I’m intrigued and aggravated in equal measure the more I read Donald McCormick’s 1967 book on the Red Barn murder. The claims made: blackmail, conspiracy, robbery and murder, Beauty Smith being the secret lover of Maria’s stepmother and having ‘finished Maria off’ by stabbing her, unknown to Corder, are sensational. The deafening lack of response to the book, with the exception of a fairly indifferent review in the East Anglian Daily Times, suggests that McCormick’s reputation as an investigative journalist into historical events was already somewhat tarnished.
McCormick wrote over thirty books. He tackled the question of the identity of Jack the Ripper; he wrote about the Hell Fire club in a ‘carefree manner…rumour and speculation…’ (The Times, 10th April 1958); The Mystery of Lord Kitchener’s Death, where he had ‘disentangled truth from fiction…’ (The Times, 9th April 1959); a book describing how a Welshman called Madoc beat Columbus to North America, (writing as Richard Deacon), but admitting that, ‘it is one of those difficult things where legend ends and fact begins.’ (The Times, 20 Feb 1967). Quite so.
In the Red Barn book McCormick cites his sources, but these raise more questions than are answered. On the one hand he details the prosecution brief for Corder held in the Bury St Edmunds record office – which I have looked at, but lists ‘Correspondence of Mrs E T Kemp (Caroline Palmer, actress) with Mrs S F Hampson of Sydney…’ with no mention of where the correspondence is or how he knew about it. Then he cites the Settler’s Sentinel, Sydney, 21 July 1859. Interrogation of the excellent website of the National Library of Australia recognizes no newspaper or journal of that name…
Perhaps he was just a sloppy researcher; I cannot believe that he just made it all up. And tantalisingly, a Mrs Hampson did make a journey between Sydney and Launceston (Tasmania) in April 1837. This was before Wainwright arrived, but it suggests that said Mrs Hampson was in the habit of travelling between those two towns at about the right time. Was ‘Hampson’ a common name at the time? Not very; there were 3,529 people called Hampson recorded in the England census of 1841…
McCormick knew Ian Fleming well, and many of his books deal with espionage. One wonders whether that, coupled with Fleming’s best known creation, Mr Bond, might just have stimulated McCormick’s imagination to be less than rigorous in the search for sensation.
As mentioned previously, I have failed so far to find any trace of the so-called correspondence between Caroline Palmer, the actress, and Mrs Hampson (in Australia) on the subject of Beauty Smith’s part in the Red Barn murder, as related by Donald McCormick.
The details are sensational, and I am picking them apart to see what can be verified. So far, I have come up with one major issue. On page 192 McCormick says:
Mrs Hampson was introduced by Wainewright to Beauty Smith, by this time a wiser, if not a sadder man, who was spending his remaining years as a gardener on parole in Hobart.
Both men were transported, but Smith was sent to New South Wales – he landed in Sydney on the Royal George on 24th December 1828, as reported in The Australian; Wainwright was sent to Van Diemen’s Land on the Susan. He arrived at Hobart on 21 November 1837. Since they were both transported for life they could have been let out on parole – Wainewright was granted a ticket-of-leave in 1845 – but Beauty Smith could not have travelled from Sydney to Hobart, even if he had had the money for the ticket, let alone the inclination, since parole, or ticket-of-leave, would have prevented that. Thus there is already a serious flaw in McCormick’s story.
I have now purchased two further books about the Red Barn murder. The most interesting, and perplexing, is that by Donald McCormick entitled The Red Barn Mystery. He details some fascinating new evidence connecting William Corder with a prostitute, the unlikely named Hannah Fandango, as well as a well known poisoner, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who was transported but was alleged to have known both Corder and ‘Beauty Smith’ in London.
All of this, McCormick claims, comes from some correspondence an actress Caroline Palmer (real name Mrs E T Kemp), had with a Mrs S F Hampson of Sydney, who, at Caroline Palmer’s request, interviewed Wainewright in Australia. Caroline Palmer apparently became interested in the case having acted the part of Maria Martin in several dramatic productions.
The problem is that McCormick fails to indicate where said correspondence resides and how he came to hear of it; half an hour with Google has failed to find any reference at all to a 19th century actress called Caroline Palmer. In addition to that, Ancestry.com has not a single record for a 'Hanna Fandango'...
However, my interest is now firmly aroused, not the least reason for which is that an old map of Brentford in my possession shows the position of Grove House on Ealing Road (Ealing lane then) where Corder was arrested. In my life I must have passed it a thousand times or more on my way to school or college.
I have been assessing printed information on the Red Barn murder to see if there is sufficient new material, not previously published, to justify a re-investigation. The latest book, Maria Marten, the Murder in the Red Barn, by Peter Haining, 1992, is very disappointing. The book calls itself ‘a reinvestigation of the famous Victorian crime’. Mr Haining’s editor and Haining himself might have failed to notice that the Victorian era did not commence until ten years after the Red Barn murder, but that is to quibble.
More importantly, for a book apparently written with the intention of clarifying what happened, Haining succeeds only in confusing fact with fiction, myth and legend, right from the start. He relates ‘facts’ that cannot possibly be known: ‘…she did not actually give up her virginity until she was eighteen, and then to one Thomas Corder…’; ‘It was a bright morning as William [Corder] strolled past the Marten’s cottage…in the garden Maria was busy among the flowers…’ And so on.
Then Haining takes as verbatim a clear confusion in the trial report that appeared in The Times, where it talked about a spike being found in the body near the hip bone. He launches into half a page about vampirism, questioning the fact that no-one else had commented on this point, and embellished the paragraph with a photograph of the skeleton of a ‘suspected witch or vampire’. A comparison with reports in other newspapers makes it clear that the ‘spike’ mentioned was Thomas Martin’s mole-spike; The Times just got it wrong, and Haining failed to cross-check. There is a diagram of the layout of the Red Barn which is clearly incorrect, as can be seen by comparing it with pictures of the barn published in the same book, and the map of Polstead is poor and not to scale.
Since Haining’s book also gives substantial space to the various fictional accounts of the Red Barn murder, including the film made in the 1930s, the reader interested in historical fact really struggles to separate out reality from everything else. As a study of a social phenomenon, the book might be interesting, but history it is not.
However, I await with interest delivery of Donald McCormick’s book, The Red Barn Mystery, 1968. He puts forward a unique theory involving the well-known poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who, he claims, knew William Corer while he was in London. His book may be the last word on the matter, although his claims are, it is said, based substantially on hearsay.
A succession of nuns at the dreary Catholic schools to which I was sent, told me that I would never succeed in life if I could not spell. As I recall, this pleasant method of encouragement started in my sixth year of age. And when, against all expectation, I passed the ‘eleven plus’ examination, and became one of only three in a class of thirty to go to the local Catholic Grammar School, my class teacher, sister Anton, told me time out of number that my inability to spell would have me knocking on the door of the senior school any time soon, having been thrown out of the grammar school.
I have commented on my time at Gunnersbury elsewhere; one of the things that did not happen to me there, was being thrown out because I could not spell. I was, of course, politely asked to leave following my spectacular success in passing just one ‘O’ level.
In a way though, the nuns were right. Spelling has been my personal nemesis and I am paranoid about spelling mistakes creeping into this blog. Spell-checking in word-processing is a boon, but is by no means infallible and creates bear-traps for the unwary. The words ‘dammed’ and ‘damned’ are both correctly spelt (or should that be that spelled?), but mean entirely different things. Both ‘spelt’ and ‘spelled’ are correct in English English by the way, although the American spell-checker on this website insists that 'spelt' is not correct. Then there is the s vs z problem. Is it ‘civilize’ or ‘civilise’? ‘Realize’ or ‘realise’? ‘Customize’ or ‘customise’? And so on. Many people think that the ‘z’ version is American spelling; it is, but it is also the preferred English spelling as the OED will confirm, although both versions are correct. Then there are the words like ‘license’ and ‘licence’, ‘practise’ and ‘practice’, where the meaning is similar, but the one with an ‘s’ is the verb form, the other, with a ‘c’, is a noun. The list is endless.
Many people, I am sure, will dismiss all of this paranoia as the result of stupidity, a poor education or both. Perhaps so, but it remains an on-going problem for me. At grammar school, English masters would yell at me, ‘If you don’t know how to spell it boy, look it up in the dictionary!’ Quite so, but there are many words that cannot be found in the dictionary if you do not know how to spell them…
But help is at hand, I have found recently that if I am really stuck with a word and the spell-checker can’t help, Google is a wonderful resource of last resort. Its clever search engine works with really mangled, almost unintelligible groups of letters.
There is also assistance from an entirely unexpected direction. Many people bemoan ubiquitous texting on mobile telephones as debasing the English language with some of the more ghastly shorthand that tends to be used. But actually, a mobile ‘phone set to predictive text mode has the correct spelling of words built in… Admittedly the first few letters need to be right, but given that, predictive text spells words correctly. It has got me out of a jam on several occasions…
Actually, Walters Freake Pratt had a short and fairly unfortunate life. His name at christening in 1831 was 'Walter Freke Pratt', the son of James Pratt and Rose 'Freak' – thus his middle name. In 1856, he married Sophia Elizabeth Octavia Tyndale Ripley in Brighton. They had two children, Clara Ripley, born 1857, and Victor Francis, born 1859.
In March 1860, a few weeks after Pratt was cleared of gross misconduct in the Hatch case, both his wife and his son were dead. Seven years later, he was declared bankrupt, and seven years after that, he too was dead at the age of 44 - his gravestone says 45.
The Reverend Henry John Hatch was the subject of my first book, Henry’s Trials. He, and his loyal wife Essie, had to deal with many strange people in the course of Henry’s odyssey through the British legal system of the mid-19th century.
One of the oddest, and certainly the character with the strangest name, was Walters Freake Pratt. He was the young lawyer retained by the Plummer family who visited Essie in Wandsworth after Henry had fled to secret lodgings to avoid imprisonment for debt. He wanted Essie to admit that Henry was guilty of the charges of indecent assault which the Plummer children had made against him. If he did that, Pratt said, the charges could be dropped. Essie declined.
Subsequently, Pratt was called to account at the Court of Queen’s Bench, accused of gross misconduct. It transpired that not only had he suggested to Essie that the charges could be dropped when an arrest warrant for Henry John Hatch had already been issued, but he had acted in a very questionable manner towards the Home Secretary, Sir George Cornewall Lewis. Lewis had been asked to grant Hatch the Royal Pardon, although he had been told that there was a rumour that Hatch had actually confessed himself guilty to someone, the someone being lawyer Pratt. Lewis called Pratt in to ask him if it were true. Pratt replied that he would only answer under oath – and this to the Home Secretary no less!
Pratt got away with it, the judges at the Court of Queen’s Bench having decided that he had acted with ‘…tenderness and mercy…’ It was, unfortunately, just one of the many nails in the coffin of Henry’s treatment by the legal system at the time.
Today, I discovered quite by accident, that Pratt’s daughter, Clara Ripley Pratt, married John Ambrose Fleming in 1887. Fleming was to become a very famous electrical engineer; in 1904 he patented the thermionic diode, arguably the beginning of the electronic and microprocessor revolution.
I mention all of this because of the variable nature of the spelling of Pratt’s name. When I first came across him, his name was spelled, almost invariably in the newspaper reports, ‘Walters Freake Pratt’. Surely, I thought, the press had got it wrong, it was 'Walter' not 'Walters'. But when he died in 1874, his name was registered as ‘Walters Freak Pratt’, without the ‘e’ at the end of Freak. His grave similarly shows the same name. When he married Sophia Elizabeth Octavia Tyndale Ripley in 1856, his name was recorded ‘Walter Freak Pratt’, and when his daughter Clara married, by which time he was dead, his name was given as ‘Walter Freak Pratt’, and this is how it was spelled in Fleming’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Is all of this important? Well, yes it is. These days we are fortunate that so much genealogical information has been transcribed into computer databases. But unless the search criteria exactly match the stored information, the latter will not be found. Thus a search for ‘Walters Freak Pratt’, will not find an entry for ‘Walter Freake Pratt’ or ‘Walter Freak Pratt’ although it may find ‘Walter Freak Pratt’, and so on. It is thus vital to try all combinations of spellings where there is the slightest possibility of different versions existing.
I am still amazed at the apparent ease with which Pratt extracted himself from the gross misconduct charge. He was almost certainly responsible for the refusal of Cornwall Lewis to grant Henry John Hatch the Queen’s Pardon in January/February 1860, and thus condemned Henry to another four months in gaol. I may well investigate his family background further to find out just how he acquired that curious name.
I will admit to just a little satisfaction at the news that Smethurst's Luck is now in the general reference section of the British Library, where it joins my other book, Henry's Trials.
Shelfmarks are are: Henry's Trials, YC.2010.a.12216; Smethurst's Luck, YC.2014.a.2899. Both books are on 70 minutes delivery which means they are stored at King's Cross.
Yesterday I saw a performance of Peter Grimes at the ENO. I had been concerned about getting there in view of the tube strike. In the event, the busses were excellent, and the journey from Liverpool Street and back by bus was actually far better than the tube, without the interminable wait for an anti-clockwise Circle Line train.
The start was not propitious, with the main lead singers, Stuart Skelton and Elza van den Heever having been struck down with illness. Since the understudies were also affected, two artists had to be brought in at very short notice. As with other times when I have seen this happen, the performers are all such consummate professionals that if we had not been told, I’m sure that no-one would have noticed.
The opera though was problematic. It was the first time I had seen or heard a performance of Peter Grimes all the way through. Although I have seen excerpts, I knew it would be a challenge. The orchestral interludes were absolutely superb, mournful and evocative, and demonstrate Benjamin Britten’s mastery of the genre. The sung parts of the piece were hard work though, and I could not get out of my mind Dudley Moore’s send up of Britten and Peter Pears in the Beyond the Fringe sketch.
The surtitles at the ENO are very effective, and I had hoped that, like with Wagner, being able to read the words and follow the plot would make a tremendous difference to the enjoyment of the opera. In the event I found the words to be banal and the plot difficult to follow.
The production was, I thought, quite good; modernist and austere, with clever lighting throwing sharp shadows of the players on to the set. Very effective. What was not effective though, were the antics of ‘Aunie’s’ two nieces, the so-called ‘main attractions’ at the Boar public house. They variously cavorted around the stage, sometimes dressed in school uniform, walking or dancing in step around the stage like a couple of comedy storm-troopers or female versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They were absurd and greatly detracted from the dramatic effects, some of which were excellent.
Overall though, it was not good, and my companion left after the second act. The problem is that I came away feeling that I should have enjoyed it, but I really didn’t, and I’m unlikely to go and see it again. It has prompted me though to read George Crabbe’s poem on which Peter Grimes was based. His poetry is very accessible and is interesting because it is about normal working people living in a Suffolk village in the early 19th century.
Poor old Maria, she was buried three times in the end; once by Corder, and twice by the church. After she had been buried for the second time, the prosecution decided that they hadn’t paid enough attention to the various wounds on her body, so she was exhumed for further examination. Her head, or at any rate, her skull, was passed around as evidence during the trial. The question was whether the various penetrative wounds seen on the body were caused pre or post mortem. They could have happened either during the initial exhumation, or by the succession of surgeons who examined the body.
It was claimed that a sword in Corder’s possession had been used to stab her, but if that were so, what was the point of Corder denying it in the confession, made hours before he was certain to be hanged? It has been suggested that someone else was involved that he may have been unaware of; someone who ‘finished Maria off’ after Corder had left to get a spade. But Maria’s father, who found the body, had thrust his mole-spike into the floor of the Red Barn looking for anything that had been buried. He ‘poked into the straw a good while’. When his mole-spike was about four inches deep, he ‘found something come out with it like flesh…[it smelled] very disagreeable…’ Clearly the mole-spike caused at least one of the ‘stab’ injuries.
Then there were the dreams that led to Maria’s body being discovered. One of the conspiracy theories that has been advanced, is that Maria’s step-mother was also having an affair with Corder, and when she heard that he had been married in London, she revealed the location of Maria’s body. But that would have meant that she was involved in the murder. Mary Martin had known Maria at least since she (Maria) was 11 years old when she married Thomas Martin; possibly for longer. She was still living with her mole-catcher husband 25 years later in 1851. If she had really been involved in a crime of passion involving the murder of her rival, would she still have been living with the rival’s father all that time later?
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs