Weekend Review: Unravelling the story of a murder in Wisbech from 1933 and the mysterious appearance of a memorial plaque in Wisbech Park 77 years later

Sometimes, the past is uncomfortably close to the present. Even 80 years on from a tragedy, someone

Sometimes, the past is uncomfortably close to the present. Even 80 years on from a tragedy, someone was moved, on a September weekend in 2014, to reach out to the wider world with a reminder of what had happened to their family. - Credit: Archant

On the weekend of the 13th and 14th September 2014, something strange surfaced on social media. Someone reported a mysterious memorial which had been placed at the edge of Wisbech Park.

Sometimes, the past is uncomfortably close to the present. Even 80 years on from a tragedy, someone

Sometimes, the past is uncomfortably close to the present. Even 80 years on from a tragedy, someone was moved, on a September weekend in 2014, to reach out to the wider world with a reminder of what had happened to their family. - Credit: Archant

I went to have a look. It was in the shape of a fairly rough wooden cross, with a laminated printed message pinned to it. It read:

“In memory of Doris Florence Reeve, aged 24, who was murdered on this spot by her husband, Saturday 26th August 1933.”

Strangely, the sign was only there for a couple of days, but research in newspaper archives led me back over 80 years.

PART ONE


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It’s August 1933. The hit song of the year was Stormy Weather, sung by Ethel Waters. In cricket, England beat the West Indian touring side with ease. Ramsey MacDonald was Prime Minister, while Winston Churchill’s speeches warning of the dangers of German re-armament were being largely ignored.

In Wisbech, meanwhile, the local papers were full of the usual August speculation about the forthcoming harvest, and both the Advertiser and the Standard were running weekly updates on what looked like being a bumper year for Bramley apples.

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At the Electric Theatre in town, cinema audiences were preparing to be terrified by the forthcoming feature The Mummy – starring Boris Karloff.

But Wisbech folk were to have horror of a genuine kind delivered to their doorsteps very soon. In the early hours of Sunday morning, 27th August, the body of a young woman was found on the edge of Wisbech Park, lying face down in a pool of her own blood.

Two men who had been sleeping rough in the park raised the alarm, and the circumstances of this violent death were to shock local people to their very core. By good fortune, PC Hall was cycling along Park Avenue towards the Lynn Road, when the men shouted out to him that there was a dead woman lying on the grass.

PC Hall examined the body, and found that life was extinct. He sent for Dr Butterworth. He then noticed a trail of drops of blood heading away from the crime scene for about six yards in the direction of the hospital.

The young woman was soon identified, unofficially at first, as Doris Florence Reeve, aged 24. Her father, Alfred Albert Claude Reeve, of 21 Clarence Road, Wisbech, had the melancholy task of confirming that the dead woman was, indeed, his daughter.

As people gathered around the scene of the murder, none of them was to know that within a couple of hours, an equally macabre and disturbing discovery was to be made. Meanwhile, police had driven to the nearby village of Upwell, where Doris Reeve had been living with her husband Walter, aged 26. Getting no answer to their urgent knocking, the police forced their way in, but found the house empty.

Another Wisbech bobby, PC Howard was called, at about 10.30am on the Sunday morning, to be told that there was a man who appeared to have hanged himself in a railway carriage near Wisbech LNER Station. When he arrived, he found that the carriage was the middle one of three standing in a siding. It was possible to access the siding without going through the station.

He found a man hanging from a luggage rack, with a necktie and handkerchief used for the job. His feet were dragging on the ground, and his whole weight was on his neck.

His right hand was resting on the seat, next to a knife, and his body was stiff and cold. He was wearing a pair of light grey flannel trousers, a vest, and a shirt. Round his waist was a belt, with a sheath attached to it. The shirt was flecked with bloodstains, and there was a knife wound on the left side of his chest.

Tossed to one side in the carriage compartment were a jacket, waistcoat and hat. In his possession were a wallet, ten shillings in change and a drivers’ licence in the name of Walter Reeve, Low Side, Upwell.

So, the police had two dead bodies on their hands, and people were able to jump to their own conclusions about the circumstances of the deaths. It wasn’t until the inquest, however, that the full truth about the tragic events would be made public.

PART TWO

The inquest was held in the North Cambridgeshire Hospital, on Monday 28th August. The deaths of Doris and Walter Reeve had to be considered separately, but we can look at the evidence given in whatever order we choose.

Firstly, the grim physical details of the deaths. Dr Butterworth, when he examined Doris Reeve, had found an incised wound an inch long over her third left rib, and another wound of the same shape and size more round to the side and between her eighth and ninth ribs.

The wound over the third rib had been the fatal one, severing the pulmonary artery. The wounds had clearly been caused by small, but very sharp knife.

Walter Reeves had died as a result of strangulation, but it also seemed that he had tried to inflict wounds on himself with the knife which was found on the seat beside his body. The doctor and the police were able to confirm that this knife was the same one that killed Doris Reeve.

In order to establish the state of the relationship between Doris and Walter Reeve, Doris’s father was called to the witness stand.

He said that Doris had married Walter Reeve in January 1932, but the marriage was not one made in heaven. By June 1933 Doris had left their married home in Upwell, and moved back in with her parents, at 21 Clarence Road, Wisbech.

Doris’s father, giving evidence to the inquest, said that he had been largely unaware of events in his daughter’s life, as she was not in the habit of confiding in him. His first intimation that things were wrong was when he awoke from a nap one day to find Doris kneeling on the floor with her head in her mother’s lap. Doris still would not tell him what had happened, but Mrs Reeve senior told him that Walter had knocked Doris down, and taken money from her purse. He had only given her £1 for housekeeping that week rather than the usual 30 shillings.

Doris returned briefly to Upwell, but for the next week she would come home each night to Wisbech, her mother having given her the ‘bus fare. On the Tuesday, Doris’s father went to Upwell to confront his son in law. Walter Reeve was aggressive when spoken to, and accused Mr Reeve senior of only coming to provoke an argument.

When Doris’s husband was accused of carrying on with another woman, he replied, “I know I have – and I shall do again.” Later, Doris revealed that in addition to physically knocking her about, Walter had shown her a double barrelled shotgun, and threatened to first blow her head off, and then his own.

Eventually, later in June, Doris left Walter for good. Walter made several visits to the Clarence Road home, and was in turn, both threatening and playing the heartbroken husband. When Doris’ father said to Walter on one occasion, “You have turned out a rotter,” Walters answer was, “You will not let her come back, and you will regret this…”

So, what exactly happened on the evening of Saturday 26th August?

PC Howard, who was to discover Walter Reeve’s body in the railway carriage, was on duty in the early evening of the Saturday evening, and he saw Mr and Mrs Reeve standing in the High Street.

Mr Reeve had his hands in his pockets, and Mrs Reeve did not seem to be distressed in any way.

May Stimpson, of Norwich Road had known Doris as a friend since January. She was meant to meet Mrs Reeve at 7.00pm on the Saturday night, but she was not there on time.

Miss Stimpson began walking up Norfolk Street, and stopped outside a butcher shop to talk to another woman friend, when Mrs Reeve came rushing up. This was about 7.10pm. Mrs Reeve seemed in good spirits.

The three women then went to The Empire Theatre and came out about 10.45pm. They stood outside talking for a while, and Mrs Reeve still seemed cheerful, and had said nothing about any matrimonial troubles. Mrs Reeve and her friend, Mrs Reed, walked along towards Lynn Road, going via the Cannon Way rather than the dark and confined Scrimshaw’s Passage.

They said goodnight by Ames’s Garage. Mrs Reeve said goodnight to her friend, and then walked briskly off in the direction of her own home. That was the last time that anyone – with the exception of her husband – saw Doris Reeve alive.

And what had Walter Reeve been up to on the fatal evening? The court was told that he had no history of mental health problems and was a man of considerable bodily vigour and good health.

On the evening of the murder, he met with some friends in The Five Bells. They stayed drinking until about 10.00pm, when they went to Wombwell’s, a fish shop next to the Electric Theatre. They had a fish supper, and left about 10.40pm for Blackfriars Bridge, where they parted company.

One of the men with whom Reeve was drinking was asked if Reeve was the worse for wear, but he said, “No – he was very quiet, and he was normally quite jolly” The witness said that he knew divorce proceedings had been started between Mr and Mrs Reeve, and that Reeve had been seeing another woman.

Ernest Martin Henson, a garage proprietor, of Cannon Street Wisbech, said that he had been knocked up between 11.30 and 11.45 on the Saturday night. The man gave his name as Reeve, and said that he wanted to be taken to Upwell.

Henson said, “I suppose you know what the fare will be..?”

Reeve replied, “Four shillings.”

“No,” said Henson, “It’s twelve shillings and sixpence at this time of night.”

Reeve replied, in a very off-hand manner, “Oh, alright then.”

Henson took about five minutes to get dressed, went and got the car, but when he came to the front of the premises, there was no-one there. Henson waited for 45 minutes, but when no-one came, he went back to bed.

Two men who had been in the park on the fateful night had an interesting tale to tell. One of the men, called Nesbitt, saw a figure standing by a gate, but the man was doing nothing to attract attention.

Then Nesbitt heard groans, and said to his friend, “Come along, there is somebody there badly using a woman.” His friend said that it might only be a couple in a domestic dispute, and so they decided to let discretion be the better part of valour. The next day Nesbitt’s colleague said, “There has been a woman murdered over there,” and Nesbitt replied that he must have been correct all along the previous night.

In the coroner’s summing up, he said it was clear that Reeve had murdered his wife, and then done away with himself. He raised the question of Reeve’s sanity, saying there was no evidence of any mental health issues either in Reeve or his immediate family.

He did, refer, though, to the testimony of Reeve’s mother. She had said that even as a child, he had been possessed of a very violent temper. The coroner also said that if the jury felt that Reeve was out of his mind when he killed himself, they could hardly say that he was perfectly sane a short while earlier when he plunged the knife into his wife. He said that the reverse was also true.

The jury returned the obvious verdict of murder in the case of Doris Florence Reeve, and in the case of Walter Reeve, they asked that the archaic verdict of Felo de Se be placed on record. The Latin term literally means ‘felon of himself’, and in earlier times English common law considered suicide a crime and a person found guilty of it, even though dead, was subject to punishments including forfeiture of property to the monarch and being given a shameful burial.

FINAL PART

Regarding the burials of the two young people, shameful or otherwise, the Wisbech Advertiser had this to say in its edition of Friday 1st September.

Hundreds of people thronged the roads between St Augustine’s Church and the Borough Cemetery for the funeral on Thursday afternoon of Doris Florence Reeve, the victim of the murder in Wisberch Park on Saturday night.

Every spot in the church was occupied, and outside police had to keep the crowd under control for the passage of motor traffic. At the church, the service was conducted by the Rev W R S Wray, curate, and Mr L R Walker accompanied the hymn Abide with Me.

At mid-day on Thursday, the body of Walter Reeve was buried in a corner of Upwell Churchyard, the ceremony being attended by members of the family only. The coffin was not taken in by the main gate, but through a small gate leading to Small Lode. The last rites were conducted by the Rev A P Townley, the Rector of Upwell.

So ended a tragic affair but one which has lived long in the memories of present day members of the family of poor, murdered, Doris Reeve.

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