If Gordon Lonsdale could meet his late great-grandfather Blackpool detective William Ashforth Drabble there is one question he would ask above all else...
Why did he scrawl his initials onto the bath in which a young bride had drowned a century ago almost to this very day?
Alice Burnham drowned in a boarding house in Regent Road, Blackpool, on December 12, 1913.
She was the second of three “Brides in the Bath” murdered by George Joseph Smith. All of them bigamously married.
It was only when the Press reported on the third bride’s death the following year that the landlady of the Blackpool boarding house - along with the father of the first bride Smith murdered – raised the alarm and police began a concerted investigation to link the three deaths to one man.
As Gordon, 56, explains: “The murders are usually remembered for the notoriety of the culprit and the misfortune of his victims or for the great trial that gripped Edwardian Britain, but the most crucial, yet understated, aspect of the case was the exceptional police work which led to Smith’s conviction. It was unprecedented.”
And his great-grandfather had a role to play in that.
William was in his 40s when his path crossed that of Smith, a murderer notorious to this day - as portrayed by Martin Kemp in a TV dramatisation.
Gordon adds: “While the Brides in the Bath case is fairly well-known, people don’t really know too much about it. The TV drama was woefully inaccurate - seeming to portray George Smith as a somewhat charming and charismatic ladies’ man rather than the monster he really was.
“Although it is generally known he murdered three wives, he actually married at least eight wives, bullying one into a life of crime, physically abusing another and deserting two others, having first relieved them of their money and possessions.
“Marshall Hall, known as the Great Defender, later wrote that he was convinced he was an hypnotist. For a renowned top barrister to say that was quite something. Smith’s victims were women who felt compelled to marry and the longer they were unmarried the greater the pressure was.
“He preyed upon that vulnerability, that desperation, and took them for all they had, including the very lives of three of the women.
“The day after Smith was executed, Caroline Thornhill, his first wife, who had emigrated to Canada to escape, remarried.”
Gordon’s great-grandfather was a detective inspector when Alice Burnham was murdered in Blackpool. Regent Road was a brisk five minute walk from his own family home on Oddfellow Street, behind the Golden Mile, a street later demolished to make way for the new police station and law courts.
William retired seven years later, in 1920, having risen to the rank of detective chief inspector. The bluff Yorkshire born bobby, a former steel worker, moved to Blackpool after machines took over his work forging sheep shears. He worked as a gravedigger but left Yorkshire at 20 to become a constable in the newly formed Blackpool police force, then just 20 strong.
Tough, fearless, physically imposing, he won promotions and commendations during his 30 year career and was held in such high regard a gift of 100 guineas was raised by public subscription and presented to him on his retirement.
Gordon’s mum Doreen, now in her 80s, was brought up in Blackpool, and remembers people doffing their cap to her grandfather.
Her son says: “It was a rough area and he kept things in order.”
The detective carved his initials on the bath – a murder weapon initially seen in the Old Bailey trial in 1915, moved to the Black Museum at New Scotland Yard and now at Galleries of Justice in Nottingham where it will go on display next September in an exhibition Heroes and Villains ahead of the 100th anniversary.
Yet Drabble never once referred to the most infamous case of all when he held forth with his reminiscences at his retirement.
“I find it bizarre,” admits great-grandson Gordon.
Gordon, who lives in south west Wales, has meticulously researched the Brides in the Bath case. “My mum Doreen lived with her grandparents for quite a few years. She’s a connection with it all.”
When his gran (Emily Melling) came to stay with his parents, she brought her memorabilia – including details of her father’s most famous case.
“Between them they pieced it together. Mum traced the story of her grandfather’s involvement. She was taken aback that he was mixing during the investigation with some very notable people, although he tended to keep in the background.”
Detective Inspector Arthur Neil of Scotland Yard led the inquiry nationally but William who led it locally.
Doreen, 83, confides: “Grandad kept a screw from the coffin (Alice Burnham’s) as a memento, which I still have today. I’d often wondered how exactly he came by it, but all was revealed in a best-selling book published last year, The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins, which mentioned that the grave was water-logged and the coffin had fallen apart”.
Gordon recalls visiting his “Blackpool Nan” when she was still living on Oddfellow Street, where William and his wife Ada had raised five children.
“I’ve never visited Regent Road although it would be fascinating to see the lay out of the building.”
Gordon managed to resolve one mystery...
“When Smith’s trial was organised the new occupants of 16 Regent Road were paid ten guineas for the bath, which was taken to the Old Bailey in London for the trial. Det Insp Drabble transported the heavy metal bath and other evidence he had assembled to London by train.”
It became one of 264 exhibits at the 1915 trial examined by Dr Bernard Spilsbury, pioneering forensic scientist, one of the legal superstars of the age.
“A family story passed down through the generations was that great-grandad had somehow managed to scratch his initials ‘WAD’ on the bath. This was borne out by a photograph kindly supplied by the curator of the Crime Museum at New Scotland Yard earlier this year. Curiously, alongside are the initials ‘JC’.
One theory is that William travelled to London with Joseph Crossley, son-in-law of the landlady whose bath it had been and who was to appear as a witness at the trial, and that they had both inscribed their initials on it during the journey.
“It was unbelievable to learn the initials were there. I emailed it around the family.”
The first two ‘bride’ deaths were seen as local tragedies. The third was picked up by a national newspaper. The father of Smiths’s first murder victim (Bessie Mundy) and Mrs Crossley, the landlady of the (Blackpool) boarding house where Alice Burnham died, both read the account of Margaret Lofty’s death, recognised the similarities, and raised the alarm.
“Trying to prove three different women had been killed by one man took some doing. The coordination from Scotland Yard was tremendous. Some 40 towns were involved one way or other. In those days the mobility provided by the railway network made it easy for criminals to have several identities in different regions of the country, difficult for the authorities to track them, and complex for the police to assemble the evidence required to convict them.”
Gordon says that Smith married at least eight women using an assumed name on six occasions and his own name twice. He forced his first wife Caroline Thornhill into a life of crime until she fled him. He physically abused his second wife and his third - to whom he returned after five subsequent “wives”.
“He left approximately one year between each murder and changed his name.”
“The trial lasted eight days. It took the jury just 22 minutes to find the prisoner guilty.”
George Joseph Smith was hanged on Friday August 13, 1915.”