Thursday, 30 July 2020

The murder of Gamewatcher Thomas Davidson at Kershope Forest in 1849

Thomas Davidson Memorial Stone, erected in 1852 - Kershope Forest

Thomas Davidson was a game watcher for Sir James Graham, Bart., of Netherby Hall and had given him loyal service for over twenty years. He was the visible expression of 'poacher turned game-keeper', for in his younger days had been an acknowledged artist of that first discipline; which made him expert in the apprehension of poachers, instinctively knowing their ways and how to prevent their unlawful activities. He was married to Margaret and they had eight children up to 1849 and lived at Kettle Hall.

The remains of Kettle Hall (map ref. NY553810)
Further image of Kettle Hall remains
On the morning of Thursday 8th November he told Margaret that he was going to check the area of the moors and fells, around Christenbury Crags, in the remote Kershope and Bewcastle area; it was the outer reaches of Cumberland, bounded to the north be Scotland, and to the east by Northumbria. That evening he had not returned, which concerned Margaret, and when he had not arrived back by the Friday morning, she alerted the gamekeeper, Mr. Armstrong who lived at the shooting box at The Flatt. He organised search parties but nothing was found, so they set off again on Saturday morning. One of the party was Thomas's brother John and at 10am he came across Thomas's body, on the Kershope Farm, near Wysefield sheepfold, on the north-west side of the Black Lyne river and about two miles from his home. He was face down and although most of his clothing was undisturbed, his neckerchief was drawn tight into his neck. At the post-mortem, this and his facial injuries from fingernail scratches and bruising as if kneeled on, showed he had died from being strangled. Around the near area were at least three footwear marks of other people, although made indistinct by recent rain. The body was removed to the deceased's house.
News of the murder was communicated to Carlisle City Police and on Sunday morning, Superintendent Sabbage and two officers attended the murder scene. The inquest was held at The Flatt, on Monday 12th. 
Suspicion had fallen on three local men,  one a notorious poacher called Joseph Hogg, of Two-Darg, near Graham's Onset; he was 24 years old and unmarried. Another was a married man called Andrew Turnbull, also 24 years old, a husbandman of Shank End, in the baillie, which was half a mile from Hogg's house. Both men were present at the inquest after being summonsed, and warned they were suspected of the murder. Both were cautioned and warned they need not say anything. On oath Hogg said he was on his own all day Wednesday, seeing Turnbull once at a shop called Hardmanor (believed to be around NY511771) but not since, until going to his house on Sunday, but found him from home. He had stayed with his cousin John Nichol Hogg on Wednesday night at his father's house and both remained there all day Thursday, dressing fishing hooks with his mother and sister. He denied ever having seen the deceased since being at court on Saturday 27th October, when he was found guilty of shooting without a licence on Sir James's land, based on the evidence of the deceased. He was fined 40 shillings with costs and had paid it immediately, otherwise it would have defaulted to 2 months imprisonment.
Turnbull contradicted this by saying he was in the company of Hogg all day Wednesday, shooting woodcocks and they had been joined by Nichol Hogg. He said he remained at his own house on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday, and that Joseph Hogg had came to his house for an hour on Sunday, after the police had left.
Joseph Davidson was the deceased's son and had been at Joseph Hogg's one room house on Thursday evening and Hogg was not present, only his 14-year-old sister and his own daughter who was six. Ann Hogg, the sister, said Joseph only left the house for quarter of an hour on Thursday and had initially denied that Nichol Hogg was present but after being pressed, changed her evidence to say that he remained that night and they were joined by Turnbull. Nichol Hogg had left at 9am on Thursday and returned at 1pm. Mrs. Hogg had also gave evidence and when pressed, had also changed her account to say that all three had been present at her home on Wednesday night and Nichol Hogg had gone out on Thursday morning, returning in the afternoon, when she had then gone to Joseph Davidson's house for tea.
Nichol Hogg as found at an inn at Rickergate, Carlisle, on Monday night and summonsed to appear at the inquest on Tuesday morning; he was 35 years old, married, although separated from his wife. He said he and Joseph were at the Hogg residence on Wednesday night, and they went out together on Thursday morning, picking up Turnbull where they went to the Lyneside and Cumcrook wood. They shot two woodcocks and two snipes, taking them to Carlisle on Saturday.
All three were now taken into custody and held at the gaol to await the result of the inquest which was adjourned until Monday 26th. 
On that day the inquest reconvened with Sir James Graham, who was part of an anti-poaching association, being represented by a Mr Hewitson. Both Hoggs were not present but legally represented; Andrew Turnbull was in attendance, due to events that had happened while incarcerated at the city gaol. There was a need for him to be re-examined and before he was sworn he was warned he need not say anything that may criminate himself in the murder of Thomas Davidson; he was then sworn. He told the inquest court that both Hogg's had come for him at 7:30am on 8th to go poaching at Christenbury Crags area (NY577823) on what was a misty and wet morning. He initially declined and they said that Davidson dared not go out in the mist. Although reluctantly, he now went out with both men. Joe Hogg had said to him that if they came across 'old Tom', they would put an end to him and he expected him to help. He refused, saying he would not stain his hands with another man's blood, but if they did it, he would not say anything. They had been firing around the crags and made their way to Doe (now Dove) crags (NY561863) and made their way down Craigy (Craggy) Cleugh (NY536853), to Skelton Crags. They had two brace of grouse, a black cock and a wood cock, for which he accepted 4 shillings as his share. They then shot a further brace and came off Skelton Pike (NY542836). He told the court that they got down to Wyses Fauld at about 3.30pm when he looked back and said that 'Old Tom' was coming! meaning Davidson. They ran about 100 yards with Tom about 60 yards behind them. He ran on as Joe stopped and struck down Davidson, who protested saying it would be worse for them and surely they wouldn't kill him. Joe said he had cost him a great deal of money and it would be the last time. As he threw him down on his forehead he grabbed his coat neck and calling back Nichol, they both set about Davidson, but he, (Turnbull) could not say exactly how. When Davidson moved no more, Joe got up and cursed him for not helping but demanded that he told no-one. He could do nothing but say he wouldn't, for fear of being killed himself by them. They found his plaid (tartan twilled cloth worn over the shoulder) and prospect-glass at Coldwell Syke and placed cloth around him and the glass into an inside pocket. They took 3 sovereigns and 15 half-crowns from a purse, splitting it 3 equal ways, and left a £1 note and some silver. They left via Caldwell Syke, and came out at Routledge Burn where they parted. He never saw them again until the Sunday, Joe Hogg visited him while he and his wife were eating supper. Both discussed that they had been visited by the police and Joe said they were talking queer about them both, but the police had nothing on them. When Joe left he whispered outside to him to hide the clothing and footwear he had worn that day. He confirmed that on the Thursday evening they had discussed what each would say about their movements on that day. He went on to say that the only person he told of the murder was his wife, and asked her to get rid of his shoes after the Monday morning.

Jemima Turnbull next gave evidence and was reminded that she need not say anything that would incriminate her husband. (In modern criminal court speech, being his wife, she was regarded as a competent, but not compellable as a witness against him her oath of marriage standing higher than her oath to the court, and the two may conflict her). After stating that they had been married for about 18 months and had no children, she then largely confirmed the account of her husband, and having hidden his shoes in the byer, she later gave them to a constable.
A number of witnesses gave evidence then Elizabeth Hogg, the mother of Joseph was asked to swear the oath and kiss the holy book. Initially she refused but was warned and then did so. After a further warning of the consequences of not being truthful, with great reluctance she confirmed the Joseph was away from home on 8th, and was with Nichol. She confirmed they came back in late evening and had two woodcocks and a snipe with them. When pressed on other birds she again refused, constantly looking to her son's legal representative for support but was asked the same question on twenty occasions before the coroner was satisfied he had at least received a reply on oath. There were further points put to her on the handing of clothing to Constable Snowden and also Superintendent Sabbage. There was then a debate on the taking of the game birds to Carlisle, and who had taken them. Eventually, her account was read to her and she agreed with its accuracy. 
Next was Mr. John Steel, a reporter for the Carlisle Journal. He confirmed the conviction of Joseph Hogg for a poaching offence which occurred on 16th October. After paying the fine he had heard, and noted, that Hogg threatened harm on Davidson, who had witnessed and reported the poaching offence; the threat had been loud enough for the whole court to hear.
The other piece of important evidence was that of Joseph Davidson, the son of the deceased. He had been with Turnbull in the middle of June, heading to Newcastleton and met a John Hunter; they all went for a drink together. Davidson threatened that if he met Thomas Hunter, 'at a convenient place, he would be on him'. He warned Turnbull, and Hunter also said it was a sad thing to threaten a man's life, drunk or sober.
The inquest was adjourned and re-opened the next day, where evidence of footwear was given. Four sets of prints were found at one location and the marks seemed to match the shoes of the deceased Davidson, also Turnbull's and Nichol's, but not Hogg's. Evidence of the seized clothing was also given before the coroner then summed up the evidence. At the conclusion the inquest jury's verdict was that all three men had murdered the game watcher by strangulation with his own neckerchief.

That evening Mr. Orridge, the gaol governor, received committal warrants for each of the prisoners to stand trial for the murder at the next Assizes. The next morning he went to Turnbull's cell with Joseph Gallagher, the turnkey, and relayed the news as the prisoner read his bible. Turnbull again said that he had nothing to do with it. Gallagher gave him his supper at 5pm and both passed pleasantries before bidding each a good night; all appeared normal. Gallagher returned the next morning at 6:50am but the cell appeared empty. He shone a light into the corner, only to find Turnbull suspended from the window bars, strangulated by a towel, with his feet 6 inches clear of the floor. He had suffered a lingering death as it was clear from the boot marks on the wall that he had convulsed for a period of time once he had kicked away the stool he had stood on. He locked the door and went for the governor who immediately attended. On checking Turnbull's hand it was quite cold to the touch, so he had been dead a considerable time. He was cut down and laid on the bed, which had not been slept in. On checking the cell Mr. Orridge noticed writing on the walls, which had been done with the charcoaled end of a stick burnt in the fire.
Above the window was: 'The two Hogg' are guilty, I am innocent. I will not come in the hands of man'
Above the fire-place was: 'I commit my soul to God that gave it, take my body to my father's burying place.'
Above the bed was: 'My dear, you and I was lovely, but I am torn from thy breast. Don't weep for me.
Jemima, my dearest, my heart's delight and treasure, I am innocent; I die with pleasure. We meet again with pleasure. Beware of bad company. My parents are not to blame; they did their duty. Adieu, my dear friends.'
Mr. Orridge informed Superintendent Sabbage and the Justices, as he was obliged to. Also, rather than send a message to Turbull's family, being in such an outlandish place, the next day he sent a personal messenger to inform them. He wife arrived that same afternoon, unaware of the death of her husband and Mr. Orridge had to break the news. She was distraught and eventually was keen to fulfil his dying wish to be buried with his father, but the authorities, although desirous to see his request completed, stressed on Gemima that the cost would take all her funds. Eventually he was buried at Christchurch cemetery, Botchergate, with no family member or friend to mark his passing, only strangers.
The inquest was held on the morning of Friday 30th, at The Three Crowns Inn, on English Street, where the verdict was one of suicide, with no evidence as to the state of the balance of his mind at the time.

The trial of the two remaining men took place at the Spring Assizes on Saturday, 23rd February, 1850, before Mr. Baron Alderson. The case for the prosecution was gone through as each witness gave their evidence, which was similar to that previously given at the inquest hearings. However, despite the contradictory accounts of the now two charged men to that of certain witnesses, the similarity in the footwear markings at the scene to those of the seized footwear, the threats given by Joseph Hogg as witnessed by the press and now attested to by the magistrates at court when they were uttered, when the counsel for the defence stood he asked the judge if there was a case for his clients to answer? His Honour said that it appeared not and was a case of evidence from an already perjured man. He asked the jury to consider if there was any evidence that strongly supported the account of Turnbull. When the jury expressed unease, the judge stated that evidence of an ordinary accomplice was bad to rely upon at any time. However, when an accomplice is called the jury can observe his manner and he is available for cross-examination and the effect of such questions upon him may tell materially upon the jury. Here, they had never seen Turnbull, but knew he had sworn falsely. He asked them how they could have any faith in his statements without seeing the effect of that cross-examination upon him? Was it reasonable to act on such testimony?
The jury further considered this matter and after some hesitation, returned a verdict of Not Guilty, without any need for the defence to put forward their evidence; the two Hoggs were released.
A leopard doesn't change its spots, or a poacher his habits. On 27th September 1850, Joseph Hogg was arrested with his two relatives, his cousin John (Nichol) and brother Walter, for poaching at The Flatt, Liddesdale Southern Scotland. They were captured and handed to officers at Newcastleton. On 17th November 1855 a muffler was stolen from a public house in Rickergate; John (Nichol) Hogg was later arrested for the crime and sentenced to 3 months hard labour, just into the new year of 1856. On 20th November 1857 it was reported that Joseph Hogg was charged with illegal shooting of game on Sir James Graham's land but he did not appear and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Although no news reports appear to have been written, feelings in the local community must have ran deep, with a desire to remember and honour the memory of Thomas Davidson. A memorial stone was erected in 1852 on the place where his body had been found and is the first image of this article. It reads:

Upper section of the inscription

Lower section
Following gaining knowledge of this incident I decided to visit and research the murder as best I could. We parked at Cuddyshall Bridge (NY520808) and walked to the monument.

After viewing and photographing the marker my wife and I decided to walk to the location of Kettle Hall as it is marked on OS maps. It took us across Blacklyne House, on the bank of Black Lyne Beck, which the poachers had crossed in the course of their search for gamebirds.

Blacklyne House 'Bothy' (locked).

Black Lyne Beck, looking south

Black Lyne Beck, looking north

The disappointment was to reach the location of the former residence of Thomas Davidson, only to find it raised to the ground, although the basic shape and size could be just made out. It would be tiny, yet accommodated a his large family of eight children.
One part of the story appeared to be missing and that was the grave the of Thomas. He was known to have been buried at St. Mary's Church, Stapleton, and we assumed that as there was no image anywhere available, then the grave would be unmarked. That was not the case and my wife located it in a short space of time. Perhaps there is no realisation in the parish to the local significance of this simple marker, there being no clue in the inscription to the violent manner in which he died.

Stapleton Church and the grave in relation to it.
I had originally thought that I had identified the correct Joseph Hogg in Paragraph (1) below, and had published that as the correct one, when it is not him. I have left the matter, as it seems to have formed an issue with a descendant of the one referred to, he being unsure if his ancestor is the one connected with the scene of the murder. I can now say with almost certainty that HE IS NOT the same Joseph. I have attached a second account in Paragraph (2) that I am as certain as I can be, identifies the correct one. 
**Paragraph (1)
Of Joseph Hogg, he had been born in Scaleby and christened on 23rd August 1823, the son of Thomas and Ann.  He went on to marry a Jane Wilson some time prior to 1851, and in that year they had a son, David. Ann was born in 1854, Mary Jane in 1857, Joseph Wilson in 1862, Elizabeth in 1865, and the last was Barbara in 1868. In the 1881 census they had two grandchildren also living with them at Burn Hill, Scaleby West; they were John Joseph 4 years old, and Jane, 2 years old, although it is not clear at this time who the parents were. Joseph is recorded as an Agricultural labourer. In 1891 he was 65 years old and still an agricultural labourer for a farmer called Bell, lodging with them at Bar Close, Scaleby; Jane was living in with her daughter, now at Aspatria. Joseph and Jane were to move to 28 Etterby Street, Stanwix, Carlisle, and he died there on 26th August 1899 and Jane died there on 17th September 1909.
**Paragraph (2)
There was a Joseph Hogg who in the 1841 census was living at Two Dargs (township of Bailies), aged 12 years, living with his parents, Walter and Eleanor, nee Davidson. He had two siblings, Walter aged 10 years, and Anne also aged 10 years , but not believed to be twins. There is then a Joseph Hogg, listed as born in the Bewcastle area, who in 1850 is detained in Jedburgh prison. There is nothing else known of this Joseph Hogg, but his father originated in Scotland and his mother, in Bewcastle. Since the border is so close it is safe to assume this is the same Joseph Hogg who was at the scene of the murder. This also appears certain to be the one arrested over the border in September of 1850. It may be that he stayed north of the border after his release, or shortly after, so is lost to further searches, but he is the only one that fits the circumstances. 

Of Joseph Hogg and the murder, the decision of the courts has to be accepted and that was, he was innocent. That said, he was certainly a witness to it and that lingering doubt, raised by the contradictions in his account when compared to those of other witnesses, would always raise doubts on that innocence within his community. Whatever happened, he took the knowledge of the horrific strangulation of Thomas Davidson to the grave with him.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Constable Alfred Schollick Wilkin, Village Policeman at Pooley Bridge. Lived 1848 - 1923 and his son Alfred.

Cumbria Constabulary recently had a request for assistance in helping a member of the public with any details they may have on a retired officer of the old Cumberland and Westmorland Constabulary, the dates were pre 1900. His name was William Schollick (sometimes spelt Scholick) Wilkin, and he was known to have at sometime be stationed at Pooley Bridge. The constabulary now has no museum and there was no data, so I was asked on a personal level if I could assist the member of the public as I have recently done a number of historical policing issues. 
I was able to supply that member of the public with nearly thirty incidents that the officer was involved in, and some family matters too. As it developed there came an interesting piece of information that could loosely be called Pooley Bridge history, so I thought I would document the officer here, for local knowledge. 

William Schollick was born in Longtown in the second quarter of 1847, the 'Schollick' being his mother's name. He was the 1st born of five brothers and one sister, he and his brother John were born prior to the marriage of the 'parents', although John was recorded as a Wilkin. It may be that William had a different father, or just that the parents had not married at this time, but were a parental partnership. Little is known of him but in the 1861 census his mother was by then a widow, with William working as a bobbin turner. 
William married an Elizabeth Scott, also of Longtown, in the 2nd quarter of 1869. From a eulogy of his death on 22nd March 1923, he was known to have worked for a short spell for the North British Railway, prior to joining The Cumberland and Westmorland Constabulary in 1870. Now as a police officer his life and career begin to be mapped out in newspaper accounts of court cases, and occasional family matters. His first recorded case was on 2nd February 1871 at Whitehaven court where Mary Anne Connolly, a 'fallen woman', was before them for being drunk and disorderly, PC Wilkin being the arresting officer. Through other cases in Whitehaven, his collar number is recorded as PC148. In March of 1872 he and a colleague were charged with assaulting two ore miners they had arrested for police obstruction. The allegation was the miners had incited a prisoner to assault the police officers. After a heated argument in court over procedural issues, the two miners was found Guilty, and the case against the officers was dismissed without any case going ahead against them. The other Whitehaven cases were generally licensing offences and assaults, the standard fare of any police officer who patrols the streets.
In May 1874 a change occurs where he is at Workington Magistrates with a case of theft of a plank of pitch pine wood from North Side area, the property of the West Cumberland Iron and Steel Company; William was then recorded as being stationed at Seaton, near Workington, still in West Cumberland; the culprit received 3 months imprisonment. There was another case of burglary in 1874 then he is recorded dealing with a case of someone playing 'Pitch and Toss', in Seaton in 1877; the offender was fined 2s 6d, with costs! On Monday 7th October 1878 a presentation was made to him by the residents of Seaton, of an inscribed silver tea and coffee service with a cruet stand, in gratitude of his work in the village over his 5 years as their officer. It was said that he had given a great deal of his time to the welfare of those in the village and there had not been a single refusal in the gathering of subscriptions for the gift by the committee. Constable Wilkin replied that he was both honoured and it was the proudest moment of his life.
He had now moved with his family to Pooley Bridge and would spend the final 16 years of his career at that rural office. He dealt with cases of snaring hares, and various cases of disorder in the village. In July 1887 he was at court with two men who had poisoned fish in a beck near Greystoke, one receiving £1 fine, the other £3, as it was his 3rd occasion before the court for similar offences. Police work invariably involves an officer in family tragedies, and one such case was the death of Isaac Howell, of Croft House, Greystoke Gill, who was found in the river Lowther on Friday 9th October 1891, having gone to tend stock; the inquest result was 'Found Drowned'. 
The greatest public praise Constable Wilkin received was following a case before the Assize court towards the end of October 1886. A notorious burglar called Charles Webster (alias Thomson) 46 years, and a tramp called George Moor, 26 years had broken into a house of Isaac Harrison  at Castle Sowerby on 18th September and stole property. Then on 17th October they broke into the house of William and Elizabeth Davis in Greystoke parish. On this last occasion Constable Wilkin tracked them from Watermillock to Windermere where he discovered they had then parted company. He sent a telegram to Kendal police, who detained Webster; Constable Wilkin then proceeded to Ulverston and apprehended Moor at a lodging house, with the assistance of the Lancashire Constabulary. At Carlisle Assizes, due to Webster's previous criminal record he received 5 years penal servitude, and Moor, 12 months hard labour. It was said that the officer had put a check on a crime wave in the area.
On 16th July 1896 he assisted in a dragging operation on Ullswater where a young lady called Annie Wilson, daughter of William Wilson the leaser of the Keswick Hotel, had been struck by the boom of the sailing yacht she was a passenger in, and knocked overboard, immediately sinking and she was drowned. It had occurred near Howtown and the drags were being used at Stybarrow Crag, in another operation to recover a body of a boy who had drowned on the Saturday. That operation was suspended to search for Miss Wilson's body. It was found near 10pm that day. 
As his career drew to a close he came up to the moment where he had the narrowest of escapes from serious injury, or even death, and at the hands of poachers. On Thursday 21st January 1897 he came into Penrith in a very dazed state. At 6:10am he had come across two poachers at Red Hill, Sockbridge, carrying bags and each had a 6ft long ash stick. He went to search them and was threatened. He continued and was beaten by both with the sticks, yet managed to knock both down with his truncheon as he heard them shout about killing him and throwing him off the bridge and into the water. One got up and as the officer went to seize the bag, he was knocked unconscious by a blow to the back of the head and left lying in that state. Both men, James Thompson and Robert Thomlinson, had been known to him and were later arrested. He had been too ill to attend the remand hearing, a huge lump, being on the back of his head. At the Petty Sessions on Tuesday 2nd February Thomlinson received a 4 month sentence, and Thompson received 6 months, due to previous offences.
William retired from the constabulary in 1897 and the Wilkin family took up residence in Penrith. The 1901 and 1911 censuses showed him to be at 3 Mill Street and recorded him as a retired policeman and also said he was a farmer. The latter census stated that the couple had had 11 children, sadly only 6 now survived, and it is at this point that an ordinary story of a diligent officer, takes a turn that appears to be little known, if at all, in the Cumbrian area. 
Of those children, John was a postmaster at Saltburn, William had a large ironmongery business at Barrow, Alfred had gone into the confectionary business on the North East, and James was in British Columbia; the two daughters were now married. William and Elizabeth had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, but this memory was marred by Elizabeth's death, just a week after the happy event. William spent his time visiting family and it was whilst at Alfred's house, on the North East that he died on Thursday 22nd March 1923. He was laid to rest at Penrith cemetery on Saturday 24th, a large crowd of family and friends accompanying him to his grave.
The son Alfred was born at Pooley Bridge on 22nd April 1883 and it is that association with the confectionary business that is a revealing piece of Pooley Bridge history. He was born Alfred Schollick Wilkin but when he died on 20th September 1943, he died as Sir Alfred Schollick Wilkin. He had begun a confectionary business and this quickly expanded into one of the most successful brands the country has known, the Cremona Toffee. It led to the development of a 'Garden Village' industry, one of the first in the north; A. S. Wilkin Ltd., Cremona Park, High Heaton. He became a giant of the confectionary industry and was known to be heavily involved in any improvement in its conditions and standards. He became an executive member of a number of Food manufacturing federations and alliances. He later worked on the introduction of light industries to Tyneside, his company ideas gaining the approval and adoption of Ramsay McDonald. As WWII approached he gave his efforts towards anything associated with war production. He was also a member of the Newcastle and Gateshead Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Council of Commerce, Kings College, Newcastle. He was a supporter of the conservatives and for the 12 years prior to his death he was chairman of the Central Division Conservative Association. Of his other accolades, he was a Freeman of the City of London and a member of the Worshipful Company of Feltmakers and Liverymen of the City of London. He was knighted in June 1939 'For Political and Public Services in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. 
Alfred died on 19th September 1943, aged 60 years, leaving a wife and three sons, all serving with the British Armed Forces. I am sure his illegitimately born son, who became a police officer, would have been proud of Alfred's achievements.

Not wishing to detract from the work of others, I have attached two links which explain further the detail of Alfred's rise from the son of a Pooley Bridge Police Officer, to become a Knight of the country. The 2nd link is a sale site, but they use a document to explain the history and adds to the story.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The Windermere WWII Training Tragedy - Six Drowned Soldiers

In July 1945 the Kings Royal Rifle Corps were stationed at Westwick Camp, Barnard Castle, Durham. The war in Europe had drawn to a close, although the conflict was still continuing in the Pacific against the Japanese. It was an uncertain time and those hard earned skills of battle needed to remain within the experience of the British Armed Forces, and passed to newer, inexperienced troops, through field exercises in order to prepare them for battle.

Belle Isle to the left, on Windermere; Looking north to Ambleside.
Such a group needing to train were the Kings Own Royal Rifle Corps. They travelled from Barnard Castle and on 20th July they commenced a training exercise at Windermere, to practice their assault skills with the use of an inflatable craft which was designed for nine; it was to make three trips with troops on board. They were detailed to cross from the Westmorland side, at Cockshott Point, to Belle Isle, the largest island in the lake, which was approximately 300 yards from the main shoreline; the intention was then to cross further to the Lancashire side of the lake. On the first trip to Belle Isle, eight crossed and two returned; a further six then boarded for the second crossing. The boat again returned with two men and a further six soldiers and a second lieutenant then boarded, so the whole party was 21 strong in total. The weather was poor as they set off in the early hours on their 'mission' from the point, the wind blowing at half a gale, with the waves cresting, described at the time as 'white horses'. What occurred on the third crossing would result in the death of five soldiers and their officer, and would be the worst drowning on the lake for over 310 years. The first two crossings had been uneventful despite the weather, but the third was hit by a sudden squall and it began to fill up from the back; it then capsized throwing the nine men into the water. All were in full kit and five of the soldiers and their officer were drowned. One man tried to swim to the island and was assisted by Lieutenant Joll, who was in overall command, and had previously made the crossing now swimming out to assist his soldier. The remaining two clung to the capsized boat, which was approximately 40 yards from the island; their colleagues on the island found a rowing boat to assist in the rescue of them. Having got his man to the safety of the island, the lieutenant now swam across the lake to reach the main shore at Bowness and then ran across the fields to raise the alarm. Once the police were informed, Inspector Illingworth, of the Westmorland Constabulary, enlisted the help of a Norman Garnett and eight other local boatmen who were experienced on the lake; they then set about the recovery of the bodies with grappling irons, which was successfully accomplished over the next six hours in what was described as dangerous conditions.
The inquest was held on Monday 23rd July and all the men were named. They were:
  • 2nd Lieutenant Rodney Nigel Holt, aged 20 years, of Mile End House, Romney, Hants.
  • Rifleman Jack William Weir, aged 19 years, of Viewmount, West Hill, Culloden, Invernesshire.
  • Reginald Ernest Taylor, aged 19 years, of 45 Bordon Place, Stratford-on-Avon.
  • Harry Cohen Richards, aged 19 years, of 48 Wedmore Street, Upper Holloway, London.
  • Henry Frank Thorpe, aged 18 years, of 19 Tolvin Street, Hammersmith.
  • Ronald William Digby, aged 21 years, of 172 Doyse Gardens, Willesden.
Lieutenant Dourish Evelyn Joll had earlier declined his name when the press had inquired, following his brave actions in swimming the lake to raise the alarm and get help; now at the inquest the coroner was able to praise his heroism. At the conclusion verdicts of death by misadventure were recorded.

All 6 men are Remembered with Honour, marked by singular war grave headstones, or named on a Memorial. Second lieutenant Holt is buried at Hollybrook cemetery, Southampton; Rifleman Weir at Kilchuiman burial ground, Invernesshire; Rifleman Taylor at Stratford-Upon-Avon cemetery; Rifleman Richards is Remembered with Honour at Brookwood Memorial, Surrey; Rifleman Thorpe is similarly Remembered at Mortlake Crematorium, Kew, Richmond-Upon-Thames; and Rifleman Digby at Willsden New Cemetery, Borough of Brent, Greater London.

The tragedy, devastating as it was, occurred in the backdrop of war and reporting on it would have its  official limitations. It would also need to be seen, on a national level, as merely another incident of loss of armed service personnel among the many many thousands who had passed before them, with similar loss of civilian lives. Time passed, and despite the ceremonies at the war memorials quoting Lawrence Binion's words 'We Will Remember Them', Windermere had all but forgotten the tragic fatalities of men training in what was still a war footing mentality of the day. However, a Windermere resident called Don Lowis recalled the tragedy and in 2015 questioned why their six names were not mentioned at the town memorial? The local Royal British Legion Branch decided to do this on Remembrance Sunday 2015, this now being the 70th anniversary year of their deaths. On Saturday 6th February 2016, a plaque was placed on a seat next to the memorial which names all six men. In that way the town would also remember and so honour the ultimate sacrifice the six paid, training for the defence of their country.