‘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,

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - READER STORY - says Matt Ford

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

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