The 1919 Forest Gate murders

Wednesday 8 March 2017

Henry Perry, aka Beckett, was executed by hanging at Pentonville jail on 10 July 1919 for the murder of four members of the Cornish family, of 13 Stukeley Road - and so became the last person judicially executed for  Forest Gate-related killings.

Police photograph of Henry Perry
The circumstances were gruesome, and there was no disputing the fact that Perry killed mother Alice Mary (43), husband Walter Frank (47) and children Alice Beatrice Dorothy (14) and Marie (6) Cornish brutally, with an axe and hammer, in their own home. But even in an era of capital punishment, was hanging an appropriate sentence?

John Ellis, Perry's hangman
Thirty-seven at the time of the killings, Perry was born in Chatham in 1882, the illegitimate son of Polly Perry. His father was a sailor, who died when Henry was young.  His mother subsequently married a hawker named William Beckett.  Henry used this name throughout his adult life, but sometimes reverted to Perry, when he was in trouble.

In his statement to the police, after his arrest for the murders, Perry said that the family travelled the country in a caravan in his youth, although East Anglia was their home base. He became a slater, as a young man, and joined the 3rd Suffolk regiment, attached to the Army Veterinary Corps, in Bury St Edmunds on 29 November 1916. He saw service in Egypt and Palestine during World War 1 and ended back in England in February 1919.

Above - the Cornish family, all murdered by
Beckett.  Below, the memorial card for their funeral.

Perry was given £5 by the army in Bury St Edmunds on his return home, but was not discharged from the service, as questions remained over his status: whether he was entitled to prisoner of war payments, or whether he had deserted the army.
By his own testimony, he soon made his way to his step-aunt, Alice Cornish, in Stukeley Road, Forest Gate. He was made very welcome and stayed for about two weeks.

Location of the killings:
13 Stukeley Road, today
While with the family he met Mrs Henrietta Emmiline Sparks (known as Ettie), a war widow with a two-year old daughter, from Neville Road, Forest Gate. In her statement to the police, following the murders, she said she had only known Perry for three weeks and that he had war wounds in his head and legs and suffered from headaches when it rained.

Banns for their marriage were put up at St Antony's church in what was then called Khedive Road, with a wedding date set of 7 May. He was Catholic and she said she was converting to Catholicism, as a result, as was the practice at the time.

She concluded her first statement to the police by saying: "I did not know very much about him."

On 28 April Perry returned to the Cornish family's home and brutally, one-by-one, battered the four members to death with an axe and a hammer. He stole a small sum of money (about £4) and fled the house.

Perry's detailed file remains in the National Archives, at Kew (ref: MEPO 3/262A), having been kept under wraps for 75 years. It reveals that the police were quickly on to the murders and interviewed a large number of local people, who had witnessed some of the events subsequent to the killings - such as his flight.

In issuing a statement and "wanted "notice for him, the police described him as insane and said they thought he had probably committed suicide following the murders. They said he was: "About 5'5", complexion fresh, dark brown hair, blue eyes, heavy dark waxed moustache, khaki uniform, no overcoat, black leggings and boots."

Police description of Perry, as
 published by the Stratford Express 
One of the key witnesses was local girl, 13-year old Elizabeth Cordee. She described him as: "Short with a brown moustache, with something of the appearance of a gipsy. having blood stained rags hanging from his clothes".

She said that she saw: "A soldier running out of Stukeley Road, where the Cornishes lived. The collar on his tunic was undone, his hands were covered in blood and his puttees (gaiters) were coming undone."  She stated that she had seen him the previous day with Mrs Cornish and her two children.

There was a hue and cry, and as a result Perry was caught a few days later on Barking Road, East Ham. He was charged with the murders. He was found guilty of them a month later at the Old Bailey, had his appeal rejected and was hung on 10 July - less than six months after his return to England, from serving in the Middle East.

Arresting officer, Special
Constable William James Green
The facts, above, are indisputable - and seem clear cut enough. But they omit significant details of Perry's pre-war life and his army experience, which makes the appropriateness of the death sentence considerably less clear. 

They also omit some crucial testimony heard by the jury, before its ten minutes of deliberation resulted in his death sentence and by the judges who sat on his appeal hearing. These would probably be given a more sympathetic hearing in a court of law today.

Perry's background

It emerged during the trial that Perry's relatively late call up to army service, in November 1916, was because he had only been released from five years hard labour the day prior to his enlistment, for a crime of violence.

The court was told that he had: "spent most of his life in prison" - having been convicted seventeen times - including two previous terms of hard labour (penal servitude, as it was known), for crimes of violence and for breaking and entering houses and shops (see extracts from his police records, below). "He was well known to the police all over England", the jury was told.

Extract from Perry's police records.
  Source: National Archives
This record as "a jail bird" clearly weighed heavily in pronouncing  a death sentence. His army service, less so.

In his lengthy statement to the police, read out in court, Perry described how after enlisting he was posted to the Middle East, and that he had had "got lost" looking for water, while with his army unit in Palestine.

He was subsequently shot in the leg before being taken as a Prisoner of War, by Turkish troops, when he contracted typhoid. He was then taken to Damascus and joined a working party of prisoners, where he was beaten and tortured by Turkish soldiers.

The torture included a "bastinadoing sesh" (where the soles of feet are whipped), after which he was struck on the head with a rifle butt, before being held up in a dungeon.  He also suffered from head injuries, allegedly caused by shrapnel imbedded in his brain, and later contracted syphilis.

As a result of these experiences, he said at the trial that it was voices in his head that told him to commit the murders.

He pleaded not guilty of them, by dint of his insanity.

The jury found him sane and guilty.

Although many WW1 soldiers were treated for "battle fatigue", Shell-Shock and hallucinations after witnessing terrible events in the conflict, the true effect on combatants' mental condition was little understood at the time, and rarely, if ever, held responsible for the victim's subsequent behaviour.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) only began to be understood and taken seriously as an effect of war some 50 years later - during the Vietnam war.

The murderous events

There was little disputing the details of the killings at Perry's trial, with his statement and that of various witnesses and the police all re-enforcing each other, as accounts of the events. A brief summary follows.

When Perry got back to England in February 1919, he had difficulty in settling down. He moved from place to place, conning money from people. He tried to get money by deception from the army and was put in detention barracks for a few days for the offence.

He continued to drift through the country for days, before he moved in with his step-aunt, Alice Cornish, in Forest Gate, in March 1919.

After a couple of weeks with the Cornish family there was an argument and he was sent packing - not before he had arranged to marry Mrs Sparks, however. He continued to roam the country and returned to Forest Gate on the day of the murders.

He passed the Cornish's house in the early afternoon of 28 April, having had a drink, and was invited in by Alice, who was alone. She appears to have continued with their previous argument and he struck her on the head with a poker and took her to the garden shed, to hide her body.

He cut one of her fingers off, and stole her wedding ring. She was not yet dead, so he hit her with a pick axe and returned to the house and got a carving  knife, which he used to stab her throat.

This would have been about 3 o'clock.

Perry waited until her younger daughter, Marie, aged 6,  returned from school and struck her on the head with a hammer, and then threw her down the stairs, to the cellar. Soon after, the older child, Alice, aged 14, came in from evening classes, and according to Perry: "I let her in. She went into the kitchen. I struck her on the head with a hammer. She fell down, and I then hit her on the throat with an axe and carried her into the cellar".

Perry then went upstairs in the house and stole a small amount of money, leaving behind a bank book with over £130 in the account. He then waited for Walter Cornish, the father, to return from his work as a decorator.

When Cornish came into the house, he went to the kitchen, unsuspecting of what had happened, and began to cook himself a meal. When he became aware of Perry's presence he wanted to know what he was doing in the house and threatened to call the police.

Perry hit him on the head with the axe and ran from the house.  Cornish was not killed instantaneously. A neighbour came to his rescue, and took him to hospital, in Stratford by bus (!).

Walter Cornish died later of the injuries sustained. 

Perry went into Stratford the next day and spent most of the money he had stolen from the Cornishes in kitting himself out in "civvies" - civilian clothes.

He was caught three days later in East Ham, having spent some of his time with a sailor, looting in the dockland areas.

Summary justice

Henry Perry was interviewed by the police on 2 May and had his first court appearance at West Ham Police Court [ed: former name for magistrates court] the following day.  He was detained in police cells until his committal appearance at the court on 9 May. Press reports say that he was shielded by the police on his way into and out of court: "From large and hostile crowds" who had gathered outside.

The case against him, as outlined above, was heard by the court. He pleaded insanity.

Mr Justice Darling - judge
at Perry's Old Bailey trial
The prosecuting solicitor said that his motive for the murders was: "That he had been short of money and that obtaining this (the less than £4 that he stole) was the object of the accuser's attack." [ed: At no point during the trial or appeal does the defence appear to question that if this was the case why Perry had not run off after he had stolen the money, but instead waited until the fourth member of the family returned, so that he could kill him].

His case was referred to the Old Bailey for trial on 27 May, where it lasted two days. He appeared before Mr Justice Darling (see photograph), who had previously sat on - and rejected - appeals from infamous prisoners Dr Crippen and Roger Casement.

The Old Bailey - location
 of the Perry trial
The case against him, as outlined above, was presented.

Perry/Beckett, in support of his plea of insanity, told the court that he had suffered nightmares as a result of the torture and treatment by the Turkish troops. He said he had dreams, in which, in the presence of his mother, he committed horrible deeds. He constantly heard voices commanding him to do things and was drawn to his crime by those voices.

According to press reports: "In relating this, the prisoner wept bitterly."

His defence lawyer described him as: "An epileptic subject and suffered from hallucinations". In support of the insanity plea, he called three expert witnesses: Sir Robert Armstrong-Jones, Mr William Henry Butter-Stoddard and Mr Herbert Norman.

Police files in the National Archives described the witnesses as: "Three eminent specialists in diseases of the mind".
They stated that they had each examined the prisoner at Brixton Prison and had come to the conclusion that he is a man of unstable mind and in their opinion an epileptic subject. The attacks of epilepsy would seize upon him at irregular periods and when under the influence of this disease he would be irresponsible for his actions.
Sir Robert Armstrong Jones, for 20 years the superintendent of Claybury Asylum, said he found the prisoner solemn and that as a result of his treatment at the hands of the Turks he was: "Irresponsible and morose".

He said he considered the prisoner to be: 
A congenitally unstable person and was now suffering aural hallucinations which were dominating, tyrannical and relentless. He did not think that such a man could appreciate the nature and quality of his act.
Dr Norman, senior assistant medical officer at Camberwell House asylum,  said he: "Did not consider Beckett was capable of judging between right and wrong, when he committed the act."

Dr Stoddard, said that he considered Beckett to be suffering: " From mental deficiency and epileptic insanity."

Mr William David Hickson, Doctor at Brixton Prisoner was called to rebut the evidence and stated that he: "Had had the prisoner under observation since arrest and had failed to find that he was suffering from this complaint."

The prosecutor, Percival Clarke, who is not thought to have been tortured and incarcerated by Turkish forces during WW1, said:
The war has done great good for some persons. It has taught them discipline, and made honest and honourable men of people who started badly. But the brutalities of war may have made more vicious a person who was vicious before.
The press, at the time, considered this to be the damning indictment that was to convict Perry. The jury was out for less than 10 minutes, ignored his plea of insanity and found him guilty.

The judge, Mr Justice Darling, had no option but to pronounce the death sentence
He said the he considered that:
The acts of the prisoner were consistent with the acts of a sane man of a criminally brutal disposition. The jury had not the definite evidence that the man had suffered from epileptic fits, or that he was suffering from an epileptic seizure, when he committed the crimes.
 The medical evidence relied entirely on the theories formed from statements made to the doctors and on their observations of the man. No one could apparently distinguish, or give a test which would enable the court to distinguish between the sane and the insane with any certainty.
Darling left little optimism for a successful appeal. He said that he: "Held no hope for the prisoner," and added that he had: " Never heard a case tried in which the circumstances were more horrible."

Perry did appeal against sentence and conviction on grounds of his insanity and his case was heard before the Lord Chief Justice of England and two other judges  a month later, on 26 June.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Rufus Issacs,
 judge who rejected Perry's appeal
The Lord Chief Justice Sir Rufus Isaacs had previously (1910 - 1913) been the Attorney General. He was later to become Viceroy to India (1921 - 1925), and was created Marquess of Reading in 1926. He was the first Jewish Lord Chief Justice.

According to the National Archives, evidence of Perry's half-sisters (Lovey Nark -(! sic) - and Bella Bird) as well as other family members, who had no liking or sympathy for him, attested to his "epilepsy", at the appeal. They described his as dishonest and violent.

Major Stewart, joint Honorary Secretary of the Suffolk Prisoners of War Help Committee gave evidence to the effect that when Perry called upon him at the end of March 1919 for help, he considered him to be: "Strange in the mind."

He said that he: "Formed the impression the man was quite wrong in the head and not knowing anything of him, thought it was as a result of treatment he received as a prisoner of war."

Dr Theophilus Hyslop, lecturer in medical diseases at St Mary's hospital and former senior physician at Bethlem Hospital, made a prolonged examination of Perry in Pentonville on 20 June and: "Concluded he was of unsound mind and understanding". When asked why, he said that he felt Perry was: "Insane since the wounds (received during the war)".

He said that Perry was:
Suffering from a form of insanity and homicidal mania at the time of the murders, and he did not know the difference between right and wrong.
Had (I) been consulted on the matter before it came into the hands of the police, it would have been a case in which (I) would have recommended an operation of the injured area of the the man's skull. The appellant is insane now; and had organised delusions and he had hallucinations and visions. 
The state of his epilepsy would lead to alternately forgetting and remembering what he had done. The appellant said to (me) that he did not know anything about the murders and did not believe he had done them. 

Dr Dyer, Chief Medical Officer of Prisons, also gave evidence, producing Perry's records from time he spent in time an prison in Dartmoor, indicating that he had had epileptic fits while incarcerated there.

This evidence cut no ice with the judges.  According to Archives records:
The learned judges stated that there was no evidence before them that at the time the prisoner committed the acts he was not in a sane state of mind; moreover, everything the prisoner did at the time and afterwards was what would have been expected from a sane man who was vicious and brutal enough to do such acts, and dismissed the appeal.
The Lord Chief Justice added that the Home Secretary could have the prisoner examined and could act according to the results of such examination.
The Archives include a letter dated 7 July 1919 (see photocopy) stating that : "The enquiry was unable to find any grounds to justify (The Home Secretary) in advising His Majesty to interfere with the due course of law."

Letter from Metropolitan Commissioner
 of Police, advising of the Home Secretary's
 decision not to overturn the death sentence.
Source: National Archives
The end for Perry and his victims

Perry was hanged by John Ellis and William Willis on 10 July 1919 in Pentonville. 

Pentonville prison, location of Perry's execution
There was an inquest, according to press reports:
Dr Perry Mander, the prison medical officer stated at the inquest that he was given a drop of 7 feet 11.5 inches and that death was instantaneous. Only about half a minute elapsed between the prisoner leaving the condemned cell and death taking place.
 The jury found that Beckett had been duly executed, according to the law.

Perry's end, according to the
Stratford Express, 12 July 1919
The Cornish family victims are buried in Woodgrange Park cemetery. The Stratford Express reported that there were "crowds of thousands at the burial on 6 May.

Footnote: the state of knowledge of PTSD at the time of the murders

It's one thing to look at the Perry case in horror through a 2017 perspective, but what was the contemporaneous and local perspective view of PTSD?

Local historian, Mark Gorman investigates and has found  “Shell shock”  was identified from early 1915. Frequent local press reports and listings amongst casualties mentioned it. Treatment by hypnotic therapy being tried as early as May 1915, according to The Globe 27 May 1915).

The Essex Newsman referenced "Shell Shock" in a number of reports: 
  • 'Shell shock in London due to air raids is more widespread than widely known, says Mental After-Care Association'. 9 Mar 1918.
  • 'Ex-soldier charged with scalding child – suffered from Shell Shock. While drunk, he assaulted his wife'. 4 Jan 1919.
  • 'In a case of assault on police at Epping, a medical witness said combination of Shell Shock and alcohol meant loss of memory and “all control of himself”.' 8 Feb 1919.
  • 'East Ham War Pensions Disablement committee meeting heard of poor conditions for local men suffering from Shell Shock in Essex County Asylum at Chelmsford. No treatment given for Shell Shock and men said that if they didn’t get treatment they would end up as madmen like the other patients. Superintendent denied lack of food and said it was a mental hospital, not an asylum.' 20 Feb 1919.
  • Advert for tonic in the paper 10 May 1919: "...although the continuous fire of our own guns was deafening, and so bad that heaps of chaps got knocked out by Shell-Shock etc., I never felt a bit the worse, thanks to Phosferine”.
Essex Newsman advert for Phosferine
treatment for Shell-Shock, 1919

  • 'Soldier stole money from Gas Light and Coke Co. in Leyton. Suffered from Shell-Shock. “He only knew he was doing wrong, but his will, power was not strong enough to go against it”. Jury found him guilty, with recommendation for mercy. 5 July 1919.
So, although Shell-Shock was understood at the time of Perry's trial, no sympathy was shown to him. Perhaps this is explained by his previous criminal record and a discriminatory attitude to "travellers"?

Whatever the explanation, it is difficult to believe that a less callous interpretation would be placed on these, admittedly horrific, killings today.

1 comment:

  1. I have just received an e.mail from one of the grandchildren of William Perry the arresting officer in this case, authenticating the article above, and adding a little grisly detail: "I found your article on Henry. Perry the Forest Gate murderer very interesting. The arresting officer William Green was my grandfather and attended his hanging.Your account is pretty much as I recall grand-dad told us. He owned a shop on the Barking Road, recognised his description and asked a lady to mind the shop while he got on the bus and arrested him at a local railway station. The lady's fingers with the rings still on were in his army holdall.


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