Bensley Cyrus Lawrence - Murdered
Born on 17 April 1834 in Shropham, Norfolk, to William and Lydia Lawrence, Bensley married Maria Twigg in 1858 in Snetterton, Norfolk. He’d been employed by the Baltic Saw Mills in Goods Station Road for 6 years, having moved to Mercer Street in Tunbridge Wells from Bury St Edmunds with his wife and children. He was an engine driver and timekeeper, working for the manager, Mr Potter.
At about 9.45pm on Friday 20 July 1888 he was at home with his family when a man knocked on the back door saying that Mr Potter needed him at the mill. He put on his boots and went with the man - witnesses said they were seen standing opposite the mill in a pathway at 10.40pm.
Shortly after 11pm a pistol shot was heard and Bensley was found bleeding from a wound above his left ear. The pistol wasn’t found. He was carried home and taken to Tunbridge Wells Hospital where he never regained consciousness, dying the following afternoon, his wife by his side.
Tunbridge Wells was shocked at the news as it had been 21 years since such an event had happened in the town. The local newspapers reported he was a stoutish built man and a jolly looking chap who left a family of 3 boys and 3 girls.
His funeral took place the following week. The saw mills were closed and its employees attended along with ‘a vast concourse of spectators’. The Chaplain performed a Church of England ceremony and the coffin was covered in a black cloth.
In a letter from the Town Hall to the Home Office dated 28 July 1888, Mr Cripps, the town solicitor and clerk, wrote “nothing whatsoever has been discovered, in spite of the most strenuous enquiries, to show any adequate motive for the crime and though suspicion has fallen upon one or two person there is nothing sufficiently strong to warrant an arrest being made.”
On 11 August 1888, the Tunbridge Wells Local Board wrote to the Home Office informing them that a reward of £100 had been offered by the mill for information leading to a conviction – “it is considered by them and by the Police as almost a certainty that two men were concerned in the murder.
The Bill offering the reward has been extensively posted throughout the surrounding District and the Metropolis and has been advertised in the Police Gazette”. It read:
£ 100 REWARD KENT. 1.— TUNBRIDGE WELLS ( Borough) — Whereas on the night of 20th July, 1888, Bensley Cyrus Lawrence, an Engine Driver, was shot in the head with a pistol, near the Baltic Saw Mills, Goods Station Road, Tunbridge Wells, and died from the wound on the following day.
An inquest has been held, and a verdict of Wilful Murder returned against some person or persons unknown. £100 Reward will be paid by the Baltic Saw Mills Company, to any person giving such information as will lead to the arrest and conviction of the offender or offenders. Information to Supt. Embery, Town Hall, Tunbridge Wells.
The ongoing investigation into the case coincided with the 5 murders attributed to Jack the Ripper from August to November 1888. The Tunbridge Wells Advertiser received a letter signed ‘Another Whitechapel Murderer’ on 27 September 1888, in which the author wrote “I beg to state that all the evidence given at the inquest [was] utterly false”. The police considered the letter to be a hoax.
No progress was made until 11 October 1888 when 18 year old William Gower confessed to Walter Cottrill, a Salvation Army Captain. He was reported to have said “there has been something bad done in Tunbridge Wells but that me and my mate have been at the bottom of, we have been two bad characters. Me and my mate did it” (his mate being 17 year old Joseph Dobell).
The following day, Mr Cripps wrote to the Home Office stating “two men are in custody charged with committing this murder and there is but little doubt of their guilt”. It was said that they shot Bensley out of spite or revenge as they thought he was a ‘Master’s Man’, having fined Gower one penny for being late to work several times.
At their trial, the Judge commented “a more deliberate murder can scarcely be conceived. The two seem to have been reading about the exploits of notorious criminals and to have had their boyish imaginations carried away and to have conceived the ambition of themselves becoming great criminals and they resolved to begin their career by murder. They must be thoroughly bad fellows”.
They were both sentenced to hang. Petitions were sent to the Home Office with signatories from across the South East requesting that the sentence was changed to Penal Servitude since they were “victims of sustained and corrupt literature, their boyish imaginations being utterly demoralised and distorted” (‘Penny Horribles’ were found in Dobell’s pocket when he was arrested).
The petitions were in vain and they were hanged on 2 January 1889 at Maidstone Gaol. At 17 years old, Charles Dobell was the last person under the age of 18 to be hanged, the event being reported in newspapers across the country.
The National Archives -
Police Gazette, 10 August 1888
Aberystwyth Observer, 5 January 1889
Hollingsworth, J P, Some True Tales of Murder in Kent, Stenlake Publishing Ltd, 1st ed., 2000