Murder and suicide

A view looking back towards Scarborough from the cliffs above White Nab. In 1804, Miss Lydia Bell's corpse was discovered at low water mark under the sea cliff.
A view looking back towards Scarborough from the cliffs above White Nab. In 1804, Miss Lydia Bell's corpse was discovered at low water mark under the sea cliff.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

In the year 1804, a young lady’s corpse was discovered at low water mark under the sea cliff at White Nab. She had been strangled and then thrown over the cliff. Later she was identified as Miss Lydia Bell, the daughter of “a respectable confectioner of York”, who had been on vacation at Scarborough.

At that time, at the height of the war with Napoleon, the York Volunteers were quartered at Scarborough castle and it was known that, against the wishes of her parents, she had been “walking out” with one of the young officers in the garrison. On this occasion, they had failed to prevent her from leaving their lodgings without an escort. Consequently, the officer in question was arrested and tried for murder at the York assizes.

However, no proof of the officer’s guilt could be found, though several “witnesses”, namely Val Nicholson, William Short, Jonathan Simpson and Robert Johnson, all swore an oath that they had seen the officer with Miss Bell together on the Cayton Road the night before her death.

It seems that the four “witnesses” had perjured themselves to protect one of their number. The officer charged was acquitted and all those who had testified against him were said to have met untimely deaths. Nicholson in particular suffered from chronic nightmares in which he thought he saw Miss Bell denouncing him as her murderer.

Finally, at the time of his death, he confessed that he indeed had been responsible for her murder and had tried to pass the blame on to the innocent army officer.

The case was widely reported in the regional and national press and at least one poem written about it which had a wide circulation in print.

Miss Bell’s murder was undoubtedly a crime of passion. Other acts of extreme violence in and near Scarborough were usually associated in some way with smuggling. For instance, in April 1769, Valentine Bailey was hanged at York for shooting and killing John Smith, an exciseman of Scarborough, who was trying to arrest him for smuggling. The chief witness against Bailey was his female accomplice. When sentence against him was passed by the jury he was so angry that in the courtroom he knocked her to the floor.

But the most sensational case which was given national publicity occurred near Scarborough in 1823. The Scarborough constables’ record book relates the event which took place on February 14 of that year:

“James Law of Staintondale was shot by William Mead as he was returning from Scarboro’ market...going through Burniston on horses [Mead lived in Burniston]. They [Law and his companions] sang a song called “The Pergerd Song”. Wm Mead was a common informer and informed of James Law for smugling witch he paid [h]is fine. This Wm Mead informed of this J Law again in 1822 which they had a trial in London. Wm Mead was found guilty of perjury which so aggravated him and his party that they should not get revenge without doing such an Act...James Law lingered eight days and died of his wound.”

At the York Assizes in March 1823 Mead was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison for two years in York castle. In the circumstances, this was an extremely lenient sentence, suggesting that Law was a wanted criminal known to be engaged in smuggling whereas Mead was regarded as a useful informer. Normally, Mead would have been executed or at least transported to Australia for life.

Visitors to Scarborough, who left accounts of their stay, often noted how cheap they found many commodities there, particularly those such as tea, coffee, brandy, tobacco and gin, which were imported from abroad by sea. If they appreciated that they were benefiting from excise-free, smuggled goods, they were too cautious to report what had become a principal occupation and source of income to the coastal communities.

Many tales are told of smugglers’ dens and hideaways, secret passages and landing places and some of them are no doubt true. On the other hand, since anecdotal stories of contraband smuggling far outnumber official records of arrests, trials and convictions, it seems more than likely that there was much complicity and collusion and probably bribery of excisemen. Foreigners, however, could not expect the same favouritism: for example, in February 1840, three Frenchmen were each fined £5 “for conveying brandy into the town”.

If Scarborough was short of murders, there were plenty of suicides and many unexplained and accidental deaths to keep the coroners busy. In February 1818 an inquest was held “over the body of Mary Lawson”. Her husband had found her “dead in bed in the morning when he walked in”. The verdict was that she had died “by the visitation of god”.

The same verdict was passed a few months later on Ralph Sandwith who had “dropd down dead in Newbro”. Henry Skelton, however, had hanged himself on the back gates of the New Inn, so in his case the verdict of the court was “Ensanity”.

“A Strainge Man” was found dead on North Bay sands. He had been bathing in the sea but took a fit as soon as he left the water. No one knew who he was and no one enquired after him. The coroner pronounced that he had been “found Drownded”. In August 1826, a young woman who had come from York “for her elth was kild in her bed about 1 o’clock” during a dreadful storm. The verdict was “kild by the Efects of Lightning”.

In the late 1820s Scarborough had an extraordinary epidemic of suicides. The constable attending inquests reported deaths by self-inflicted razor wounds, by hanging from bed posts, hanging in the privy, in a stable and in the gateways to the workhouse and the plantation.

Infant mortality was high: babies were abandoned “in a ditch near the Common New Barn” or found dead in the churchyard. Children fell down wells or burned themselves to death, all “by the visitation of god”. The earliest local reference to death “by natural causes” occurs in a coroners’ judgement of 1844.

By that time the railway line from York was under construction and at least two men died building it between Seamer and Scarborough.