A Grim Almanac of Essex

A Grim Almanac of Essex

by Neil R. Storey


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Neil R. Storey's macabre calendar chronicles the darker side of life in Essex. Murderers and footpads, pimps and prostitutes, riots, rebels, bizarre funerals, disaster, and peculiar medicine are all included. The book is illustrated with engravings, newspaper reports, photographs, and original documents. If it is horrible, if it is ghastly, if it is strange, then it is here! If you have the stomach for it, then read on.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752465104
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 01/13/2012
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.70(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Neil R. Storey is a professional historian, lecturer, and prolific author. He has written countless articles, and regularly features on television and radio documentaries as a historical adviser and consultant. He is the author of twenty books, including A Grim Almanac of Jack the Ripper's London and Prisons & Prisoners in Victorian Britain. He lives in North Walsham, Norfolk.

Read an Excerpt

A Grim Almanac of Essex

By Neil R. Storey

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Neil R. Storey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5426-6



1 January 1961 Lorry driver Sidney Ambrose pulled his truck into a lay-by near the village of Ridgewell to answer a call of nature. Walking a few yards off the road he stumbled across the half-naked body of a young woman lying under a blackberry bush. Within twelve hours the body was identified as that of Jean Sylvia Constable (20) of Halstead, who had left home the previous day to go to a New Year's Eve party in London. She had been seen in a couple of Braintree pubs drinking with two men, David Salt (20) and USAAF Staff Sergeant Wills Eugene Boshears (29). Somewhat the worse for drink, all three went back to Boshears's flat at Great Dunmow. Salt and Jean Constable soon went into the bedroom while Boshears remained in the lounge, drinking. Later the couple reappeared, and continued drinking until they fell asleep in the lounge. Salt woke up at about 12.45am and woke Boshears to ask where the nearest taxi rank was. When he left, Salt believed Boshears and Constable were both asleep. At his trial for the girl's murder, Boshears claimed he only awoke when he 'felt something pulling at my mouth. I was not awake but this woke me up, and I found I had my hands around her throat. Jean was dead.' In panic Boshears disposed of the body in the lay-by where Ambrose found it. Despite the doubts expressed by the eminent pathologist Professor Francis Camps on the possibility of whether he could have carried out the strangling while he was asleep, the jury, after almost two hours' deliberation, found Boshears not guilty.

2 January 1943 William Henry Turner was a deserter from the army; playing on the goodwill of the British populace in wartime he deceived his way into people's homes purporting to be a corporal on leave who was unable to find accommodation. After he left, those who had shown him such generosity soon found he had forced the locks on wardrobes and drawers and stolen clothes and loose cash. On this day he received no response to his knock at the door of 19 Audley Road, Colchester. Assuming the house was empty he opened the door with a wire. Entering the house Turner discovered the occupant, 82-year-old Ann Wade, bending over a chair. Turner claimed he rushed up from behind and put his arm around her neck and she 'just went limp'. He carried her to another room. Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and a man asked for Ann Wade. Turner, giving nothing away by his demeanour, said she had gone out. Returning to the body Turner callously pushed it under a bed, then he stole some money and left. He was soon apprehended and put on trial for Wade's murder. Turner then changed his story, claiming he had been working in Ann's garden and had placed his arm around her neck while larking around. The first jury failed to agree on a verdict but at the second trial there was no hesitation and a guilty verdict was returned. Turner was executed on Wednesday 24 March 1943.

3 January 1873 Rettendon windmill mysteriously caught fire and was burnt down. As the hose of the horse-drawn pump fire engine extinguished the last of the flames a few locals breathed a sigh of relief, not only because the fire was out but also because they knew this event would put paid to what some believed was the curse of Rettendon mill. Over the last few hundred years a number of mills had stood on the site. One was erected in 1797 to replace its seventeenth-century counterpart, but it was said that the deal concerning the purchase of the old mill and the surrounding land had gone 'sour' and the aggrieved party had literally cursed the site. The first major tragedy occurred just a short time after the new mill began work: a little girl named Elizabeth Jeffries toddled into the path of the turning sails and was fatally wounded. In 1853 George Borrodell (24), the miller's son, tried to push a wheelbarrow through the gap in the sails as they turned. He was caught square on and died of his wounds five hours later. Peace then descended on the mill for the next twenty years until 3 January 1873, when the mill was found on fire.

4 January 1894In suspicious circumstances? Police Sergeant John Harvey and his colleagues were making routine enquiries in the Ardleigh area. Harvey was seen by one of his constables at about 7.30pm, but he was never seen alive again. The following morning his body was discovered in a snow-covered well in the garden of one of the cottages. His watch had stopped at 8.21 and he had suffered injuries to his face, but exactly how they were caused was never proved with any certainty. He left behind a pregnant wife and three children. Exactly how his death came about remains a mystery.

5 January 1918Boy Racers. Frank Chambers (17), Edward Tahon (17), Michael Flaherty (17) and William Beasley (age unrecorded) were remanded on a charge of stealing a motor cab and accessories, the property of Frank Love of Pancras Road, north-west London. Mr Love had left his cab in Museum Street; returning after about ten minutes he found it was missing. The following day he saw Chambers and Tahon on the street and asked if they knew anything about his cab. Amazingly they confessed they had stolen the cab and driven it hell for leather towards Southend – until the petrol ran out. They had then abandoned it at a side turning near Leigh Church. Essex police found the cab and the four boys involved were tracked down and arrested. During questioning, Flaherty said, 'We saw the cab and jumped into it. Chambers drove it away. I wish I could drive like Chambers.'

6 January 1873 The head and under gamekeepers were out watching for poachers on Sir Thomas Western's estate at Rivenhall when in the early hours of the morning, they spotted a band of six poachers armed with guns and sticks. Their leader was recognised as one of the estate grooms, Alexander 'Racer' Cowell. The gamekeepers leapt out and surprised the poachers who fought back fiercely, hitting out with their sticks to get away. One of the keepers heard a voice say 'Shoot them!', and after receiving a severe blow to his head from a shotgun stock he heard another say 'Out with your knife and finish him.' Although blinded for a few seconds and bleeding profusely from his head wound, the head keeper ran off and the other keepers retired with him. They quickly called the police. The keepers were able to identify Cowell both by sight and by the sound of his voice, and he was arrested the following day at Braintree. Brought before the Spring Assizes at Chelmsford, Cowell was found guilty of poaching with violence and the judge declared that he would 'make an example of him' in his punishment. Cowell was sent down for five years' penal servitude.

7 January 1872 Constable John Street of Foxearth observed three men making off from a local farm with some sacks. Street grabbed the thief with the largest sack but was immediately set upon by the two accomplices. Street grimly held on to the sack until the men ran off, then he gave chase and captured one of the men. The sacks turned out to contain seventeen fowls that the men had stolen and killed. Constable Street was the first member of Essex Constabulary to be awarded the merit star and was ordered to display it on a new uniform jacket when the case came to court.

8 January 1918 Official acknowledgement was given by Essex Constabulary to the valuable work of the voluntary patrols, led by Mrs Cantill and Miss Newton, in policing the young girls who were coming to the area and 'loitering around army camps' in the Brentford and Romford area. Captain Unett, the Chief Constable, suggested the employment of six uniformed policewomen to be divided equally between Brentford, Romford and Grays. Thus Essex had its first WPCs – but only briefly, for they were all made redundant in October 1919. It was to be another twenty-five years before Essex welcomed women on to permanent placement within its ranks – the last county force in England to do so!

9 January 1683 It appears the medieval belief that the touch of a monarch could cure King's Evil (scrofula) was still alive and well in Essex in the late seventeenth century. Philip Peck, Minister of Romford, records his issue of certificates given according to the order made at Whitehall on 9 January 1683 concerning persons affected by the disease called the 'King's Evill' in order 'to their being touched by His Majesty to the end they may be healed'.

10 January 1908 Fire broke out at the Church of England School in Wickford. All the children were successfully evacuated as soon as the fire was discovered. A telegram was sent to summon the Chelmsford Fire Brigade but they refused to attend because in his haste the sender had not signed it and the fire brigade did not know who to send the bill for their expenses to! Firemen from Billericay did attend but despite their promptness the school was practically gutted by the time they arrived.

1 January 1899 Police investigations into 'The Barking Horror' continued. The body of 51/2-year-old Mary Jane 'Jenny' Voller had been discovered in early January. She had been murdered and her body thrown into a narrow, muddy stretch of water known as Loxford Brook about 40 yards behind the shops on Harpour Road in Barking. The child had only been 'sent across the road' by her mother to buy a pennyworth of linseed. Fears were aroused when she failed to return. Her anxious parents went to the shop and found she had never arrived there, nor had she been seen in any other shops in the area. When her body was recovered it was found to be covered in scratches 'similar to those caused by scissors'. All that was missing were the few pennies she had in her pocket. Her murderer was never found.

12 January 1843The Times published a comment on the proceedings of the last Quarter Sessions for the county of Essex, remarking that the report would doubtless be 'read with a strange mixture of wonder and disgust by all who take an interest in the important subject of prison discipline'. It went on to say that the prison was overcrowded, with living space in some of the cells limited to about 4ft by 6 1/2ft per prisoner; there was no heating and little or no ventilation, and the inmates were said to be reduced to weakness and ill-health through insufficient diets and clothing. Scurvy was rife. The eventual outcome of such reports was the enlargement of the prison by 115 cells and a full review of procedures.

13 January County Gaols and Bridewells of Essex visited by Prison Reformer John Howard The County Gaol at Chelmsford was visited by Howard and his representatives on no fewer than six occasions between 1774 and 1783. Unusually, some of the gaolers around this time were female. Susannah Taylor, for example, was followed by John Reynolds, who was succeeded by his widow. They received no salary but were granted fees for debtors and felons of 15s 4d each and were granted £1 5s for taking prisoners due for transportation from London to Gravesend if not more than seven in number (above seven they were paid the slightly lesser sum of £1 1s). They boosted their income by taking a 'garnish' from prisoners wealthy enough to pay for comforts like extra food, easing of restraints and straw for warmth. The sign in the tap room said it all: 'Prisoners pay Garnish or Run the Gauntlet.' The chaplain, the Revd Mr Morgan, was the highest-paid gaol official with a salary of £50, while the longsuffering surgeon Mr Griffinhoofte received a salary of £25 for attending both the prison and bridewell inmates. Howard was not impressed with the gaol: 'The old prison was close, and frequently infected with the gaol-distemper. Inquiring in October 1775 for the head-turnkey, I was told he died of it.' When the new County Gaol at Chelmsford was visited by Howard in 1779 he was impressed, stating that it 'exceeds the old one in strength and convenience as much as in splendour. The county, to their honour, have spared no cost.' He recorded commodious rooms with vaulted ceilings for debtors and prisoners, courts, pumps and the segregation of sexes but he felt the cribs and cradles supplied for the babies of prisoners could be improved in standards of health and cleanliness and he noted there was no bath – a special concern as the prisoners in the cells were 'too much crowded at night'.

14 January 1862 Rebecca Law (24) hammered on her mother's door in the village of Langley in the early hours of the morning. Holding her 6-year-old son by the hand, she was in a very distressed state and covered in blood. She soon confessed to murdering her husband Samuel (27), a rat catcher by trade, and her 16-week-old baby Alfred. A police officer from Newport was summoned and soon the murder scene – the Laws' cottage at Starlings Green near Clavering – was uncovered. More than a hundred deep cuts and slashes had been made to Sam's face and neck, while the poor baby had been killed with a hammer. Rebecca Law was brought before the Lent Assizes. When questioned about the murder, she claimed, 'All the time I was hitting him there was a noise on the stairs. They kept blundering up the stairs – I mean the devils – but I wasn't afraid.' Testimony from medical authorities and the chaplain stated she was a 'melancholic' and a 'religiomaniac'. Found not culpable for her actions, she was removed to an asylum.

15 January 1881 John Wilkinson (16) was brought before the Assizes at Chelmsford charged with the manslaughter of William Butler on Bridge Marsh Island near Latchington. On the evening of 5 December 1880 Mrs Marsh, who lived on Bridge Marsh Island, sent for her friend Charles Butler after she heard an intruder on her premises. Butler arrived with John Wilkinson and another lad named Rogers; they searched the house and immediate area but no intruder was found. Butler went home, leaving the boys as protection, after advising Mrs Moore to find and load her gun, if she had one. She duly brought the gun to Wilkinson who loaded it and fired it to make sure it worked. Then he loaded it again. Later that evening Rogers went outside saying he had heard someone, and Wilkinson followed with the loaded gun. They heard voices and both young men issued challenges but received no reply. They went a little further. Suddenly a man jumped out and seized Rogers violently by the throat; Rogers cried for help and Wilkinson fired at the assailant, felling him instantly. They brought a light and to their horror found it was Charles Butler's nephew William. He had been walking with his cousin Robert on the sea wall when he heard the boys' challenges; Robert had walked on but William probably leapt on Rogers as a prank. The judge asked the jury to consider if the gun was set off to frighten or injure the deceased; without a minute's deliberation the jury returned a verdict of not guilty and the prisoner was discharged.

16 January Old Punishments: the Scold's Bridle Alfred Hills MA was Clerk to the Justices of the North Hinckford and Halstead benches for twenty-two years between 1928 and 1950. A well-known and respected historian, he was a regular contributor to Essex Review for thirty years. Among his collection of bygones (which made up the foundation collection of Braintree Museum) was a scold's bridle (or branks), which he was so proud of he was even photographed wearing it! The bane of early modern British life was the scold – a nagging wife or a rumourmonger or malicious village gossip. The judiciary, with its usual robust approach to such social problems, devised the scold's bridle. There were several different designs but the basic construction consisted of a lockable iron framework in the form of a helmet-shaped cage that fitted tightly over the head. A small, flat, metal plate protruded into the unfortunate woman's mouth to hold her tongue down and prevent speech – hence the term 'hold your tongue!' Such devices were known to have been in use across the country until the late eighteenth century.

9 January 1927 Inspector Aroll and Superintendent Wood of the Railway Carriage Department were called to investigate the suspicious death of young Catford bride Mrs Dorothy Rose Rushton, whose body had been found on the railway near Wickford. She had planned to visit her brother but had not arrived and was reported missing to the authorities. Aroll and Wood found that if they opened the rear door of the train near the spot where she was found it slammed back with great force; there was no sign of a struggle, Mrs Rushton was not thought to be depressed and nobody reported anything suspicious on the train. There was one odd thing, though. A parcel sent to Brentwood police station from Southend was found to contain her handbag, inside which had been slipped the front page of the Star of 17 January, which featured an account of the woman's disappearance. There was nothing in the bag or on the parcel to show who had sent it. At the inquest an open verdict was recorded.


Excerpted from A Grim Almanac of Essex by Neil R. Storey. Copyright © 2013 Neil R. Storey. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


Essex Executions 1865–1953,

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