Crime History: Did Norfolk have a 'Bootlace Serial Killer' stalking the sands of its beaches?

The Britannia Pier in Great Yarmouth photographed pre-1900. With bathers in Victorian dress on the beach.

The Britannia Pier at Great Yarmouth before it was destroyed by fire in the 1900s - Credit: EDP Library

Lying peacefully in the sand, her shoes by her side and her neat plaits in ribbons – were it not for the stockings knotted around her neck, she might have been sleeping.

But Dora Grey was not asleep: the 18-year-old had been strangled, her death eerily similar to that of another woman’s in the same town just a decade earlier, a crime for which a man had hanged.

Could the same killer have struck again? Had an innocent man lost his life for a murder he didn’t commit? Was a serial killer on the loose in Great Yarmouth?

It was 4.35am, on July 15, 1912 in the carefree, heady days before the First World War claimed the nation’s young men and William Smith and Daniel Docwra were in their horse and cart on their way to work just minutes before sunrise.

As the pair passed the scenic railway at Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach, which had opened just three years earlier, they saw someone lying in the sand.

The Revolving Tower on the promenade at Great Yarmouth beach pictured in 1897

The 150ft Revolving Tower on North Drive at Great Yarmouth beach, installed in 1897 and featured in a song the following year - Credit: Archant

As dawn broke, they took a closer look, sure they would disturb someone sleeping off the excesses of the night before: what they saw chilled them to the bone.

There, on the beach lay a woman, a shoelace and stockings tied in reef knots tightly around her throat. They rushed to fetch the police.

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After examining the scene and arranging for Dora to be taken by mortuary ambulance to the police station, police surgeon Dr Thomas Letts announced the young woman had been dead no longer than five hours. The hunt for her killer began.

Born around 1894, Dorothy May Grey’s life had been difficult from the very beginning. With no father and a mother who abandoned her when she was just nine-months-old, young Dora lived with her aunts Selma and Harriet.

From an early age, the young woman learned to create her own truth. She told people her father was a doctor and her mother lived in Sheffield or that she would shortly be joining her bank manager father in Canada.

In fact, she spent her days in a small terrace house in Manby Road, just a few minutes from the beach and when she wasn’t with her aunts, she was working just six doors down the road for Mr Robert Henry Newman and his wife Louise as a ‘day girl’.

The hours were long and the work was hard. Dora arrived at the Newman’s house at 8am and would work until 7pm from Monday to Saturday every week.

Her duties involved looking after the couple’s two children and housework and she was, according to Mrs Newman: “A good girl in the house, very willing and honest.”

We have a photograph of Dora which was published in the Eastern Daily Press after her death, an enigmatic shot, her face in deep shadow, thanks to a hat with an exceptionally wide brim.

She wears the fashion of the day, a high-necked white blouse fastened with a brooch, a dark blazer and a dark skirt. She is smiling, or rather there is the whisper of a smile on her lips.

We cannot see her eyes, although reports tell us they were grey like her name, and we cannot see the a distinctive tooth mentioned at her inquest – or perhaps there is a suggestion of it, a single tooth where two should be.

The roller coaster at the Pleasure beach in Great Yarmouth

The roller coaster at the Pleasure Beach in Great Yarmouth - Credit: Archant Library

Dora lived, it was said, for Sundays, her one day off each week.

On Sundays, she would cast aside all that was dull about her life: her clothes, her ribbons, even her name. On Sunday, Dora became Dolly Gray and went to meet her friends, none of whom realised she worked in service.

In this second life, Dora kept the company of well-to-do friends and handsome young men who owned yachts and motor-cars and who could take her away from Yarmouth and to nearby towns or to Norwich.

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.

At her own inquest, the doctor who first examined poor, cold Dora told the court that the young woman “…had not led a blameless life”.

And with those words he condemned her, almost suggesting that poor Dora had invited trouble, possibly even contributed through her behaviour to her own death.

Of course the surgeon’s opinion reflected the buttoned-up morals of the time and the Edwardian standards: but it’s still hard to read. No one deserves to be murdered.

In the weeks that led to her death, something unusual had been happening in Dora’s life, for a start there had been a ‘lost week’ between June 16 to 24, one during which she had been absent from work without official leave.

Every day during this period, she had left home as if going to work but instead, she had gone somewhere else. On one day, she was seen with five men in yachting gear and other witnesses said she’d told them she’d enjoyed several day trips.

Hubert, the son of the man who ran Yarmouth Yacht Station, recalled that she had repeatedly asked when a specific boat, The Flame, was due in port: tragically, it sailed into Yarmouth just hours after she was murdered.

Was Dora waiting for the man in a white drill suit and cap pictured with her in a secret photograph she’d hidden in her bedroom?

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On Sunday, July 14, Dora transformed into Dolly for a night on the town, wearing a blue serge dress, a blousy hat, pink ribbons, two large pink roses and her gold ring stamped with a ‘D’.

She set out from Manby Road at 7.30pm and was spotted by various witnesses on Marine Parade, close to Britannia Pier and walking towards South Beach.

Dora was seen with a man in a grey suit who was wearing a hat, although other details regarding his height, hair colour and age differ. She was not seen alive after 9pm and it is believed she died at around midnight.

The facts of the case were scant. There had been no signs of a struggle, Dora’s gloves were found almost 300m away, her friends and family couldn’t shed any light on the case and police were at a loss as to where to take the investigation.

More than 10 men came forward to claim they had killed Dora and all were ruled to have made false confessions. Even the mystery man in Dora’s photograph was identified and ruled out – but never named.

Shortly after Dora’s murder, a crudely-written note appeared on a stone close to the place where her body was found which included her name and the words “may she be revenged”.

Buried at the Corporation’s cemetery in Caister, with just her two aunts and Louise Newman in attendance as official mourners, the others at the funeral carried notebooks and pens: local and Fleet Street journalists.

The press had latched on to the fact that Dora’s murder bore a striking resemblance to the death of Mary Jane Bennett, who had been found in the dunes at Yarmouth, killed with a shoestring knotted around her neck in a reef knot 12 years earlier.

A black and white image of Mrs Mary Jane Bennett who was murdered on Great Yarmouth beach

Mrs Mary Jane Bennett who was murdered on Great Yarmouth beach - Credit: Eastern Daily Press

Could the murderer be the same person? And if so, had an innocent man been hanged for a crime he didn’t commit?

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 in haste to prevent a scandal.

But scandal wouldn’t evade the young newly-weds. 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, and 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 unwitting customers, who had no idea of their real (lack of) value.

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.

A head shot in black and white of Herbert Bennett was was convicted of murdering May Jane Bennett in Great Yarmouth

Herbert Bennett, who was convicted of the murder of Mary Jane Bennett - Credit: Archant

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.

A clipping from the Eastern Daily Press newspaper in Norfolk reporting on the Herbert Bennett murder case

A clipping from the EDP reporting on the Herbert Bennett murder case - Credit: Archant

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 letter's 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.

An artist impression of Herbert Bennett while on trial for the murder of his wife Mary in Norfolk

An artist impression of Herbert Bennett while on trial for the murder of his wife Mary - Credit: Archant

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 her looked straight at them and, fearing they were interrupting a liaison, the pair hurried away, red-faced.

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.

The grave stone of Mary Jane Bennett who was murdered on Yarmouth Beach in Great Yarmouth

The grave stone of Mary Jane Bennett who was murdered on Yarmouth Beach in Norfolk - Credit: Archant

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.

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 reveals.

“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.

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“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.”

Herbert himself refused to take the stand and he was found guilty. He protested his innocence until his very last breath 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.

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.

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.

And as for whether there was a miscarriage of justice, a horrible coincidence, a chilling copycat murder or that Yarmouth had a serial killer on the loose, sadly the truth may never be known.

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