The Treasonous Love Affair of George Charles Parrott

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Today’s music hall excitement comes in the form of my all-time favourite case from the Old Bailey: http://www.oldbailey.org I’m still trying to work it into my thesis, but I love the way it forms a perfect base for an Edwardian spy novel: it’s 1913 and a well-respected officer is seduced by a foreign femme fatale into disclosing secret military information, or is there a possibility that he was actually a secret double agent working against the crown? You tell me…I still can’t decide.

Born in the summer of 1871 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, George Charles Parrott had gone into the Royal Navy in 1887, aged just 16. Working hard, he received many letters of commendation throughout his career, fighting as gunner in the Boer War aboard H.M.S Redbreast which earnt him the Queen’s South Africa Medal, and on board the H.M.S Agamemnon, one of the last pre-dreadnought battleships commissioned by the Royal Navy. By 1912, now married, he had held the position of warrant officer in charge of the rifle range for two years at the fort town of Sheerness in Kent, and it was here that he first fell under suspicion by the Royal Navy after he was found to have left the country is secret during a period of leave. The Navy engaged both Inspector Herbert Gray of the Metropolitan Police; who was attached to the Chatham and Sheerness Dockyard, and William Melville; a retired Superintendent of Scotland Yard to tail George and it was their evidence that led to his eventual dismissal and civil trial at the Old Bailey.

Their investigation revealed that George had made periodic trips to Ostend under the name of a Mr. Couch and had met with a man there, also, that he had requested a variety of books of a confidential nature from the Navy and that he was regularly receiving money from a German national in Berlin. That all seems to be pretty damming evidence, but it was nothing compared with the letter that was found in his rooms after his arrest:

“Dear Mr. Couch,—I am very much obliged to you for your prompt reply to my last letter. Now I beg to place in your hands some question as addition to my last letter. Have the kindness to leave as soon as possible for Firth of Forth, ascertaining about the following: Which parts of the fleet are in or off the Firth of Forth since November 5. Only the vessels of the First and Eighth Destroyer Flotilla or which other men-of-war of any kind else. Where is the Second Destroyer Flotilla now? Have been mobilising test of the flotillas and coast defenses in the Firth of Forth? …Where do they exercise? … I think it will be necessary to stay some days at Firth of Forth for gathering information about those questions. I should be much obliged if I could be informed as soon as you have got satisfying statements about one or several of these points. Do not wait to answer until you have found out all I wish to know. Enclosed £10 as travel expenses for the last and this journey. Please tell me in the next letter after having returned to London your expenses that I can hand you the balance if the £10 should not do it. I beg to keep yourself ready if possible also in the next future to run over immediately to any place as soon as rumours as to extraordinary preparations of materiel and personnel are running. In such a case please do not wait till you have received an order from me, but leave on your own accord, and at the same time send your address and make your doing known to me, with particulars of the reason.

—Your truly, RICHARD.”

…There seems to be little room for doubt, the mysterious meetings, the false names, the letter, it all painted a very clear picture of conspiracy and in the run up to the First World War, George was in a very dangerous position. But it was his explanation of the evidence that really interests me. No man enjoys being painted as the fool, but George took up the unusual defence of adulterer and idiot. Brushing aside the money in his account as the repayment of a debt by an old friend, whose whereabouts was vaguely, ‘somewhere in Berlin’ he revealed an elaborate story to try an prove his innocence.

He had been in a music hall in 1912 when the lady sitting next to him had remarked on a turn that was set on battleship, he had disputed the realism of the scene and they had struck up a conversation about the sea, introducing themselves as ‘Seymour’, a member of the Naval service and ‘Roma’, the widow of a seafaring captain. They had dined together, and she had invited him to visit her in Ostend when he was next on leave. She had then given him an address with a man’s name, which George found a little strange at the time, but he accepted her explanation that it was her ‘non de plume’ to protect her reputation. So, posing as Seymour Couch, he travelled to Ostend where he was met, with total shock and surprise, by a man. George returned and realised that he was under suspicion from the Admiralty and then travelled to Hamburg to meet with the same man, who also expressed an interested in all things naval and claimed to be a journalist, and beg for both Roma and Richard to return with him to England to help him clear his name. They, unfortunately for George, declined, although the journalist – sad to hear of George’s plight – offered to help him by paying him naval information to help with some articles that he was writing back in Germany. George, a long serving member of the Royal Navy, who had been in charge of confidential information about the arming for naval battleships, apparently threw all common sense to the wind and saw this as a completely reasonable request from a man he had only just met. The court didn’t believe his explanation and sentenced him to four years penal servitude.

Now, I know it seems pretty cut and dried, but it is the last question put to George that makes the romantic in me what to believe him:

“(Q.) How comes it that you, with your long record of honourable service in the Navy, should have told that pack of lies before the inquiry in August, not to protect yourself from an odious charge, but to serve a woman that you had sat next to in a  music-hall for half an hour; can you explain that?

(A.)  I cannot explain it.”

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Crime in London’s Music Halls

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Yet again, today has been lost to all the work I should have been doing, but instead I spent the day tied to the fantastic website for the Old Bailey: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/

Luckily, one of my chapters focuses on exploring the music halls as a site of crime so I get to play around and explore the Old B on a daily basis. The crimes of one individual deserve a wider audience and so, I give you, the Lambeth Poisoner; Dr Thomas Neill.

In 1892, four years after the horrors of the Whitechapel murders by Jack the Ripper, Dr Thomas Neill was convicted of the murder of Matilda Clover.  It was part of a case known in the press as ‘The Lambeth Poisoning Mysteries’ and centred around the strychnine poisonings for four prostitutes who had taken lodgings in Stamford Street, near to Gatti’s Music Hall on the Westminster Bridge road. The murder of Clover, which lead to Neill’s eventual conviction, was the only one that could be weel and truly linked to him and it is possible that Neill’s crimes would have gone undetected if he had not been overcome with greed and used them to try and blackmail worthy members of society.

In early 1892, a suspicious letter arrived on the desk of William Henry Broadbent, M.D. It claimed that a private individual had evidence that Broadbent had been hired to poison Clover (whose death had previously been recorded as due to alcoholic tremors) with strychnine pills and it would require a payment of £2,500 to stop them from taking this information to the police. Dr Broadbent, not a man to take blackmail lightly, took the letter to the police immediately and this opened a new investigation into the death of Clover.

Embarrassingly for the police it was revealed a somewhat shady corner of how death amongst the lower classes in London was treated. The original cause of death had been recorded as due to alcoholic tremors, as Clover had been receiving regular treatment for alcoholism for a Dr Robert Graham. He was unable to attend when Clover’s symptoms, violent stomach pain and convulsions, first began, recommending instead a Dr McCarthy from a near by practice. Unbeknownst to him, Dr McCarthy was also unavailable and sent in his place, his unqualified assistant, Francis Coppin. Taking her history of alcoholism into account and having no medical qualifications, Coppin later reported to Dr Graham that she had been suffering from excessive drink and that had been the cause of her death. Dr Graham wrote out the death certificate without seeing the body or talking to any of the other witnesses to her death, and Clover was chalked up to just another gin-addled tragedy.  That Clover had been approached by a man in a music hall who she had invited back to her rooms, and had willingly taken some pills he gave her only to die shortly afterwards, was of no consequence to anyone. It was not until the letter that a second post mortem examination which showed traces of strychnine in Clovers stomach and other organs that a murder case was opened and three other cases in the area were re-examined, leading to Neill’s conviction.

When the Police finally caught up with Neill he attempted to implicate another lodger where he had been staying, Walter J. Harper, a medical student at St. Thomas’s Hospital. He claimed that Harper was responsible for the murders of at least five women, including Clover, known as the ‘Stamford Street Girls’, to whom, he claimed, Harper was well known as a supplier of illegal abortions, and that they had attempted to blackmail him for this very reason.

Although the cases were known as the ‘Lambeth Poisonings’ Neill did not restrict his activities to one area of London, evidence was also heard that he had poisoned a prostitute, Loo Harvey within a West End Music Hall and that he claimed she had died between the Royal Music Hall and the Oxford Music Hall. But in a stunning turn of events she was later revealed to be alive and gave evidence at his trial. It must have been a shock to Neill when Loo arrived in the witness box, as he had been convinced of her death and had attempted to use it in another blackmailing scheme. She claimed to have ‘pretended to have taken the pills’ he had given her, which turned out to be a pretty lucky escape.

The reason why these women all accepted drugs from a man they did not know was never questioned at the trial, but says something about the state of society at the time. Prostitutes were invariable down on their luck and suffering from numerous vernal diseases and addictions for which they would have been unable to get medical help. Neill used this to manipulate and kill them, just so that he could uses their deaths for blackmail, and it is unsurprising that the courts found that only one sentence could fit the crime, death.

But unlike his predecessor, Jack the Ripper, Dr Neill’s status as an early serial killer is confined to footnote in history. Maybe this was one monster that the public was able to reveal as just a man, and with his death, there was nothing to fear anymore.