Leamington Spa is an attractive and genteel town situated between Coventry and Stratford on Avon in the south-easterly part of the midlands. Even now it retains much of its fine Regency architecture, a legacy of its heyday as a fashionable spa destination in the late 18th century. Beneath its veneer of well-to-do gentility, small tragedies occur which are now largely lost from memory ; the following is one such unhappy tale.
In the years following the end of WW1, a soldier has returned, thankfully uninjured, from the horrors of the trenches. Hugh Sidney Horswill was a career soldier, having joined up at the age of 18 in 1899 and choosing not to follow his father Thomas into the family concern, even though business was thriving. A coal merchant by trade, Thomas was doing well enough to afford a handsome house in Portland Place, with an attractive wrought iron balcony and domestic staff to attend to the needs of the family. However, it would appear that Hugh looked further afield for his future, and enlisted in the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars, a cavalry regiment with an impressive pedigree dating back to 1689. After 12 years of service he briefly returned home to Leamington before setting off for Canada where, at the commencement of hostilities in 1914, he joined the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force as a capable and experienced soldier. Broad of chest and fair of complexion, by now Hugh sported an impressive array of tattoos, from a regimental crest and Union Jack for loyalty and patriotism, to a horseshoe for luck, and the heart, cross and anchor of faith, hope and charity. Other artwork of a serpent entwined around a pillar, a shield and spears and a woman with two flags might be souvenirs of campaigns abroad, or have had important personal significance to Hugh, given the pain he would have endured to acquire them.
Already in her thirties, and perhaps just a little afraid of being left on the shelf, Alice Maude Austin had so far devoted her life in Leamington to teaching when she met Hugh. She too had military connections, her father a former Sergeant Major who had served overseas; in fact she herself was the first of his children to be born in Britain, her 4 elder sisters being born in Meerut, India.
History does not record how or when they met, but by all accounts they were a devoted couple, and now out of the army ,Hugh established his own haulage company, which at this time still relied on horse power. It is not inconceivable that Alice might have helped out with book-keeping and other paperwork to support the business, and after marriage they settled into a neat Edwardian bay-windowed house in a quiet part of town. At weekends they would go out to explore the surrounding countryside, while Hugh was a keen swimmer and a member of the local swimming club.
Their harmonious partnership came to an abrupt and shocking end on the 2nd of December 1926, when Hugh died at the age of 46. They had no children, and Alice was alone in the world. The funeral at All Saints was reported in some detail in the Leamington Spa Courier, listing the principal mourners, and the funeral tributes received, as Hugh was laid to rest in the grave of his parents. He left £536 and 4 shillings to his widow.
Alice was devastated by this change of fortune and the loss of the very person who meant everything to her, although she did make a brave effort to keep the haulage business going. Sadly she found it too much to cope with in her depressed state, and sank deeper into despair, sometimes locking herself away from the world and refusing to answer the door. It was some six or so months later that she decided to take on a paying lodger, Mr. Winkworth, which would relieve her loneliness and make a welcome contribution towards paying the household bills.
It was a summer’s day in June 1928 when Alice walked into town to do a little shopping and help distract herself from the feelings of anxiety that she felt so often. It seems likely that her mind was elsewhere as she entered the premises of Bobby and Co., a large department store situated on the fashionable shopping street of The Parade. As she wandered aimlessly through the Ladies’ Department, she examined the attractively arranged displays of goods, and without thinking, selected various items which she placed in her basket – some gloves and stockings, some pretty underwear. Maybe she intended to pay for them when she had finished browsing, or perhaps she simply forgot all about them, not feeling at her best on this warm stuffy day, who could say. However, something in her demeanour attracted the attention of the mananger, a Mr. Wherrett, who apprehended her as she went to leave the store. She became distressed at mention of the police being called, but consented to leave her name and address, pending the shop chairman’s decision as to wether to press charges. Mr. Wherrett escorted Alice to the exit, no doubt pleased with himself to have saved the company a few shillings : little did he know that he would be one of the last people to speak to Alice, or see her alive.
It was now around 4 pm on a warm afternoon, and after her unpleasant experience, Alice found the town too hot and too crowded with shoppers, and felt panicked and afraid. She needed to be somewhere peaceful, somewhere quiet where she could try and collect herself, and shut out the disturbing kaleidoscope of dark thoughts running through her mind.
Distressed and confused, she began to walk, out of the town centre and away from the overcrowded pavements and noisy traffic, heading for Offchurch, in an easterly direction. A pretty village, complete with church, inn and half-timbered chocolate box cottages, the River Leam loops its way there through water meadows which are prone to flooding. Perhaps it is somewhere that she and Hugh used to visit on their weekend jaunts in happier times, but now it is somewhere shadowed by bittersweet memories and melancholy. As the sun sank slowly towards the horizon on that Monday evening, Alice headed across the fields to the tree lined banks of the river, somewhere she could find the peace of mind which had eluded her for so long.
Meanwhile, back in Leamington, Mr. Winkworth the lodger had arrived home to Granville Terrace to find no-one in, not unusual in itself, but there was no note to say when his landlady mightl return. A little puzzled, he left the house in search of an alternative evening meal and possibly a pint or two. He knew Alice had been finding life especially hard of late, and hoped she was alright, wherever she was. Upon returning at around a quarter past ten, he found the house still in darkness, and by now thoroughly worried, he contacted the police.
Over in Offchurch, a young woman by the name of Lavinia Elvins was enjoying a sunset stroll with her male companion, the young couple relaxing in the cool of the evening after a hard day’s work, watching the sky change to pink and gold in the west. They wandered through the water meadows towards a small footbridge over the river, surveying the scene before them, when something caught Lavinia’s eye. Balanced on the bridge’s railing, she saw what appeared to be a lady’s straw basket, prominently placed so that it could not fail to be seen by any passerby. Lavinia carefully lifted the basket down, hoping to find some clue to its owner, who might possibly offer a reward for its’ safe return. There was a note tucked inside, the words of which filled her with dread.
“Please find my body in the river opposite the bridge. M. Horswill.”
No explanation, nothing at all to shed light on what appeared to be an awful tragedy.
A quick survey of the waters beneath revealed nothing, so leaving her companion to keep watch in the fading dusk, Lavinia ran to fetch assistance in the form of Constables Saunders and Timms, who searched the river until darkness rendered their efforts futile at around 10 pm.
The next morning, Alice’s body was found by the floodgates, in water some ten feet deep. The words of the note in the basket had been no sinister joke.
The Coroner delivered a verdict of “Suicide while of unsound mind” the following Wednesday afternoon, and expressed his regret over the incident. Alice had drowned herself in the glassy waters of the Leam, in a final desperate attempt to escape the constant and unconquerable unhappiness of her lonely existence.