On 2 March 1901, William Tricker, a man who described himself as “a gentleman of independent means,” but who actually worked as a gamekeeper for the local Suffolk gentry, was walking through his home village of Ashbocking (or Ash Bocking, if you like, the name derived from the ash trees that flourished there and an ancient family of landowners called the Bockings). He decided to take a look at the edge of some land he was renting, which was opposite the pub, the Lord Nelson. He’d spotted some watercress growing at the edge of his pond, he said. The pond was tiny, about twelve feet in width but it was also deep and several of the villagers used it for their fresh water supply. As Tricker looked at the watercress, his eye caught something else, a sight that he would never be able to forget. About eighteen inches below the surface of the water were two pale faces, staring up at him like phantoms, white and bloated, floating there like twin moons.
Something glimpsed on the periphery of his vision, as if it were an incident in an M. R. James ghost story. William Tricker might have been forgiven for not believing his own eyes, but it would have only taken him moments to realise that both of those faces were familiar. They belonged to eighteen-year-old Edgar Hardwick and twenty-three-year-old Robert Richer, who had been missing since the previous Wednesday. The two young men had spent most of their short lives in the village, the Richer family were near neighbours of Tricker, who lived at the White House at Ashbocking Green. The Richer family’s cottage was almost next door.
It’s possible that M. R. James may have, consciously or subconsciously, used a few details from the strange events at Ashbocking in A School Story, published in 1911, ten years later. This typically subtle and chilling tale ends with the discovery of two bodies found tied together in a well in Ireland. A coin on a chain was found “amongst the rags of the clothes that were on one of the bodies. A bad business, whatever the story of it may have been. One body had the arms tight around the other.”
Compare that to this report of the inquest into the deaths of Richer and Hardwick that appeared in the Ipswich local newspaper, The Evening Star, on 4 March 1901: “Standing one in front of the other, the two, after having connected their belts, seem to have wound them around their waists, and afterwards entered the water. Another curious circumstance in the case is, that on Thursday, the morning after the deceased were last seen, a carter named Wood, in the employ of Mr Turner, of Witnesham, saw a watch and chain on the railings by the side of the pond. Seeing it had not been taken when he passed the spot again in the afternoon, he took charge of the watch and chain, intending to give it to Mr Tricker, to whom he believed it belonged. However, on hearing of the tragedy, he handed the watch and chain to the parents of one of the deceased, who identified them easily.”
It is quite likely that Montague Rhodes James read the newspaper coverage of the story, whether he was in the Cambridge University study where he told his students ghost stories on Christmas Eve, or back home in his rectory at Great Livermere in Suffolk, neither were very far from Ashbocking. The two male bodies tied together has an obvious pre-Freudian subtext – obvious to us in these post-Freudian days anyway. The writer, Anthony Powell, a pupil of James at Eton said that “I myself have heard it suggested that James’s (of course platonic) love affairs were in fact fascinating to watch.” James may have been hinting at something in his story that was never made explicit in any of the newspaper coverage of the true events of 1901. In his story, a more exotic inscribed Byzantine coin on a chain replaces the more prosaic discovery of a watch and chain, but the echoes are clear.
But this was no ghost story and the corpses at Ashbocking Green were all too real. Tricker quickly realised that he did not have the strength to pull the two men out of the pond without help, and he ran across to the Nelson, returning minutes later with several helpers. They hauled the bodies out and carried them to the nearby Toll-gate house. It would have taken a very short time to identify Richer and Hardwick. They had left the pub the week before and people in the village said that everyone assumed they’d gone off to join the army. It was the time of the second Boer War and Robert had a bit of form as far as going off without telling his family was concerned. Once he’d disappeared to London for several weeks without “acquainting his parents of his whereabouts.”
Both lads had jobs locally. Robert worked as a labourer, along with his father, also Robert, for the Stanford family who farmed at Ash Hall, and Hardwick worked as a labourer employed by someone called Simper. Edgar’s father David Hardwick was a horseman on another farm. Few people in Ashbocking were not involved with agriculture in some way. Their families would not have been wealthy, but were described as “comfortable” and appear to have been respected by the other villagers. The discovery of the bodies, and in particular the way that they were found, sent shock waves through this remote community. The local press certainly made a great deal of the story, as a “village mystery” and a tragedy, but the inquest, which was held very quickly, appears to the modern reader to be full of contradictory evidence and hastily concluded. Very hastily indeed.
Ashbocking is one of those Suffolk parishes that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. Nowadays the old clay cottages, barns and timbered farmhouses have been converted and there is an air of second or holiday homes about it. There are swimming pools in some gardens. It has a peaceful beauty, if only in the sense of the Talking Heads’ song: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” It is only eight miles north of Ipswich, but it is quiet and it has always been quiet. The only event that appears to have occurred here, if it can be called an event, was the expulsion of its vicar, Rev. Theodore Beale, by the notorious Committee for Scandalous Ministers in 1644. They were turbulent times. Suffolk’s own William Dowsing was on a mission to smash up idolatrous images in East Anglian churches and in the same year, Matthew Hopkins, of Manningtree, appointed himself Witchfinder-General and started his persecutions, many of them in East Anglia. You could be burnt to death for stepping out of line in 1644. It was a time to keep your head down and keep quiet, even in Ashbocking, but Beale was an outspoken clergyman and had preached sermons that said more than enough to cause the Puritan government to order the sequestration of his living and property. He was thrown out of Ashbocking and some people said that he died in prison.
Ashbocking returned to peaceful ways for several more centuries. The land, owned by the Tollemache family, was cultivated to grow crops: barley, oats, peas and beans. That was all there was in Ashbocking by the beginning of the twentieth century, plus a public house called the Nelson, now closed, and demolished. It was a small parish of 289 residents who lived in 66 dwellings, mostly cottages. Everyone in this isolated parish would have known almost everything about everybody else in the village.
The inquest was not held at the Nelson. It was quite usual to use a nearby public house for an inquest but perhaps the Ashbocking Nelson was too involved, too close. It was very quickly decided to have the inquest in a neighbouring village and it opened a few days later at Pigstye Farm, Witnesham. (Pigstye Farm appears to have been re-named, perhaps it was not an ideal name for a holiday home.) The coroner was Mr. Walter Brooke and a jury was hastily assembled, presumably made up of local people. Were feelings running too high in Ashbocking for a jury to be trusted there? There is nothing to tell us. We do know, however, that Superintendent Hubbard of Woodbridge represented the Suffolk police. The Cambridgeshire Advertiser reported the inquest in full. Could this have been where Montague James saw the story? It’s likely, and perhaps a few of the details stuck in his mind, to be brought out ten years later in A School Story. It’s interesting to try and spot the differences and omissions between the detailed report in this newspaper and those published elsewhere, and so I will give it in full, except where it repeats things that we already know:
“DOUBLE DROWNING MYSTERY AT ASHBOCKING: TWO LABOURERS DIE STRAPPED TOGETHER
Robert Richer, labourer, Ashbocking, identified the deceased, Robert Richer, as his son. Witness last saw him alive on the previous Wednesday morning, about 6.30, when leaving for work. As the morning was wet deceased did not go to work – he was employed at the same farm as witness – and seemed more inclined to stay in bed. Deceased expressed the intention of attending a pigeon match at Otley, and deponent believed he came home about ten o’clock, after writing a letter to his sister, who is in service at Henley.
The Coroner: Have you seen the contents of that letter? – No, Sir.
A Juror: The letter is important.
Witness added that his son did not return home on Wednesday, but he made no report to the police, as deceased on a previous occasion left home and did not return for several weeks. He did not think his son and Hardwick “palled” together much. Deceased had been in good spirits.
The Coroner: You never heard him express a wish that he was out of the world, or anything of that sort? – No, Sir.
You do not know of anybody about here who owed him a grudge? – No, Sir; he always appeared happy and comfortable.
At the conclusion of the witness’s evidence the Foreman (Mr. Fred. Miller) expressed the opinion that it would be best to have the letter written to deceased sister produced.
The Coroner agreed.
George Hardwick, labourer, Ashbocking, said the deceased, Edgar Hardwick, was his brother, and he last saw him alive at the White Hart, Otley, on the previous Wednesday, between 8 and 8.30 p.m. Deceased, who appeared in his usual health and spirits, was drinking hot rum and water. Deceased remained in the house four or five hours. Witness had been with him to the pigeon match, and deceased was in Richer’s company throughout the day. The two deceased men left the White Hart about 8:30 p.m. His brother had been in very good spirits, and, as far as deponent’s knowledge went, he had had nothing to worry him.
The Coroner: Has he ever made use of any expression in regard to his life? – No, Sir.
Was he a drinking man at all? – No, Sir.
The Foreman: Did the deceased man Hardwick lose any money at the pigeon match? – I can’t say, Sir.
Did they shoot somebody? – No, Sir.
Witness, continuing, said he lived with his brother, who got up about nine or ten o’clock on Wednesday, taking his meals as usual. Witness notice nothing peculiar in his manner that morning, although during breakfast they had no conversation upon any subject.
The Coroner: Had you and he had any row of any sort? – No, Sir.
Did you often have your meal together without talking? – Yes, Sir.
That is rather unusual proceeding? – Yes, Sir.
A Juror: Did he have much drink during the day? – I can’t say.
The Coroner: Had there been any friction at home? – No, Sir.
Was he a genial and good-tempered fellow? – Yes, Sir.
Mr Geo. F. Meadows, surgeon, Otley, who had made an external examination of the bodies, said he could detect no marks of violence. The cause of death in each case was asphyxia by drowning.
Richard Tack, postman, Coddenham, deposed that he had just finished his delivery in Ashbocking, and was in the Nelson Inn, when informed of the previous witness’s [Tricker’s] discovery. Witness assisted in the removal of the bodies, and during the operation the two belts with which the bodies were strapped together gave way.
Alfred Hatcher, labourer, Otley, said he had known the deceased for four or five years, and met them at the White Hart on the Wednesday evening. They were both drinking ‘mild’ beer at the time, but just before they left the house they had some rum and water.
The Coroner: Were they quite sober? – Well, they seem to have had a little beer, but they could walk and talk all right.
Were they much accustomed to taking too much drink? – I can’t say, Sir.
Did they seem in good spirits? – Yes; they were laughing and talking.
How many glasses of beer did they have in the house? – About two apiece.
Frances Diggens, daughter of the landlord of Ashbocking Nelson Inn, said she occasionally served in the bar, and knew the deceased, who frequently visited the house. On the previous Wednesday they came into the bar at 9.30 p.m. and she served them with a bottle of gingerbeer each. The men remained until closing-time, and appeared sober and very quiet. The deceased had nothing to drink beyond the gingerbeer.
Supt. Hubbard: Was it unusual for them to have ginger beer? – They usually drink beer.
Mrs Emma Daniels, married woman, of Swilland, gave evidence to the effect that both men, while in the Nelson Inn, seemed quite sober; their conversation mainly referred to a bracelet worn by Miss Diggens. On leaving witness noticed that the men did not turn in the direction of their homes, and remarked, ‘That is not your way home.’ Richer turned round and exclaimed, ‘I am going to leave this _____ country.’
The Foreman: Did Hardwick make any remark? – No.
In reply to a juror, witness said she was rather timid at the time, as she thought the deceased men were going to have a ‘skit’ with her; consequently she hurried home with her daughter. Witness and others had thought Richer was not exactly right; he seemed to have had some ‘funny schemes’ recently. On one occasion recently he fired off a gun in front of the Nelson Inn, and slightly injured his hands. Richer then remarked that he would just as soon sink as swim, or die as live; he would shoot anybody who stood in front of him.
The Coroner: Was he drunk at the time? – No, Sir. I have never seen him drunk in his life; he was not even ‘freshy.’
What sort of man was Hardwick? – He was a nice quiet boy.
A Juror: Had there been a row in the Nelson when Richer threatened to shoot anybody? – No.
The Coroner here observed that he thought it would be advisable that Miss Richer, who had received a letter from her brother, should attend the inquiry, together with David Hardwick, the father of the other deceased man.
The Foreman: I should like to see the letter. It is a most extraordinary case.
Some discussion ensued among the Jury as to the advisability of an adjournment until March 18th, and it was pointed out by the Coroner that in the event of this course being pursued it would be possible for the police to make further enquiries. Eventually, however, after a consultation, the Foreman announced that the Jury had decided that the enquiry should proceed as they had already practically made up their minds in the matter.”
Richer had a letter from a Miss Ethel Furnish in his pocket. The Coroner told the Jury that he had seen it and it contained nothing important. They were also told that both Richard and Hardwick had money in their pockets.
“The Coroner, summing up, observed that a person, by the law of England, was considered to be sane unless the contrary was proved, and in this case there seems to be little or no evidence – with the exception of that given by Mrs Daniels – as to the state of mind of either of the deceased men. Mrs Daniels evidence seemed scarcely sufficient to show there was really any unhinging of the mind which would make the men unaccountable for their actions at the time. Unless there was evidence of that kind it was the usual course, by the law of England, to return a verdict of felo-de-se.” [A felo-de-se is an arcane legal term for suicide.]
The jury, after a brief consultation, returned an open verdict of “found drowned.”
Apart from the excessive interest in the drinking habits of the dead men, reminiscent of Hillsborough enquiries in our own time, what’s most interesting are the things that, like the dog that barked in the night, were not heard. Richer’s father claimed that his son was not paricularly friendly with Hardwick, although it seems unlikely in a tiny village that two young men of a similar age were not close, unless they had reason to dislike one another, which was obviously not the case. In fact, when Edgar Hardwick’s brother George was asked if the two young men were “very intimate,” he answered quite unequivocally: “Yes.”
Even if the jurors accepted the Coroner’s opinion that the letter from Miss Furnish found on Robert’s body was irrelevant, it seems astonishing that they weren’t interested enough to wait the short time it would have taken to retrieve the letter he had sent to his sister from Henley, a village just outside Ipswich. It might have explained everything. Even if the members of the jury were desperate to go home, it’s surprising they didn’t have enough interest in the case to wait for this letter.
The story was taken up by newspapers around Britain, as far away as Dundee, and, as these things are, it was altered and embroidered in the telling. The words – only witnessed, allegedly, by people in the Nelson – reportedly spoken by Robert Richer to the effect that he wanted to die and “would be better on the morrow” were soon ascribed to both young men. The jury was instructed to find a verdict of suicide, but it didn’t. You don’t have to be a devotee of Line of Duty to know that the police and court officials would have been destroyed by a Edwardian equivalent of Superintendent Ted Hastings. The most basic enquiries were never made. The rush to a verdict was unseemly to say the least – and there the story ended.
It seems obvious that the deaths of Robert and Edgar were probably suicide. The reason that dared not speak its name being the most likely explanation as to why two young, healthy men, who were described as being happy, enjoying life, and taking a holiday to have some fun, suddenly disappeared to be found dead in this bizarre manner, but I think there may be another explanation. Certainly, if Robert and Edgar were lovers their lives would have been difficult. At the Old Bailey in 1901, consenting adult men were sentenced to periods of between six months’ and ten years’ hard labour for “sodomy.” It was the era of Oscar Wilde, but I doubt somehow that Richer and Hardwick were going about mid-Suffolk wearing green carnations – although it’s clear that Richer (“I’m going to leave this _____ country.”) was unhappy in some way. In backwaters like early twentieth century Ashbocking though, it would have been possible to conduct some kind of illicit love affair in secrecy. There were plenty of hidden places for clandestine trysts. It’s interesting that, unlike the London courts, the Suffolk criminal registers don’t have any records of such offences at this time. In the eighteenth century, homosexual men from Suffolk were forced to stand in the pillory on Ipswich Cornhill, or were even hanged, but by the twentieth century, all had gone quiet. It seems that people did not even want to recognise the existence of same sex love – but that doesn’t mean the hostility and hatred had abated.
The only noise in this case was the babbling of the people at the Nelson, who seemed very anxious to brand Robert Richer as a bit of an oddity. The inquest only had the word of the witnesses in the Lord Nelson about what really happened when the pair left that night. It was from those people that the inquest heard that the boys went in the wrong direction on leaving the bar. But what if they weren’t telling the truth, what if everyone in that bar knew what happened but they just weren’t saying?
The police and the Coroner rejected any idea of “foul play” out of hand. It would have been too difficult, they decided, for even a large group of men, to strap the lads together in this way. Would it have been? And what happened to Robert and Edgar between the time they left the Nelson on Wednesday night and when William Tricker discovered their bodies on Saturday morning? We have no scene of crime officers or forensic scientists to help us, but it’s unlikely that the bodies had been lying in a clear pond used for public drinking water unnoticed for more than two days.
There is no way of knowing what happened, because no one, not even Robert and Edgar’s families, would have wanted us to know. Ashbocking Green returned to its usual state of rural sleepiness, undisturbed by the presence of violent death in its midst.