It was a grim discovery: a young woman in the dunes, the life choked from her by a mohair bootlace.

Twelve years later in 1912, another woman was found close to where the first body had been discovered: she too had been strangled with a shoelace, in what seemed like a carbon copy of the first murder.

But how could the same killer be responsible for the two deaths? After all, a man had hanged for the 1900 murder – had an innocent man been put to death for a crime he didn’t commit?

Eastern Daily Press: Mrs Mary Jane Bennett who was murdered on Great Yarmouth beachMrs Mary Jane Bennett who was murdered on Great Yarmouth beach (Image: Archant)

Mary Clarke had married Herbert John Bennett in haste when she was 20 and he was 17: it was a familiar story: a young romance, an unplanned pregnancy and a marriage conducted quickly to prevent a scandal.

But scandal wouldn’t evade young newly-weds Herbert John Bennett, 17, and Mary Jane Clarke, 20 – within a few short years both would be dead by another’s hand. Tragedy tainted the Bennett’s relationship from the very beginning: their first child was stillborn their second destined to become an orphan before she turned four.

The pair worked together, their business somewhat unconventional: they would buy cheap violins and sell them to those who knew no better as far better models.

Herbert used the ill-gotten gains to buy a small grocer’s shop which mysteriously caught fire shortly after the insurance premium was arranged and while the insurance didn’t pay as much as the Bennetts hoped, the stock bought on credit was never paid for and gave the pair an acceptable profit.

There followed a mysterious trip to South Africa which no one ever discovered the reason for – their young daughter was left at home while they made the long, arduous trip to Cape Town where they stayed for only four days.

By the time they returned to London, the first flush of love had worn thin.

Their landlady recalls hearing Mary threatening Herbert that she could have him put away for 15 years while he told her that he wished she was dead: “…and if you’re not careful, you soon will be!”

It wasn’t long until the couple were estranged. Herbert took a job with Woolwich Arsenal and met a new woman, Alice Meadows, a parlour maid.

Alice had no idea her sweetheart was married with a child and believed him to be a man of means who had inherited money from his late mother.

In August 1900, Herbert took Alice to Great Yarmouth – they visited in great style, travelling first class and staying in separate rooms at The Crown and Anchor.

Herbert proposed and Alice, having no reason to think her husband-to-be was anything other than an upstanding gentleman with good prospects, accepted.

Meanwhile, and possibly hearing that her husband had been enjoying the sea air in Norfolk, Mary decided that she would come to Yarmouth for a short autumn break.

Travelling under a false name, Mrs Hood, Mary and Ruby took lodgings at Mr and Mrs John Rudrum’s boarding house in Row 104 off South Quay where she told the landlords that was a recent widow and was meeting her brother-in-law in the town.

She went out almost every evening during her eight-day stay, but no one knows what she did and who, if anyone, she met.

Back in London, Herbert told Alice on September 20 that he was required to travel to Gravesend to attend to his dying grandfather: this was a lie.

After being out later than usual on the evening of September 21, the Rudrum’s daughter overheard Mary talking with a man who said to her: “You understand, don’t you? I am placed in an awkward position just now.”

Talking turned to kissing: could Mary’s companion have been Herbert? Or had she met a different man for a tryst?

When Mary turned in for the night, she was given a letter that had arrived for her which some accounts claim asked her to meet the sender at 9pm the following night – whatever the letters contents, she was out again the next night, September 22.

Wearing a long gold chain along with her best jewellery and carrying a good sum of money in her purse, she was next seen in a Yarmouth pub with a man who the owner would later identify as her estranged husband.

At around 11pm, Mary was seen with a man on the beach by couple Alfred Mason and his girlfriend Blanche Smith who were sharing a private moment when their peace was shattered by a couple sitting near them.

A woman cried out: “Mercy! Mercy!” – Alfred and Blanche assuming the pair were messing around and when they left 10 minutes later, they glanced over to see the woman on her back.

The man with helooked straight at them and, fearing they were interrupting a liaison, the pair hurried away, red-faced.

Eastern Daily Press: A cutting from the Eastern Daily Press of the murder of Mary Jane BennettA cutting from the Eastern Daily Press of the murder of Mary Jane Bennett (Image: Archant)

Mary’s body was discovered on the sands by 14-year-old John Norton as he arrived for an early morning dip – when police arrived, they established that she had been strangled with a bootlace tied in a distinctive knot.

Quickly identified as ‘Mrs Hood’, the mystery woman’s belongings were searched and a photograph was found of her with young Ruby. In the photograph she wore a long chain, a chain which was missing from the body.

In London, Herbert returned from his trip and visited Alice Meadows on the afternoon of September 23, later collecting Mary’s belongings from her lodgings and ending her lease, telling her landlady she was moving to America.

Alice benefitted from Mary’s clothes and jewellery which Herbert told her he’d been given by a relative.

It took more than a month for Mary to be linked with ‘Mrs Hood’ when she was reported missing and a laundry mark on the murder victim’s clothing was linked back to the unfortunate wife of Herbert Bennett.

A Scotland Yard inspector went to find Herbert and one of his co-workers identified Mary from the beach photograph: it was enough evidence to lead to Herbert’s arrest.

The case against Herbert looked strong: they found jewellery – including a long chain - believed to be Mary’s at his lodgings, a receipt from The Crown and Anchor, a wig and a false moustache and love letters from poor Alice.

When he was arrested, Bennett claimed he had never been to Yarmouth, a statement which was quickly proven to be an untruth and the chain, missing from Mary and found with Herbert, helped to tighten the metaphorical, and then the actual, noose.

Herbert’s six-day trial was the first murder trial of the 20th century according to Maurice Morson in his book Mayhem and Murder, Classic Cases Revisited.

Eastern Daily Press: An artist impression of Herbert Bennett while on trial for the murder of his wife MaryAn artist impression of Herbert Bennett while on trial for the murder of his wife Mary (Image: Archant)

At trial, Herbert’s shady life was revealed alongside his distinctly suspicious behaviour immediately before, during and after Mary’s death – the evidence was damning, but the accused’s barrister, Edward Marshall Hall, fought hard for his client.

He claimed the chain in Herbert’s possession was not the one in the photograph and produced a witness – albeit an unconvincing one – who said he’d been drinking with the accused in London as the crime in Yarmouth took place.

In Edgar Wallace’s book The Murder on Yarmouth Sands, written in 1924, he writes that it was Alice’s testimony that caused Herbert the most concern during his trial.

“When Alice Meadows stepped into the box, Bennett's eyes dropped; it was the only period during the trial that he gave evidence of his discomfort,” he writes.

“Lower and lower sank his head as she related, in that unimpassioned atmosphere, the foolish stories he had told of his career, his prospects, his travels.

“Bennett's imagination ran riot when his audience was a woman: his gifts of invention were never so marked as in those circumstances. He could listen without flinching to the record of his horrible deed—more horrible than can be related in cold print; he could watch with a detached interest the display of the trinket which he had taken from his wife a few minutes before her death, and could give his complete attention to the doctor's evidence.

“To Bennett, that was the least of his embarrassment. The real ordeal for him came when Alice Meadows exposed him as a braggart and a liar.”

Eastern Daily Press: A clipping from the EDP reporting on the Herbert Bennett murder caseA clipping from the EDP reporting on the Herbert Bennett murder case (Image: Archant)

Herbert himself refused to take the stand and he was found guilty. He protested his innocence until his very last breath – his only words during the trial were when the death sentence was handed out: “I say I am not guilty, Sir” - and was hanged on March 21, 1901 at Norwich Gaol, formerly on Earlham Road.

It was reported in the EDP that Bennett struggled and twitched for two minutes after the trap doors opened at what was the second execution to take place at this goal.

When the flag pile carrying the black flag to signify an execution had taken place snapped, it was said to be an omen that an innocent man had died.

His body was buried in the prison grounds on what is now the site of Norwich’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Defence counsel Marshall Hall maintained his client’s innocence to the last and, according to Morson, “…worked tirelessly for a reprieve, obtaining interviews with the Lord Chief Justice and the Home Secretary to press his case. He failed.

“Marshall Hall wrote to Bennett advising him there was no hope and wished him peace in his world to come.”

In a letter written to Sir Forrest Fulton, Recorder of London, Hall wrote: “Personally, I cannot see any better fate for a man of that criminal nature, but that is not the question, you know very well; and I am not the sort of man to worry unnecessarily about anything, least of all about a worthless man like that, but honestly and solemnly, I do not and cannot believe that he murdered his wife.”

The letter is quoted in full in The Life of Sir Edward Marshall Hall, KC by Edward Marjoribanks in 1930.

Eastern Daily Press: The grave stone of Mary Jane Bennett who was murdered on Yarmouth Beach in NorfolkThe grave stone of Mary Jane Bennett who was murdered on Yarmouth Beach in Norfolk (Image: Archant)

Mary was buried in Yarmouth’s most northern cemetery, between Kitchener and Estcourt Roads, her grave marked by a coffin-shaped stone on which her name is inscribed.

In July 1912, Yarmouth was rocked by a murder with eerie similarities to the death of poor Mary Bennett.

Dora May Gray had been killed with a shoelace and stockings tied tightly around her throat in reef knots, the 18-year-old’s life snuffed out and her body left in the dunes, 400 yards from where Mary’s was found.

The similarities were clear: death by asphyxiation by means of a bootlace, faces scratched, both victims went by different names, both had their integrity questioned by the courts.

After her mother abandoned her as a nine-month-old baby, Dora had been living with her two aunts and worked for a local man and his wife, looking after the couple’s baby.

According to a newspaper report of Dora’s inquest: “Selina Ann Eastick, the girl’s aunt, said Dora Gray was 18 and employed as a day girl. She last saw her niece alive on Sunday night at 7.30 when she left home, as her habit was, to for a walk.

“She said she would not be late, and usually returned about 10. Dora had not formed any attachment and the witness had never seen her with a young man. She was a well-conducted girl.”

Police Sergeant Herring said that when the body had first been discovered, her hat was on her head, a shoelace was missing from one shoe, there was nothing in Dora’s pockets and no signs of a struggle.

Eastern Daily Press: A photograph published in the EDP of Dora Grey, who was murdered in Yarmouth in 1912A photograph published in the EDP of Dora Grey, who was murdered in Yarmouth in 1912 (Image: Archant)

In the Eastern Daily Press, a photograph was published of Dora showing her face in deep shade from a wide-brimmed hat, a slight smile at her lips and fashionable dress of the time: a high-collared white blouse, a dark jacket fastened with a brooch and a dark skirt.

The newspaper report described her (somewhat harshly, it must be said) as: “…about 5ft 4inches high with light brown eyes and dark brown hair. She was well-built. One of her centre teeth is partly decayed away, and she appeared to be about from 18 to 25 years of age. She was wearing a blue serge dress of modest make with a hat of more pretentious style.

“Her underclothing is of moderate quality, and her pocket was practically empty, her circumstances being indicated by the fact that she had in her possession a small fancy handkerchief, but it was darned.”

Investigations began and evidence was gathered. Much was made of Dora’s life away from work when she became fun-time Dolly, who loved Yarmouth yachting station and the folk that frequented it.

Men at the station and amongst the Rifle Brigade which was camped at North Denes were carried out, those that knew the unfortunate young lady were interviewed.

According to True Crime Library Dora’s aunts may not have been aware of their niece’s extra-curricular life: “Edwardians called teenage domestic servant Dora Gray a fast girl, but it is doubtful whether anyone today would recognise her as such. Born illegitimate, she had a fondness for yachting men and according to gossips was seen far too often in their company.

“As an ancient journal pompously put it: “It appears pretty clear that she had a weakness for those clandestine dalliances with the opposite sex which would appear to have been characteristic of her irresponsible mother.”

A post-mortem revealed that Dora’s virtue was intact (to borrow the language of the time, while stressing that no one, regardless of other people’s ideas about morality, deserves to be murdered).

The report adds: “She was last seen with a fair-haired man wearing a straw hat and aged between 35 and 40. Police checked all the hotels and boarding houses for anyone who might answer to that description, but without success.”

In John Ling’s The Illustrated Tales of Norfolk, the author writes: “Her [Dora] gloves were located some distance away almost opposite the monument to Lord Nelson, leading to a theory that she may have been moved after death. There was no evidence of a sexual assault and no other motive was discovered.

“A number of suspects were questioned by police but later released without charge. Several men confessed to Dora Gray’s killing, but after further investigations, all were dismissed as fantasists.”

In Frank Meeres’ 2010 book Yarmouth Murders and Misdemeanours, the author examines the story and the events that led up to Dora’s tragic death, including a second life her aunts had no clue about.

“A different picture of Dora emerged,” he writes, “a lively and flirtatious young lady…She had stayed away without leave for about a week from June 16…when she returned to work on Saturday 22 June, Newman asked where she had been and the girl answered ‘Norwich’.

“Newman said she told Dora that she had been seen with different young men on the Drive and on Britannia Pier – ‘she admitted she had and said she had done no harm’. Mrs Newman herself had never seen her with any young men. Several letters had come to her at Newman’s house, she happened to notice that one had a Fakenham postmark.”

Evidence was presented from Hubert Baldry, the son of the Yarmouth yacht station attendant, who told the jury that he knew Dora as she regularly asked about a yacht called Flame, from Wroxham, which belonged to Alfred Collins.

On her precious day off, her special Sundays, Dora loved to spend time in the company of young men who owned yachts and motor cars and who could whisk her from Yarmouth to Lowestoft or the comparatively bright lights of Norwich. She shrugged off the mundanity of daily work and became Dolly.

It was a snapshot of the life that Dora wished for full-time, but it was also a life that attracted its fair share of disapproval from stuffy Edwardians: it was not ‘the done thing’ to be seen with lots of young men, it was unseemly. Unladylike. Immoral.

Just a few weeks after her ‘lost week’, on Sunday July 14, Dora transformed into Dolly for a night on the town, wearing a blue serge dress and a blousy hat with pink ribbons and two large pink roses.

Setting out from home at around 7.30pm, she was spotted by several witnesses on Marine Parade, close to Britannia Pier and walking towards South Beach.

Eastern Daily Press: The 150ft Revolving Tower on North Drive at Great Yarmouth beach, installed in 1897 and featured in a song the following yearThe 150ft Revolving Tower on North Drive at Great Yarmouth beach, installed in 1897 and featured in a song the following year (Image: Archant)

Bill poster William Hacon from Yarmouth told the court he had seen Dora, who he knew personally, with a man who he described as dark, 6ft tall, clean-shaven and wearing a grey suit and dark boots – they looked happy, but were not arm-in-arm.

Other witnesses described variations in height, hair colour and age of Dora’s companion but there were several indisputable facts: no one came forward who had seen Dora after quarter to nine and by 5am the next day, she had been dead for several hours.

At poor Dora’s funeral, on July 19, there were two mourners – her aunt Selina and a friend Alice Webster – the cemetery superintendent, two local reporters and the clergyman. As the coffin was taken from chapel to grave, four London reporters arrived to watch.

At the conclusion of Dora’s inquest (Morson notes that by coincidence, a member of the jury had been a member of the Mary Bennett inquest jury) the coroner, J Tolver Waters, said: “The deceased was apparently a respectable girl although she might have gone out with young men…”

Tolver Waters added that Dora “might unwisely have chosen young men above her station” and he called the case “a dark mystery”.

In October 1912, it looked like the murder mystery had been solved as George Ward, 23, a Yarmouth fisherman, walked into Litcham Police Station and admitted that he had killed Dora, a former girlfriend.

On October 23, he appeared before Yarmouth Magistrates charged with Dora’s murder, only for the charge to be dropped and Ward to be committed to the workhouse after being found to be insane. The night before Dora was killed, he had been arrested in Lincolnshire for begging and sentenced to two weeks in prison.

Eastern Daily Press: The grave stone of Mary Jane BennettThe grave stone of Mary Jane Bennett (Image: Archant)

In The Great Yarmouth Mystery: The Chronicle of a Famous Crime, written by Paul Capon in 1965, the author did not believe that Herbert had killed his wife and that whoever killed Mary, killed Dora 12 years later.

Capon’s exhaustive and forensic study of Dora’s murder saw him conclude that Herbert Bennet was “almost certainly innocent” of his wife’s murder

Instead, he believed that Mary Bennett’s killer was a sailor who she met on her trip to South Africa who was also one of the yachtsmen who Dora was so fond of: a flight of fancy, perhaps, and one Frank Meeres thought was unlikely.

He wrote: “It seems likely that Dora suffered the same fate as Mary, murder by a man when she was trying to resist his sexual advances on the beach. The bootlace in the second case was probably inspired by the first one, suggesting a ‘copy-cat’ murder rather than a serial killer.”

Of course, the truth will likely never be known. Those that held the key to solving the mystery that shook Yarmouth have long since died, taking their secrets to the grave.

It is now up to us to decide what our truth is: a miscarriage of justice, a horrible coincidence, a chilling copy-cat murder or did Yarmouth have a serial killer on the loose?

· Additional information from Outlines Podcast.