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The Great Storm of 1987

Me, a few months later in the Summer of 1988, as Captain Cook in the Brownies’ carnival float. It was basically a dinghy on a trailer with me sat in it, dressed more as a pirate than as Captain Cook.

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of what became known as The Great Storm, which ripped its way across the south-east of England on the night of 15th and 16th October 1987.

I was living in Wivenhoe in north-east Essex at the time, on the banks of a river not far from the coast. I remember the storm waking me up as I slept in my “captain’s bed” – that legendary piece of 1980s furniture which elevated children above the ground to give storage to their heaps of detritus below.

I heard the wind blowing around the house. But it wasn’t the usual sort of high wind that I was used to and barely noticed. It roared like a Fury; outside, I could hear the trees struggle against it, and our strong, brick house creak with its force.

My dad appeared at some point, to see if I was alright. My parents were concerned as there were trees outside my window, but I was awake by then – I doubt anyone could have slept – and somewhat frightened. But I didn’t leave my bed. I couldn’t run to my parents as there was a huge old cherry tree outside their bedroom window, which could have fallen just as easily as the trees outside my window.

The wind continued to howl, but at six o’clock that dark October morning, the wind picked up and roared as I’ve never heard it since. The sound was more of a scream than a roar, and I didn’t just hear it but felt it, a sort of sucking in my ears, which must have been caused by a sudden pressure-change in the air. We always referred to it afterwards as “The Six O’Clock Blast” – I don’t know if we coined that within our family or if it was on the news.

I don’t remember if I went back to sleep after that, but my dad had put the radio on at some point and information about the devastation wrought by the storm was coming in dribs and drabs. Trees were down across the county; traffic was in mayhem as roads were blocked. Buildings had been damaged and there was possible loss of life.

Once I’d clambered down my ladder to get out of bed, I saw the damage to our garden. We had lost fence panels – they had been torn out by the wind, and we’d also lost a tree. Our house was built on the site of an old orchard, hence the cherry tree (which had survived) and two apple trees (one of which had not). My dad was determined to dig up the damaged tree – it had been blown over at 45 degrees. But in the end, I propped it back up with some bricks (I was an enterprising eight-year-old) and the tree lived on.

Schools were shut, but my dad still went to work – he was a builder, so was kept busy. I walked down to the village with my brother and my mum. We were astonished by the amount of damage we saw. What I remember most, other than the trees that had been torn up, were the roof tiles smashed all over the streets and pavements.

In fact, when I see photographs now of Wivenhoe in the immediate aftermath of the 1884 Great English Earthquake (or “The Colchester Earthquake” – the strongest to ever hit this country in recorded history, and which was focused on my corner of north-east Essex), I can see a foreshadowing of what I saw for myself in 1987 after The Great Storm.

We heard that Clacton was very badly affected by the storm, so as we had a beach hut there, once the roads were clear enough, we headed for the coast. Once again, tree after tree was down, and I remember seeing one house where a tree had smashed through a wall into a bedroom. That terrified me, as I realised that could’ve been us. Hopefully no one had been hurt.

We drove along the front along the cliff edge. I will never forget what had happened to one of the blocks of flats that looked out over the sea. You could see through the windows on the top floor – curtains, pictures on the walls, wardrobes – all thoroughly normal, until you noticed that above the pink wallpaper was sky.

The roof had been peeled off like the lid of a sardine tin.

I can honestly say that, despite being only a child at the time of The Great Storm, it was one of the most awe-inducing moments of my young life. I’d never seen devastation like it with my own eyes, until I was in Granbury, Texas, a few weeks after a tornado.

While the hurricane we experienced in Essex had roared over us and ripped up trees and knocked down walls with its strength, in Texas I saw houses that had been smashed like matchsticks. You could even see the path that the tornado had taken through the houses, leaving one house standing and its neighbour in bits. A mighty concentration of power which nothing in its way could resist.

Life went on in Wivenhoe, just as it did everywhere else. Fallen trees were cut up with chain saws and laid onto lorries, toppled walls rebuilt, fence panels replaced, smashed tiles were swept up and the holes in the rooves were repaired. But as long as I live, I will never forget the scream of the wind as I lay in my bed at six o’clock on that dark morning in 1987.

A trip to London

Reading the headstone of Taylor's parents in Northfleet, Kent

Reading a Taylor family headstone in the churchyard of Northfleet, Kent

Having travelled to Rugeley and to Edinburgh in pursuit of Alfred Swaine Taylor for my book Fatal Evidence, it was time to go to London and Kent. He was born in Northfleet, Kent, on the banks of the River Thames in 1806, and eventually moved to London, where he stayed for the rest of his life (trips back and forth to inquests and trials across England notwithstanding).

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A trip to Edinburgh

A puir wee sleekit ghoastie at Canongate kirkyard

I’d wanted to go on holiday to Edinburgh for ages, and was rather pleased that I could combine it with the writing of my book, Fatal Evidence. But what does the biography of a Kent-born English forensic scientist who lived most of his life in London have to do with Edinburgh, you ask?

Well… the story of forensic science in Britain starts in Edinburgh. Although medicine and science had been used to crack crime in Britain before, there was no formal teaching of ‘medical jurisprudence’ (the intersection of medicine and the law) in this country; the British had to look to the Continent. It was at the University of Edinburgh in 1789 that the first lectures in Britain had been given on the subject. Andrew Duncan, the first lecturer in the subject, had an uphill struggle to see his specialism recognised, despite his urging of its importance:

…to every medical practioner, who is liable to be called upon to illustrate any question comprehended under it before a court of justice.

The first professor of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh was Duncan’s son. It was only an elective course, rather than compulsory, and medical students just weren’t that interested.

In 1822, Dr Robert Christison, a 25-year-old Edinburgh native, took the chair and became professor of medical jurisprudence. His uncle helped him to the position but, despite such outrageous nepotism, Christison was actually very good at the subject. His background in both medicine and chemistry made him an ideal candidate – as did Alfred Swaine Taylor’s same background when a chair of medical jurisprudence came up at Guy’s Hospital in London.

Christison in 1856. at the trial of William Palmer.

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A trip to Rugeley

An artist’s rendering of William Palmer, from the Illustrated Times

One of Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s most famous cases was that of William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner. As I live in the West Midlands, Rugeley isn’t all that far from me, so I decided to pay the town a visit.

I felt rather awkward, because poor old Rugeley probably doesn’t want to be remembered for Palmer and his ‘orrible crimes. In 1856, as Palmer stood trial and the newspapers bulged with reports about him, journalists1)It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them. were dispatched to the unassuming market town to write lurid pieces about the locality. The Illustrated Times helpfully published a special supplement, full of Rugeley scenes – some of which you will see in this very blog. Members of the public visited just to see the place they’d read so much about. The local vicar had so many people trudge to his churchyard to see where John Parsons Cook, one of Palmer’s victims, was buried that he paid for a gravestone, bearing moralising quotations from Scripture: Enter not into the path of the wicked.

As the town hall where the inquests took place has been rebuilt, the first place connected with Palmer that we arrived at was the Talbot pub. This was where Cook was poisoned, and where he died.2)I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion. We couldn’t go in as the pub – last called The Shrew – has closed down. However, directly opposite was Palmer’s house. Not that you can see very much it of these days – in Palmer’s time it had a front garden, but eventually the front was extended out to touch the road, and it’s been divided into two shops. You can get round the back though, and that view hasn’t changed all that much.

I walked back and forth between the pub and the shops a couple of times, to get a feel for Palmer’s own journeys, back and forth between his house and the man he killed. It’s not a vast distance at all, being only the width of the road. I paused, and looked up at the window of the room where Cook died. After writing Poison Panic, where poisoning victims died in cottages that are either long gone or can no longer be identified, it felt very strange to be able to almost come to the exact spot where the crime had taken place.

My partner, who takes many of the photos in my books, photographed the streetscene, and it’s interesting to compare Rugeley in 2016 with Rugeley in 1856. It’s not quite as busy as it was, and I somehow doubt the Union flag bunting is there to celebrate the spot where a famous British murder took place. At least, I hope not!

An engraving showing a bustling mid-19th century street scene.

Rugeley, 1856. The Talbot is on the left, and Palmer’s house is on the right, behind the railings.

A modern street scene.

The same scene in 2016, with the closed down Shrew pub on the left, and the two shops (a weightloss salon and a pet shop) on the right adapted from Palmer’s house.

The back of Palmer’s house, 1856.

The back of Palmer’s house, 2016.

Our next stop was the church of St Augustine, where John Parsons Cook is buried. A terrible sensation that I was intruding had haunted me since I got off the train, but once I saw that the information board outside the church actually tells visitors where to find Cook’s grave in the churchyard, I felt slightly less ghoulish for my interest.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them.
2. I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion.

When “used” is “new”

A woodcut of a Victorian man in a chair reading.

My second book was published on Monday. The copies arrived with my publisher on the Friday before.

So imagine my surprise when, only a couple of days later, two third-party sellers on Amazon were selling copies “used – as new.”

This is physically impossible. There are no used copies, because readers and reviewers are still receiving their copies of the newly published books. So where are these “used” copies coming from?

This happened, too, with my first book, Poison Panic, which was published last year. Confused, I had contacted the sellers, and without replying to me, they changed their listings to “new”. At the time, I talked to my writing friends about it – the self-published authors I know find it particularly odd: “I haven’t even had my copies yet – where are they getting them from?!”

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Real-life ecclesiastical sleuths: Reverend Cancellor & The Eastbourne Manslaughter

Rev J H Cancellor, c1890-1. Sourced with thanks from Clare McMurtrie, one of his descendants.

At depth of night, this thought on home had shone;
‘Our distant child draws safe his sleeping breath.’
E’en then the cherish’d boy, th’ expected son,
Was dying through two hours – beaten to death.

Reverend John Henry Cancellor was born in London in about 1834. His father, another John Henry Cancellor, was a Master of the Court of Common Pleas, and his grandfather had been a stockbroker. The family moved in monied circles.

Life was not plain-sailing, however. In 1856, Rev. Cancellor’s bankrupted uncle, Ellis Cancellor, tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Serpentine. And Rev. Cancellor’s youngest sibling, Reginald Channell Cancellor, “a particularly kind and affectionate boy, and very much attached to his father,” had what we would now call learning difficulties.

Rev. Cancellor was ten years older than his brother, so when, in late 1859, fifteen-year-old Reginald’s schooling became a problem, the older brother could step in with advice. Rev. Cancellor had been ordained as a deacon in 1857; as a respectable gentleman and a reverend, he decided to make use of his connections to help his parents school his brother.

He received a recommendation for Thomas Hopley’s school in Eastbourne. Hopley had grand ideas on educational reform; he had studied the education of industrial workers, and had written books on the subject. If anyone could manage Reginald, a boy who was seen as stubborn and lazy, who “would not readily do what he was told,” then surely it would be Hopley. And so Reginald was sent to Eastbourne.

Hopley didn’t like to use discipline on his pupils, unless it was deemed absolutely necessary. And with Reginald, it seemed that Hopley reached the end of his tether. When Reginald came home for the Christmas holidays, his father complained that too much violence had been used on him, but he did think that Reginald’s demeanour had improved.

In April, a letter arrived at the Cancellors’ home from Hopley, saying that Reginald had become obstinate again – and that he recommended the use of “extreme punishment” to force a permanent change in the boy. Hopley didn’t have a cane because ordinarily he didn’t like to use violence, so when Reginald’s father approved Hopley’s idea, the schoolteacher had to improvise.

With a walking stick and a skipping rope.

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Who was R O Gilmore?

The frontispiece of the book showing the book's title, an engraving of showing the pub where John Parsons Cook died, and a stamp in the top right-hand corner which says R O Gilmore.

Ward and Lock’s “Illustrated and Unabridged edition of The Times report of the trial of William Palmer…”

Among the many adventures I had writing Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s biography, I decided to track down the previous owner of a book.

I work at a well-stocked library, and was able to borrow or consult most of the books I needed for my research. But I knew of two books on William Palmer which we don’t have, both of which were opportunistically cranked out by Ward and Lock just after the trial.

Their Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer of Rugeley uses mainly old engravings which must have served time in many other books; only one of them isn’t a stock image, but is the portrait of William Palmer at the races which appeared in the Illustrated Times newspaper. The tale of Palmer is told in near-novelistic style.

Their other book, the frontispiece of which you can see above, contains transcripts of the trial at the Old Bailey, taken verbatim, and apparently nicked wholesale from The Times. It’s full of images which appeared in the Illustrated Times – which, despite the name, isn’t connected with The Times newspaper.

I managed to buy both books online, and most of the engravings in Fatal Evidence‘s plates section are from the Illustrated and Unabridged Edition. It’s a wonderful piece of history to have on my bookshelf, but I wondered, when I saw the neat owner’s stamp on the frontispiece, who was R O Gilmore?

A stamp in faux Gothic lettering, saying R O Gilmore.

The name inside the book

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The time I met a national treasure

I once, briefly, met actor and national treasure Robert Hardy. He died today, and the first thing I thought of was the fact that his booming voice has been silenced.

I grew up watching All Creatures Great and Small, and my friend and I enjoyed it so much that we used to “play vets” – she would be the vet, I’d assume a (I’m fairly sure, utterly dreadful) Yorkshire accent, and it was “Cow’s got them mastics, vet’n’ry!” all the way.

Hardy became an expert on longbows, apparently a side effect of playing Henry V. He did a lot of work with the Mary Rose Trust – Henry VIII’s favourite ship contains the oldest surviving English longbows.

Robert Hardy in a flat cap shows a bow to historical re-enactment people in Mediaeval costume.

Robert Hardy demonstrates his bow knowledge at the Mary Rose Museum.

At one point, my dad used to work for the Mary Rose Trust. I had to go to his office at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard one day after school. I remember standing at the top of the stairs, staring about awkwardly at the Royal Naval-issue paintjob: matt duck-egg blue above and dark gloss navy blue on the lower half of the walls.

I saw a car pull up outside. I seem to recall that it was a Jaguar – possibly burgundy, or gold, but I do remember its distinctive personalised number-plate:

666 RH

Being a teenager, I laughed and pointed. That is, until I saw the driver get out.

It was Robert Hardy.

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Real-life ecclesiastical sleuths: Reverend Wilkins & The Tragedy at Wix

A vicar is seated in a pew with a plain-clothes detective in a brown raincoat standing beside him. They are in a church and light pours in through a window behind them.

A vicar and a detective, Rev Sidney Chambers and DI Geordie Keating, from ITV’s Grantchester

Ecclesiastical sleuths are not unknown to crime fiction and drama – there’s Father Dowling, there’s G K Chesterton’s Father Brown, and James Runcie’s Reverend Sidney Chambers.

But what about in real life? A priest has a pastoral duty to their flock, and who better than a priest to try to grasp the effects of good and evil. Members of the clergy inevitably find themselves on the cusp of crime. Whilst they might have to counsel family affected by violence, do they ever join forces with the police and help to solve mysteries?

In my research of nineteenth-century crime I’ve found two clergymen who found themselves drawn into investigations. In part 1, you’ll meet Reverend Wilkins from Wix in Essex, who suspected that one of his parishioners had met his death “by unfair means”. And in part 2, read about Reverend John Henry Cancellor, who found himself investigating the suspicious death of his own brother.

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