Little boy lost: the day little Cecil vanished 90 years ago
- Credit: Archant
Ninety years ago this summer, a Norfolk family was devastated by the kind of nightmare which every parent dreads: a missing child. Trevor Heaton knows the story well. It was his family.
I should remember my uncle Cecil for his face wreathed in smiles, for tousling my childhood hair, for sweets slyly given with a 'don't tell your mother' wink, for silly jokes and train sets, for all the things that a favourite uncle should do.
But I never had the chance to know him, because Cecil was fated never to grow up.
Over a few days in a summer long ago a tragedy was played out in a lonely wasteland on the edge of a Norfolk town that ended with a sad discovery. Or, rather, in its way, not so much a tragedy ended as a tragedy begun.
The family had only been in King's Lynn for a few months. His father Joseph – my grandfather – worked as a waiter, an occupation which depended on the vagaries of the economy more than most. If a hotel were in a fashionable resort, all well and good – if it were not, or folk decided to make it a holiday at home that year, well then a waiter was always expendable, however good at his job.
But Joseph was already used to hard times, having been born in a workhouse. However tough his early life must have been, though, he must have thought his luck had turned when he met my nan Elizabeth – Lizzie – Clarke. Lizzie was a Bawdeswell girl, 16 years his junior, who worked (as so many young women did in that era) as a domestic servant.
In his working life they had moved around several times, including a period while Joseph worked at the Hotel de Paris in Cromer, still the most magnificently-located of the resort's hotels. Then some time later they moved to Fakenham for Joseph to work in the bustling Crown Hotel in the town's market place. They lived in the town and later in the nearby village of Sculthorpe.
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Cecil Gordon was born in November of the fateful year of 1914. He joined an elder brother, Thornton, who had been born two years earlier. Joseph was not called up for military service, but that did not mean the family was unaffected by the consequences of that war.
The first tragedy of their married lives happened in the Great War's last few months. Their third child, Ruby, had been born in February 1918, only to succumb to scarlet fever or diphtheria or one of the other childhood illnesses which haunted families in this era. But the real killer, according to a family story, was the war itself.
The tale goes that the Fakenham doctor was on his way to treat poor Ruby, but was then called away urgently to certify some men fit to return to the front. By the time he was able to reach the village, it was too late.
A fourth child, Mabel – my mother – was born in 1921. And it was three days after her seventh birthday that the nightmare began.
In 1928 the family had moved 15 miles or so west across Norfolk. Their home was in an ancient, sprawling and rather ramshackle building off one of the many yards which spread out across Lynn's ancient North End fishing community like cockles on a Wash sandbank.
The North End was largely swept away by a controversial road scheme in the late 1950s which provoked a national outcry. But in the late 1920s it was still a densely-packed and self-contained community, with a fierce independence. My mother told me that Lizzie never really got used to the urban life and – a village girl through-and-through – always missed her little country cottage.
But needs must, and the promise of a steady job for Joseph in a senior position with the busy catering staff of Messrs Ely and Son would have been a big attraction for the family .
Cecil was 13 by now. He looked young for his age, having inherited his father's slightness of build. He was by all accounts a model son, working hard at school and as an errand boy. And my mother adored him.
He loved being a member of the Church Lads' Brigade, and took great pride in his uniform – so much so that one North Ender who knew him in those days told me years later that Cecil had been nicknamed 'the General' because of the military-standard polish he insisted on giving to his shoes.
So, then, a quiet, kind and dutiful son. And one Friday in early summer, it was this sense of family duty that was to lead to tragedy.
The boy left the family home shortly after tea time, telling his father he was going to get some grass to feed the chickens the family kept – as so many did - to supplement their tiny income. He took a box-barrow and a small bag but, fatefully, did not say where he was going.
Even allowing for the light of a long summer evening, Joseph and Lizzie began to grow puzzled and then concerned when their son did not return home. After several hours their concern turned to panic, and Joseph raised the alarm. The town's police force immediately turned out in strength to search for the boy. They were joined by North Enders and other townsfolk.
Cecil's disappearance was so out of character. This was no runaway - he was a home-loving and quiet lad, who was 'in good health and seemed very cheerful' as his father later recalled in the newspaper reports. So why had their boy, their beloved boy, just vanished?
Daylight saw the search resume, with the police again joined by friends of the family. The long day passed, then the longer night, then another day, and another night. Again and again my grandfather and grandmother asked themselves the unanswerable question: where was Cecil? And still the search continued, growing wider and wider, and more and more frantic.
I find myself wondering at what point in that terrible vigil hope finally faded for Joseph and Lizzie. Or did they somehow, desperately, manage to cling to some wisp of faint possibility, that Cecil would turn up, safe and sound, sheepishly explaining his disappearance as a childish prank that had got out of hand?
If they did, then the arrival of the policeman on the cobbles of Ravenshaw's Yard late on Monday afternoon would have told them that that any hope had vanished.
For at 4.15pm, almost 70 long hours after Cecil had left home, there had come a grim discovery. A dock labourer was helping to search an area of wasteland near the river when he spotted what looked like the body of a dog. He and another man found two poles which they used to recover it. It was indeed a body - but no dog. Joseph was called in to make the identification.
Two days later, the inquest was held at Lynn's Town Hall, a building Joseph must have already known well as the site of so many of the borough's formal dinners. In the time between the discovery and the hearing the deputy coroner Donald Jackson and the police had begun to piece together the timetable of the tragedy.
The deputy coroner had also visited the site where Cecil had been found: Harding's Pits, an area of rough land behind the collection of Victorian terrace streets which cluster to the west of Saddlebow Road. The pits had been formed by being dug out for clay, and when that use stopped, they remained as an area of overgrown wasteland, the pits gradually filling up with water, forming a bleak, neglected corner of the town in the headland between the Great Ouse and the Nar.
A goods line ran through here, and the LNER – the main rail company which served the town – had some stables nearby. It was two of its poles used in the shunting of waggons that had been used to recover poor Cecil's body.
The inquest began with Joseph telling about how Cecil had gone missing. Even with the passage of 90 years, Joseph's agony is still clear to see. It is most affecting when, desperate to preserve the good character of his lost son, he insists to the officials that Cecil had been 'a very good boy'. Can you hear the dignity in that man's voice? Can you feel his pain?
It emerged that a man called Herbert Tisley was the last person to see Cecil alive on that Friday evening. He told the inquest that had noticed a small boy about 7.45pm. The boy had a box barrow which had tipped and shed its load of grass. There was a small bag near the barrow. By this time Tisley had continued on his walk and thought nothing of it.
Fifteen minutes later, eight-year-old Eric Bannister had seen an abandoned box-barrow on top of the bank. He looked around for its owner, saw no-one and decided to take it home. Fatefully, nobody was to connect the two sightings until days later.
Having seen the site, the deputy coroner was sure what had happened. 'I have seen the place where this poor boy was found and I fully agree that the place looks as if it were perfectly solid ground,' he said.
'I have not much doubt that the boy was searching about, saw something he thought he would like to have, walked on to the earth and tumbled into one of these places where the water can be seen.'
Cold and out of his depth in six feet of water, the slightly-built boy never stood a chance. It must only have taken an instant for panic to slide into despair. The doctor who gave evidence at the inquest could find no evidence of water in Cecil's lungs, so concluded that he must have died of shock.
At least he was spared an agonising death by drowning; at least that.
The inquest verdict was inevitable, and duly given: accidental death. Mr Jackson added: 'It seems a shocking thing that he should be cut off in the flower of his youth like that.' Joseph added his own coda to the hearing, taking the time to thank the searchers, and especially the police for 'their kindness towards him, and for the energetic way they had worked in finding his son.'
And so all was clear for the final act in this terrible drama, with Cecil's funeral being held the next day at St Nicholas' Chapel, the 'fishermen's church' at the heart of the North End. Less than three months earlier Cecil had been at the chapel for his confirmation, carried out by the Bishop of Norwich.
Cecil's little coffin was draped with the Union Flag, with his Church Lads' Brigade uniform on top. It was borne by members of the brigade, which were there in force, as were children from St Nicholas' Boys' School who formed a guard of honour.
At the graveside, three of the brigade sounded the Last Post. And with that, the service was over. But someone who was not at the chapel to say goodbye was my mother. Her parents must have felt – as many others did in that era – that such a service would be too much for little Mabel to cope with. But I wonder if not being able to say a proper goodbye to her brother affected her later life. I hope not, but I rather fear it did.
One of the things that seems astonishing now, in our modern era when such tragedies are stretched out over weeks if not months, is how quickly it all took place. Cecil disappeared on the Friday, was found on the Monday, the inquest being held on Wednesday, and the funeral the next day. The whole bleak story was concluded in just six days.
Done and dusted, then – but not for my family.
For them, there were so many questions which remained unanswered. Why had Cecil walked all the across the town to go to Harding's Pit in the first place? It was such an odd and lonely spot, and there were areas of grassland much closer to home.
And we heard extra bits and pieces over the years. About how my nan would never hear a word said against a certain colourful local family, a member of which had 'found her boy'.
Of rumours of other boys who had actually seen Cecil fall in and – panicking and fearing punishment – had kept silent instead of calling for help. Of the horrors of 'sinking mud'.
Joseph, his heart broken, lasted ten more years. The wreath to him from Mabel, now 17, and her mother was dedicated simply to a 'dear, kind' man. Like son, like father.
For my nan, the tragedy of her children's and husband's death was compounded by another when my other uncle, Thornton, left the town – never to return – after the death of his wife and the collapse of his business, leaving my mother and nan to bring up his two daughters. My grandmother lived on until 1974, still active until her final illness. Every Tuesday she would put on her coat and best hat and walk the two miles into Lynn for market day. And also, I now suspect, to make a quiet weekly pilgrimage to the last resting places of Joseph and Cecil, a couple of hundred yards apart in the same cemetery.
As for my mum, as we (my two brothers and a sister) grew up the tragedy haunted her every single day. The story of Cecil was told and re-told. We listened, but couldn't comprehend how deeply it had affected her. For us it was just another story, part of the wallpaper of childhood.
We didn't stop to think what my mum went through every time she saw us leave the house, to spend long summer days roaming over the fields and rivers near our Gaywood home, getting into scrapes, with scratches and stings and once – and how this must have torn at her heart – when I came home one day slathered in mud after falling into a drainage dyke.
When I had children of my own, I understood some of her fears then. But I never had to confront the terrible reality of living through such a tragedy. My mother had had to, a little, confused, seven-year-old girl struggling to understand how her beloved brother could have been taken away from her.
The places involved in the story have had different fates over the past 90 years. Holyoake House, my parents' home, has vanished, its history, stretching back to medieval times, left lost and unrecorded on its demolition in the early 1950s. Most of Ravenshaw's Yard, of which it formed a part, is now a council car park.
The North End still survives in the shape of the wonderful True's Yard Museum in North Street, a true community-led project. Thanks to the museum and its enthusiastic helpers, the pride and spirit of the North Enders shines undimmed.
And talking of community efforts, Harding's Pits at the other end of the town are now a locally-run nature reserve. Those dangerous and lonely brick pits have long been filled in, and the reserve makes for a pretty riverside retreat with its wild flowers and paths. I saw it – for the very first time in my life – on the summer's day when I had decided to pay my respects to my uncle. The cemetery where he lies is only a few hundred yards from the scene of his death.
It had taken me long enough to make this visit. It wasn't because I hadn't wanted to. It was just one of those 'I'll do this some day' things that we all have on life's to-do list, but never quite manage to get round to. Well, now, I had. And I was glad – more glad than I can say - that I had made the effort.
With the help of a plan of the graves kindly supplied by the council, I was able to find it easily among the hundreds and hundreds of memorials. Absurdly so; just a few seconds. I know this sounds strange, but it was almost as if the grave was yearning to be found again.
That feeling was underscored by the headstone's remarkable survival. A bough from a nearby ash tree had recently split and come crashing down, within a leaf's length of the stone. It seemed impossible that the gravestone could have survived unscathed, but it has. Cecil lies there now, as his headstone records, forever '13 and a half years old'.
Although I was standing only a few yards from one of the busiest roads into Lynn, I found it easy to zone out the constant roar of traffic, so wrapped up as I was in this moment when I finally – finally - came close to my Uncle Cecil, in spirit if not in life.
And it was because I did not want that life to be forgotten that I wrote this story. It was only a small life but it was a life filled with kindness and love. Cecil never had the chance to change the world, just the world of those few people who knew him.
He never grew up to be a sports star, or drive a train, or write a book. Or fall in love, find a job, start a family of his own. None of these, or a myriad other possible futures were allowed him.
My mum is probably the last person who remembers him in life. She is now almost 97 and living in a care home. As she slides in and out of her dementia, in her more lucid moments she has gone back in her mind to her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s. For her, Cecil's death must now be – cruelly – even more vivid than ever.
Not that she has ever forgotten. Among the modern colour photographs in her room of her children, grandchildren and now great-grandchild, is a tiny silver-framed black and white photograph, a copy of the only picture we have of the uncle I never knew.
And although her illness will continue to make its relentless inroads into her mind and memories, I know - I just do - that at the very last there will be a part of her which will never forget Cecil, the dear, sweet, beloved brother who stepped out one summer evening and never came home.