Crime History: The murder of Norwich's Eleanor 'Nellie' Howard

The funeral of 'Nellie' Howard

The funeral of 'Nellie' Howard. From book Norwich Murders by Maurice Morson - Credit: Keiron Pim

On a dark night on the edge of winter, Police Sergeant Walter Slater walked briskly along the quiet lane linking Catton to Hainford, his trusty oil lantern his only companion.

The beam of light cast strange shadows along the path, but what Sgt Slater saw by the hedgerow on the lonely road was unmistakable: it was a woman, lying in the grass, half in and half out of a ditch.

Quickening his pace, Slater swung his lamp over the form in front of him: he quickly realised that he had walked straight into a crime scene – there in the lamplight was the body of a young woman, fully-clothed, her face and neck slashed, blood soaking her pretty green dress.

After carrying out a swift search of the nearby fields, Slater ran to the nearest dwelling a quarter of a mile away where the local blacksmith, Mr Laws, worked.

He sent Laws to the County Police Station in Norwich and soon he was joined by Inspector Roy and PC Sizeland, who set about searching the area for clues.

Shortly after a newspaper reporter arrived, the doctor came to examine the body and confirmed what was already known: the woman was dead and had died due to at least two terrible wounds, inflicted by a sharp blade.

One puncture wound just above her collarbone was so deep that the doctor was able to measure it with a finger up to the knuckle, another ran from the top of her cheek to the corner of her mouth, a third had almost severed her spine, so brutal was the force used.

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The woman was placed carefully on the blacksmith’s cart and taken to the coach house at The Maid’s Head Inn in Catton where she lay until her inquest.

It was Thursday October 29, 1908: within hours her murderer would be in a cell.

Meanwhile, at a farmhouse in nearby Hainford, the grandparents of Eleanor Elizabeth Howard – Ellen to some, Nellie to most – were beside themselves with worry when she failed to return home after a day out in Norwich.

Just 19-years-old, Nellie was a pretty young woman with a fair complexion and jet-black hair who lived with her grandparents and five siblings and who could have had her pick of suitable young gentlemen.

Nellie, however, had been courting Horace Larter, a young man her age who helped his father run a shellfish stall outside Agricultural Hall on Bank Plain in the city - he spoke coarsely, drank heavily and was dangerously obsessed with his sweetheart of two years.

Such was his unhealthy love for Nellie that he had threatened to shoot her if she ever so much as looked at another man: unsurprisingly, her grandparents didn’t like Horace and thought she could do better and, of late, Nellie had started to think they were right.

At the coach house, Nellie’s pockets had been searched and chocolates, a handkerchief and a purse containing 1s 7d had been found, but no clue to her identity.

But it didn’t take long for the tragic jigsaw puzzle to be pieced together: after hearing the awful news, Nellie’s grandfather identified his eldest granddaughter in the coach house, returning home to tell his wife, who collapsed in grief as she heard that Nellie was gone.

After his day and night of heavy drinking – and a drunken confession to his sister – Horace Larter awoke on Friday October 30, got dressed in the blood-soaked clothes he’d worn the night before and walked from Ber Street to the police station at the Guildhall in the heart of Norwich.

The Guildhall in Norwich when it was the police station.

The Guildhall in Norwich when it was the police station. - Credit: Archant

He muttered his confession to Inspector Ebbage: “The murder charge at Hainford, Catton, last night. I have made a good job of it this time…what’s done cannot be undone.”

Taken to the County Police Station at Castle Meadow, he offered a written statement to Constable Poulter.

He had, he said, met Nellie on Elm Hill in Norwich at 3pm and taken her for a cab drive around the city and for two glasses of port at The Norwich Arms in Ber Street.

“I quite intended enjoying myself as I knew she did not want me and I had made up my mind to kill her,” he said, admitting he had bought a knife – which would become the murder weapon – the very same morning.

“I felt as if I could have murdered anyone if I saw them speaking to her. I loved her so and this is all through love and jealousy.  This is what hate and love will do.”

He explained that Nellie had met him after he had sent her a letter promising her chocolates, which she loved: the chocolates found in her pocket had been bought at a sweet shop on St Clement’s Hill just minutes before her death.

“After we had enjoyed ourselves in Norwich, I walked along the road to take her home. It was about 6pm when we started quarrelling. She told me she did not want me and I said ‘you shall not have anyone else’.

“That was about 6.30 when I felt like a madman. I caught her by the throat with one hand and stabbed her twice with the other. Just as she was turning round when I thought to walk away, I stabbed her again, when she fell down and never spoke again.”

Larter added that he had contemplated suicide.

“I knelt down in a pool of blood, which you will see on my trousers, and kissed her when she was dead. I lifted her head to see if she was really dead and then I pinned a buttonhole on her and left here. Never mind, I suppose her soul is now in heaven.”

He added that he had been planning the murder and blamed it on Nellie’s family, who had turned her against him.

The murder of Eleanor 'Nellie' Howard - the inquest takes place at The Maid's Head Inn

The murder of Eleanor 'Nellie' Howard - the inquest takes place at The Maid's Head Inn. From book Norwich Murders by Maurice Morson - Credit: Keiron Pim

Eleanor Howard’s inquest took place on November 2 at the Maid’s Head Inn. Jurors were taken to see poor Nellie and when he was found guilty, Larter shouted: “Thank you, gentlemen, one and all.”

Meanwhile, enterprising police organised a collection at the murder scene, charging members of the public to see where the Hainford lass had breathed her last, cash which was handed over to Nellie’s family for her funeral.

Nellie’s black-clad funeral procession followed her flower-covered coffin, wheeled to church because even with donations, the family could not afford carriages or a horse-drawn hearse.

She was buried in the shadow of the ruined church at Hainford, her grave covered in posies from well-wishers who came from miles around to pay their respects.

At the committal to court, history was made when White Lion Street photographer Charles Aldous showed magistrates photos of the murder scene, which is believed to be one of, if not the, first times such images were shown in a court room.

(Mr Aldous went on to sell the pictures as postcards)

The court case took six minutes: Larter pleaded guilty, chose not to plead for his life and was sentenced to death, a sentence which was later revised to life imprisonment at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

The funeral of 'Nellie' Howard. From book Norwich Murders by Maurice Morson.Copy: Keiron Pim

The funeral of 'Nellie' Howard. From book Norwich Murders by Maurice Morson - Credit: Keiron Pim

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