Histories and Mysteries: Arsenic and Old Eggs – Some unusual Devon crimes – Part 2

Mark Norman
Mark Norman

A county stereotyped for its quiet rural life, Devon finds its notoriety occasionally. We continue our look at some of the seedier and more unusual crimes from Devon’s past.

Appearing before Plymouth magistrates on 11th December, 1947, photographer William Baker was accused of selling obscene photographs. He entered a plea of guilty and said in his defence that he ‘liked the artistic side of photography’.

Mr C Brown, in the chair and acting for the Bench, told Baker that he should be ashamed of himself. “We have nothing to say about some of them,” Brown said, “but others are extremely foul.” We are left to wonder at the difference between them.

From bad behaviour to bad language. On 27th January, 1896, the always seemingly busy Plymouth court charged Robert Norman with being drunk and disorderly and using bad language while in Looe Street two nights previously. Norman stated that he was ‘talking to his wife’ which the mayor took as a plea of not guilty. Two policemen provided evidence of his poor conduct, to which Norman replied that he had merely been giving his wife some moral maxims and introducing her to ‘Classical English’. He was fined 10s 6d or offered the alternative of ten days in custody.

A wife also appeared in a case of assault at the Devonport Petty Sessions on 8th November, 1876. Pensioner John Flowers was charged with assault against her. She additionally complained that he would often come home from work, drag her around the room and beat her. Flowers explained to the court that he did this because she ‘kept his house badly’. He was fined and bound over to keep the peace, and the Bench suggested that maybe the couple should live apart in future.

In the days before ASBOs, it was not only pensioners who were up for assault or similar. 2nd October, 1944 and a girl of 15, sent from Torquay, was remanded to Exeter Gaol for a second time as being ‘a person of too depraved a character for a remand home’. She had previously escaped five times from such establishments and on one of these occasions had undergone a kind of marriage with an American petty officer, consent being given by a woman who had been paid £15 to represent herself as the girl’s mother.

Crimes involving children are undoubtedly all the more tragic. In a case not so much a crime as severe negligence, an inquest had to be undertaken on Emma Rowe, a 15 year old secondary school pupil. She had been in a science lesson where she had been tasked to test the alkalinity of a solution of caustic soda which had been put into a measure and diluted. To do this she was told to draw the liquid into a long glass tube up to a particular mark by sucking on the end of the tube. She had accidentally drawn up too much solution and had swallowed it.

Although an antidote was administered straight away, her mouth and throat were badly burned and a hospital operation failed to save her. The jury remarked that closer supervision of the students was required in future.

Another sad but altogether more unusual inquest was carried out at Woods Temperance Hotel in Torquay on 8th May, 1893. This inquest was on the bodies of twins in a box. The bodies had been bought eighteen months earlier in Swansea from a showman named Fletcher, as an exhibit. They had already been seen at several travelling fairs. The purchaser, James Robins, left the box in the care of an auction room keeper in Torquay named Mr Westacott for a week, but he did not like the smell which came from the box.

He asked Robins about this and was told that it was due to the methylated spirits which preserved the bodies. Westacott called in the coroner as he was unsure about this, but he was able to confirm that a document purchased with the box detailing the history of the bodies was genuine. The twins had lived for only three days and had died of asthenia; a form of extreme physical weakness. The verdict was naturally given as death by natural causes, but the display of the bodies does seem somewhat unsavoury these days.

Another crime, which we are very familiar these days and which also appears in the historical record is that of speeding, although the passage of time makes the historic cases seem far less dramatic. On 13th August, 1904, Ernest Luscombe was tried in Newton Abbot for ‘driving furiously’ at Highweek a couple of weeks before. PC Nicholls stated that he had seen the defendant driving a horse attached to a trap at a speed of between 12 and 14 miles an hour. He was fined 16s with costs.

Not too far away in the following year, on 7th October, 1905, Albert Kensall was driving up Chudleigh Hill when he passed Thomas Edwards coming down at what he considered to be an excessive speed. In court two weeks later, Edwards was charged with driving at 40 miles per hour, which was double the limit, although he told the magistrates that he didn’t know what the limit was. He was fined £2, including costs.

Not even men of the cloth could avoid the long arm of the law. On 13th September, 1887, Rev John Ingle of St Olave’s in Exeter was charged with being drunk while conducting a burial service. On 8th September, he had been leading a procession to the graveside for the burial of a victim of the recent big theatre fire in the city, but had been lurching along a strange zig-zag path. At the graveside he swayed around and tried three times to read from his Prayer Book, producing instead only a low mumbling sound.

After a brief period of silence he staggered off back in the direction that they had originally come, with the mourners following after him brandishing sticks and umbrellas and chastising him for not finishing the service. They beat him to the ground and he was finally rescued by a Sergeant of the Devonshire Regiment who took him to a nearby chapel to lay low. The crowds, however, did not leave and the clergyman had to be sent off to safety in a cab.

In court, Ingle stated that his odd way of walking was due to twinges of gout, and that he had in fact completed the service because he had started reading it whilst walking to the graveside. He also said that he had not slept for the previous two nights because of the trauma of going to see the bodies of the fire victims and because of the stress of all the open graves in his churchyard waiting for burials to be completed. Despite the fact that the Sergeant and the vicar at the other chapel had given evidence that Ingle had appeared to be drunk, the Bench were sympathetic and dismissed the case. Maybe this assured their place in confession would not be required the following week!

Another chapel which features in the records in relation to a criminal is Lidwell Chapel, built on the slopes of Haldon Hill in the 13th Century. The Bishop of Exeter’s register for 15th May, 1329 refers to the ‘purgation of Robert de Middlecote’. Robert was a monk at Lidwell Chapel. He used to be available to hear confessions from people who were travelling across Haldon. But at night, when he closed the chapel door, Brother Robert became a robber, and possibly the first serial killer to be documented in England. It appears that Robert, who was the only person at Lidwell Chapel, had chosen to go there himself. However, at his previous chapel in Gidleigh he had thrice been charged with robbery as well as the attempted murder of the daughter of the local miller and her child. He had been sent to Lidwell after protesting his innocence of the crimes.

Robert kept the chapel well lit and welcoming in the evening, in the hope that it would attract people travelling to the port of Teignmouth nearby and who were in need of a rest. He would give these people a hot meal into which he would administer some poison. As the guest started to lose consciousness, the monk would stab the unfortunate, strip the body of anything valuable and then toss it down the well.

The murderer was finally caught, it seems, when a sailor proved to be a match for him. Having accepted a meal, he overpowered Robert when the monk tried to stab him. What happened next is uncertain. One version of the story says that the sailor pushed Brother Robert into the well and then dragged him up again before the monk drowned, only for Robert to die a few minutes later. Another version says that in fact the Brother survived and was then subsequently hanged at Exeter for his crimes.

Another victim of poisoning was Samuel Westcombe of Whipton in Exeter, who died at home on 6th May, 1829. The death was unexpected as Westcombe had been quite fit, having spent the previous day assisting a neighbour with a hedge. An investigation therefore took place, during which traces of arsenic were found in Samuel’s stomach.

Samuel Westcombe’s wife Kerziah wasn’t especially respected in the area, and was known to have been having an affair with the man who lodged with them, Richard Quaintance. He was separated from his wife at the time. Both Kerziah and Richard were tried for the murder and were found guilty despite two defence witnesses testifying that Samuel Westcombe had been depressed and suicidal, as the weight of evidence against them was too great.

This case is interesting because, following their execution, a print of the murderers was produced and offered for sale around Exeter. In addition, a model of the Westcombe home was made and put on display at Exeter Castle, with all of the admission money collected being subsequently donated to Richard Quaintance’s estranged widow.

Food can also kill when it doesn’t contain poison. In April of 1951, Cumings Bakery on Embankment Road, Plymouth, was fined £36 on five counts of being unhygienic. The bakery had been closed down by the directors following an inspection in the January of that year. This had turned up a mouse nest in a carton of margarine and mildew in six others.
Other charges included a failure to keep shelves and racks clean and a failure to take steps to prevent the risk of contamination by allowing the fat store to become infested with mice.

The argument put forward by the defence was that an air raid shelter was being used for storage due to a lack of other suitable accommodation, and that other measures had been delayed due to clearing up war damage.

We can’t end there, as some of you may be reading this over breakfast, or dinner. So let’s end with an ironic tale from Tiverton.

On 2nd March, 1908, Mr E Tennyson Smith, a temperance advocate was addressing a crowd of some 1,500 people in the drill hall. He was on an eight day mission in the area and this would not prove to be one of his finest moments. The week before, Smith had made some less than flattering remarks about local man Thomas Ford. Unfortunately, Ford was not only a popular figure but was also a benefactor and a director of the local brewery firm who were presenting the clock tower to the town. Smith’s comments about him had been repeated all through Tiverton.

That meeting, therefore, did not see an audience arrive to sit through a fine speech on temperance so much as one which demonstrated fine skills in heckling, name calling and the throwing of rotten eggs.

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