"There is Nothing I Can Say"
Death in Longton 1948
Trawling through the densely packed print of local newspapers from the past , one can occasionally be rewarded by the off-chance discovery of a fascinating story, hidden away amongst endless dusty paragraphs of local government and parochial bureaucracy, which was apparently reported in minute and stultifying detail.
Tucked away, almost as an afterthought, are other stories of local interest, from petty crimes, to assaults, suicides and occasionally murder. Sometimes these incidents are in themselves deeply shocking, yet they are reported with a curious combination of emotional detachment and an obsessive eye for irrelevant detail ; for example, a young woman “in a certain condition” throws herself in the canal in Leek in 1912, a terrible tragedy – but the contents of the purse in her handbag, left on the towpath – one florin, one shilling and two sixpences - are duly reported. I came across one such article from the Staffordshire Sentinel (still in print) from 1948, which stood out in particular for the tragic circumstances for all concerned . The following is a brief account of the incident, although I have decided to omit the surname of the family involved, as it may be possibly within living memory for some people.
It is late September in 1948. Sunset is at 7.44 pm, and the autumn nights begin to turn a little colder in Longton, the southernmost of the six pottery towns which make up Stoke on Trent. Overlooking the many potbanks and bottle ovens of the town is a meandering street simply known as “Ashwood”, up a long hill from the town itself, which is lined with small terraced houses, many of which will be replaced within a few years by new council houses, one of which will become a new home for my grandparents.
One such house (described as a “poor cottage” in the newspaper) is home to Susan Elizabeth H., a widow in her late sixties, together with her son Percy and his wife Doris and their children aged 9 years and almost 2. Doris is a small, slightly built woman with light brown hair, and is over six months’ pregnant, although she thinks she may be further on than that. The household does not appear to be a harmonious one, for the relationship between mother and law and daughter in law is strained, and neither have Doris and her husband been getting on too well either. “He works all day and goes out at night, giving us only £3 a week to live on” she is to state later in court. There must have been a simmering undercurrent of tension in the house, which was to boil over with catastrophic consequences.
One evening, a petty squabble (of which this was not the first) set in motion a chain of events whose eventual outcome could never have been guessed at. For whatever reason, perhaps Doris was trying to settle down a crying toddler, and asked Susan to turn down the volume of the radio. This request was met by a sarcastic response “you want to live in a field”, a throwaway comment which proved to be the trigger for what was to come. It seems unclear as to what happened next, but evidently the situation escalated and Doris, who later alleged that she felt she was about to be attacked, picked up an iron bar in self defence and dealt Susan seven or eight hefty blows about the head, knocking her unconscious to the ground and leaving her bleeding heavily.
Stopping only to put on her coat, Doris left the house and walked down the hill to the police station, where bloodstained and in a state of shock, she announced to the desk sergeant that she “had done her mother in law in”, her main cause of anxiety being that her daughter might come home from the cinema and discover the awful scene.
Upon arriving back at the house accompanied by the police, it was discovered that Susan was still clinging to life, although grievously injured, and an ambulance was summoned to take her to Longton Cottage Hospital, where, despite a blood transfusion, she died at 10.40 that evening.
Doris was arrested immediately, appearing in court the following morning, and remanded in custody at Manchester until October 7th, being granted legal aid. Her appearance was reported on in the paper, her green figured dress and blue mackintosh apparently worthy of comment, along with her “halting step”.
She would eventually be sentenced to seven years’imprisonment, which caused something of an outrage in the local community, to the extent that a petition for leniency was started by the Rector of Longton, the Reverend T.H. Brooks. Over 5000 signatures were gathered in Longton alone, such was the strength of peoples’ feelings, which tells us a lot about local views on the case. Whether it had any impact on her sentence I have yet to discover.
Doris gave birth to a baby boy a week before Christmas, they were reported as “both doing well”, but whatever that might mean in the circumstances is open to speculation.
And that, for now, is as much as I have been able to discover about this domestic tragedy of over 70 years ago. Susan Elizabeth’s obituary was printed in the newspaper, and I have been to the cemetery in Longton to look for her last resting place, but there seems to be no memorial or headstone, or at least none that I can find amid the toppled urns, broken kerbstones and sunken grass.
I don’t know what happened to Doris, although it is possible she was still alive as late as 1997. Quite by chance, I discovered that her maiden name was one that occurs (by marriage) in my own family tree, a strange coincidence.