Black History Month 2018: Horace Gordon

Horace Gordon, 1915-1945

HB Gordon signature of recruit

Early Life:

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.

Gordon clipping

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.


Black History Month 2018: Thomas James

Thomas James, 1916-1943

thomas james at prior conviction
Thomas James at a prior conviction

Early Life

Thomas James was born in Liverpool on the 16th of September 1916. According to reports on him and his background, his father was “a West Indian negro” and his mother was “a white woman, native of Liverpool”. Thomas, who was also known as “Tommy” and “Knocker”, spent time living in an orphanage as a child because his mother died when he was young and his father was away at sea. As a young man of 15 he was arrested for ‘vagrancy’ and petty thefts that could be regarded as subsistence crimes and sent to Feltham borstal as a juvenile offender. On his release it was suggested he go to sea as a Galley Boy, which he did, later working as a Marine Fireman like his father.

At age 22 Tommy’s criminal record turned to violent crimes including wounding and grievous bodily harm (twice) and assault. He volunteered for the Army during the war but he and other volunteers who were friends from Liverpool found that men of colour were discriminated against. Whilst they were admitted to the services they were prevented from going overseas. Tommy found this frustrating because he had been to sea many times and found that Army life promised to confine him to England. He deserted from the Army and went to sea again with the Merchant Navy.

Crime & Trial

In August 1943 Thomas James came ashore at Hull and proceeded home to Liverpool. He had £35 in wages on him and began to drink it away with his friends, including George Dias and Gwennie Sweeney. At one point during their pub crawl, Tommy and Gwen disappeared and only Tommy came back to the pub. The next morning he had a sore head and told George that they had better not resume their drinking in a place where Gwennie might turn up because he had had sex with her in the basement of a bombed out building, ‘made her quiet’ when she started shouting, and then left her there in the dark. He told George that she or her friends would be looking for him. A few hours later Tommy seemed to be getting worried about Gwen and pointed to the house where he had left her, wondering if she was still there. Gwennie had died from a combination of shock and blood loss from injuries to her sexual organs and strangulation where she had been silenced. Tommy had been seen near the ruined house before and after Gwennie had gone missing, so he was arrested and taken to the Bridewell. At Liverpool City Police Court he gave a statement claiming that he had been so drunk he couldn’t remember anything of the night Gwen died.

Punishment & Outcomes

Thomas James was found guilty of Gwen’s murder and sentenced to death. There was no recommendation to mercy and an appeal failed. Tommy James was hanged at Liverpool Prison on the 29th of December 1943 and buried there in grave number 46.

What else can the documents about this crime tell us?

Tommy James’ criminal records show that he was written off by the criminal justice system at an early age. A prison medical officer said “his circumstances of birth, lack of home life have probably induced a sense of inferiority which he has sought to compensate by being the swashbuckling, hard drinking and fighting tar.” Tommy seems to have felt that sense of hopelessness, despite his attempts at appeal, he seemed to know he would be sentenced to death and the sentence carried out. The officer quoted him as saying ‘”I always knew I’d be hung, ever since I was ten I have felt it.”‘ Tommy didn’t want his father to witness his being sentenced to death. Before the trial he wrote a moving letter to him:

‘Dear Dad
I am writing to you hopeing this letter finds you in the best of health… I was only half awake when I saw you yesterday, as I had only just woken up from my sleep so I never had time to think about what I wanted to tell you about.
The chief reason for the writing of this letter is in the advent of you not being able to come up and see me before my trial (Saturday week) I want you to have an idea what is passing through my mind. Dad I am, (believe me) asking you to do me a great favor, by not appearing in court at my trial, under any circumstances or conditions at all. I will explain why.
I have no doubt as to the out-come of this case. A jurie [sic] of twelve will hear my case and bring in a verdict. Their [they’re] strangers to me they don’t trouble or worry me in the least what-ever they may say or think, a judge will judge my case and pass judgment upon me that’s his profession. He could pass the death sentence and go home and forget it, its all in a day work to him. Even what-so-ever he should say wont cause me to loose any sleep. But if you attend, you also will be a judge at my trial which will be the judgment of the father on the son and you are the only one what matters to me. Its a very queer case to me its seems stranger than fiction. Judging and looking at my case from a strangers point. The facts and the evidence, it certainly pointd to me being the guilty person.
I am quite sensible enough to see the obvious but the only satisfaction and knowledge is the fact of knowing I never committed the murder. But if upon hearing the evidence you will belive I am really guilty therefore you would have judged me and found me guilty, you my Father. Their by you would have made a greivos [sic] mistake. I have no hope what so ever of proveing I did’nt do it. Their for [therefore] it would be a waster of time accusing somebody else without being able to prove it. They’ve covered there tracks too well.
…I would not like you to [hear] the sentence passed upon me which you would never forget. Please do not go to the court.
From your sincere son
P.S. Befor The end of my Time I will let [you] know albout it.

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.

Black History Month 2018: Willoughby Banks

Willoughby Banks, 1921-19??

Western Daily Press 3.2.1942
Western Daily Press 3/2/1942

Early Life:

According to the trial transcript, Willoughby Ernest Banks was born in 1921 in ‘Georgia, British West Indies’. This is likely a typing or transcription error, and more likely refers to one of the cities or towns similarly named in the Caribbean, for example George Town, Cayman Islands, or Georgetown on the island of St. Vincent. In common with many of the men our project looks at, Willoughby was a seaman, an occupation made even more dangerous by the conditions of wartime. He may have gone to sea at the start of the Second World War, which coincided roughly with his turning 18. We know that he had been coming to Liverpool for at least two years by 1941, regularly renting a room in Upper Stanhope Street when he was on shore. This area of Liverpool was recently (2018) the subject of historical documentary A House Through Time, presented by David Olusoga on the BBC. The programme highlighted the long history of black settlement in the area and the contributions generations of people of colour made to the community life of Liverpool.

At 91 Upper Stanhope Street in 1942, Willoughby met fellow tenant Molly Foster. She was born in Wigan in 1919. Her father, who lived nearby, was also a black seaman, leading the press and Home Office to describe her as “half-caste”. Molly had already been living at 91 Upper Stanhope Street for some time, in a room by herself. When she and Willoughby struck up a relationship they moved into a room together.

Crime & Trial:

As with other cases we’ve looked at on this blog, there are two versions of Molly and Willoughby’s relationship. Firstly that they got on well together and often had verbal play fights in which they threw insults at each other. Other tenants in the building said that nobody took their fighting seriously, even when Willoughby threatened to kill Molly, everyone thought he was joking. Jean Leonard, a tenant and close friend of Molly’s, took it a little more seriously when Molly complained that Willoughby had started drinking and was becoming increasingly difficult to live with. As Jean’s husband was away at sea, she let Molly share her room so she could get away from Willoughby. One night the two women went out for a drink together and Willoughby was there. He tried to get Molly to stay out with him when Jean went home but she refused. Back a the house in the basement kitchen the tenants were all playing cards or music in the communal living area. Willoughby started berating Molly and she gave as good as she got. The back and forth became physical when they started throwing things at each other. Molly told Willoughby he wasn’t as much of a man as one of the other tenants, he could never be as fine a man as Eddie. According to later statements by witnesses, Willoughby told his friends to shake hands with him, that he was saying goodbye, he would see them in the next world because he was going to kill Molly. They all thought he was joking until he stood up and chased her around the room with a knife. Jean tried to protect her friend by covering her with her own body but Willoughby reached around her and stabbed Molly to death. He later claimed that he had been drunk and couldn’t remember any of what had happened. The next thing he knew, he said, was waking up in Dale Street Main Bridewell (see below). His defence counsel said that Molly’s taunts had provoked Willoughby to kill her. He was sent for trial at Liverpool Assizes at St. George’s Hall.

Punishment & Outcomes

At the trial, Justice Oliver was confident that the jury would give Willoughby Banks a fair hearing:

‘…you have been reminded of the fact that [the prisoner] is a coloured man. I think I know a Liverpool Jury well enough to know that that would not have the slightest effect upon you. He appears to have come from a British possession and is as much a British subject as you or I. We give the same measure of justice to all in this country. Sometimes it is referred to by coloured people as “the white man’s justice.” This is the justice this man knows. What he said was this; he was born in 1921, so he is only 21; he has been three years sailing to English ports; he met the dead woman about three years ago; they used to go about together whenever he was in Liverpool. ‘…On November 22nd I arranged to meet Molly and Mrs. Leonard at the “Metropole” in the evening; I was already good in liquor; they joined me and I had a drink and I paid for them; I asked Molly what she was going to do; she said she was going whoreing to look for a sweet man.” He says that, and nobody contradicted it, and no doubt if she did say it she may not have meant it. He said: “I am not particular what you do.” Then two French sailors came in; “we had drinks together, whiskey and bitters and wine and rum; the next thing I remember is when I found myself in the little cell [at Dale Street Main Bridewell].”‘

The jury found Willoughby Banks guilty with a strong recommendation to mercy. His death sentence was reprieved by the Home Office on account of Molly’s ‘provocation’. He was the first African or Caribbean man sentenced to death in the twentieth century to receive mercy.

What else can the documents about this crime tell us?

The only other thing that we know about Willoughby Banks is that, after serving less than five years in prison he was sent to Jamaica, his passage paid by the British government. In the few notes about this that we can currently access, the Home Office described this as ‘repatriation’, which is interesting in light of the judge’s comments above about Willoughby being ‘as much a British subject as you or I’. If anyone has any further information about what might have happened to Willoughby Banks after his passage to Jamaica in 1947 we would like to hear from them (contact details below). Was he reunited with family in Georgetown or George Town? Did he go back to sea as a sailor? Did he return to Britain with other migrants from the Caribbean less than a year after he was deported?

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.

Black History Month 2018: George E. Michael

George E. Michael, 1883-1932

18 Feb 1932
Hull Daily Mail 18.2.32

Early Life:

George Emmanuel Michael was born on the island of St. Croix in the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands) around 1883. According to a petition by people who knew him, George was conscious of his identity as a descendant of enslaved African people, which led him to settle in the English city of Hull because it was the birthplace of  William Wilberforce, anti-slavery campaigner, about whom George had learned at school. We know that George had settled in Hull by 1916 because he received a conviction there as an ‘alien failing to observe conditions of permit’. As a Marine Fireman working on board ships, George travelled the world but always returned to Hull which he considered his home. It is likely that the long stays he made in Hull between ships were not compatible with laws regarding Alien Registration which required frequent check-ins with police.

In Hull in 1928, George met Theresa Mary Hempstock, nee Walton. According to census records, her father was a Dock Labourer and her mother was born in India. Civil registration indexes show that Theresa was first married in 1899. She and her husband had three children but within 5 years were living separately. The 1911 census shows Theresa’s husband living with their children and another woman as his wife. Theresa was living in the same city, renting a room from a Marine Fireman from Jamaica. When they met in 1928, Theresa told George that she was a widow, her husband had died in the war. Theresa and George were married at Hull Register Office on 13th November 1929.

When he died, aged 49, George Michael was 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighed 135 pounds and was of medium, muscular build. No photographs of him survive in the crime archives, but our online searches lead us to believe that relatives of George may have photographs and further information about him. If they would contact us (details below) we would be happy to keep anything they share private, if that is their preference.

Crime & Trial:

The year after they married, George found out that Theresa had married him bigamously; she was still married to her first husband and he was still alive. Bigamy was not only a crime, meaning Theresa could face a conviction, but it also rendered her marriage with George null and void. According to prison documents, George was a devout Roman Catholic who ‘knew his Bible’, which likely contributed to his feelings about his illegal marriage with Theresa. Two different versions of their relationship emerge in the records, which is not unusual in cases of domestic murder. In his own words;

‘I am writeing [to] the police of Hull to give a Clear Statement of my present state of mind. I feel it impossible to Continued in Life after the beastly Actions of this woman who I now Decide to make pay the penalty for the beastly things she has done to me. I am sorry to say these things should Happen But my Brain feels as if there is many worms turning up and Down in my Head So I has deside to go out of it all. I has Been Faurce [forced] in[to] marrage By this woman then She Has misconduck Her Self in many in acagions [margin: ‘occasions’] and Last of all after taking all of my Earnings turn me out of the Very House which I Has provided for so many years now I am in misery and is so Ashaim [ashamed] of Her actions that I am Blinded out of Reason. Hopeing to be Forgiven By the Hevemley Master for my Greavence is more than I can stand for.’

On the other side, friends of Theresa said that George had been impossible to live with, he had threatened Theresa and she was so scared of him and desperate to get away from him that she went to the police to give herself up for bigamy in the hope that they would protect her. George said she did that only to get rid of him. He wasn’t scared of the police, he said, he would kill her.

George’s landlady said that while they were chatting and playing cards one evening he asked her if she thought it was ‘wicked’ to kill.

‘I said “You mustn’t kill anyone. They [the state] will kill you if you do.” We got talking about hanging and he said “In Denmark [and the Danish West Indies] they don’t hang anyone.” I said “They do here unless it’s an accident…”‘

On New Years Eve, 31st December 1931, George went to the house he had shared with Theresa and took a knife. She managed to get away from him and call for a policeman who tried to stand between the couple but George reached around him with the knife and stabbed Theresa. He then attempted to stab himself but was restrained. The trial at Yorkshire Assizes was a straightforward one and George Michael was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Punishment & Outcomes

Petitioners writing to the Home Secretary to ask for mercy for George Michael racialised his crime by describing him as childlike, innocent and naive. The woman and the city had corrupted him, they said.

‘Michael was a lovable, tender hearted man, who feared God and knew his Bible and was a great attraction to little children who were drawn to him. As a lad of 12 years of age, he read the life of Wilberforce and had a yearning to see the City where this great man was born. After many years this wish was gratified, he as a seaman arrived in this port and beholding the monument exclaimed “If the people of Hull only realised what Wilberforce had done for humanity they would have erected a monument of gold, not of stone”. The tragedy is, that in this City of his ideal he was drawn into the vortex of corruption, and in his simple self-denying love and large heartedness, was led to marry this woman who was to be the ruin of his life. It is poignant to me, that the corruption existing in this City should have brought a man with such a character to such a pass and I earnestly trust that you may feel it proper to grant a reprieve as the world will be enriched by his living childlike faith in prayer and in God.’

This petition and others like it did not move the Home Office. George Emmanuel Michael was hanged at Hull Prison on the 27th April 1932 and buried in grave number 8 within the prison walls.

What else can the documents about this crime tell us?

George Michael’s case is one of many we have seen that show how ideas about racial difference could be mobilised in support of a black defendant. By highlighting characteristics argued to be associated with their race, petitioners attempted to save their lives. It is striking how the petitions manage to be both sympathetic and shockingly racist at the same time. In the following example, George Michael’s solicitors wrote to the Home Secretary to ask for a reprieve that was never granted.

‘It is particularly desired to emphasise the fact that here one is not dealing with a stolid white Northerner, but with a coloured man of different temperament and passions… passions so much more easily inflamed. We would like to say that so far as we are personally concerned we have had a great many opportunities of seeing this prisoner, and we should have no hesitation in describing him as a superior type of coloured man, who is able to express himself in very good English, and the dead woman apart, we should describe him as being the last man from whom violence might be expected. May we therefore respectfully urge you to give the utmost consideration to everything which has been urged on behalf of the prisoner, and particularly to direct your attention to the facts of the prisoner’s very meritorious war service, the length of his stay in England, during which time he was without doubt industrious, and respectable, and the unhappy nature of his existence commencing almost from the time of his association with the dead woman. In considering these matters we earnestly ask you to consider the character of the dead woman, and to say that what the prisoner himself describes as her “beastly actions” were largely responsible for her own death. We are assured that no questions of colour or race will influence you in arriving at what you consider is a proper decision, but we ask you to bear in mind that you are dealing here with a man handicapped very largely by limitation and differences arising entirely from questions of race and colour. We believe there are some grounds for saying that the prisoner’s ancestors were slaves, and the fact that Hull is the birthplace of Wilberforce, induced the prisoner first to live in Hull.’

18 Feb 1932 Hull Daily Mail victim
Hull Daily Mail 18.2.32

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.

Black History Month 2018: Lester Hamilton

Lester Hamilton, 1896-1921

Lester Hamiltons petition for mercy
Lester Hamilton’s handwritten and signed petition for mercy (click for transcription)

Early Life:

Lester A. Hamilton was born in Kingston, Jamaica in about 1896 and worked as a marine fireman. That is, he worked in the hot engine rooms of steamships, tending the fires to fuel the vessels. In 1921 he was 25 years old, 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighed 151 pounds, and was described as strong. Like many other international seafarers at the time, Lester, who was also known as Joe Bascombe, spent his time between voyages in his UK port-town of choice where he had a consistent network of friends, shops, restaurants and accommodation that he returned to again and again. By 1920 Lester had been in England for some time when he met 16-year-old Doris Appleton and asked her mother, Rose, if he could marry her. She insisted the couple wait until Doris was 18 but gave her blessing. Whenever Lester was home from sea he lived with the Appletons, gave Doris money for her upkeep, and gave her all his savings for their future together. Lester later claimed that he believed Doris loved him and was planning to marry him. He loved her so much, he said, that when he found out she had slept with another man, “a Japanese”, Lester forgave her.

Crime & Trial:

In his handwritten petition and confession, Lester described what happened next;

“…I speak to her over and over, an also her mother about it and she promest me not to have nothing more to do whit him. I forgive her of all that she had dun. I then find out [through] a friend of mine that she had stay in her mother house with the same man on the very night that I spoke to her last. Going up to the house then to prove the fact I found her in the house with the same man. True love and brakeing harted I take a gun frum my pocket and kild her…”

Lester walked out of the house and into the street and then pointed the gun at his own head and pulled the trigger. The bullet lodged in his brain, paralysing him down one side of his body, but did not kill him. He was arrested and taken for trial.

At trial, Lester’s defence counsel claimed he had acted out of jealousy, provoked by the young woman who he thought loved him and would marry him he had been temporarily insane at the time of the crime. The prosecution, on the other hand, claimed that Doris had been working as a prostitute for a long time and never been serious about Lester. Her letters to him, they said, showed that she didn’t care any more about him than any other man she was trying to get money from. He knew this, they claimed, and couldn’t possibly believe that he had any right to her sexual fidelity. This version of events placed the responsibility for the crime on Lester and made his actions more malicious than jealous. Though the jury found him guilty, they supported the defence’s view of Lester as acting out of jealousy and recommended him to mercy.

Punishment & Outcomes

Lester Hamilton’s solicitor wrote to the Home Secretary to ask for mercy, his petition signed by hundreds of local people who lived in Cardiff near the Appletons. At Doris’s funeral, crowds hissed at her mother who they saw as having prostituted her daughter. Newspaper articles, many of which were clipped and kept by the Home Office, were somewhat sympathetic to Lester, highlighting the jury’s recommendation to mercy in their reporting on the case. However, the Home Office stuck to their view, like that of the prosecution, that Lester could not have expected a known prostitute to give up selling sex and be faithful to him. They decided that he was not deserving of mercy and Lester Hamilton was hanged at Cardiff Prison on the 16th of August 1912. He was buried there within the prison walls, in grave number 12, near William Lacey.

What else can the documents about this crime tell us?

This case is one of many that shows how the identities of the defendant and the victim could be played off against each other to make one or the other look more guilty or more culpable in their own murder, and how complicated these tensions were. Women victims were seen as particularly deviant if they were sexually active outside of marriage. Doris’s identity as a prostitute was seen by police and judiciary to be reinforced by the fact that her ‘clients’ were “foreigners”. But the two men who she was accused of being with, the Japanese man and Lester Hamilton (whom she also called Joe) might have been genuine loves. The tattoos on her body, described in the coroners report after her death, certainly suggest that she had had more than one “true love,” one was a person with a Japanese name, the other’s began with the letters “LES…” The love letters she sent to Lester, which later formed part of the trial evidence, were read by the police as a prostitute asking for money, but they were also affectionate and included little poems she had written for him.

“You’ve got a girl named Doris
Whose love will never fade
And for you she’ll do her best
If you should ever fail.

My pen is bad
My ink is pale
My love for you
Will never fail.

You are a little fireman
And proud am I to know
That still you love me as I am
Without a single plea.”

Grateful thanks to Dr Matt Lodder for sharing his expert knowledge of Tattoo History to help us better understand Doris Appleton’s ink.

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.

Black History Month 2018: Young Hill

Young Hill, ca.1887-1915

201304031723570.Antillian 1898-9-30
The S.S. Antillian, aboard which Young Hill was employed

Early Life:

Young Hill was a 28-year-old married man from Slidell, Louisiana, USA, who had worked in the rail and logging industries in his home state until 1915. That year he was one of about 50 Muleteers (caring for mules and other live cargo) employed on the steamship Antillian as it transported animals to Avonmouth near Bristol, England from New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. It was the first time Hill had been to sea, and he was ill on the 23-day journey. He, like the other men, expected to accompany the live cargo to Avonmouth, followed by a delivery of ordinary cargo at Liverpool, after which they would sail back to New Orleans on the same ship and be paid 15 dollars when they reached home.

Crime & Trial:

According to a Home Office report, the Antillian anchored in the Mersey by the outer wall at Canada Dock, Liverpool, on the evening of 26th July 1915. The crew were resting on the ship and one of the muleteers (who were all black men from New Orleans according to the trial judge,) was sick in the Forecastle. He asked for someone to bring him some water and Young Hill, being sympathetic because he had been ill himself, offered to fetch it. When he returned another crew-member, James Crawford, protested that Hill had brought the drinking water in a waste bucket – it was too dirty and not fit to drink, but Hill argued that he had washed the bucket out. Some accounts described Hill as attacking Crawford, others said there was a fight, that Hill drew a razor and slashed Crawford’s neck. He stumbled on deck, but with his jugular severed Crawford died quickly and Hill, still brandishing the razor and feeling under threat from the dozens of men that surrounded him, had to be restrained while Liverpool Police were sent for.

Young Hill told a constable he had been taunted and punched by Crawford. He showed them his shirt which had a cut in it, and said that Crawford had got hold of his razor and attacked him – Hill had struck him in self-defence. Indicted for murder, he was sent for trial at Liverpool Assizes in St. George’s Hall where he repeated this account. Witnesses said Hill was unprovoked, or hardly provoked, but the judge offered the jury an explanation of Crawford’s murder that took into account the race of the defendant and victim. Summing up at the end of the trial he said:

“…It is the conduct of a man who had been wild and savage, who had been in a passion and had inflicted these injuries upon an opponent. It does not prove the matter, but it is certainly the conduct which fits one story and not the other.
Gentlemen, I am not going to say anything more about this case. The men are not English. Perhaps you may make a little difference in that respect in judging the facts. One has understood that these southern races, and this man is of a southern race, are more apt to quarrel, but still you are not to find a verdict of manslaughter in this case instead of murder unless you really think there has been some amount of provocation which entitles you to do so.”

The jury did not think there had been any provocation and took two minutes to make their decision: Young Hill was guilty of murder. However, they recommended mercy (imprisonment not hanging) “on account of his nationality”. The judge had no choice but to pass sentence of death, but promised to forward their recommendation to the Home Office.

Punishment & Outcomes

In his letter to the Home Office, the judge said he didn’t support the jury’s recommendation that Young Hill should not be hanged. The Home Office staff who wrote a report for the Home Secretary agreed, saying;

“The Jury probably meant that the cause of the quarrel was a trivial one which among white men would not have led to murder. Judges have often dealt leniently with foreigners charged with using knives or revolvers on the ground that such offences are lightly regarded in their own countries. It is more important I think to impress upon foreigners that whatever they may do in their own countries they must respect the law here or abide the consequences. So far as the dispute was concerned the prisoner was clearly in the wrong and he had no provocation of any kind. I do not see any sufficient reason for interference [mercy].”

A Liverpool solicitor named Quilliam raised a petition asking for mercy and sent it to the Home Office. He said it was “exclusively signed by coloured men in Liverpool, the condemned man being himself a negro.” The names and signatures, or a record of how many there were, have not survived in the archives. Young Hill himself also petitioned the Home Office for mercy. (He likely had a prison officer help him, who would have been more familiar with the forms and known what style was required.)

“…To fall into such deep and awful trouble the first time I left home to work is terrible. Never before had I been to sea, and the sickness was too much for me, and made me so that I was not myself. The following people in the United States can shew me to be a law-abiding citizen: Mr Louis Minhard, Grocer &c., Mandeville, Louisiana. Mr Inez Perenna, Grocer, Mandeville, Louisiana. Mr Nolan Mayo, GNR Foreman, Mandeville. Mr John Orr, Paymaster, H. Weston Lumber Co., Logtown, Mississippi. I humbly pray that my life may be spared inasmuch that I had no wish or intention to take that of my opponent.”

None of the appeals or petitions was successful. The Home Secretary stuck to their decision and continued with plans for Hill’s death sentence to be carried out. It was a double execution at Liverpool on 1st December 1915. Young Hill was hanged alongside John James Thornley and the two men were buried in the same grave, number 26, within the prison walls.

What else can the documents about this crime tell us?

Sometimes there are gaps in the historical record, silences that frustrate us and leave us asking questions. For example, it is mentioned only briefly that Young Hill was a married man. How did his wife and family, presumably back in New Orleans, find out that he wasn’t coming home? By the time news reached them was he already dead?

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.

Black History Month 2018: Percy Clifford

Percy Clifford, 1883-1914

GBM_WO97_4543_117_001 extract
Description of Percy Clifford from his army record

Early Life:

According to the record of his baptism at St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury, London, Percy Evelyn Clifford was born on 10th October 1883. His parents were living in Bloomsbury at the time. Census returns tell us that Percy’s father Albert (later known as Francis Albert) was born in Jamaica, but had been in England since at least 1871 when he was valet to the vicar of Tysoe, Warwickshire. In 1873 Albert married Ellen Pennifold, a Dressmaker, in London (she was originally from Kent) and the couple went on to have eight children including Percy.

As a young man, Percy had a short military career and saw action in the Boer War in South Africa. When he volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry in 1901, his papers recorded that he was 5 feet 6 inches tall with brown eyes and had worked as an Electrician. As a Private in the 94th Company (the Metropolitan Mounted Rifles) he received gunshot wounds to the right arm and left foot when the train he was on was attacked by Boers in July 1901. He was sent to hospital to recover from his wounds but was declared unfit for further service later that year and awarded a pension of 2 shillings a day for life.

In 1902, back home in London, Percy drove a horse-drawn cab for a while but found it difficult because of the pain from his injuries. He worked at other jobs over the next few years including book-keeping and served a short term in prison for ‘brothel-keeping’ (this charge could be handed out to anyone who lived in a house where more than one woman was suspected of selling sex). Percy lived with a woman called Susan Hughes for six years and they had a son together but the baby died. Percy was deeply affected by the death of his son for the rest of his life. Through Susan, Percy met Maud Walton, who had a criminal record for minor offences. She had been in custody, either in prison or in an Approved School, and the day she was released she went to live with Susan and Percy. Percy and Maud became involved, and in 1909 they left Susan’s house together. They were married in early 1911, appearing on the census together three months later living at Richmond Crescent, N.

Crime & Trial:

It’s unclear how much of their three-year marriage Percy and Maud spent living together. Maud’s family blamed Percy and Percy’s family blamed Maud for their marital troubles and separations. Court records and newspaper reports suggest that Maud’s mother and sister were involved in selling her sex, whereas Mrs Walton claimed it was Percy who had driven Maud to sex-work and lived off her earnings. It seems that Percy was by turns jealous, suspicious and ashamed of his wife (for whom his pet name was “Dimps”), but also deeply in love with her and desperate to get her back.

In April 1914 they were seen together and seemed to be patching things up. They decided to go away for a weekend to Brighton, and Percy bought Maud a new dress for the occasion, and two return train tickets. Staying in lodgings in North Road near the station, the couple went out together and met with an old friend of Percy’s. When they came back one evening, Percy told the boarding house keepers that he and his wife were having “a jovial time” and could they have tea brought to their room in the morning. It was brought, and left outside the door of their bedroom (Maud called out “thank you” when she heard it) but the tea wasn’t drunk. At some point around noon there were two loud bangs, but the boarding-house keeper thought it was a motorcar. When the tea tray was still outside in the afternoon, the boarding-house keepers went into the room where they found the couple both lying on the bed, each with a bullet wound in the head. Maud was dead and Percy was unconscious.

Taken to Royal Sussex County Hospital, Percy was unconscious for ten days but later recovered (the bullet was lodged in his skull), alive but suffering from double vision and slow speech. He was arrested by Brighton Police for murdering his wife and sent to trial at Sussex Assizes in Lewes where he presented a defence of insanity via his solicitor. According to local newspapers, Mr Stormonth Darling ‘began his address to the jury on [the] prisoner’s behalf by warning them against prejudice because his client was a man of colour….’ but this doesn’t appear in the trial transcript. Percy’s narrative was that he had been driven mad with shame by rumours that his wife had been with other men. He claimed he didn’t remember the night of the murder.

Punishment & Outcomes

Percy’s defence was not accepted, he was deemed to be sane, and there was suspicion that he had taken Maud to Brighton planning to kill her and then himself. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. A post-sentence Medical Inquiry on his mental health described Percy as ‘a man of ordinary physique and intelligence. His demeanor was calm and collected, and he answered our questions ready and to the point as regards his past life up to the day before the murder was committed…’ An appeal failed and Percy Clifford was hanged at Lewes Prison on 11th August 1914. He was buried in grave number 12 within the prison walls.

What else can the documents about this crime tell us?

In many of the records of Percy Clifford’s life his colour is invisible. His complexion is described as ‘dark’ in his army papers, and the only suggestion of his mixed heritage is his father’s place of birth (“Jamaica, West Indies, British Subject”) when he was living with his parents in some census records. None of the identity documents about his birth, baptism, marriage or death make mention of the colour of his skin – there wasn’t a question for it on the forms. It wasn’t until Percy Clifford met with the criminal justice system and his high profile case was reported by newspapers that he was described as “a man of colour” or “coloured”. Many histories of African and Caribbean migration to Britain focus on the period after the Second World War, but Albert Clifford, Percy’s father, was in Warwickshire by 1871. As only one of his eight children, Percy’s case makes us wonder if the number of British people who can claim African and Caribbean descent in the past has been grossly underestimated.

Percy Clifford and family in the 1891 England Census –

Percy Clifford and family in the 1901 England Census –

Percy and Maud Clifford in the 1911 England Census –

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.