Monday, 21 March 2016

Edward Grim: a brave witness of Beckett's murder

Very little is known about Edward Grim, either before or after the event that is the reason why he is known about at all, but the document he left behind offered a perspective on that event that is well worth remembering.

The event in question was the murder of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170. This was one of the most traumatic moments in English medieval history, not only for the horrific nature of the event itself, but because it showed what could happen when the interests of Church and State collided, with the Church becoming the eventual winner mainly through the shocked reaction of the ordinary people of England. It was an early indication that the power of the monarch was not absolute, and can be seen as a precursor of 1215, when the king at that time (King John) was forced into signing the Magna Carta that placed a limit on his powers.

The story of the murder of Beckett is well known, with the quarrel between King Henry II and the Archbishop leading to the king’s exasperated cry of “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” and the response of four of his knights who promptly journeyed to Canterbury to act, as they saw it, as Henry’s “hitmen”.

Edward Grim was from Cambridge and a held a minor religious post that gave him the title of “clerk”. He may have been a student at a religious house that would have developed after his time to become one of the colleges of Cambridge University. On the day of the murder he happened to be visiting Canterbury and was in the Cathedral while the monks were singing Vespers (evening prayers).

The fact that there was bad blood between King Henry and Thomas Beckett was common knowledge, and all sorts of rumours were flying around Canterbury, including one that the Archbishop had already been killed. When Beckett entered the cathedral, some of the relieved monks stopped praying and rushed to greet him. They tried to persuade him to bar the doors of the cathedral, as protection against the attack that they now expected, but Becket would have none of it, maintaining that it was not seemly to turn a “house of prayer” into a fortress. However, the monks shepherded him away from where he could be seen easily, in an effort to hide him.

It is thanks to Edward Grim that the following events are well known today, because, of the five eye-witness accounts that have survived, his is the only one by someone who stayed with the Archbishop throughout his last moments. There are suspicions that some of the details have been embellished by later scribes, but the basic story stands up to scrutiny.

When the four armed knights strode into the cathedral the singing stopped and everyone stood still, looking on with horror.  The knights demanded to know where they could find Beckett, at which the Archbishop refused to stay hidden and stepped forward to meet the knights. They demanded that he absolve those people whom he had excommunicated, but he refused to do so. They then declared that they would kill him where he stood.

Beckett called on the knights to spare the lives of his supporters, but they, apart from Edward Grim, were soon well out of harm’s way. At first the knights attempted to drag Beckett away, so that they would not spill any blood within the cathedral walls, but Beckett held fast to a pillar in the north transept and made it impossible for the knights to do what they wanted.

The first sword blow cut off the top of Beckett’s head and also cut the arm of Edward Grim, who was trying to protect Beckett by throwing his arms around him. Another blow injured Grim’s arm so severely that he was forced to let go, after which he could only watch as further blows rained down on Beckett.

The final blow was struck by a knight who placed his foot on Beckett’s neck as he lay on the floor and smashed his head open so that his brains were scattered across the flagstones. It was all very gruesome, and Grim’s account spared his readers none of the details.

As mentioned above, there are doubts as to how much of the account was original to Edward Grim and how much was added later. For example, he was apparently careful to note that exactly five blows hit Thomas Beckett, the significance of this being that Christ had suffered five wounds on the Cross (nails to hands and feet and a lance in the side). However, it is entirely possible that medieval attention to symbolism may have prevailed over the recorded details.

Be that as it may, there is little doubt that Edward Grim did display remarkable bravery and must have had every expectation that he would die alongside the Archbishop, whom he did not know personally. As it was, his arm was very nearly severed and he would have suffered the consequences of that injury for the rest of his life. He deserves to be remembered for that fact alone, as well as for the eyewitness account that he passed down to later generations.

© John Welford

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Battle of Shrewsbury, 1403

The Battle of Shrewsbury was fought on 21st July 1403 between the forces of King Henry IV and those of the powerful Percy family of Northumberland.

The Percys had helped to protect England from the marauding Scots, but they were disappointed in the level of recognition and reward they were getting from the king as a result. They claimed that Henry had promised them a large tract of land in Cumbria, but this was given to another supporter.

The Percys’ response was to rise in revolt, with the aim of seizing the throne for themselves. At the head of their forces was Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, who had been given his nickname by the Scots after they had observed his tireless pursuit of them in the border country.

The battle was a decisive victory for King Henry and his own son Harry, who was aged 16 at the time. It featured in William Shakespeare’s play ‘King Henry IV Part 1’, in which Hotspur is killed by ‘Prince Hal’, who would succeed his father to become King Henry V. It is, however, unlikely that this was what happened, with contemporary accounts stating that Hotspur was killed by a sword blow from an unknown hand (or possibly by an arrow) when he lifted his visor to wipe sweat from his face.

Hotspur’s head was later displayed over the gates of York to dissuade anyone else from rebelling, and the head of his brother Thomas (who was executed after the battle) was placed over London Bridge.

The battle is notable for being the first example of English longbowmen facing each other in battle. It proved to be a useful rehearsal for young Prince Hal, who only fought one other pitched battle in his lifetime, namely that of Agincourt in 1415.

Although the challenge of the Percy family to the throne of England was ended by the Battle of Shrewsbury, the name Hotspur has lived on. When a 19th century cricket club in North London played on land that belonged to the Duke of Northumberland they adopted the name ‘Hotspur Cricket Club’ in Harry Percy’s honour. When the cricketers started playing football they took the name with them, and the club they founded has been Tottenham Hotspur ever since.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Battle of Falkirk, 1298

The Battle of Falkirk, on 22nd July 1298, was the second and final battle fought by an army led by Sir William Wallace, who has gone down in history and legend as “Braveheart”.

Sir William Wallace

The 1995 movie “Braveheart”, starring Mel Gibson, presented some of the facts concerning the Battle of Falkirk correctly, but by no means all, and it is not safe to rely on the Hollywood version as a true account of what really happened.

In 1297 William Wallace rose in rebellion against the overlordship of Scotland by King Edward I of England. Edward had taken advantage of a power vacuum in Scotland that had existed ever since the death of Alexander III in March 1286. He had demanded the fealty of all the claimants to the Scottish throne (there were 13 of them) in exchange for his help in sorting out the succession, but had been greatly angered when the Scots made alliance with the King of France. Edward’s response had been to invade Scotland, showing no mercy to the towns and people in his way.

Of those who sought to fight back against the English, William Wallace was certainly the most effective. He was no saint, in that his behaviour towards the English was no less cruel than Edward’s was towards the Scots. Although he was clearly a man of violence he also had the good sense to make his attacks where they would be most beneficial, such as raiding the English-held treasury at Scone to give himself a fighting fund.

King Edward was at first dismissive of Wallace and his citizen army, and he dispatched an army, led by two trusted lieutenants, to deal with this minor inconvenience. The armies met near Stirling Castle on 11th September 1297 at what became known as the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Victory for Wallace was made easy by the crass stupidity of the English, who walked into a trap of their own making and were promptly slaughtered. Whatever the reason for the victory, it was remarkable and overwhelming, with the result that Edward’s war machine, which had enjoyed victory after victory against both the Welsh and the Scots, was brought to a grinding halt by a bunch of amateurs led by an unknown warlord.

In Scotland, the victory gave fresh heart to the rebellion and considerable kudos to Wallace, who was lionised and knighted, thus joining the ranks of the nobility.

Edward fights back

However, King Edward was now determined to rid himself of this thorn in his side. As the “hammer of the Scots” he was embarrassed by this reverse and would not stop until he had his revenge. This had to wait for a while, due to having to fight a war in France, but as spring turned to summer the following year he was ready to get the job done properly, leading a huge army northwards into Scotland. One important feature of this new army was the inclusion of longbowmen, which were to prove decisive in English military tactics for centuries to come.

The progress of Edward’s army was not a smooth one, due partly to Wallace having laid waste vast areas of southern Scotland in a bid to deny food and supplies to the invader. Another problem was dissension in the ranks between the English and Welsh elements of the army. However, just as it seemed as though Edward would have to withdraw from his base near Edinburgh, he learned that Wallace’s army was at Falkirk, only 20 miles away. The opportunity for a pitched battle was one that Edward could not resist.

The Battle of Falkirk

As dawn broke on 22nd July 1298 the two armies were able to see each other for the first time. Wallace had formed several huge schiltrons (defensive formations of tightly packed spearmen that resembled giant hedgehogs) with archers between them. His lightly-armed cavalry patrolled the area, ready to be deployed where most needed, and particularly useful as protection for the archers.

The English cavalry, mounted on much larger and heavier horses than the Scots, were held at bay for some considerable time by Wallace’s schiltrons and were targets for the Scottish archers. However, the stalemate was broken when the Scottish cavalry suddenly decided to desert the field. The reason for this desertion can only be guessed at, and accusations of treachery have been made, but it turned out to be the factor that turned the tide of battle.

The English cavalry could now charge at the Scottish archers who had lost their protection, and they were promptly cut down. The English archers then let fly on the schiltrons, from a distance of several hundred yards, and caused carnage in the Scottish ranks. Having no means at their disposal to fight against the archers, the Scottish spear-carriers could do nothing to save themselves apart from running away, which is what they did. The Battle of Falkirk was over, being as complete a victory for Edward as the Battle of Stirling Bridge had been for Wallace.

The fate of William Wallace

Wallace himself escaped from the battle and turned to diplomacy rather than warfare in his attempt to save Scotland from domination by England. He travelled to France to try to persuade King Philippe to come to Scotland’s aid, but Philippe was not interested.

Edward was not particularly interested, either, in continuing to hammer the Scots. He had got what he wanted at Falkirk, namely revenge for Stirling Bridge, and he was prepared to leave matters at that, apart from one thing, namely bringing Wallace himself to book. This he did eventually when Wallace was captured on 3rd August 1305 and taken to London.

After a short show trial by a kangaroo court, Wallace was condemned for treason and executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Although Falkirk was a crushing defeat, it served to make the Scots determined to fight for their independence. This they were able to do after King Edward died in 1307 and was succeeded by his far less able son. The Scots, under Robert the Bruce, were able to repeat the success of Stirling Bridge at Bannockburn in 1314 and this time there was to be no Falkirk to reverse the result.

© John Welford

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Dog Tax War, 1889

If you have never heard this piece of history before, don’t worry yourself overmuch. It was a war in which no shots were fired and nobody got hurt, except in their pockets.

The “combatants” were the Maori natives and white settlers of a district of New Zealand’s North Island. The European colonization of New Zealand had been a disaster for the Maoris, who, after only about fifty years of large scale immigration, had seen their population fall by around 90 per cent, mainly because they had no natural defences against diseases such as influenza that the Europeans brought with them.

A Maori independence movement was created, named Pai Marire, with the aim of expelling the Europeans. It was keen to find an excuse for conflict, and in 1889 one was presented to them by the county council of Hokianga. This was the imposition of a tax of two shillings and sixpence on every dog owned by the residents of the district. Given that many Maoris used dogs for hunting and therefore owned several dogs each, this was a considerable imposition on them.

When the Maoris of Waima refused to pay the tax they were arrested. Pai Marire assembled an armed group of about twenty warriors who marched off towards the administrative capital of Rawene, which was defenceless. The sole police officer for the district advised that the town be evacuated, which was done. Six policemen arrived from Auckland, but ran away as soon as the Maoris turned up.

There was only one white man left in town, namely Bob Cochrane who ran the hotel. He invited the Maoris into his bar, offered them all a drink, and discussed their grievances with them. After this they all went home again.

The real armed forces then turned up, in the shape of 120 soldiers and a warship. The Maori leader was advised to stand his men down, which he did, but he was then arrested along with some of his followers. Jail sentences were handed out, and the dog tax still had to be paid, but, as wars go, it was a fairly peaceful one.

© John Welford

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Darlington rail crash, 1928

Darlington Station, on the former London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) between Newcastle and York, is aligned in a rough north-south direction, with the station platforms in a loop on the western side, allowing through trains to pass on the lines to the east. This general pattern, which can be seen in the accompanying photo, is the same today as it was in 1928, when driver error caused the deaths of 25 passengers and serious injuries to 45 others.

Driver Bell was not a regular driver of passenger trains, but a “passed fireman” (aged 32 at the time) who was qualified to drive but had not yet been upgraded to full driver status. His normal work was running light engines between sheds and driving local freight trains.

On the evening of Wednesday 27th June 1928 he was asked to drive a regular passenger service from Newcastle to Darlington which would then continue as a parcels-only service to York. This was to deputise for the regular driver who was unavailable for duty on that particular day.

Driver Bell had only driven the route once before, although he knew it well from his previous service as a fireman. However, he was not familiar with the particular operation that he was called upon to undertake when he reached Darlington.

In order to convert from a passenger service to a parcels one, the train had to pick up some extra vans that were to be added behind the third van. These vans were waiting for him on a siding that was known as the “middle road”, a stretch of track between the platform line at the south end of the station and the main through line. The middle road joined the platform line at a set of points which was only 48 yards from the points that linked to the main line.

When Driver Bell’s train reached Darlington at 22:45, Shunter Morland was waiting for him. He disconnected between vans three and four, leaving the train with a total length that was too long to clear the points to the middle road without the front being driven beyond the points that connected to the main line before the whole train could be reversed.

There were two signals that controlled this operation. One was the number 8 signal that allowed a train to advance as far the number 18 signal that protected the main line. With the number 8 signal in his favour, Driver Bell moved forward.

However, he clearly believed that this signal gave him permission to drive all the way forward on to the main line before reversing back on to the middle road. On this occasion the main line was being held open for an 11-coach excursion train from Scarborough to Newcastle that was due to pass through. The number 18 signal, on a gantry of three signals, was therefore at danger, but Driver Bell ignored this and carried on.

Shunter Morland was riding on the third parcels van and realised that Driver Bell had run past the number 18 signal. He applied the brake, not so much to stop the train as to give a warning to the driver. When he heard a whistle he assumed that the warning had been noted and was being acknowledged.

However, the whistle was not from Driver Bell’s engine but from the approaching excursion train, the driver of which had seen the line blocked by the shunting train which was still moving forward with the engine now completely on the main line. When Shunter Morland realised his error he applied the brake fully and had nearly stopped his train when the excursion train hit it.

The signalman in the box just south of the points in question was not aware the Driver Bell had run through the number 18 signal until he heard a strange noise that was caused by a train running against points that were closed to it. His immediate reaction was to throw all signals to danger, but this was too late to prevent a collision as the excursion train hit Driver’s Bell’s locomotive head-on at about 45 miles an hour.

Driver Bell’s engine was forced backwards along the main line for about 60 yards but stayed upright on the rails, although the vans behind it were completely destroyed. The engine of the excursion train, driven by Driver McNulty, fell on to its side but the carriages were not derailed. Most of the casualties were in the second carriage and were caused when the underframe of the third carriage sliced through it.

Although both drivers and the fireman were seriously injured, the luckiest crewman was Shunter Morland, whose van was demolished around him without causing him serious injury.

Most of the victims on the excursion train were women, fourteen of them being on a Mothers’ Union outing from Hetton-le-Hole, a mining village between Durham and Sunderland. The effect on the community was similar to that of a mining tragedy, but with grieving widowers instead of widows.


The enquiry, conducted by Colonel Pringle, could only reach one conclusion, which was that the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of Driver Bell for not taking note of signal number 18 at danger. The point was made that even if he had known which of the three signals on the gantry applied to him, the fact that all three were at danger should have alerted him. He should also have sought advice from Shunter Morland if he was unsure about the signalling system in place, as this was a strange yard to him.

There were mitigating factors, one being that the positioning of the gantry to the left of the track as Bell approached it, as opposed to the number 8 signal which was on the right, might have given him the impression that none of the signals applied to him. Other drivers in the past had commented that this arrangement was confusing. One of Colonel Pringle’s recommendations was that colour light signalling, with one three-aspect signal for each line, should be installed. This was eventually done 11 years later.

The inspector also had some words of criticism for Shunter Morland, who should have applied his brake fully when he first became aware that Driver Bell had overrun signal number 18. In Morland’s defence, he would not have known that an excursion train was due at any moment and so would not have been aware of the imminent danger. He knew the regular timetable backwards, and would no doubt have told Driver Bell to expect to wait for a scheduled service to pass, but that was not the case that evening.

1928 was a very bad year for railway accidents in Great Britain, with a total of 57 fatalities in 13 accidents. Darlington was the second of three accidents within a six-month period that involved mistakes made while shunting, all of which could have been prevented with the use of Automatic Train Control, but that would not be generally applied for another 30 years.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The sinking of the Andrea Doria, 1956

Collisions at sea between two ocean liners are very rare events, especially when one of them sinks. Such an event occurred on 25th July 1956, when world events were dominated by the Suez crisis, and President Eisenhower was seeking re-election. This was also the first tragedy of its kind to be accessible to the world via television, the use of which had become widespread in the United States and Canada, and was also spreading in Europe.

SS Andrea Doria

The SS Andrea Doria was an Italian North Atlantic liner that represented Italy’s resurgence after World War II. Its keel was laid on 9th February 1950, at the Sestri Ponente shipyard, Genoa. This was the port from which had come not only Christopher Columbus but also Admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560), after whom the liner was named. The admiral had been one of the most powerful men of his time, and even fought against pirates when in his 80s. His name had previously been honoured by the naming of an Italian battleship that served in both world wars and was indeed still afloat during the lifetime of the luxury liner of the same name.

Progress on the building of SS Andrea Doria was slower than was hoped, with various delays along the way. She was launched on 16th June 1951 but fitting out was not completed until 6th November 1952 when she began her sea trials. Her maiden voyage was on 14th January 1953. Despite all the hype and the hope surrounding this national icon, there were also fears that this could be an unlucky ship, because of many accidents that occurred in the shipyard, and a bizarre incident when her steam whistle stuck open.

The pride of Italy, and particularly of Genoa, was invested in the SS Andrea Doria, with the aim of competing with the great maritime nations, not so much on size or speed, but on luxury and comfort. She was therefore only 700 feet long and of 29,000 tons (the comparable figures for the SS United States were 990 feet and 53,330 tons, and for the RMS Queen Elizabeth 1,000 feet and 83,670 tons). That said, Andrea Doria was no slouch, with an average cruising speed of 23 knots, as compared with 28.5 knots for the Queen Elizabeth and 30 knots for the United States.

In the years following the Titantic disaster of 1912, all new liners had to take safety concerns very seriously. The Andrea Doria was no exception, having a double-hulled construction with eleven watertight compartments, any two of which could be flooded without endangering the ship. There was lifeboat accommodation for everyone on board.

The total passenger complement was 1241, with 218 of these being in first class and 320 in cabin class. There were 563 officers and crew. Passengers had access to a total of ten decks, comprising cabins, dining rooms, bars, games rooms, swimming pools, a gymnasium, a children’s play area, an observation lounge, a cinema, a chapel, a reading room, and open and enclosed promenade decks. The furnishings and fittings were of the highest class, with over $1 million having been spent on d├ęcor and artworks. This was almost certainly the most luxurious liner afloat at the time.

As the ship set off on her maiden voyage, the whole city of Genoa came to a standstill, as this marked a real turning-point in the fortunes of the city and the country. However, the voyage was not entirely smooth, with strong winds and heavy seas being encountered as Andrea Doria neared New York. It was noted that one particularly bad wave off Nantucket caused the ship to list by 28 degrees. Nevertheless, she made good time and was nearly on schedule when she docked. She was to make another 100 Atlantic crossings, full to capacity nearly every time.

Final voyage

Her final voyage left Genoa on 17th July 1956, under the command of Captain Pietro Calamai, who was due to transfer to another ship of the Italian Line when SS Andrea Doria completed the return trip. More passengers came on board at Naples and Gibraltar before the ship headed out into the Atlantic. The weather was calm for the whole crossing, but the ship ran into fog on the last full day, Wednesday 25th July. The passengers had already packed their bags and left them outside their cabins for collection by the crew, as they expected to dock at 9.00am the following day.

However, at 11.10pm, 60 miles off Nantucket Island, the SS Andrea Doria collided with the liner “Stockholm”, of the Swedish-American Line, which was heading in the opposite direction. The bows of the Stockholm, which had been reinforced for cruising in ice-covered waters, struck the starboard side of the Andrea Doria, at a near 90 degree angle, and it was this impact that caused all the 52 deaths that occurred as the bows penetrated nearly 40 feet into the side of the Andrea Doria. Five crewmen aboard the Stockholm also perished.

The impact soon led to the Andrea Doria listing 18 degrees to starboard. As stated earlier, the ship was built to withstand the breaching of two of its watertight compartments, but a bulkhead door was missing in the engine room, and the starboard fuel tanks were flooded whilst the port tanks were empty and had not been re-ballasted, thus adding to the instability. It was soon clear that the ship would sink.

The Andrea Doria was more fortunate than the Titanic, which sank in the Atlantic (some 1,000 miles to the north-east) 44 years previously. For one thing, the Andrea Doria hit another ship, and not an iceberg. The Stockholm, although badly damaged, was not holed and was able to play a major part in the rescue operation. Other ships, including the “Ile de France” were also soon on the scene and were able to launch their own lifeboats, which made up for the fact that the growing list of the Andrea Doria made it impossible for half of her boats to be used. US Navy vessels were also prominent in the rescue operation. Captain John Shea, commander of the USNS Pvt. William H. Thomas, directed operations and commented on how smoothly they went.

By 6.00am, all the survivors had been rescued, four hours before SS Andrea slipped beneath the waves, with the news cameras rolling, to lie on the seabed 225 feet below. The rescue was aided by the fog lifting before daybreak, and the excellent work done by the rescue crews. The fact that the accident happened in July was also a factor in preventing hypothermia becoming a problem – another contrast with the fate of the Titanic passengers. Those passengers who went into the sea did not stay there long before being picked up.


An inquiry was held into why the collision took place, but came to no definite conclusion. There were suggestions that the crew of the Andrea Doria had misread their radar screen, and that they should have turned to port, rather than starboard, when the other ship appeared to be on a collision course. It is also possible that the two ships were moving at very different speeds, as the fog was intermittent and the Stockholm had only just encountered it.

There was some criticism of the Andrea Doria’s crew in the aftermath of the collision, such as a statement that the first boats to reach the Stockholm were filled with crew members rather than passengers, but other reports praised the crew for keeping calm and guiding people to safety.

The wreck of the Andrea Doria has been dived several times, and items recovered have included the life-size statue of Admiral Doria that graced the first class saloon. In 1984, the strongroom safe was opened live on television, but nothing of great value was revealed, probably because the passengers had already retrieved their belongings prior to their expected disembarkation.

In Italy, there were moves to replace the Andrea Doria with an identical ship, but this was never done. Captain Calamai never commanded another ship. The Stockholm was repaired and still sails today as MV Astoria (registered in Portugal).

© John Welford

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

An unfortunate consequence of the Titanic tragedy

The loss of the Titanic on 15th April 1912 led to some unexpected consequences. One person who felt the effects very deeply was Kate Hume, who was the sister of one of the victims.

Jock Hume

This victim was Jock Hume, who was a member of the five-piece string band led by Wallace Hartley. The band’s function was to entertain first-class passengers during evening dinner and on other occasions. There was also a string and piano trio on board, and the two groups joined forces on the night of the sinking to play while passengers assembled in the first-class lounge before they were escorted to the lifeboats.

The abiding legend is that Jock Hume and his colleagues played the hymn tune “Nearer My God to Thee” as their last piece, before abandoning their instruments (or strapping them to their bodies) and jumping into the sea as the ship went down, knowing that they stood no chance of survival. Jock Hume’s body was later recovered and buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Kate Hume’s reaction

Kate, who was aged 15 and living at the family home in Dumfries, Scotland, had hero-worshipped Jock and took the loss particularly badly. She needed a continuing “comfort blanket” to replace the sympathy and condolences from friends and neighbours that, inevitably enough, became less noticeable as time passed.

Kate’s opportunity came in 1914, when World War I was declared.

One immediate consequence of the declaration of war was a wave of ant-German sentiment that swept the country. Everything that was actually (or believed to be) German was condemned out of hand, even to the extent of stones being thrown at dachshund dogs. The royal family changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, which it holds to this day.

Stories of German atrocities being visited on Britons were meat and drink to the British public, who used them to feed their patriotic fervour. In September 1914 Kate Hume decided to add another story to the list.

She therefore wrote to her local newspaper, the Dumfries Standard, to say that her sister Grace (aged 22) had written to her from Belgium, which was under German occupation. According to Kate, Grace was working there as a nurse. Grace’s supposed letter contained the words:

“This is to say goodbye. Have not long to live. The hospital set on fire. Germans cruel. A man here has had his head cut off. My breast taken away.”

This caused a sensation in Dumfries, as yet another example of the evil that must be fought against. However, when the news reached a young lady in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, the sensation was very different. This was Grace Hume, who had never been anywhere near Belgium and certainly had not written such a letter to her younger sister Kate.

The trial and subsequent life of Kate Hume

When the truth came out, Kate was arrested and charged with forgery. She was tried in Edinburgh, where she admitted what she had done. She stated in court:

“I cannot say what made me do it, except the cruelties which the Germans were committing. I was seeing and imagining the things I wrote.”

Although she was found guilty, the judge sympathised with her state of mind and ordered her immediate release. She later went into domestic service and married a man named Thomas Terbit, with whom she had five children. She died in 1947 at the age of 50.

Kate Hume was diagnosed at the time of her trial as suffering from “hysteria”, although these days she would be regarded as having a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.  At all events, it was an unfortunate late consequence of the tragedy that had occurred in April 1912 when an iceberg took the life of Kate Hume’s brother.

© John Welford