Part 2: The Murders and Leperhouse Lane

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The Murder Spree Begins

Harry Shilling1
Harry Shilling

The second victim, Harry Shilling, was ten years old when he disappeared from Hartley Wintney, a village that lies three-miles north-west of Fleet.

Harry’s mother had died of consumption while he was young, and his father was a notorious drunkard, possessing little interest in – or control over – his wild, unruly son, who spent long periods alone, roaming barefoot the woods and farmland that surrounded the village.

Because of this, Harry’s disappearance was not noticed until 48 hours after it had occurred. The last people to see him were farm labourers who had spotted the gaunt, grimy child setting rabbit traps on the edge of a field.

A search was made of the area and, in a copse beyond the farmland, a curious symbol made of sticks and twine was found hanging from an oak branch. Beneath it was a pile of stones that hid a blood-soaked twist of fabric, bundled together to form a small package.

This package was taken aside and examined: inside it lay a human tongue, severed crudely at the root by a serrated blade, and a number of teeth. From the size of the teeth, it was obvious they had been pulled from a child’s mouth.

The policeman in charge of the search then noticed the pattern on the fabric: it bore the same pattern as Sally Jessop’s dress, the young girl abducted outside of Fleet 12 days earlier. And it was not twine that bound the stick-symbol together, but strands of Sally’s long, blonde hair.

The Newspapers Arrive

Police Photo - Harry Shilling
The stick-effigy found at the site of Harry Shilling’s abduction

Specifics of both crimes appeared next day on the front pages of national newspapers.

After this, the press followed each subsequent child’s disappearance in greater and greater detail, as the crime captured the interest of a horrified public. (Although these incidents are now largely forgotten, it is interesting to note that the 1999 film, The Blair Witch Project, uses a similar set of circumstances – the stick figure, the stone piles, and the gory bundle – as part of its story.)

The killer did not strike again until the winter of 1898, when a seven-year-old named Victoria Grange was snatched while picnicking with her governess. Grange was the granddaughter of a retired colonel with connections to a number of MPs and the public outcry was commensurately far greater.

As a result, the Chief Constable of Hampshire Police organised a crack team to investigate. Its work, however, was hampered by the fact that the next two abductions (both of which occurred during 1899) took place in Reading and Farnham, and thus fell under the jurisdiction of separate police forces.

With each subsequent abduction, pressure grew on the police to provide results. When a sixth child disappeared in September of 1900, questions were asked in parliament and newspaper editorials berated the police for their inability to find the perpetrator. Was this to be another case like The Ripper murders of Whitechapel? they asked. Would another madman slaughter with seeming impunity and then disappear without trace?

It seemed obvious the murderer was itinerant, so police set up roadblocks on main roads, and harassed every tramp, tinker and travelling knife-grinder from Reading to Southampton – but all to no avail.

And then a breakthrough came from a most unlikely source.

The Professor

After the sixth disappearance, police took photographs of the stick effigy found at the site of Harry Shillings’ abduction to Professor Albert Longden, an expert on English folklore.

Longden recognised the symbol. He told police it was known to folklorists as the Devil’s Twist, “the knot which binds the seeker to the sought”, and that the effigy (which was supposed to represent a human figure with horns) was linked to practices of witchcraft and paganism dating back to the time of the Celts. (The Devil’s Twist effigy is discussed briefly in Margaret Murray’s book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.)

Witch-Cult photo
Another version of the Devil’s Twist

Police asked who would know about such a symbol. Longden replied that almost no one outside of academic circles would have knowledge of it. Police then asked him to draw up a list of names.

Longden requested he be given 48 hours – such was the furore surrounding the case, he was wary of casting aspersions on his fellow academics and bringing them to the attention of the press. Police said he must supply the list by the next day.

Longden never created the list. Instead, the 66-year-old spent the night combing his library for everything and anything he could find on the subject of the Devil’s Twist, concentrating especially on contemporaneous references to the effigy.

It was this that led him to the name of Leperhouse Lane.

Leperhouse Lane

Heath
This Ordnance Survey map shows the extent of Railroad Heath in 1919 – the blue in the centre is Fleet Pond

At the turn of the 20th century, Fleet was bordered to its north and west by a tract of forest known to Victorians as Railroad Heath.

Modern development has destroyed most of the forest – first, came the 140-acre North-Hants golf course; then the M3 motorway; and finally, the Elvetham Heath housing estate – but in 1900, the forest stretched all the way from the town of Yateley to the Basingstoke Canal, 15 square miles of close-grown trees, marshy pools and bogland.

Although many parts of the forest were impassable in 1900, there was a faint track that led westwards away from Fleet Pond, known locally as Leperhouse Lane.

We know this thanks to a book entitled Surveyances of Southern England, published in 1803 by an obscure travel writer, Ambrose Bessel.

In it, Bessel wrote: ‘Some miles beyond Farnham there lies a freshwater lake that is the largest in the county of Hampshire. In the wetlands beyond this grows a dense woodland at the centre of which my companion claimed there lies the ruins of a lazaret (as houses of confinement for those suffering infectious diseases were once known) which dates back to the 16th century.

‘We followed a rutted, muddy track known locally as Leperhouse Lane (a name which my companion took as sure sign the rumours of the lazaret were true).

‘After an hour of delving into the dark and dismal woodland, we had seen nothing but fungi and sickly birds, squirrels and rabbits; but then we suddenly stumbled across a number of trees festooned with pagan symbols. This curious design was scored into the bark of the ancient trees, while stick-and-twine effigies hung from the branches, spinning and twisting despite the lack of wind.

Tumbledown Dick‘We pressed on, but another hour of slow riding revealed we had been turned back on ourselves and there being a great mist rising from the mulchy ground, we decided we should abandon our search for the lazaret; and I was much gladdened when we returned to the main road and headed onwards to the Tumbledown Dick, a posting inn that lies on the London road.’

It was this scrap of prose that Professor Longden showed to police the next day, and in so doing, provided them with their first real lead; for the writer, Bessel, had sketched the pagan symbol he found on the trees and it was a perfect match to that found at the site of Harry Shilling’s abduction.

And – more importantly – local people in Fleet claimed the lazaret still existed, and that its sole inhabitant was named Victor Gorenhoff, a solitary drayman who worked for the Benson Brewery, delivering beer to public houses in Hampshire, Berkshire and Surrey, the same three counties from which the children had been abducted . . .

Part 3: The Raid on Railroad Heath

Scarecrow coverDid you enjoy this? If so, the third ebook edition of my debut novel, Scarecrow, is due to be released in December. From now until then, it can be pre-ordered here for the bargain price of £0.99.

For all of you that have come to my work through my blog and its local history project, I can promise you that Scarecrow is written in the same punchy, fast-moving prose style and is equally dark and intriguing . . .

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