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On the morning of February 12th, 1901, a party of nine policemen equipped with pistols, clubs and kerosene lanterns gathered at Fleet railway station. They were charged with finding a derelict building in woodland to the north-west of the town and arresting a man named Victor Gorenhoff.
The police took with them two civilians: a local carpenter and sometime poacher, who knew the location of the ruined 16th century lazaret in which Gorenhoff supposedly lived; and a sixty-six-year-old history professor and folklorist named Albert Longden.
Professor Longden was a small, nervous man who suffered from asthma and myopia; but it was his academic diligence that had led police to the first solid clue in the case of the abduction (and presumed murder) of six children. Longden’s presence on the raid proved crucial, as he was later able to provide the only clear and dispassionate summation of the disastrous events that followed.
Victor Gorenhoff was known to the people of Fleet as a sullen and reclusive figure, who worked as a drayman, delivering beer for the town’s Benson Brewery. Police first tried to arrest Gorenhoff at his workplace, but when officers went to the brewery, they found their suspect had just completed a long round of deliveries and would be at home for the next two days.
Colleagues described Gorenhoff as a tall and slender man, with a bald head, protuberant eyes and a slight underbite. He had appeared at the brewery sometime in 1896 looking for work and his age was estimated as “between forty and fifty”. Nothing more was known about him – his strange appearance caused employees and townspeople to shun him, and on the rare occasions he spoke, his words were close to unintelligible due to a cleft palate.
Despite these shortcomings, Gorenhoff was valued by the brewery for two reasons: his slim stature belied enormous physical strength, and he could unload beer kegs without help and without rolling them (the 52-pint kegs used at the time weighed more than 11 stones); and he could go long periods without sleep. As a consequence, he could make twice as many deliveries as any other drayman, often working for 36 hours uninterrupted.
The evidence against Gorenhoff was compelling. His work meant he was itinerant, and it took him to all three of the counties from which children had been abducted. Added to this, the dates tallied – his delivery round meant he was in Berkshire when a child disappeared from Reading; and in Surrey when a child was snatched from Farnham.
Finally, Gorenhoff lived alone in a stretch of deep woodland in which the same version of the Devil’s Twist stick-effigy found at Harry Shilling’s abduction had been seen, described and sketched by a 19th century travel writer.
At first light, the police party – led by an experienced sergeant named Kershaw – set off along the Minley Road, following the edges of Railroad Heath forest, before turning west onto an unmapped trail that was known to locals as Leperhouse Lane.
The Search for the Leper-House
In 1901, the forest was the source of all sorts of rumour, folklore and legend, a fact borne out by maps from various periods of history possessed by Professor Longden: the forest had been previously named Gæstholt (Ghost Holt in Old English); Cornebois (The Horned Wood, derived from Norman French); and Grindel Hollows (as it was known from the 16th century until the digging of the railway line).
It was into this stretch of woodland (which covered 15 square miles in 1901) that police headed. They quickly discovered that Leperhouse Lane actually consisted of a meandering warren of trails and half-hidden pathways, over-arched by gnarled and broken trees and interspersed with boggy pools.
Longden wrote: ‘Many of the constables seemed ill-at-ease. Principal among their concerns was the fact that, upon finding the lazaret, they might be exposed to the infectious diseases it once housed. I explained that the building – if indeed it still stood – had not been used to house lepers since Queen Elizabeth sat upon the throne of England; and that leprosy, despite popular misconceptions, is not communicable by touch and that the vast majority of people are actually immune.
‘I deemed it prudent to withhold mention of the fact that, in 1666, the same lazaret had been used to house victims of the Great Plague and that there was likely a plague-pit somewhere close by.’
Around 10:30, the police party found the Devil’s Twist symbol carved into the trees; stick-and-twine effigies of the same hung from branches, accompanied sometimes by the remains of rusted bells (the bell was a traditional warning of the proximity of lepers).
Longden wrote: ‘The men were clearly much unsettled by this – there were whispers about turning back – but Sergeant Kershaw proved a stout-hearted fellow and reminded his men they were searching for children. If grown men with pistols were daunted by these woods, he said, how much greater must the suffering be for an infant? His words had an immediate effect. The men rallied and we pressed on.’
The Lazaret Found
Beyond a rise in the ground, police found a clearing at the centre of which stood a dilapidated two-storey building of Elizabethan, half-beam construction, although Longden claims the original building was far older than it seemed: ‘The foundations consisted of at least two-feet of dressed stone upon which the wooden structure had been built. The walls of wattle and daub that grew out of this stone foundation were filthy and covered in moss; the right-hand section of the building had collapsed and the diamond-latticed windows were all broken.’
Beside the lazaret stood a slaughterhouse, again of Elizabethan build. Iron hooks hung from chains attached to the central roof beam. Inside were pens for animals and a large butchers’ block.
Although everything else at the site was dusty and cobwebbed with disuse, the block was clean, as were the hatchets and butchers’ knives that hung on the wall behind it. Beside these hung an “ancient wooden sign adorned with a Latin phrase: PALMAM QUI MERUIT FERAT”. [Loosely translated, this means “let the achiever be rewarded”.]
Next to the butchers’ block dangled a large cauldron of beaten copper, such is as used for rendering animal flesh. This also showed signs of recent use: a quick inspection revealed a fresh line of fatty tallow that ran around the inner rim of the cauldron.
Sergeant Kershaw ordered his men to withdraw their weapons and called for the occupant of the house to come forth and surrender to them. Having seen signs of furtive movement by one of the windows, Kershaw ordered the door be broken open.
The time was 11:04.
Within 30 minutes, two of the policemen would be dead and the house reduced to a flaming ruin . . .
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