline set her sights on attending her husband’s coronation scheduled for July 19th 1821, and so a ‘soap-sequel’ soon got underway for the further entertainment of the public, as she continued her long battle to attend and put forward her plans to settle down to her perceived queen consort duties.
In answer to her request to be involved in his coronation she received the following reply from the Attorney-General, that..”his Majesty having determined, that the Queen should form no part of the ceremonial of his Coronation, it was his royal pleasure that the Queen should not be allowed to attend the said ceremony.” (Nightingale, J., Memoirs of Her Late Majesty : Consort of King George the Fourth, Vol.3. London 1822. p.9)
The day of the Coronation almost seemed to have been designed to throw a military cordon around the new King, lest Caroline dared to show up. “The dawn of day saw the metropolis of England in military occupation; and had a stranger not possessed of any previous knowledge of the events which had been passing, approached at that moment, he might have mistaken London for a conquered city, in which the governing powers were at war with the people.” (Nightingale, J., ibid, p.124)
But show up she did;
‘Her Majesty was followed by a crowd to the platform, some of whom were approving and some disapproving her conduct. On entering her carriage, there was considerable disapprobation, intermingled with cries of “shame, shame,” “off, off;” but other parts of the populace repeated the cries of “the Queen, the Queen,” with great enthusiasm. Her Majesty was elegantly dressed in a muslin slip, on a petticoat of silver brocade. She wore a small purple scarf, and had a splendid diamond bandeau on her head, with feathers. Lady Hamilton and Lady Hood were likewise elegantly dressed, and seemed to participate in all the feelings of her Majesty.’ (Nightingale, J., ibid, p.129)
There follows the most bizarre episode imaginable as Queen Caroline attempts to enter Westminster Abbey as a spectator to her husband’s coronation: I make no apology for providing the full text of this extraordinary encounter written by Joseph Nightingale (1775 – 1824) who followed the whole debacle:
‘ On arriving at the place where tickets were received, Lord Hood demanded admission for the Queen. The door-keeper said, that his instructions were to admit no person without a Peer’s ticket. Lord Hood — “Did you ever hear of a Queen being asked for a ticket before? This is your Queen.” The door-keeper said that his orders were general, and without any exceptions. He had never been in a similar situation before, and could say nothing as to the propriety or impropriety of refusing her Majesty admission. Lord Hood. — “I present to you your Queen, do you refuse her admission ?” Her Majesty added, that she was his Queen, and desired to be permitted to pass. The door-keeper repeated that his orders were peremptory — and said, however reluctant he might be, he could not suffer her Majesty to pass without a ticket. Lord Hood. — “I have a ticket.” Door-keeper. — “Upon producing it I will permit you to pass.” Lord Hood then took from his pocket one ticket for the Abbey, for a Mr. Wellington, which he tendered to the door-keeper. The door-keeper said that it would admit but one individual. Lord Hood then asked her Majesty if she would enter alone ? Her Majesty hesitated — upon which Lord Hood asked, whether there had not been some preparations made for her Majesty’s reception. The door-keeper answered in the negative. Lord Hood. — “Then I am to understand you refuse your Queen admittance to Westminster Abbey ?” The door-keeper said he was ready to admit her Majesty with a ticket, but not without. After a short consultation with her Majesty, as to whether she would go into the Abbey alone, or not — her Majesty declined — and it was resolved, having been refused admission to the Cathedral church of Westminster, that she should return to her carriage’ (Nightingale, J., ibid, p.127/8:
A rather cruel caricature followed this episode:
Indeed, it was very cruel.
Just over two weeks after Caroline’s futile attempt to attend her husband’s coronation and make her brave stand – she died. The prognosis was a bowel problem, but public emotion preferred to think it was a broken heart.*
“On earth denied the imperial crown,
Though form’d to share her husband’s throne.
Heaven pitying viewed her, and, in love,
Gave the celestial Crown above !”
*Lucy Worsley has written a wonderfully informative blog about the little known daily battle Caroline had endured with a mangled bowel operation way back in 1737. The stench of a daily operation that interfered with her digestive system was truly horrific and Caroline endured it all with humour – so in truth, she ‘died of the doctor’. (Worsley, L. Poor Queen Caroline and her horrible death, 9th May 2014, www.lucyworsley.com)
(Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald (Bath: England) Saturday June 8th, 1935, p.11)
A shot rang out, echoing through the woods. Birds rose into the air with a frantic flapping of wings, and a blood-curling scream pieced the morning calm.
At the sound of what was undoubtedly a woman’s scream, William Nott, busy feeding his poultry close by, ran towards the noise. Within seconds another shot could be heard, but this time no scream followed. Nott arrived just as the second shot had been fired.
When he arrived at the scene, there, lying face down on the ground with her head completely shattered, was his wife Gladys. Standing a small distance away from where she lay was his neighbour Arthur Franklin holding a shotgun.
No sooner had William Nott taken in the horror of what had just happened,then Franklin levelled his gun at Nott and shouted, “And you too, you rat.“
Nott turned to run to his shack, a matter of feet away, to get his own gun. Wrenching open the door, he tumbled inside, pushing it shut behind him. Another shot split the air and splintered its way through the door, the bullet’s trajectory slowed by the thick timber but striking William Nott in the side of the head. With blood pouring from his wound, and unable to see clearly, Nott grabbed his gun, kicked open the door and fired back at Franklin, but missed completely.
Franklin contemptuously shouted at Nott, “I will play with you as a cat with a mouse.” He levelled his gun and pulled the trigger. An empty click told Nott that the gun was not loaded and he lunged forward to grab Franklin, but he was in no fit state to do so. Blood was pouring from his temple and eye socket. By this time, others had arrived from their woodland homes and some men grabbed and restrained Arthur Franklin, wresting the gun from him. Others tried to see if the poor woman could be saved and another tried to stem the blood flowing from William Nott’s face.
This is not a remote outback somewhere in a distant wilderness, but welcome to Hanham Abbots in the depths of Hanham Woods, on the banks of the river Avon near the city of Bristol in England on the eighth of May, 1935.
In these woods, various poor families scraped a living as smallholders and occasional traders in town, but on the whole this was a small, closed community, living by its own standards and morals. It was not a community that relied upon anyone else’s help or values, and the police tended to leave them to their own devices. The wooden, stone and mud shacks, scattered amongst the trees along tired dirt track, were not regarded as part of Bath or Bristol’s local community – they were outsiders.
(Mr. and Mrs. Nott’s shack in Hanham Wood where they lived with their son Dennis)
Apart from one-room shacks, some families were living in converted furniture vans and some old army huts with no access to sanitation apart from the river Avon.
Now, however, too much had happened to keep this within the community and a young boy was sent running down to the local police station in Staple Hill to fetch the police.
When the police arrived, they found a distressed crowd gathered around the body of twenty-eight year old Gladys Nott, still bleeding from a gunshot wound to her shoulder. They had covered her head, which the second shot had completely shattered. As the pathologist would later confirm, her brain had been blown completely out of the skull and this cowardly second shot had happened after she had been felled from behind by the first of Franklin’s shots.
Mrs.Priscilla Dyer and Mrs. Elizabeth Robbins had quickly arrived on the scene just as Franklin had realized he was out of ammunition. He acknowledged them and said, “I have shot Gladys and I have also put a shot into Mr. Nott.“
He was just as open with the police, repeating his confession as soon as they arrived. While Arthur Henry Franklin was arrested and taken off to appear before Staple Hill magistrates the following day, William Nott was rushed to hospital in a very serious condition.
There was no question about Franklin’s guilt, and when he appeared at Staple Hill Police Court, the following day, charged with the wilful murder of Mrs. Bessie Gladys Nott, on May 8th, Franklin again openly confessed that he had done just that.
William Nott was so ill, however, that Franklin had to be remanded in custody twice more while his neighbour recovered enough to appear at the police court to recount his version of events.
At Franklin’s second remand on Thursday May 16th, he was told by the Bench that they were prepared to grant him a certificate for legal aid. Franklin replied, “I don’t want one.” He was then allowed to meet his brother Frank before being taken back to Horfield prison.
Meanwhile the tiny village of Hanham Abbot had been buzzing with news of the tragedy on their doorstep. People were travelling down from Bristol and Bath to visit the woods and re-live the dramatic events that had taken place.
Local newspapers such as the Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald and the Gloucester Journal, vied for sensational descriptions of this gruesome shooting, speculating on why two neighbours,living a mere 150 yards apart, had got into such a bloody feud. They had to wait until Friday 24th May to learn the truth.
Daily Mail: Friday 24th May, 1935, page 20.
This confession to murder, and attempted murder, could not have been more clearly expressed. Arthur Franklin, forty-five years old, a broad stocky man with a shock of long blonde hair, stood upright and confident in the local courtroom again refusing any offer of legal aid from the magistrates.
Franklin, they learnt, was single and formerly lived in Bath with his parents who ran a small grocery shop in Camden Place. However, he was now part of the Hanham Wood community where he had a smallholding with his brother Frank and kept pigs. They were virtual hermits, only venturing out to collect food waste for their pigs from local canteens.
Waiting to appear in court as a witness was a heavily bandaged William Nott, aged thirty-six, who had lost his right eye completely as a result of Franklin’s attack on him. The prosecution established that William and Gladys Nott were poultry farmers and had a young son, Dennis aged eight, and they lived approximately 150 yards away from the Franklin brothers and their pigs. The animosity between William and Arthur had begun in November 1933 when Gladys left William and moved in with Arthur Franklin and his brother.
Every day William Nott saw his wife living with his neighbour while he cared for their son, sending Dennis off to school with food scraps wrapped in newspaper to sustain him. He would dutifully take the boy to his mother every weekend to be bathed, have his clothes mended and to have a proper Sunday meal.
This went on for eighteen months, William Nott valiantly accepting the fact that his wife wanted to live with Franklin rather than with him. Then Gladys gradually changed her mind and William was heartened to discover that she wanted to return to him after all and live as a family once more and that was her plan on the day of her tragic murder by Franklin.
She had waited until Dennis had left for school, excited that not only was he was to receive a gift of a King George V Jubilee mug at school assembly, but he would return home to both his mum and dad as a family once more.
So, on May 8th 1935, as she left the Franklin brothers’ shack, carrying some meager possessions along the dirt track back to her old home, Arthur Franklin walked out behind her and aimed his single barrel shotgun at the back of her head. His first shot missed but penetrated her shoulder, hurling her to the ground and the second shot found its target, killing her outright.
Franklin had told the police, “I had a few words with my wife and went down to Nott’s ground to get even with him. I took my single-barreled gun with me.” It seems that, seeing Gladys walking back to his rival had changed his plans and so he shot her from behind in cold blood before turning his attention to “getting even” with his neighbour William Nott. He was asked in court if he wanted to give any reason for what he had done, but simply said, “I am not interested.”
He was also challenged about referring to Gladys Nott as his wife. He admitted they were not legally married but had undergone a ‘ceremony’ conducted by his brother Frank.
Franklin also declared he was very much in love with Mrs. Nott and could not bear to think she was going back to a man who he claimed half-starved her and Dennis their son. No evidence was offered to substantiate Franklin’s claim.
At the local court hearing, it was now time for William Nott’s story to be told. He was a sad figure, heavily banaged, an eye lost to the jealous murderous rage of his neighbour, his wife dead and his son now without a mother.
He told how he had met and married Gladys Slocombe in 1926, and that they had one son, Dennis. He recounted his devastation when his wife had left him eighteen months previously. He recalled the exact day – Tuesday, the twenty-ninth of November 1933. He had frequently quarreled with Franklin about this situation and there was even a period when Gladys took furnished rooms in Bristol to try and cool the situation down.
He had received a note from her saying she wanted to return and had even secretly visited her Hanham Wood home on the day before she was killed to explain that she wanted to come back to him and Dennis. The next morning, when she had been doing just that, her life was cruelly taken.
Arthur Franklin was committed to be tried for murder at Gloucester Assizes on June 5th. His refusal to accept legal aid and his reluctance to provide any real account of his motive or personal feelings at what had happened resulted in this murder trial setting a record yet to be broken. The newspapers were full of the fact that from his appearance in the dock, until the chaplain murmured “Amen” once the inevitable sentence of death had been pronounced by Mr, justice Macnaughton, the whole proceeding took only six minutes.
The media seemed more taken by the fact that this is (and remains) a twentieth century record for the shortest murder trial in the United Kingdom, rather than the terrible family tragedy it involved.
“DOCK DRAMA LASTS 6 MINUTES,” proclaimed the Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald adding “Franklin who was quite unmoved, hardly seemed to realise that the proceedings were over was he was led from the dock by prison warders.”
Franklin’s execution was set for Tuesday June 25th 1935.
On that sunny morning, two hundred or so people gathered in silence outside Gloucester prison listening to the cathedral bells chiming eight o’clock – the moment of execution by hangman Thomas Pierrepoint. A matter of minutes later, they surged forward to read the notice of the completed execution posted on the prison gate.
This whole tragic story. however, was not yet over.
Living alone and depressed, Franklin’s brother Frank made attempts to recover the gun that his brother had used to murder Gladys Nott.
Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald, Saturday November 30th, 1935, p.26
Eventually he succeeded after being refused permission on several occasions.
In August 1937, after more than two years of a lonely, and bitter life without his brother, Frank Joseph Franklin stood on the edge of a rain-filled quarry close to the scene of Gladys Notts murder by his brother and shot himself with that same gun. He fell into the quarry where he remained for some time before being discovered. He left a note:
Meanwhile, Dennis Nott, William and Gladys’s son, left Hanham woods after his father had died a broken man and he married a young lady from nearby Pucklechurch – working on her father’s farm.
Tragically, during haymaking time, he fell from a large haystack and died from a broken neck.
Family tragedies take many forms.
Winter in Hanham woods (2004) by the river Avon in the heat of Bristol