Mr. G. H. Storrs

The Riddle of Gorse Hall

“Just a moment, Mary. I want to have a word with you.”

The speaker was George Henry Storrs, a rich contractor, and the house, Gorse Hall, a lonely mansion at the boundary line which divides Stalybridge from Dukinfield.

Mary Lindley, who was the adopted daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Storrs, looked at Mr. Storrs in surprise, almost in alarm. There was a strange, absorbed look in his face which was new to her.

The hour was late. The girl had been to the theatre and she did not expect to see any person but a servant. Mr. Storrs had come from the dining room and had met her in the hall.

“Come in here,” said he, pointing to the dining room. She followed him in trepidation.

“Good heavens, father!” she cried, when in the room. “What has happened? Who did that?”

She pointed to the window. One of the panes was shattered.

“That’s what I want to speak to you about. Sit down. Your mother and I were sitting here talking when we heard the report of a gun and the smashing of glass. The shot had hit the window and then came a man’s voice shouting, ‘Hands up!’”

“How terrible!. What did you do?”

“What could we do? The night was dark. The shot might have struck the house by accident.”

“Who was the person threatened?”

“How can I tell? Your mother was frightfully upset and I would not discuss the matter with her. You know the weak state of her nerves.”

“Yes, indeed. But are you sure your life was not in danger?”

“I don’t think so. Still …”

“Have you had any trouble with any of your men?”

“No​—​that is, no serious trouble. Certainly there are two men who I’ve sometimes thought bore me a grudge, but I won’t mention names.”

“You ought to do so, father, for your own sake.”

“No. I’ll write them down if you give me your word to keep them to yourself.”

Mary Lindley promised, and she kept the slip of paper in case it might be wanted.

This disturbing incident happened in the month of September, and the sequel​—​if, indeed, it were a sequel, for nothing to the point was established​—​came about some six weeks later.

It was about nine o’clock on the 1st November. Mr. Storrs, his wife, and Miss Lindley were in the dining room; Mr. Storrs was playing “patience,” one of the ladies was sewing, the other reading. The housemaid was going in and out of the room preparing the table for supper.

In the kitchen all was as usual. With no thought of danger the cook went into the cellar for a few moments, and when she returned she caught sight of a man behind the door leading into the scullery. He whipped out a pistol directly he saw that he was discovered.

“Not a word,” he threatened, “or I’ll shoot you.”

So far the procedure was not unlike that of Rush, who murdered the Jermys at Stanfield Hall, but unlike Rush, the Gorse Hall murderer made no attempt at disguising himself. The cook had a good chance of studying his features, but she was too frightened to do anything but escape. She ran out of the kitchen and the man followed swiftly at her heels, for when she shut the door he was pushing it from the inside.

With scared face she rushed into the dining room and screamed:

“There’s a man in the house!”

Mr. Storrs immediately went into the hall and there met the fellow. What happened between them, whether any words passed, no one knows. Apparently, Mrs. Storrs and Miss Lindley did not at once follow him, but the interval was brief, and when they went in the hall the two men were struggling violently and Mrs. Storrs heard the intruder say:

“Now I’ve got you!”

Mrs. Storrs at once ran up the staircase, and, snatching a shillalah hanging on the wall, hastened with it to her husband’s assistance. Then she saw that the man had a pistol, and she was about to strike him when he said, “I won’t shoot,” and she took the revolver from him without difficulty. Why he did not retain the weapon was probably because he knew it was worthless. It turned out to be a cheap revolver of Belgian make and defective.

Mrs. Storrs handed the shillalah to her husband, but it is not quite clear that he used it. His rejoinder was to tell his wife to ring the alarm bell, and leaving the men still struggling, she hurried up two flights of stairs to the top of the house.

It may be presumed that Mrs. Storrs did ring the bell, but we are not told definitely that such was the fact. The lady said in her evidence before the coroner that she was away some time and did not explain why she did not come back. She was a difficult witness owing to extreme nervousness, and it may be that she was overcome by fear and was afraid to return.

Miss Lindley’s story was that when the cook appeared in the dining room “they” (meaning herself and Mrs. Storrs) held the door, but that Mr. Storrs opened it and she then saw the man. Mr. Storrs immediately closed with him, Mrs. Storrs tried to pull him from her husband, and she (Miss Lindley) ran out of the house to the Central Liberal Club for assistance. The cook also hurried off for help. Her destination was the coachman’s cottage, but the coachman was away. It was fifteen minutes or so before Miss Lindley returned.

It is not quite certain what the housemaid did, but this is of no importance: the point is that the life and death struggle between Mr. Storrs and his assailant went on for several minutes, sometimes in the hall and sometimes in the kitchen. Of this terrible conflict for life there was not a single witness.

So isolated was Gorse Hall that the nearest habitation was quite a mile away, but not far from the entrance to the grounds was the Central Liberal Club already mentioned. To the club Miss Lindley ran for assistance, and brought back with her Mr. Richard Ashworth and another member of the club. They found the front door locked, and going round to the back of the house entered the kitchen and discovered Mr. Storrs lying on the floor in a pool of blood. A constable arrived soon after.

“I spoke to him,” Mr. Ashworth told the coroner, “and he appeared to understand. I asked him if there was a telephone and he said ‘no.’ The constable asked him who was the man who had done the deed, and he said ‘I don’t know,’ several times.”

Beyond asking for his wife this was all the dying man said. Nothing could be got from him as to who his assailant was or why the latter should attack him, and in about twenty minutes he died.

And the murderer? He had escaped by flinging a zinc washing bowl at the scullery window and climbing through the aperture. At least, this was the theory, as the bowl was found outside and the window was broken; but why he should have taken this trouble instead of going out by the door by which he had entered, and which was unlocked, was one of the many puzzles which surround the case. How long he had been gone when the police arrived it was impossible to say.

The poor man had been stabbed not once but many times, the worst wound being at the back, which the doctor thought must have been inflicted by the murderer thrusting his hand under Mr. Storrs’s arm and striking him from behind. To support his theory the doctor illustrated before the judge, with the assistance of Mr. James Storrs, the murdered man’s brother, the position of the assassin and his victim at the time when the fatal blow was given. The knife used appeared to have been one with a single edge, its blade five inches long and three-quarters of an inch broad. From the blood marks it was evident that the struggle had swayed between the hall and the kitchen.

One would have thought that this knife and the pistol left behind would have furnished clues upon which the police might have acted, but nothing came of them, the fact being that the police were engaged upon a false issue and neglected all others. Bloodhounds were brought in to scent out the murderer’s track, but as in many other cases, they proved a failure.

The murderer’s motive might have been robbery or it might have been revenge. The theory of robbery, however, was hardly tenable and the police set to work in another direction.

Then the episode of September was recalled, but all that Miss Lindley knew was what Mr. Storrs told her. She was not certain whether or not Mr. Storrs said he suspected a man who had been discharged from his employ. The names Mr. Storrs mentioned Miss Lindley wrote down and gave to the coroner. They were never made public. As for Mrs. Storrs, she was unable to throw any light on the matter. She was so nervous she could not collect her ideas, and her testimony, such as it was, only confused the issue.

It was remarked as curious that Mr. Storrs should have made a confidante of Miss Lindley rather than his wife, but, as already stated, he was anxious not to frighten her. Mr. James Storrs, the brother of the murdered man, corroborated Miss Lindley’s version of the affair so far as the two names were concerned, and on the other point said that when he asked his brother if any discharged workman was likely to do such a thing the answer was no.

The result of the disquieting incident of September was that, to reassure his wife, Mr. Storrs had the alarm bell fixed, and gave orders for the window shutters to be closed at dusk and the kitchen door bolted. Unfortunately, on the night of the murder the latter order was not carried out. As for Mr. Storrs himself, said his brother, he was in fear of no one and went out and came in as usual.

While the police were making their enquiries, the tragedy was deepened by the news that the coachman in the service of Mr. Storrs had hanged himself. His suicide had nothing whatever to do with the murder, beyond the fact that the poor man’s mind had become deranged by the terrible death of his master, to whom he was greatly attached.

By this time the police had been supplied with information by the family which led them to be on the look-out for one Cornelius Howard, a ne’er-do-well relative of Mr. Storrs. The description of the murderer given by Miss Lindley and by Mrs. Storrs and the servants set forth that he had light blue eyes, a fair complexion, and a slight moustache. He was wearing dark clothes and had on a light-coloured muffler.

On November 15th a constable on night duty in Oldham, noticing marks on some enclosed premises which seemed to him suspicious, searched the place and there found a man who corresponded with the description of the murderer published in the newspapers. The man was taken into custody and he gave his name as John Ward, but when at the station he admitted that he was Cornelius Howard, that he was a pork butcher, that he had no fixed abode, and that he had been in the Royal Field Artillery. He was questioned as to his movements on November 1st, and in reply made this statement in writing:

“On the night of November 1st I visited a public house called the Ring o’ Bells, in Huddersfield, about 9 p.m. During that time I played the landlord two games at dominoes for half a gallon of beer each. There were three or four other men present at the time, and I now wish the said landlord to be asked if he remembers my being in the house on the night of the 1st November, and if so, to come forward and give evidence to that effect, and also the other men in the house at the time. Three of the men were navvies, and as they had spent all their money and had not the price of their lodgings, the landlord gave them fourpence each and sent them to their lodgings. This was about 10.30, and I left the house about five minutes later.”

Whether this statement was true or not remained to be seen. Meanwhile the suspicions against Howard were strengthened by finding upon him four knives, one of them a table knife. His left leg was cut and scratched, and his explanation as to how he came by these injuries was proved to be false.

He was picked out by Miss Lindley and by Mrs. Storrs as the man they saw; the absence of a moustache on Howard’s face being accounted for by an Oldham hairdresser, who said that, on the morning of November 2nd, he shaved off the moustache of a man who closely resembled the prisoner.

In the face of such evidence it was inevitable that Howard should be committed for trial, and accordingly he was indicted at the Chester Assizes.

The crucial point was necessarily his identification, and while Mrs. Storrs was nervous and hesitating, though she had no doubt Howard was the man, and showed terror of him when she was in the box, Miss Lindley was calm and positive that the prisoner was the murderer. While this testimony was being given, Howard remained quite undisturbed.

No further evidence was offered against Howard, excepting proof that the explanation he had given of the cause of his cuts and scratches was untrue. Howard’s story was that he had helped Joyce, a lodging-house keeper, to put in a pane of glass, that the glass had fallen and so had injured his leg. Joyce swore that Howard had not helped him in any way and that he knew nothing about his cuts.

Howard then went into the box and admitted that his story concerning his cuts was untrue. He had told it because he did not want the real circumstances known. The fact was he had received them while attempting to break into a shop in Stalybridge, the wound being caused by falling glass. He had seen Mr. Storrs some months before the murder, but did not speak to him as, after the death of his mother, who was Mr. Storrs’ relative, he considered the connection between the two families was closed. He had no grievance of any kind against Mr. Storrs.

The explanation sounded feasible, but Howard’s trump card was his alibi. It was proved by three witnesses that he was in the Ring o’ Bells on the night of November 1st as he had stated, and that between 8.30 and 9 he was talking to a racing man named Thompson on the steps of the election committee rooms at Huddersfield.

The only witness against the alibi was a tipsy fellow who swore it was November 2nd, and not the 1st, when the prisoner was in the Ring o’ Bells, but as this witness was in a too merry mood in the box, and brought down upon him the judge’s rebuke, and as he admitted that if he could get a pint of beer every half-hour he could last all the day, not much faith was placed either on his memory or his word.

After this no one was surprised when Howard was declared to be not guilty, and a wild cheer resounded through the court when he stepped from the dock a free man.

So the tragedy of Gorse Hall remained darker than ever. The police abandoned their quest, and as the assassin was not moved to confess, his name and his motive are hardly likely to be revealed. The story is made more puzzling by the fact that, so far as could be discovered, Mr. Storrs had not an enemy, that he was on good terms with his employees, took an active part in the various social movements of the district, and that he was everywhere highly respected. Why he was done to death must for ever remain an enigma.