Lost Leamore II: Death at the Black Horse

This article has its birth, like many other articles I have put on Wyrleyblog, in the records of the Walsall Coroner and so for that reason it was originally going to be placed under the ‘Tales from the Walsall Corner’ heading; however, as I read the case notes I also became intrigued by some of the incidental background to the story and, as such, I now intend to write two articles under a ‘Lost Leamore’ banner – the irony being part II will proceed part I.

The case that started it all dates to 1910 and is one of the first tackled by the newly appointed position of Walsall Coroner (it had formed a part of the south-east coroner’s district of Staffordshire until then), which was filled at that time by James Addison. The case dealt with a terrible and somewhat bizarre tragedy – the apparent suicide of publican Robert Walker Hall. Hall was the publican at the Black Horse in Leamore and when the incident occurred the ‘servant girl’, Elizabeth Stones, ran across the road to fetch the publican from the pub opposite – a pub also called the Black Horse. Initially I thought this was an error, as I only remember the Butler’s Arms being over the road from the Black Horse; however, it was the case that prior to the building of the Butler’s Arms the pub on that site had also been called the Black Horse. I was intrigued as to how this came about and the relationship between the two and this forms the basis of the part I.

Hall, it was later decided at inquest, shot himself with a miniature rifle; I had heard of such things but was intrigued as to what a miniature rifle actually is or was and, more so, why one was kept in the pantry of the pub in a loaded condition. Hall’s death was a little peculiar and not only do a few unanswered questions clearly remain, but I believe that something important and relevant was never even mentioned at the inquest: the Hall family is the subject of part II…

A view along the Harden Rd, Hall's Black Horse to the right c1920. (Walsall Local History Centre)

A view along the Bloxwich Rd, the Butler’s Arms to the right c1925. (Walsall Local History Centre).

Lost Leamore II: The Hall’s of the Black Horse
Robert Walker Hall was a Yorkshireman, being born in Skipton. His parents were James Hall and Ann Walker, hence his middle name, and they had married at Bingley church back in August 1845. Edward came along soon after his parents marriage, after which the family moved back to Skipton. Mary Jane was born in 1847 and she was followed by Elinor in 1849 and John, who would be involved later in the story, in 1851. The couple did have two more surviving children that decade: Elizabeth was born around the time that Britain entered the Crimean War and Sarah would be born as that War came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1856. I believe Mary Jane died in 1857, her loss may have been eased by the arrival of James William in 1860 and Robert, seemingly the baby of the family, in 1862.

James Hall was described as a joiner in 1851, which is why perhaps Edward is an apprentice joiner in 1861 – although James had become a ‘surveyor’ by this stage. By 1871 the family have moved from Skipton to Bow Bridge in Embsay, where James Hall has become the ‘manager of a stone quarry’ – and this surely must have been the Haw Bank Rock quarry. All but four children have moved from the family home and those left are at school, apart from John Hall who has become an apprentice to an ironmonger.

1871 census for the Hall's at Embsay, Yorkshire. (National Archives)

1871 census for the Hall’s at Embsay, Yorkshire. Click to enlarge. (National Archives)

By 1881 the family, or what was left of the family I should say, had returned to Skipton. The versatile James had now become an ‘architect and surveyor’ and young James had followed suit. Robert, the only other of the children at home, now 18 years of age, had become a ‘currier’s apprentice’. This is interesting as it must be the reason, with the huge local leather trade, that Robert upped-sticks and moved down Walsall way in the first place. We know he is here by 1884 as he gets married, so it is likely he was in the area a year before that.

Robert Walker Hall, described as being from the Butts, walked down the aisle with May Brown at St Michael the Archangel’s church, Rushall, on 10 April 1884; however, there is some confusion over this that needs to be addressed straight away. Robert Walker actually married a Mary Ann Brown that day, which is shown by the church entry of the marriage and the General Register Office index.

Extract from Robert and May's marriage entry for Rushall - showing the name Mary. (Walsall LHC)

Extract from the marriage entry for Rushall – showing the name Mary. (Walsall LHC)

Mr James, the curate, ostentatiously filled her in as ‘Mary’ and she seems to have signed it in the same way; although it could be argued that the ‘r’ and the ‘y’ are close enough together to create a slight doubt and the signatures are too similar to those names entered by the curate – especially as May’s later signature is hardly a match. Further, take off the twenty years of her age at marriage, and the baptism and birth certificate for a Mary Ann Brown can be traced, but nothing can for a May Brown. Other inconsistencies included Robert’s age – he was 22, not 24 – and his father’s name was James and not Joseph, although he was an architect.

From the point of her marriage onward (as shown by the census returns), and certainly when dealing with the inquest and the Wolverhampton & Dudley Brewery, she refers and signs herself as May Hall. May and Mary are one and the same person: there is no second marriage and no death of a Mary Ann, further, she also states at the inquest that she and Robert had been married 26 years – which takes it back to 1884. It literally smacks of a clerical error to me, but otherwise the only reason I can moot for the change is that maybe, with her mother having the same name, she was called May as a nickname and it sort of stuck. For the purposes of this account she will be referred to as May.

May signs her inquest statement - saying they had been married 26 years (1884). (Walsall LHC)

May signs her inquest statement – which stated they had been married 26 years. (Walsall LHC)

May was the daughter of Aldridge couple Joseph and Mary Ann Brown; Mary was a dressmaker and Joseph was a currier. As stated, May was born in Aldridge and baptised at the church there, as Mary Ann, on 14 June 1863 and may well be the eldest of the couple’s children. Agnes followed on around 1868. By 1871 it seems that Joseph was also a shop keeper as well as a currier. By 1881, the couple had had at least two more children, Joseph (born 1872) and Elizabeth (born 1876). Joseph was now a general labourer, but on her marriage certificate in 1884 he was described as a coal merchant. Whatever he was, I can’t help feeling that it seems likely that Robert met May through the currier connection. May and Agnes were not to be found at home at the time of the 1881 census; I have a sneaking suspicion she was working as a housemaid in Edgbaston.

After their marriage, we cannot be certain of their movements until 1891 when the couple turn-up living at 195 Bloxwich Rd, Leamore. The couple already have a child at this stage, Sidney being born in 1886. Robert is a currier by profession and May has followed her mother and become a dressmaker.

The Hall's at 195 Bloxwich Rd, near the Black Horse, Leamore in 1891. (National Archives)

The Hall’s at 195 Bloxwich Rd, near the Black Horse, Leamore, in 1891. Their correct ages were shown – unlike at the inquest. (National Archives)

In 1892 the couple’s second child Mabel was born. The family then moved at some stage, but only to a new address further down the road – 131 Bloxwich Rd. It was here that they could be found in 1901. Robert, now actually 39, was still working as a currier and Sidney had become a tailor’s assistant. All looked well.

I can only make an educated guess at what happens next, please appreciate that. Following in the wake of the Boer War, a number of miniature rifle ranges begun to spring-up all over the place. This was due to exposing of the quality of British marksmanship during the conflict. A miniature rifle was a small-bore  (around .22 calibre) weapon designed for ranges from 10 – 100 yards – it could be used for ‘light sport’ and vermin killing, although I have seen this calibre described as a ‘toy’.

The Black Horse had a miniature rifle range by 1905 and their team they were shooting in the Walsall & District League – seemingly doing well enough. I wonder, as Hall lived nearby for way over 20 years, if he got himself a gun and joined the team – I know a ‘Hall’ represented Walsall in a shoot against Harborne when the range at the Station Inn at Brownhills opened in 1908 – I say this, because it would answer a few nagging questions that I have.

1900 25" OS Map showing the Black Horse Hotel and the rifle range behind the houses next to it. (Walsall Local History Centre)

1914 25″ OS Map showing the Black Horse Hotel and the rifle range behind the houses next to it.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The chief question is how or why Robert Hall ceases being a currier and takes over the running of the Black Horse Hotel on 5 November 1909? It would stand to reason that he was at least known in the pub in order for a new and seemingly inexperienced landlord to be taken on by the Wolverhampton & Dudley Brewery, and being in the shooting club may have been the introduction he needed. It would also answer why there was a loaded gun on the premises as well, although it seemed to pass at the inquest that the gun was for the use of the customers and no reason was ever given to May by Robert as to why it should be kept in the house. Curious.

The New Black Horse Hote, rebuilt in 1896, fallen on hard times and now demolished. (Stuart Williams)

The New Black Horse Hotel, rebuilt in 1899, but here fallen on hard times and now demolished. 
(Stuart Williams)

It may answer, in part, one other question. Young Sidney must have also used the rifle range – after all the purpose of the clubs was to train better ‘shooters’ for the armed services. On 23 April 1910, Sidney, now 6′ 1″ and aged 23, went to Birmingham to attest before moving down to London and formally joining up with the Grenadier Guards at Caterham on 26 April. The Grenadiers are the most senior of infantry regiment in the army (the most senior overall are the Life Guards).

At some stage the couple engaged a servant, the 17 year-old Lizzie Stones. This was to be the zenith in the fortunes of the Hall family, a few months later things began to fall apart…

It started on the afternoon of Tuesday 15 July. Robert had been down the cellar to fetch coal, as he had often done. He had bought up two buckets full, but May asked for another bucket of larger pieces and Robert agreed. The coals were kept at one end and it is likely he used the stair at that end, which was accessed near the pantry. May described the steps as ‘being nine of them, wooden and rather steep’. Robert slipped on the second step and fell to the bottom carrying the bucket, knocking his head on the steps and the floor.

Cellar plan of the Black Horse, suggesting the coals were accessed by the curving stair from near the pantry above. (Walsall LHC)

Cellar plan of the Black Horse, suggesting the coals were accessed by the curving stair from near the pantry above. (Walsall LHC)

May was at the top of the steps when he fell; she stated that he was stunned, replying faintly that he was fine and that it took him a few minutes to emerge. She went on to say the she ‘found he had a large swelling at the back of his head but the skin was not broken’. She poulticed the swelling and at this point she asked Robert to see a doctor; whether he didn’t want the expense – no NHS then – or was being a typical ‘no doctors me’ man, he shrugged it off with a ‘it will be all right’. A fateful mistake, maybe.

Over the next few days May continued to bathe it and the swelling gradually subsided, but May said he ‘complained of pains in his head’ and continually refused to see the doctor as it was ‘getting better’. She was concerned enough to write to Robert’s elder brother, John. John was now an ironmonger in Burnley. The actual contents of this letter are a mystery, as when asked later by the police to produce it John said it had been destroyed. May later claimed the letter simply asked John to come and talk to Robert in order to make him see a doctor.

Hall rose at 6.30 am on Wednesday 20 July, May testifying that he seemed all right and did not complain of any pains. He had a cup of tea and was seen at around 7.20 am by Lizzie Stones, she lodged at the Black Horse and described him as ‘cheerful and perfectly sober’. Either just before or just after his meeting with Lizzie, he returned to the bedroom with a cup of tea for his wife who had remained in bed. The two counted the takings from the day before, which were kept in a glass in the bedroom. Again, he then appeared ‘all-right’ according to May.

Sometime around 8 am, Hall opened the door to the postman and accepted a letter for his wife. He opened and read the letter, which had come from his brother in Burnley. They often read each other’s mail. The letter clearly referred to him, the injury from his fall and possibly his mental state. John’s letter was clearly responding to that of May’s earlier that week, and concerned in tone. Whatever May exactly said, John’s advice was ‘if his condition is as you state, why not consult a medical man and act on his advice?’ He also pointed out that ‘I had a letter from him only last week, all of which was rational’.

John's letter to May (Walsall Local History Centre)

John’s letter to May
(Walsall Local History Centre)

It was also clear that there was nothing suggestive in the letter as to John and May’s relationship, yet this letter was considered the catalyst in Robert’s self destruction and understandably so as, as soon as it passed it to his wife without comment, he went down to the pantry and apparently shot himself. The inquest was concerned with what had actually been in May’s letter, but neither she or John were definitive about its content and John of course claimed to have destroyed it.

Ground plan of the Black Horse Hotel, showing the small pantry room . (Walsall Local History Centre)

Ground plan of the Black Horse Hotel, showing the small pantry room .
(Walsall Local History Centre)

May heard a muffled sound, Lizzie Stone heard nothing. May, who was dressing at the time, called Lizzie to look for Robert as she feared he may have fallen again. Lizzie found him crumpled behind the door of the pantry and she originally thought he had fainted. May arrived and she tried to rouse him by shaking him, until she noticed the ‘bleeding from his nose and temple’. Lizzie Stones rushed to the publican of the Old Black Horse across the road, as he was a friend of Robert. Alfred Marshall sent for Dr Berry, who arrived at 8.35 am.

Berry ascertained that a single cartridge had been discharged. A small wound (remember this was a small-bore miniature rifle) was present on the right temple, bleeding; the discolouring around the wound indicated that the gun had been fired at close proximity. He removed Hall, who was still alive at this point, to the Walsall Hospital. He died soon after.

Berry then examined the gun and came to the conclusion that with its trigger-guard the gun could only be fired deliberately. The short nature of the rifle mean’t it could be held outwards and still fired, or rested on the floor and the trigger still reached. The wound being in the temple, the least protected part of the skull, added to his suicide theory – although the weakness of the calibre made death far from a certainty.

At the inquest a few days later, the jury passed a verdict of ‘suicide while the balance of the mind was disturbed’ – and while the letter was brought-up, it was deemed that the injury to his head from the fall was the cause of the ‘disturbance’. Let me say first of all that I do believe the unfortunate man took his life, but I am not convinced for the reason stated – although I realise that nothing is that simple: while it is clearly recorded that he did complain of pains after the incident, by the time of the suicide all were saying that he was all-right and even cheerful. Further, at the post-mortem, it was noted that the swelling and bruising caused by the fall was no longer apparent.

So if it wasn’t the head injury from the fall, what else could it have been? I believe that some of the obvious reasons can be discounted, he didn’t have money worries and his relationship with May was solid – indeed, she knew of nothing that was concerning him. Something that I did notice, however, was a near throw away comment made by May at the inquest itself that may suggest a deeper health issue ‘her husband had tumbled to the floor unconscious on more than one occasion’ – could it be this? I found it strange that no other statements were made other than by May, Lizzie and the doctor: daughter Mable was living at home at this stage, why was she not interviewed as to her father’s state of mind?

At this point I decided to follow-up on Sidney and what came to light made me feel that there could be a little more to the story than came out at the inquest. Sidney left the Grenadier Guards on 1 August 1910. His laconic service records simply states ‘inefficient’ and I put this down to the fact that his father had died so tragically just a week before through a firearm and he no longer had an appetite for the military.

Sidney Hall leaving the Grenadier Guards a week after his father's death - stated as inefficient. (National Archives)

Sidney Hall leaving the Grenadier Guards a week after his father’s death – stated as inefficient. (National Archives)

Sidney returned to the Black Horse and seemingly became a journeyman currier – although he may never have been engaged as such. The true meaning of ‘inefficient’ would soon come to light, when on 29 August 1910, less than a month after his discharge, Sidney Hall died at the age of 23 at the Black Horse Hotel. Sister Mabel signed the death certificate, which stated Sidney died of a cerebral glioma (brain tumour).

This tumour must have been diagnosed before his death, or an inquest would have been performed (any post mortem undertaken prior to 1926 automatically went to inquest). The fact that he was classed as fit to serve in April yet ‘inefficient’ on 1 August and dead by the 29 August showed that it was very aggressive. I wonder if Robert knew of this and his son’s prognosis, I also wonder if his own bouts of collapsing and unconsciousness made him suspect he was also ill and I also wonder if Sidney’s condition and Robert’s reaction to it was at the heart of May’s letter to John.

The story’s epilogue is at least more cheering. The pub was signed over by the Brewery to May Hall immediately after her husbands death – she being paid 30s a week to manage it. Whether she could or not, James Goodall, son of Thomas Goodall (once of the Lamp Tavern in Bloxwich) and also a victualler in his own right, moved into the Black Horse. Likely, the 26 year-old was already on very friendly terms with the 19 year-old Mabel as the couple married on 12 January 1911 at Christchurch, Blakenall Heath.

They were all to move out of the Black Horse in the February, leaving the tragic memories partially behind. Lizzie Stones stayed on for the new landlord, Hodges. On the 1911 census, a month or so later, they were operating the Swan Bank Tavern in Bilston. Thomas Goodall was running the Plough Inn on the High St. The couple had a family and ran the pub until 1939. I cannot trace May’s death.

Swan Bank Tavern, closed-up when I visited in 2011, was home to May and Mabel after the Black Horse at Leamore.

Swan Bank Tavern, closed-up when I visited in 2011, was home to May and Mabel after the Black Horse at Leamore.

And so my story of the Hall’s of the Black Horse at Leamore comes to a close. Both father and son were interred at Field Road cemetery in Bloxwich and this story is particularly dedicated to their memory. Sidney was just unlucky and we will never know why Robert chose his course of action, it could simply have been down to the cost of a doctor – and, as such, I would like to dedicate this article to our free National Health Service.

My thanks to:
Walsall Local History Centre
Pubs Galore http://www.pubsgalore.co.uk/
Stuart Williams
National Archives

  1. Jimbo smith says:

    Brilliant and well researched.


    Thanks for that lived in Leamore until 15 years ago and never knew this story

  3. Martin James Goodall says:

    James Goodall and his wife Mabel were my grandparents. She was known as Mabel (her middle name), but her first name was Eleanor. From surviving photographs she was a tall and beautiful woman, taller than James with striking red hair.

    James Goodall fought in WW1 in the Leicestershire Regiment and the last action he saw was at the famous battle of St Quentin Canal in September 1918. He survived the war.

    James and Mabel had 2 daughters, Dorothy and Elizabeth, before he was conscripted and a son, also named James, later in 1923. The baby was born in the Swan Bank Tavern.

    James and Mabel went on to manage the Villiers Arms in Bilston until his death in 1944. James is buried in Bilston Cemetery.

    James Goodall junior, my father, helped his mother Mabel manage the Villiers Arms for a few years after he was demobbed from the Royal Navy after WW2.

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