THE MYSTERIOUS SUICIDE OF ALICE SMITH - SHEFFIELD 1922
The Observer newspaper dated August 29th 1922 carried a brief report in its "News in Brief" column
"A fourteen year old domestic servant named ELIZABETH ALICE SMITH was found yesterday hanging from a hat-peg in the cloakroom of the Foremen's Mutual Benefit Society's Club where she was employed"
As is often the case there was a fuller report in the local press. The Sheffield Telegraph reported under the title
TRAGEDY AT CLUB
14 YEAR OLD DOMESTIC FOUND HANGED
After failing to put in an appearance for her dinner at the usual time, a 14 year old domestic servant called ELIZA SMITH who was in the service of the Foremen's Mutual Benefit Society Club at 138 Burngreave Road, Sheffield was found by the club caretaker hanging from a hook in the cloakroom upstairs. The officials at the club were unable to throw any light on the mystery. They say that the girl appeared in her normal high spirits and at 11 o'clock yesterday morning was heard cheerfully whistling a song as she performed her duties.
When the girl did not come down for dinner her mistress, thinking that she might be ill made a search and being unable to find her came to the conclusion that she had gone home. Later however when the caretaker arrived at the club about two o'clock a further search was made, and the tragic discovery resulted. The girl was dead when found, and the body was afterwards removed to the mortuary.
When our representative called at the house of the deceased at 82 St Charles Street the family had only just received the tragic news, and the father had gone to the mortuary. The mother who was naturally greatly upset, was at a loss to account for her daughters death. She said that she had been in the service of the club for about four months and when she came home on Tuesday she was in her usual spirits. She was a bonny girl, tall and well built for her age, and by nature was quiet and reserved. On leaving home to return to Burngreave Road, she intimated her intention of giving her notice to leave the club, as she had a slight difference with another employee. On the other hand, the officials at the club emphatically state that the girl worked happily with everyone there and appeared quite comfortable.
It is stated that Eliza Smith was a member of the Salvation Army and took her work for the movement very seriously
Based just on the slender evidence of these two newspaper reports, there appears to be a marked difference in what caused Eliza to hand her notice in, and when she handed it in. The Observer quoting Eliza's mother said that " a man had taken her and another maid into a dark room at the club and tried to kiss them." and that was the reason for her leaving the club. But The Sheffield Telegraph makes no mention of this allegation in its article but merely that "she had a slight difference with another employee". The Observer also states that she was serving her notice at the time of her death whilst The Sheffield Telegraph points out that she was just intending to hand her notice in when she died.
But the shock came at the Inquest that was held the following week. The Sheffield Telegraph reported under the heading
HANGED AT FOURTEEN
SHEFFIELD FATHERS SUSPICION OF FOUL PLAY
"I can't get it into my head that she has done it herself, and I can't see that it was an accident. In my opinion there has been some foul play." This grave statement was made by Charles Smith at the inquest yesterday of his daughter ELIZABETH ALICE SMITH, of 62 St Charles Street Sheffield, the fourteen year old domestic servant found hanging on Friday last in the cloakroom at the Foremen's Mutual Benefit Society's Club at 138 Burngreave Road Sheffield. Some remarkable statements were made to the Coroner (Mr J Kenyon Parker) in the course of the proceedings but instead of the mystery being unravelled it was, if anything, more complicated when it was decided to adjourn the inquiry for two days to enable the police to make further inquiries.
Mrs Mary Ann Smith, the mother of the deceased girl, said that her daughter had been in the service of the club since last Easter. On Tuesday, 15th August, the girl went home and complained that she had had a bit of bother with the other servant with regard to a day off. Mrs. Smith took her daughter back to the club and asked Mrs Braham, the stewardess at the club for an explanation. The stewardess said that she knew nothing at all about the matter but Mrs Smith told her daughter to give a month's notice.
Later on the same day, witness said, deceased also made a statement to the effect that on one occasion when she had been in the billiard room with the other maid, a man had come up, caught hold of them and pushed them in a dark room and tried to kiss them. The girl said that she screamed and the stewards wife came up and spoke to the man about it.
The Coroner pointed out that the evidence with regard to the incident was indirect as having been told by the deceased to one of the witnesses.
Questioned by the Coroner as to her opinion on the death. Mrs Smith said she could not understand it at all. Her daughter ... had always been a highly respectable and respected girl.
" A GREAT DEAL OF MYSTERY"
The steward of the club Thomas William Burnham gave evidence of finding the girl hanging by a duster from a hat-peg in a cloakroom. He got to the house at about 1.15 and on being told by his wife that Smith was missing he went upstairs and found her. He lifted her down, placed her on the floor, and tried artificial respiration but without any effect. He sent another maid for a doctor.
The father of the deceased questioned the witness with regard to the position in which the girl was found. He replied that the duster was only loosely knotted around the neck, and the girls feet were resting on the floor whilst the body was leaning towards the left, The father could not understand should have come to be in such a position, and at this stage stated emphatically that in his opinion there had been foul play
One of the members of the jury asked the steward whether he was sure the girl was not in any trouble, and on the steward replying that she did not seem to be, the juryman remarked, "There seems to be a great deal of mystery. Girls don't commit suicide at that age without there is something at the back of it."
In the witness box, the father Charles Smith, said that he was a furnace-man. He last saw his daughter alive at 6.15 on Tuesday night last, when she seemed in good spirits. He said that he could not understand the matter, and re-iterated his opinion with regard to foul play.
Dr Clark of Firvale hospital said he had made a post-mortem examination of the body and this revealed that death was due to strangulation. There was no indication of the girl being in any trouble.
AN ALLEGED KISSING INCIDENT
Mrs Burnham, the stewardess said that the deceased girl's services had always been satisfactory. On one occasion about a fortnight ago when the other maid had a day out, the deceased had a fit of temper and became almost hysterical because she could not also go out, but apart from that she had always seemed quite comfortable and normal. The girl had never complained to her about the conduct of any member of the club. On the morning of the tragedy she did not eat her breakfast, but performed nearly all her ordinary work during the morning. Witness heard the deceased dusting one of the rooms upstairs as late as 12 noon. At dinner-time when the bell was rung, she did not put in an appearance and consequently Mrs Burnham went upstairs to find her. She was unsuccessful and so the other maid also went upstairs but could not find her. Neither of them thought of looking in the cloak-room.
In reply to the Coroner, Mrs Burnham said that she knew nothing about the alleged kissing incident.
No more evidence was called but at this stage the Coroner said the case had always struck him as being rather mysterious. There seems to be no motive for suicide and therefore he had ordered the post-mortem examination to be made. Nevertheless the case was not clear but mysterious. Further, they had not been helped by the way the witnesses had given their evidence.
"The father has suspicions of foul play" said the Coroner "although I cannot see at present much grounds for the suspicion" Neither the steward and the stewardess can give us very much guidance. Therefore I shall call the attention of the Detective Department of the Police to the case and see if there is anything in these suspicions. the inquest will be adjourned till Wednesday"
Mr ... representing the members and staff on the club attended.
The Sheffield Daily Independent dated 29th August 1922 carried this report of the inquest that was held the previous day
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph later reported details of the resumption of the inquest:
Mr Horace Wilson, instructed by Mr T. G. Mander, appeared for members and owners of the Foremen’s Mutual Benefit Society’s Club, and Mr J. E. Wing for the steward and stewardess.
The Coroner remarked that, after enquiry, there seemed very little in the case. Dr Clark was recalled and questioned by the Coroner with regard to the wounds found on the deceased, and said there was a bruise on the forehead in addition to the marks round the neck, caused by the duster. This bruise might have been caused by collision with one of the hooks.
The Coroner: ‘Would you have expected to find more marks of violence if the girl had been murdered by strangulation?’
Dr Clark: ‘Yes. She was a big girl, and would have made a struggle.’
‘Did you find anything to lead you to suspect she met with foul play?’
The Coroner summed up by saying that there was nothing to warrant the father’s suspicion that there had been foul play. He suggested that Mr. Smith made the suggestion while labouring under emotion, and without realising what it really meant. It was incredible that the girl had been murdered, and he thought the jury had only to decide whether the girl had hanged herself or was accidentally hanged. The jury returned a verdict that Elizabeth Alice Smith committed suicide, adding that there was no evidence to show the state of her mind at the time.
After reviewing the newspaper reports I am of the opinion that the verdict given by the Coroner's jury under the direction of the Coroner is incorrect. The Coroner himself admitted that the case had always struck him as being rather mysterious. There seems to be no motive for suicide and therefore he had ordered the post-mortem examination to be made. Nevertheless the case was not clear but mysterious"
At the resumed inquest murder was ruled out, but quite why I cannot understand. Whilst Alice's father's suspicions were ungrounded inasmuch as he could not furnish conclusive evidence of foul play, he was firmly of the opinion that something was amiss. This opinion was also voiced by a juryman at an earlier part of the inquest who stated "There seems to be a great deal of mystery. "Girls don't commit suicide at that age without there is something at the back of it"
Dr Clark when he was recalled by the Coroner stated that there was a bruise on the forehead in addition to the marks round the neck, caused by the duster. This bruise "might" have been caused by collision with one of the hooks. This is just pure supposition by the doctor, the bruise on the forehead could have equally been the result of a struggle. There is no way of knowing for certain. Again Dr Cark surmises that Alice "was a big girl, and would have made a struggle". Equally, Alice may have been dazed by a blow to the forehead which may have compromised her ability to struggle, and hence the lack of injuries normally associated with manual strangulation. There is just no way of knowing again.
An equally plausible version of events would be that Alice was on her own when she was accosted by an assailant who quickly overpowered her whilst she was unaware of his/her presence, tied the duster around her neck, strangled her and then placed her lifeless body on a hat-peg in the cloakroom . The motive - was Alice going to reveal the name of the person who had attempted to "kiss" her earlier that month or did the same person this time try to go beyond the kissing stage , and when his advances were rejected, strangle Alice with the nearest thing to hand, her duster.
The one thing that we can deduce from the reports and this was confirmed at the Inquest, is that there was nothing in Alice's demeanour in the days and hours leading up to her death that pointed to the fact that she was contemplating taking her life. The night before her death she was in "good spirits", on the day of her death she went to work normally and conducted her duties satisfactorily. She was working normally even at mid-day, and it was only when she did not come down at lunchtime that her colleagues realised that something may be amiss. The "search" seems to have been perfunctory given that no-one thought to look in the cloakroom.
These factors coupled with knowledge that there was no note, and that by all accounts, Alice was a sensible and well adjusted girl who was closely involved in the Salvation Army leads me to the conclusion that on the balance of probabilities Alice was more likely to have been murdered. But just like the verdict this cannot be proven. And so I believe that the jury should have returned an open verdict rather than one of suicide. The indications from the first inquest seem to point towards the suspicion of foul play, but there seems to have been a tendency in the Coroners Courts to veer away from the prospect of initiating a murder inquiry wherever possible.
For the Coroner to state "that there was nothing to warrant the father’s suspicion that there had been foul play" is clearly incorrect - there was quite a lot of information available that pointed towards foul play but the Coroner for reasons of his own, decided not to pursue a case of "wilful murder by person/persons unknown". And of course what was never addressed was what the juryman pointed out at the first inquest namely ""Girls don't commit suicide at that age without there is something at the back of it"
As a final point I would like to add that this is not the only case where where the Sheffield Coroner more or less ignored the evidence or rather the lack of it. Four years later in 1926 Florence Hargreaves was found hanging in her drapers shop in Attercliffe, Sheffield. The police doctor emphatically ruled out suicide and yet on that occasion he choose to return an open verdict when all the salient facts pointed to murder.
As for the scene of the crime, that has had an "eventful history" to say the least
Built in the late Victorian era as a gentlemen’s club,
If you follow the link to the excellent Derelict Buildings website you can then appreciate the full horror of the neglect and vandalism that has been meted out to this building. It is nothing short of a civic disgrace.
To compound the disgrace the same site notes that
"It was bequeathed by a former owner in 1943, but to whom? Documents disclosed by the Council state that ‘the Seller (i.e. the Council) is unable to deduce title to the property. The property is sold with no title guarantee.’ This suggests that they can’t find the deeds. Have they lost them, or did they never have them?"
Surname First name(s) Age District Volume Page
Deaths Sep 1922, Smith Elizabeth A 14 Sheffield 9c 491
1911 Census Record
Name Charles Smith
Relationship to Head of Household Head
Gender Male Age 40
Estimated Year of Birth 1871
Occupation Furnace Man
Working at Home N
Industry Steel and Melton
Place of Birth Sheffield Nationality English
Address 82 St Charles St Sheffield Parish Sheffield Town Sheffield
Type of Building Private House Number of Rooms 4 Rooms Inhabited Y
Reference RG14PN27999 RG78PN1600 RD510 SD7 ED11 SN443
Administrative County Yorkshire (West Riding) Registration District Sheffield
Registration Sub District Attercliffe
Enumeration District 11
The Observer newspaper dated August 27th 1922
Sheffield Daily Independent dated 29th August 1922
The Sheffield Telegraph dated 29th August 1922
Derelict Buildings website
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