<< home

day by day: a blog

August 09, 2007

The Events at Henley

garden grass.jpg My mother is staying with us at the moment. We were having breakfast together today. I had slept very badly (a premonition?) and was, as is my normal practice, in a surly mood. It was a largely silent convening of the generations. I stared into the mid-kitchen distance with a bovine-like gaze of morning-induced befuddlement, poised to spoon some "Cheerios"™ into my mouth. Then, quite suddenly, my mother mentioned an event which I'd never heard anything about before.

So, in my own words not hers, "Why not say what happened?" Here is the narrative, in as much detail and accuracy as I have been able to piece it together since then. I took some of it from her, my "Marlow" as it were, and have added in whatever else I could find or my imagination suggested. I believe nothing is untrue. It is a tale from deep in the "golden years" of Edwardian England, when the British Empire was at its zenith. 1908, when the events which I am about to mention took place, was the year of Beatrix Potter's The Testing of Jemina Puddle-Duck, E. M. Forster's A Room with a View, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale. It was the year when the greatest composer of Empire, Edward Elgar, the genius of glittering brass and soft strains of melancholy, attended the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in the great provincial city and musical centre, Manchester. (It was also the year when my grandmother, Joy Moore, who taught me to love poetry, was born.)

Frederick H. Holmes was born in Maidstone in 1850, one of 13 children of Amelia Holmes and her husband John, a brewer. (It was perhaps because they were so many that, after Frederick's death in 1908, not even Leonard Holmes, his brother, seems to have known with certainty the exact date of his sibling's birth.) There is a family legend that Frederick was born Jewish and poor in an enormously stratified, largely unregulated and unequal society. Religion and money mattered as determinants of life-stories in the way in which our religion, money, still does.

The lack-of-money part, at least, must be untrue. And the Jewish part seems to me very unlikely too. Frederick's father was a wealthy brewer, who sent his eldest son, John Garraway Holmes to Oxford, where he got a BA at University College in 1862. Over the next 20 years, John the younger held various curacies before becoming the vicar of St. Philip the Apostle in Sydenham. However his younger brother, Frederick Holmes, the second son, did not get a special education and after school went straight into the beer business, working first at the Steyning Brewery in Sussex. In this line he seems to have prospered remarkably well.

In 1876 Frederick married Florence Joy, the daughter of a Maidstone surgeon and magistrate. Florence was five years younger than Frederick. Throughout the greater part of their lives together Frederick and Florence were thought to have a particularly close, companionate marriage. Between 1877 and about 1894 they had six children. There were two daughters, one of whom, Winifred, was living at home with her parents in 1908, the other of whom was working as a nurse in London, while of their four sons, one was a clergyman in Brighton, one was living in Canada, and two were still away at boarding school. Indeed, W. L. Wainwright, a doctor who treated them all, described Mr. and Mrs. Holmes and their children as "the happiest family he knew."

Frederick's business interests made him wealthy enough to own West Hill House, in the middle of the expensive and socially prestigious town of Henley-on-Thames in the south-eastern corner of Oxfordshire near the borders with Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. Perhaps from genuine spiritually, perhaps the better to assimilate socially, he must have adopted an active Anglicanism as he rose through late Victorian society because he served for many years as churchwarden at Henley Parish Church. Henley was a small town then: in 1891 there were only 5288 people living in the town and the surrounding area. Florence and Frederick must soon have known everyone in the area who "counted".

Frederick also liked the fashionable upper-middle class sports of the period and no doubt he enjoyed as much if not more the sense of integration into the social networks of the upper classes which these games, if one played them in the right places and with the right people, conferred. He was a member of the Henley Rowing Club as well as of the Leander Club (one of the oldest and snootiest rowing clubs in the country). He judged rowing competitions and was also "keen" on the chic game of golf (then played without tees and with clubs that had wooden, rather than metal, shafts). An owner of the brewing firm of Holmes & Harper, Frederick was in his last years managing director of the New Westminster Brewery Company.

In the late Victorian era, Frederick suffered a number of very serious business reversals and financial losses. As the impact of these accumulated, the Holmeses were forced to abandon West Hill House. By 1901 they had moved into the countryside just outside Henley, to a place referred to as "Crockmore" (probably Crockmore House) in Fawley, Buckinghamshire, about three miles outside town. The Thames forms a slowly-moving link between this tiny village and Henley itself. The "tranquil dignity" of this waterway flows nearby Crockmore House, marking the eastern boundary of the ancient parish of Fawley. The main crops in this highly arable landscape are wheat and barley, although at the turn of the 20th century, when Frederick and Florence were living there, the gently sloping and swelling terrain was also quite heavily wooded.

In the Proceedings of the Geologists' Association (the 18th volume in the series, published in 1904), we are lucky enough to find an account, probably from the pen of Miss F. C. Foley, B.Sc., of "An Excursion to Henley on Thames", made on 7 May 1904, and lead by H. J. Osborne White, F.R.S. ("the Director"). In spite of the "threatening aspect of the sky during the earlier part of the day this excursion was fairly well attended about twenty members and friends of the Association gathering at Henley Station shortly after one o'clock." At one point towards the end of their jaunt, the Geologists' Association group, no doubt nodding and smiling earnestly, walked very near Frederick and Florence's home, indeed probably on their land. Miss Foley's record gives us a usable, blurred but linguistically remarkable, idea of the area as it then was:

The party then proceeded northward by a picturesque road along the bottom of a small wooded valley up to the open surface of the chalk upland at Crockmore Farm and thence by Fawley to Fawley Green. Near the last named place a good view was obtained south and south westward across the sharply incised valley of the Thames and the wooded lowland of the London basin to the distant chalk hills near Basingstoke The Director drew attention to the circuitous course of the river through the Chalk in this district a course which carries the stream nearly twenty miles to the north of the axis of the London basin syncline in the meridian of Fawley and having pointed out the topographical evidences of its high antiquity and its probable connection with certain other peculiarities in the path of the Kennet Thames he briefly discussed its origin. The northward curve by Henley and Marlow was viewed as a feature arising out of a deflection of the stream from an earlier route more in accordance with the existing structure of the London Basin and the conditions under which the abandonment of the hypothetical consequent path would have been likely to occur and the possible date of the change considered and as an inheritance from a course marked out when the tectonic slopes of the region were different or less pronounced. The data were too scanty to allow of any satisfactory conclusion being arrived at but the balance of the evidence seemed to the speaker to be in favour of an antecedent origin.

In spite of their evacuation to Crockmore, a somewhat less splendid and less well-appointed residence than West Hill House, Frederick and Florence Holmes remained pillars of the local Henley gentry. Frederick owned a number of sporting guns as well as Webley revolver with a .455 calibre barrel, the standard service pistol for the British Army from 1877 until almost a century later. He was fond of going out into the Fawley fields with his distinguished neighbour, William Mackenzie of the splendid Fawley Court, who was a former high sheriff of Oxfordshire. There Frederick and "Mack" shot animals and birds in the countryside around their houses. Frederick remained a committed member of the local Conservative Association, and the Holmeses were still well enough off to employ a gardener, Henry Barefield, a coachman, Robert Brackstone, a cook, Lizzie Hayes, and a maid, 17 year-old Ethel Morris. (Still, in 1861, when Frederick was 10, his father and mother John and Amelia Holmes had employed five live-in servants at their house in Maidstone.)

In the early years of the new century a lonely little boy, aged four going on five in February 1908, was living in Henley with his mother and sisters. The boy's father was in India, and the family had been in Henley since 1904, latterly renting a house named "The Nutshell" in Western Road. (That means that "The Nutshell" was less than three and a half miles away from Frederick and Florence's home at Crockmore.) Later, after the boy had grown up and had changed his name, he remembered a moment from his early childhood in Henley:

I am walking along a street in our little town with my mother and a wealthy local brewer, who is also a magistrate. The tarred fence is covered with chalk drawings, some of which I have made myself. The magistrate stops, points disapprovingly with his stick and says, "We are going to catch the boys who draw on these walls, and we are going to order them Six Strokes of the Birch Rod." (It was all in capitals in my mind.) My knees knock together, my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth, and at the earliest possible moment I sneak away to spread the dreadful intelligence. In a little while, all the way down the fence, there is a long line of terror-stricken children, all spitting on their handkerchiefs and trying to rub out the drawings.

How many wealthy local brewers who were also solidly-planted pillars of the community did the small town of Henley have then? The man has been identified as a "Mr. Simmons". But I can't stop myself wondering if that is somehow wrong, and wondering if this is really the combustible and anxious Frederick on a Henley Street suddenly flicking back the curtain in his mind's window for a moment in order to give this impressionable child a glimpse into the dark interior? Then again, perhaps it actually was Simmons, but might as well have been Frederick? Perhaps many of the Edwardian burgesses of this small town on the Thames, and of this small island through which the Thames meanders, carried primed emotional bombs hidden away behind their largely imperturbable and confident exteriors?

In the normal course of things Brackstone drove Frederick in a carriage from Crockmore to Henley Station in the morning. There he would catch the train for London and his businesses. Then, either, as was usually the case, on the evening of that same day, or, more infrequently, one or two nights later, Brackstone would drive Frederick back from Henley to Crockmore.

So, in spite of anxiety over, and the necessary retrenchments occasioned by, their financial losses, Frederick and Florence maintained a façade of durable prosperity and material comfort in the early years of the new century. But, as he aged and experienced business disappointments, Frederick Holmes also began to degenerate physically. In the last six months of 1907 and the earliest part of 1908 he was consulting W. J. Sussmann, a specialist and surgeon in Henley, after complaining of "great sickness and diarrhoea" as well as "gastric pains." Frederick was in fact undergoing the earliest phase of cirrhosis of his liver, caused not by drink (although a brewer, Frederick did not consume very much alcohol himself), but by gastric indigestion. In addition, he was very worried about the state of his eyesight which by 1907 was failing. It was believed that this was a result of his years of heavy smoking.

Then the falls started. In very early 1908, when he was around 57 or 58, he tumbled "backwards down a bank he was building at the bottom of the garden." He told Wainwright, who examined him afterwards: "I am a deal too heavy a man to fall on my back." At around the same time Frederick informed his brother that he was suffering from "depression through influenza and pains in his head." (His skull had been very seriously fractured when he had a hunting accident some years before.) Around now, he seems also to have fallen over while he was out shooting one day with Mackenzie.

All in all, January 1908 was an absolutely bloody month for Frederick. He was feeling seriously ill and he also sustained yet more financial losses. He had to sell off "his last horse". (This probably meant the final horse which he owned to ride himself, and not the horses uses to pull the trap or carriage and his own heavy-set body to the station each day.) But, perhaps this was more a symbolic than a practical loss? Between his bad eyesight, his failing sense of balance, and his agonized stomach, Frederick probably had little inclination for any more riding, whether he owned horses or not.

February 1908, too, opened very badly. Frederick came back from London for the last time on Wednesday, 5 February 1908, and Brackstone drove him home from Henley. They made the journey in complete silence. On Thursday afternoon Frederick ran into his gardener at Crockmore, but Barefield noticed nothing untoward about his employer's appearance. He seemed his usual "rational" self. That evening though, William Mackenzie's son saw their neighbour. Roderick Mackenzie was disturbed by Frederick's appearance, and told his father's friend that he looked "awfully seedy." Frederick replied tersely that "I have had the worst attack of diarrhoea I have ever had in my life." Frederick's long-suffering body had by now surely begun its insidious but inevitable insurrection against his mind. Bodily pain in the end leads to mental disorder. By Friday morning he was laid up in bed with a combination of flu and diarrhoea. Florence Holmes summoned Dr. Sussmann. Sussmann examined Frederick, and, suspecting a combination of influenza and continuing gastric troubles, he counselled Frederick to rest.

In spite of Frederick's illnesses, Frederick and Florence shared the same bed, as usual, that Friday night. With Frederick's sufferings, it must have been hard to sleep. Eventually, though, Florence, at least, did drop off. At some point in the night, probably between 4 and 5 am, Frederick got up from his wife's side and dressed himself. Then, in the bedroom, with Florence slumbering only a few feet away, he loaded six bullets into his Webley pistol, "a cartridge and handgun combination with relatively mild recoil, but with good penetration and excellent stopping power."* He probably owned the "Mark IV" version of the Webley, popularly known as "the Boer War model" because so many British Army officers had purchased them before shipping out to Africa in 1899. (Military tradition demanded that officers equip themselves with uniforms and weapons at their own expense.) Frederick, a gun-fancier, cannot have fought in Africa, but perhaps he bought the revolver around that period as a gesture of patriotic tough-mindedness. In the bedroom, in the still physically competent-hands of an utterly deranged man, the pistol's loaded cylinder clicked back into place.

Having loaded the Webley on the early morning of 8 February 1908, Frederick Holmes first came up to his wife Florence and shot her twice, once in the right temple and once in the right side of the torso near her shoulder blade. One bullet entered her brain, the other her heart. She had remained unaware of his stealthy approach and she died instantaneously. When her body was found the next morning, she looked at first as if she were merely peacefully asleep in her own bed. Having killed his wife, Frederick straightened the bedclothes a bit, perhaps replaced a pillow, and then closed the door to the bedroom gently behind him. Did he choose night-time for his attack because he knew where all his victims would be in the early hours? because he knew that they would not struggle? and probably would feel no pain? Perhaps he solved the problem of the gun making too much noise by converting the bedding into a set of ad-hoc silencers?

Frederick went next to his daughter Winifred's bedroom where she too was asleep. Again he quietly approached his sleeping target. He shot his daughter under the right eye. She too died without awakening. Frederick once more quietly closed the door of the bedroom he had just been in, as though he were only a solicitous Edwardian patriarch doing a cautionary round, making sure that all was well with each of his female charges and then leaving them to rest. For one last time, Frederick, though in one sense out of his mind, was, in another, completely in control of his world.

His wife and daughter dead, he climbed to the attic where the family's servants were sleeping in the a single small room, though in separate beds. Again, neither woman woke up when Frederick entered. Lizzie Hayes (who must have cooked whatever dinner he had been able to eat, or drink, the evening before) was lying on her right side as Frederick walked across the room. He shot her in the left temple. She died at once. Finally, he turned to the 17 year-old, Ethel Morris, and fired a bullet into her head just below her left ear. Ethel's was the only body which appeared to have struggled after the shot slammed into her head. However, Dr. Wainwright, who later examined the bodies for the South Bucks coroner, palliatively suggested that this might have been due to "convulsive movements" of the corpse taking place after Ethel had died.

At some point after these events had unfolded, Frederick re-entered his and his dead wife's bedroom where he ejected the spent cartridges and replenished his pistol at the dressing table. Having used five bullets, he now loaded five fresh ones into the gun's cylinder, filling it to capacity again. Then he descended the stairs of his darkened house and, as if leaving the bodies behind, walked outside into the brisk, early morning air. As he did, he must have heard the birds singing and seen the sun coming up. Perhaps these rustic sights and noises seem to a man in his situation like the signs of the Furies closing in? Fawley would by now (if it had not long since) have felt to Frederick like one of the dark places of the earth. After all, by his actions he had made it so.

At about 20 past seven on Saturday morning, Henry Barefield, the 29 year-old gardener, discovered Crockmore House silent, seemingly deserted, and all locked up. The milkman wanted to deliver his milk and be off. Barefield climbed through the pantry window and called to the servants. There was no answer. Barefield opened the kitchen door; the milkman made his delivery and departed. As was his duty and custom, Barefield made a fire in the kitchen and he then went to do some work in the stables. After that he walked home and had his breakfast. Barefield came back at nine o'clock, and again called and whistled for the servants. Sensing that something was wrong, he went up to the servants' bedroom in the attic. What he saw there terrified him. He ran home, stammered out the news to his mother and summoned some neighbours. Together, they went back to Crockmore and began the sickening process of discovering yet more corpses. One of these panicked Fawley residents, in all likelihood the youngest, must have set off for the police while the others remained behind in the ghostly, desecrated house.

By mid-day on Saturday, all the women's bodies had been examined by doctors. But Frederick himself was still missing. It was not until 2 o'clock that they found his corpse at some distance from the house. "Charles Roland, a foreman at the Mackenzie estate adjoining, and two keepers, Evans and Wakes, who were searching the plantation, came across the body lying face downwards among the long grass and weeds. Blood was on the grass, near at hand was the weapon, and a brief examination showed that he had shot himself through the heart." The men carried the body about a mile back to Crockmore, where it was placed in a ground floor room.

The formal inquest, held on Tuesday, 11 February 1908, conjectured that Frederick, who not long before had told his doctor that he was "a deal too heavy a man to fall on my back", had wandered (or hurried — we shall never know) through Crockmore's grounds to the top of a slope on his property. There he had shot himself in the left breast, and had then "rolled right down the steep hill to the place where he was found."

Was this the same bank where he had ignominiously toppled over the month before? Did he realize that after shooting himself he was likely to fall down the hill? If so, was this choice the symbolic enactment of the social "fall" he was now completing, back down into the dankness and obscurity of the world from which, as a poor Jewish boy, he had once brightly emerged into the sunlight of Protestant high society? Frederick would have gone to the gallows if he had ever been convicted of his crimes. Was the lethal tumble down the hill a tacit acknowledgement that he deserved to make the "drop"? Or was he simply doing something both more prosaic and, at a profound level, more poetic — ensuring that his body lay hidden for long enough that attention would focus first on his female victims' bodies and on their tragedy rather than on his own corpse? He had, after all, taken the "gentleman's way out" after committing his terrible actions on those who had trusted him. Or was he merely completely unhinged, delusional, thoughtless as he lurched erratically, breathlessly through the dewy grass to the place of his suicide?

The inquest noted that a diary was found in Frederick and Florence's bedroom, on the table near to the emptied cartridges which had once contained the bullets Frederick fired into the four women. He had left the cartridges there when he came back into the bedroom to reload the gun for his own suicide. Evidently, he did not intend to play Russian roulette when his own end was at stake. In the diary the police found entries for the 25th and 30th of January 1908 which they believed read "Shoot mad" and "Shooting mad", respectively. However, Roderick Mackenzie, a witness at the inquest who had testified about Frederick's comment to him on the preceding Thursday night about the terrible attack of diarrhoea, knew his older neighbour's handwriting. Roderick suggested that the words in the diary should be deciphered as "Shoot Mack" and "Shooting Mack" (not "mad" and "madly"), indicating, perhaps, simply that Frederick Holmes and William Mackenzie had been out with their guns on those days, looking for fowl or rabbits to kill.

The jury at the inquest closed the case by finding that "Mrs. Holmes, her daughter, and the two servants were murdered by Mr. Holmes, who afterwards committed suicide while temporarily insane." One cannot help wondering where Frederick's body was buried? Surely not in the churchyard next to Florence's and Winifred's? And where were Lizzie Hayes and Ethel Morris laid to rest? Money and class exercise their influence even over such eternal matters as these. I think it is very unlikely that they were buried alongside the Holmes women whom they had served and with whom they had been killed.

All flesh is grass... bloody grass, like the stuff found near Frederick's body. Everything passes away. So it was that in 1913 the Webley Company introduced the new Mark V model of their pistol. The British Army designated it as standard issue in December of the same year. Then, on "May 24th 1915, the Webley Mk VI was adopted as the standard sidearm for British and Commonwealth troops and remained so for the duration of World War I, being issued to officers, airmen, naval crews, boarding parties, trench raiders, machine-gun teams, and tank crews. The Mk VI proved to be a very reliable and hardy weapon, well suited to the mud and adverse conditions of trench warfare, and several accessories were developed for the Mk VI, including a bayonet (made from a converted French Pritchard bayonet), a speedloader device ('Prideaux Device'), and a stock allowing for the revolver to be converted into a carbine."* The Webley, the same instrument of death which Frederick used to kill his wife, daughter and servants and then himself, would soon be blowing fresh holes in hundreds of thousands of people's flesh all over the world. And many more men's bodies would soon be lying in entrails, bone and mud next to their Webleys. All grass is bloody flesh.

So it also was that Frederick's New Westminster Brewery Company was absorbed by the Lion Brewing Company in July 1914, just in time for a surge in demand for beer as soldiers farewelled their loved-ones and as millions of men in uniform found that drink was one of the few luxuries which they could spend their measly service pay on. All cash is grass.

So it is, too, that today Crockmore House is chiefly known because of its association with the contemporary minimalist British gardener Christopher Bradley-Hole, a follower of Piet Oudolf, the Dutch garden designer and cynosure of the "New Perennial" or "New Wave Planting" movement. Practitioners of this style typically use large swaths of perennials and grasses in their designs, emphasizing the texture and structure of organic, rapidly-growing and rapidly-regenerating plants rather than trading on the vulgar appeal of pretty colours and gorgeous scents. In the words of two (rather sceptical) gardening critics from the Daily Telegraph, Bradley-Hole's "prairie garden" at Crockmore House combines "Modernist rigour with a sea of exuberant planting in a gridded garden of great panache", thus creating "a modernist, New England framework of grassy dunes and sun-bleached wood". Bradley-Hole, the poet in plants of Crockmore, maintains that shrubs "represent permanence, literally putting down roots; you have to wait for them, they tie you down. Grasses and perennials are instant; they represent change and youth; they are liberating; they are modern." In synergy with this brittle but lucrative modishness, the architectural firm of Compton Lacey in Berkshire has recently completed an expensive-looking, po-mo refurbishing of the Crockmore Farm buildings transforming them into a home fit for, well, fit for a wealthy person. All grass is cash.... All grass is grass.

And so it is that today, 9 August 2007, I happened to learn over breakfast about the fates of Frederick and Florence Holmes, lately of Crockmore House, Buckinghamshire. These two people, whom I had never even heard of before today, were my great-great grandparents.... At the moment, though I tell myself that this is utter nonsense, I cannot help feeling that from now on their presences will always, however faintly, laterally be with me. They will be there, for example, in what might to anyone else look like the dancing gleams cast by sunlight filtering through our acacia tree or like the limbs of that Monterey Cypress heaving in a winter storm, or what might sound like an old chair creaking or a car backfiring in the street. For me, such things will be different. I am haunted. All bloody flesh is bloody grass.

Posted by njenkins at August 9, 2007 07:55 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins