‘I discovered a string of tragic deaths in my tree’
When David Atkinson decided to research his Dorset roots, he had no idea that he would stumble upon a dark family secret around Bonfire Night,
Wall know how useful elderly relatives can be when it comes to family history. They know the stories you don’t; they can put names to the faces on old photographs and help fill in the colourful details that you don’t often find in the documentary sources. But what if your parents or grandparents are hiding a secret?
WDYTYA? Magazine reader David Atkinson knew very little about his Dorset relations, but he had no idea what his relatives’ silence was hiding until he decided to research his past.
“I was born in south Oxfordshire, but we moved to Wimborne, Dorset, just after we got married,” he says. “At that point, I knew that my maternal grandmother was from the county, but I didn’t know much more than that.”
About 15 years ago, David became curious about his ancestry and decided to start doing some research into his local relatives. “This was before the internet was really established for family history purposes, so I went to the Dorset Family History Centre and discovered the family through records there,” he says. “I was able to find out that they had lived in the Netherbury area of west Dorset.
“I enjoyed the process of linking up what I found in the family history centre with my own knowledge. Later on, as the internet became a more useful resource, my wife and I joined Ancestry.
“It’s something that we both like doing together and I think that, in a way, it has helped us explain who we are. Most of our ancestors were simple agricultural labourers. They did have trades – they were carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths – but they were not highly skilled people.”
One of his ancestors caught David’s attention in particular – his great uncle Henry Thomas Spencer.
Henry was the third child and second son of John and Eliza Spencer. He was born in 1857 and was baptised at Halstock Parish Church on 30 April 1857.
“I also discovered that he married Ellen Dinah Henley at Symondsbury parish church in February 1881, and died in October 1881. His wife died soon after in December 1881, which seemed quite unusual in itself. But then I noticed that, while she was buried at Symondsbury, he was buried back in his home parish.
“In a sense it was a real brick wall for me. There was obviously something odd going on. To be married and die in the same year, and so close together was strange. But to be buried separately was even stranger. Could there have been some kind of epidemic? There were plenty of diseases around at the time. But then, why were they buried apart?” went through the inhabitants of the little hamlet of Broadoak on Monday caused by the announcement that a young man named Henry Thomas Spencer, a carpenter, had been found hanged in a closet in the garden of his own occupation.”
“I just kept on looking,” says David. “I found one article after another. I was there for hours totally gripped. It was incredible – the hearing, the inquest, the police report, the assizes hearing. And then I found out that his wife’s mother, Eliza Henley, shot herself in March 1882.” Three deaths. Two suicides. It was a mystery and David needed to find out more. Reading on he discovered that, soon after the couple were married, Ellen became unwell and in September 1881 she moved to her parents’ home so that her mother could care for her.
“Henry went repeatedly to the Henleys’ house to see his wife, but he told a number of people that his in-laws refused to let him see Ellen,” says David. “He also told them that on Saturday 8 October, his mother-in-law pushed him out of the door and told him never to come there again.” Things were obviously not right between the couple. Henry spoke to his father-in-law, John, about seeing a solicitor in Bridport to arrange a formal legal separation from Ellen.
“It is unclear – and it later became the cause of some dispute – as to who was the driving force in this,” says David. “Was it Henry or was it his in-laws?” Soon afterwards, Henry’s body was found swinging in an outhouse.
According to reports, the inquest into his death was a rowdy affair, with many locals blaming Ellen and her parents. The
There was obviously something odd going on. To be married and die in the same year and so close together
coroner, Mr NC Loggin of Bridport, attempted to keep order, but said that it looked very much to him as if it was a matter that might come to manslaughter – and if it did, it would be against John and Eliza Henley. He continued by saying that it was clear that there had been improper conduct on their part.
He described Mrs Henley as a virago who had been “lording it” over her husband, her son-in-law and everyone else, and if she, through her improper conduct, had caused Henry’s death “whether by his hand or not, mattered little” – she would be held responsible for it. But at the second inquest for some reason, all of this was pushed aside and a verdict of suicide was read out. This decision seems to have greatly angered Henry’s friends and neighbours who decided to take the law into their own hands under the guise of the local, and very rowdy, Guy Fawkes Night celebrations. “On the early evening of Saturday 5 November 1881, three weeks after Henry’s death, a large mob gathered in Salwayash, the home village of the Spencer family,” says David. “Estimates of the number of people involved vary between 150 and 200. Several were ‘attired in various grotesque costumes’, some men were dressed in women’s clothes, some had ‘ blacked up’ faces and they also carried four straw effigies that represented Mr and Mrs Henley, Ellen – and their dog.”
Setting out from Salwayash, the mob made their way to Broadoak, stopping on the way for alcoholic refreshment provided by people whose houses they passed.
“They arrived at Broadoak banging kettles and blowing horns, and surrounded the Henley’s house and workshop, breaking all the windows with sticks and stones,” says David. “And then the mob set fire to the effigies, which had been doused in paraffin.”
The mob attempted to set light to the thatched roof of the house but, because it had been a particularly wet autumn, the fire failed to take hold, so instead they pushed the burning effigies through the
The death certificate of Ellen Spencer, who died in December 1881