Finding ‘N’: The Pleck Canal Mystery, 1915

For those that have read my earlier article on the aeroplane crash in Ryecroft, this story also comes from the records of the Walsall Coroner. In my introduction to the Ryecroft article, I extolled the historical virtues of these records. Once you get over the fact that they deal with death,  you can often see within them a snapshot of the world that the deceased lived in. At Ryecroft we looked at caring community spirit and a Royal Flying Corps lacking in compassion. This time, using the Coroner’s papers alongside other sources, we can look a little more closely at how the Walsall Borough Police Force operated back in 1915.

Walsall Police Station, Goodhall St, prior to rebuilding in 1866. Bobbies pose 'naturally' for the photographer (Walsall Local History Centre)

Walsall Police Station, Goodhall St, prior to rebuilding in 1866. Bobbies pose ‘naturally’ for the photographer
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Today, with current scientific techniques and DNA profiling we find it hard to imagine that a person could be found dead and not be identified or reported as missing; indeed, anyone missing is posted on social media, television and newspapers all over the country within hours. This story revolves around the unidentified body of a woman found in the canal, by the Scarborough Road bridge, in the Pleck area of Walsall. This body was discovered by a child on 31 July 1915, so 99 years ago this very day. Now, 1915 was no ordinary year: it must be remembered that all of the events in this story are set against the backdrop of World War One and the effect that it had on the diversion of manpower and resources.

Scarborough Rd in 1915. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Scarborough Rd in 1915.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The Discovery of ‘N’
William Stubbs had been a police constable since passing his probationary period back in August 1900. The one-time bricklayer and labourer from Shenstone had settled down, married Sarah and had 11 children by 1911, although only 8 survived. Stubbs was in the Walsall Borough Police; one of 88 constables he carried PC 28 on his shoulder, although there were just 58 when he signed-up. He was stationed at the Pleck Police Station, which had opened in 1897 in a building rented from Showell’s Brewery, I believe on Wednesbury Rd. He himself lived at 14 Scarborough Rd and in 1915 he was too old to serve, as in was in his early forties. Little was he to know that the War would come to him though, just six months later his back windows were likely put through by an exploding Zeppelin bomb that landed on the then waste ground between Scarborough Road and the Woodward canal bridge.

What is clear is that he had left his house and was on duty when a little girl approached him at 8.30 am. The girl told him that she had seen a woman in the canal, just by the bridge that he himself lived by. The girl was never asked for a statement and, I assume, never received any counselling over her shocking discovery. Stubbs made his way to the bridge where he duly saw a woman floating on her side in the middle of the canal, 20 yards or so on the Walsall side of the bridge. He drew the body to the side with the aid of a boat-hook and thence onto the towing path.

The Scarborough Rd Canal Bridge, from around the point where 'N' was pulled from the water. 2014.

The Scarborough Rd Canal Bridge, from around the point where ‘N’ was pulled from the water. 2014.

In his report, Stubbs made a remark that today would seem ludicrous: it wasn’t, it just showed the differing worlds in such an English way. Bear in mind this woman could have been in the canal for days, Stubbs described the woman as ‘fully clothed, with the exception of a hat’. Back in 1915 hats were of course general wear; today, the car has really put paid to them. Stubbs then sent for the Police ambulance. It is unclear as to what this ambulance would have actually been. We know the Corporation (Walsall Council, and of which the Police were a part) had a horse-drawn ambulance, but in this case this ambulance may have simply been a hand-cart.

Stubbs, with assistance, took the body to the mortuary. Stubbs’ final involvement in the case, other than appearing at the inquest, was to search the clothing of the dead woman. Stubbs would find a 1/- coin, two  tram tickets  and two white handkerchiefs, one of which was marked with an ‘N’. The two tram tickets were intriguing: the woman was later described as being of ‘the vagrant class’, but these tickets were from the Bristol Tramway and Carriage Company. It would also emerge at the first inquest that ‘N’ was wearing a pair of gold ear-rings and a brass wedding ring. Nobody had yet reported their wife or mother as missing.

The body was then examined by Dr Harry Shore, from Arboretum Rd, Walsall. Post-mortem reports back in 1915 were hardly exhaustive and Shore opened his report with his external observations. ‘N’, he reported, was a well-nourished female, around 5ft in height and around 40-45 years of age. Her features were bloated, on account of her being in the canal for two to three days, but there was no decomposition. Her hands were slightly clenched and ashen-grey in colour. He went on to say there were no external bruises other than a slight contusion and scratches to the nose. Her hair was matted together by mud.  The internal observations, not surprisingly, showed the presence of water in the lungs and her liver was hard, suggesting that ‘N’ liked more than the odd drink.

Dr Shaw's external observations on 'N' (Walsall Local History Centre)

Dr Shore’s external observations on ‘N’
(Walsall Local History Centre)

On the 7 August 1915 the first inquest was held at the Guildhall in Walsall, under the guardianship of Mr J F Addison, the Borough Coroner. This was simply a forum for Stubbs and then Shore to present their evidence. The Coroner pressed Shore on the issue of the causation of ‘N’s’ death and Shore was adamant in his reply that in his opinion, ‘death was brought about by suffocation from drowning’. Foul play was not suspected. Addison wound-up the proceedings by adjourning the inquest until 8 September in order for the Police to discover the identity of ‘N’, as still nobody had reported her missing.

Identifying ‘N’
And so the focus moved back to the Police. They had a month to try to crack ‘N’s’ identity. Enter Sergeant James Shepard, the liaison officer between the police and the Walsall Coroner’s office. Shepard, born in 1867 and originally from Newport on the Isle of Wight, had been a sergeant for 15 years, having passed his probation to become a constable back in 1897. We know that Shepard was a musician, as the only black-mark against him was that he had once turned-up to play for the police band while drunk! Shepard was married to Charlotte and had three surviving children, having lost one. He himself lived just up the Wednesbury Road, not far from Scarborough Rd. It would be him that presented the police findings at the second inquest.

The first task was to try and spread the word and this was done through photography.  The Victorians were not adverse to taking photographs, including family portraits, of the dead; indeed, posing them so they appeared to be alive. This is somewhat macabre practice may offend modern day mores, but would offer a practical solution to opening out the search for ‘N’s’ identity. Both victims of the Titanic in 1912 and those of the Lusitania in May 1915 would be photographed. The reason was simple, the bodies were of course in a different country to the families of many of the victims and it was the only way to bring the dead and the families together. ‘N’ was a more local example. We know she was photographed and a copy of the photograph was dispatched to every police station in the midland area, along with a full description of the deceased. Not only this, but the police had their own publication, unimaginatively called The Police Gazette. This too was used to ‘advertise’ unidentified bodies. It is more than likely that ‘N’ found her way into this publication. I will check the likely editions the next time I am at the British Library.

The Titanic. victims were photographed for identification purposes (PA)

The Titanic. Victims were photographed for identification purposes

Based on the fact that ‘N’s’ liver was enlarged, which Dr Shore put down to alcoholism, Shepard next instigated a sweep of the pubs in the vicinity of where the body was found. We do not know which pubs were visited nor what that vicinity actually was. The build up of houses on the Darlaston Road, Scarborough Road and much of the Pleck area was actually a recent thing and there were not many pubs. The Four Horseshoes would have been close-by on Wellington Street and then the Globe heading out towards Darlaston; slightly further afield would have been the Brown Lion on the Wednesbury Road, the Bradford Arms and those on the Pleck Road, as well as the Forge Hammer on Rollingmill St, which was just off the canal. Nobody recognised ‘N’.

Now I may be reading too much into the scant evidence provided, but considering the body had been in the canal for a couple of days and we are not sure how far it may have drifted, if at all, I would suspect that Shepard had visited more public houses that just those close to the bridge; I would guess those further-up the canal would also have been visited. The fact that she was described as alcoholic, but none of publicans or any of the Borough Police (arrested for drunk and disorderly or foul language for example) recognised her suggests to me that, in conjunction with the Bristol tram tickets, that she wasn’t from Walsall.

The actual tram tickets found on 'N' (Walsall Local History Centre)

The actual tram tickets found on ‘N’
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Either because he agreed, or he ran out of options, Shepard turned his attention to the that notion. First, he toured the common lodging houses in the area, but again, to no avail. He then went to the Smith’s Flour Mills on Wolverhampton St, under the Birchills locks, and interviewed the boatmen. While the mill received boats from the Bristol and Gloucester area, none had come to the mill for a week prior to the discovery of the body. We do know Shepard made further enquiries with ‘boatmen’, although we have no idea as to how these were conducted and to whom; all we know is that the result was the same, fruitless.

Attentions also turned to Bristol and Gloucester themselves. The Coroner wrote to the Bristol Tramway and Carriage Company regarding the dates of the issuing of the two tickets. The company duly obliged. Ticket Cg0652 was a 1d ticket, covering a journey from Newfoundland Road/St Nicholas Rd to Ashley Down Road: and this was issued on 4 July 1915. The second ticket, Ky6161, also a 1d ticket, covered the Tramways Centre to Joint Station: this was issued on 20 July 1915. This shows that ‘N’ was in Bristol for at least 16 days prior to her death.

The reply to the Walsall Coroner from the bristol Tramways Company (Walsall Local History Centre)

The reply to the Walsall Coroner from the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The Chief Constable of Walsall then wrote to his counterparts in the Bristol and Gloucester forces, no doubt including the photographs and description. We only know from the report of the inquest in the Walsall Observer the rough outcome of their enquiries; Bristol replied that ‘no information respecting the deceased can be obtained in this city’ and Gloucester were unable to help having ‘heard of no one being missing’.

Letter to the Coroner from the Chief Constable regarding enquiries at Bristol and Gloucester  (Walsall Local History Centre)

Letter to the Coroner from the Chief Constable regarding enquiries at Bristol and Gloucester
(Walsall Local History Centre)

It seemed that what was needed was either a stroke of luck, or a miracle. Neither would arrive as the day of the inquest arrived and past. With no evidence of foul play and no identification of the body, the jury had no option but to find a verdict of ‘found drowned’.  ‘N’ was to be buried at public expense at Ryecroft Cemetery. There is of course no headstone and the entry in the cemetery register simply reads ‘woman, unknown’.

The second inquest, 8 September 1915. No late evidence arrived - the verdict was simply 'Found Drowned'. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The second inquest, 8 September 1915. No late evidence arrived – the verdict was simply ‘Found Drowned’.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

And so ‘N’ passes into oblivion, seemingly lost and unremembered. With no evidence of foul play, you get the feeling that she was simply written-off as just a vagrant drunk that simply had a pop too many and fell into the canal. If it were only that simple. Why did nobody know her? What was she doing drunk on a Pleck canal towpath? Why was she unreported? What was she doing in Bristol? Had she even been drinking that night?

Let me pose this and please, just indulge me. Imagine a 45 year-old miner from Lancashire who signs-up to become a tunneller as the nation appeals for such skilled men. He goes to France where he is hurt badly and evacuated back to Blighty, arriving at one of the war hospitals in Bristol. His wife, with little money, goes to Bristol the cheapest way possible, by canal. She watches him eke out the last of his life over three weeks and her thoughts turn to her two sons, who were also at the front. She intends to return to Lancashire on the boat, but has a drink too many and slips, un-noticed by the skipper, from the boat into the water, or falls on the canal towpath after the boat stopped for the night, matting her hair with mud. The boatmen, fearful of accusations either keep quiet and dump her few possessions, or are up in Lancashire, oblivious of her fate and beyond the Walsall Police Force. Her sons are in the army and no photograph ever reached a police station that far north, so nothing is reported.

If this scenario was true, would you feel differently about her and would you begrudge her a ‘pop too many’? We have no right to judge without the facts.

This article is dedicated to who else, but ‘N’

My thanks, as ever, to:
The Walsall Local History Centre
Ordnance Survey
Walsall Observer
The Press Association


  1. peter walker says:

    born in the pleck in 1947 my dad used to tell me of this tale,was always fascinated by it thanks for posting it

  2. Clive says:

    Poor women “N” you could make a film out of that mystery mate.

  3. Rosemary Cleobury says:

    Fascinating reading! I lived at 23, Scarborough Road until I was six years old, and had other family members living in the street at number 5, and I think, number 28.

  4. […] has other great recent articles – one on an interesting bit of detective work in Walsall after a body was fopund in the canal at Pleck in 1915, and on the history of Highfields House in Bloxwich (Highfields is a remarkably common name, it […]

  5. sandra says:

    quite sad really, she must of belonged to someone. very interesting to read

  6. Yes, poor woman, she was born somewhere, grew up somewhere and yes, she must have belonged to someone, had family somewhere but left this world without her identity being known. Jerome K Jerome mentions a similar event in ‘Three Men In A Boat’.

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