Horace Gordon, 1915-1945
Horace Beresford Gordon was born 22nd October 1915 at Kingston, Jamaica. His father, Cleveland Gordon, was Foreman in a gas works. Horace later said of his home life that he was comfortable, he always had plenty of food and clothes and that it was a very religious home, his mother being a committed Anglican. A choirboy for ten years, Horace attended a good elementary school where he was an average scholar, though he suffered a stammer for some years. As a child he was good at sports including cricket, football and swimming, he also ran for his school. He left school at 16 and gained a position as an apprentice, working under the umbrella of the Jamaican Government until 1937. Horace married Elma Hyde in Kingston in 1936 and the couple left Jamaica the following year for British Honduras where they opened a restaurant that did fairly well. In 1940 they returned to Jamaica and the same year Horace went to Britain.
We don’t know what took Horace to the UK during wartime, but in January 1941 he went to Canada to look for work instead. In Canada he answered the call for volunteers for munitions works, but left within six months to join the Canadian Army. As a member of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps he was sent to England and billeted in Surrey. There he gained the nickname ‘Happy’ from members of his regiment because he always had a positive, upbeat attitude and a smile. It is likely this was an exterior for a man who was not unaffected by worries and hardships. He had a quick temper, though he was also quick to forgive, and had a habit of biting his nails. ‘Happy’ Gordon’s nickname was probably also gained from his love of socialising. He was always friendly and curious about strangers, enjoyed going to the cinema with his regiment, but particularly loved going out dancing and music. ‘Happy’ Gordon had a reputation for being particularly generous with his time, rations and money. He and fellow Canadian soldiers were popular dance partners with English women because, apart from being better dancers, it was also known that they received higher pay than their British comrades and always had chewing gum and chocolate to share. Sometime after he arrived in England Horace said his wife stopped writing to him. By September 1944 they had been out of touch for about five months. Horace cultivated a deep and affectionate friendship with a local white woman named Helen and her family who lived at Horsham, West Sussex. He had been welcomed to stay at their home by Helen’s husband, who was often away working, and was close with their adult daughters.
Crime & Trial
When he wasn’t taking Helen and her daughters dancing, Horace liked to spend his evenings or days off cycling to Horsham on a bike he borrowed from the family to see them. One evening in September 1944 he took a pound of pears in his backpack and set off on an unfamiliar route to Horsham, enjoying the Surrey and Sussex countryside. A heavily pregnant young woman, Dorothy Hillman, was walking along the side of a country road with her dog and he stopped to ask her for directions. She recognised him as a Canadian soldier and asked “have you got any gum, chum?” so he took off his backpack to oblige. Dorothy’s version of events differed to Horace’s from here. She later said that he attacked her and threatened her with a knife if she did not submit to sex with him in a nearby copse. He claimed that she misunderstood an innocent question, called him a “dirty black n*****” and there was a confused scuffle when he tried to stop her screaming for her husband who was working in a nearby field. Whatever happened, Dorothy was found bleeding by the side of the road when her dog raised the alarm with some locals. Horace had cycled away and was one of several black soldiers in the area asked to account for his whereabouts that night. Dorothy died in hospital a couple of weeks later from stab wounds, her baby having been born dead in the meantime. Despite close scrutiny of Dorothy’s own sexual and criminal past by police, court and Home Office, it was her dying statement that was prioritised over Horace’s version of events. He was found guilty and sentenced to death and there were no recommendations to mercy.
Punishment & Outcomes
Hundreds of his fellow servicemen petitioned the Home Office for mercy, and further petitions with equally impressive numbers of signatures were received from Jamaica. Helen wrote numerous letters to the Home Secretary, and strong representations were received from the Canadian Government who tried everything to save Horace Gordon from the gallows. It was stressed that he had no previous criminal convictions, no reputation for violence, and that Dorothy’s comment was highly provocative considering that the N-word was not used in Jamaica or Canada because it was insulting. British justice did not seem to agree on this point. Horace Beresford Gordon was hanged at Wandsworth on the 9th of January 1945. He is memorialised among war dead in Brookwood Military Cemetery.
What else can the documents about this crime tell us?
The above life history, mainly derived from interviews between Horace ‘Happy’ Gordon and Prison Warders and Medical Officers, shows that Horace was much more than a convicted murderer. Thanks to the documents left behind in the archives, we know details about his life and personality that are often erased or forgotten when a person commits a crime.
Our project is further examining Horace Gordon’s case as part of a study of cases in which race was mobilised as a reason for mercy, and we plan to submit a journal article for publication on this topic. Watch this space for updates.
This post shares extracts from the project ‘Race, Racialisation and the Death Penalty in England and Wales, 1900-1965’. We will be publishing a post like this every day in Black History Month 2018.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The authors are Alexa Neale and Lizzie Seal.