Murder at the vicarage - but who did it?

'Vicar of Cretingham murdered by his curate' screamed the headline in the EADT.

Steven Russell

'Vicar of Cretingham murdered by his curate' screamed the headline in the EADT. But was it that clear-cut? Sheila Hardy, who's been probing the tale for more than a decade, still isn't totally convinced. Steven Russell reports

IT has all the elements of an Agatha Christie whodunit or an episode of Midsomer Murders: an elderly Suffolk clergyman dies in his vicarage bedroom after being slashed from ear to ear with a cut-throat razor. His curate, a man with a history of mental illness and a couple of violent acts, is convicted and sent to Broadmoor for the rest of his days. It seems straightforward enough. Local rumours suggest curate Arthur Gilbert-Cooper, who also lived in the vicarage, was having an affair with the Rev William Farley's wife - a strong motive for murder. Harriet was both much younger than her husband and older than the guilty man.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn't just the East Anglian Daily Times that followed the events of late 1887 with keen interest; journalists from publications such as The Times, the Pall Mall Gazette and The Illustrated Police News descended on rural Suffolk and the juicy details were reported far and wide in the days after the murder.

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Such is the fickleness of notoriety, however, that five weeks later the national press was no longer much bothered with events in sleepy Cretingham when the Suffolk and Norfolk Assizes opened in the November. Arthur Gilbert-Cooper denied murder.

Giving evidence, Harriet confirmed she didn't know the curate had earlier spent time in an asylum but said for the first time that she knew from the beginning “his mind was wrong”.

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Arthur was found guilty after a trial lasting less than eight hours. He could have hanged, but the jury ruled he was insane. So, under the Criminal Lunacy Act of 1884, he escaped the noose and was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure. A little later he was sent to the secure asylum at Broadmoor, where he died in April, 1927.

Harriet Farley moved on from Cretingham, virtually disappearing without trace. Over the decades, the number of locals with direct knowledge of the grisly events of October 1, 1887, declined as families moved out and people died off. A century on and you'd be hard-pushed to find anyone who could tell you about it.

Certainly Suffolk local historian Sheila Hardy was in the dark until she came across the story by chance in the autumn of 1996. After she gave a talk in Saxmundham - on religious upheaval in Suffolk in the 19th Century - audience member Diana Mann asked how she could trace something her husband had discovered.

Carpenter Henry Mann had been renovating a hunting lodge near Aldeburgh when he discovered that the men who built it in 1887 had written a number of messages, in pencil, on the hidden edges of planks. They were time-capsules, of a sort. One said: “A fearful murder was committed on the first day of this month at Cretingham. A curate cut the vicar's throat at 12 o'clock at night. He stands committed for trial.”

This didn't ring any bells with Henry, and Sheila's curiosity was similarly aroused. How could such a headline-grabbing murder in a rural county slip away in the mists of time?

Her investigations led to octogenarian villager Phyllis Burman, who had a collection of yellowing and tattered newspaper cuttings about the murder carefully saved by her parents. Then it was a question of delving into records, following leads, hunches, and going up the odd cul-de-sac.

The tale she uncovered was so thrilling and colourful that Sheila self-published a book on The Cretingham Murder ten years ago. But that wasn't the end of it; information continued to be unearthed, and the subject was frequently in Sheila's thoughts.

Then, a decade on from her book being published, The History Press rang to say they'd like to bring out a paperback edition.

For Sheila, it was a welcome chance to update her original text with information that had come to light in the meantime. She'd discovered, for example, quite a lot more about William Moule, Harriet's first husband.

They'd married in December, 1862. He was 16 years older than his bride and in the army. It's likely that very soon afterwards Harriet found herself bound for a new life in New Zealand, where her husband would be involved in putting down Maori uprisings against the colonial government. He quickly became a captain and later a colonel.

When Moule's health began to deteriorate, he decided in the late 1870s to return to England, dying here in June, 1880, at the age of 53.

Judging by his will, it seems William Moule's relationship with his wife was rocky, says Sheila - “one might wonder if, in fact, the couple were living together at the time of his last illness”.

A large bequest of shares went to his mother, while a sister in New Zealand received shares and a mortgage on some land there. Another sister, in Essex, received shares in a woollen factory.

Brother Robert was left the family house in Surrey and its contents, apart from “apparel jewellery trinkets belonging to and appertaining to my wife and such furnishings as he may feel disposed to give to my wife”. Harriet also got some shares and bonds, and £15.

“The maddening thing is that having sent all the material off” - to be printed - “I suddenly get an email from a lady in New Zealand who is a descendant of Moule,” says Sheila. “She sends me indications of where I can find information about Harriet's life out in New Zealand. But, of course, it's all too late for this edition!”

What is known is that Harriet Louisa Moule and the Rev William Farley were married in London on November 9, 1881 - the same year he was widowed, and after what appears to be a whirlwind “courtship”.

The vicar's second wife, Susannah, had died in the spring of 1881. The following September, daughter Elizabeth married a naval officer in Portsea, Portsmouth. At that time, boarding in Gordon Terrace in Portsea, was one Harriet Louisa. One surmises she and the Rev Farley met, and another family wedding followed soon after. “It was a marriage of convenience, obviously, I think - on both sides. I think at that stage people did,” says Sheila.

One wonders what the good folk of Cretingham made of it. Harriet was then about 40; described as being in her prime, she was lively and extroverted. Her new husband had already been in his late 40s when he came to Suffolk in 1863. He was said to be portly, sported a long and bushy white beard in his later years, and was reckoned to weigh nearly 20 stones when he died. Parishioners found him to be of “somewhat irascible temperament” in his dotage, when he was largely infirm.

It's what happened to Harriet after the murder, and after she inherited just over £900, that continued to tax Sheila. “We couldn't find out.” She suspected the widow had reinvented herself again, and perhaps found a new husband in time. But it appeared her hunch was wrong.

“Trish found her as a companion in Kensington, London, in the 1891 census, living with an elderly lady who was Canadian by birth.” (That's friend and genealogist Patricia Burnham.) “Then somebody came up with a story that she had actually gone to Canada. We followed this up, but couldn't find anything.

“In the meantime, we had the 1901 census and Trish found her up in Liverpool as a 'visitor' in the house of a music professor who was originally from Colchester. Had she met him before?

“Trish and I had this theory that this lady she'd been a companion to, who had been in her 70s, had perhaps left her some money. Whether she was waiting for a ship to go to Canada or wherever, there she is. So all that had to go into the new edition.”

She still thinks there is some doubt that Arthur Gilbert-Cooper killed the vicar. “As a schizophrenic, yes, it is quite likely he did. But there are holes.” The curate had a history of mental illness and had threatened someone with a blade in the distant past. On the other hand, there was no trace of blood on his clothes. There was on the widow's.

Sheila ruminates on the possibilities - and suicide isn't ruled out, either. In her book, she argues “it is possible to make out a good case that Harriet Louisa herself committed the murder”. Perhaps the village gossip was right, and the relationship between curate and vicar's wife had grown improper. It was also possible she became depressed, “seeing nothing for herself beyond the tedious routine of looking after her ailing husband . . . Given her age at the time, she might well have been suffering from violent mood swings herself”.

Sheila tells the EADT: “Some new evidence, which I have but which is not in here” - she taps her book - “is that when she went out to New Zealand with her first husband, when she was only about 19 or 20, he went off to fight the Maori wars and left her in Auckland, and apparently she had a little fling there. He attempted to separate from her then, but they got back together again.”

In fairness, it hasn't been definitely established that Harriet had affairs in Suffolk or on the other side of the world - and the truth of what happened in Cretingham that October night in 1887 remains elusive.

“It's a story that, as far as I'm concerned, won't go away. I would one day like to put the seal on what happened to Harriet.

“Every time Trish and I get together, we both say 'We're going to one day do a book called Hunting Harriet or The Hunt for Harriet! It fascinates us.'”

The Cretingham Murder is published by The History Press at £12.99. ISBN 978 0 7524 4895 4.

The writer

Sheila Hardy has written a number of books with local slants, including:

The Diary of a Suffolk Farmer's Wife, 1854-69: A Woman of Her Time

The Village School: A School and its Master 1896-1921

An Admirable Wife: The Life and Times of Frances, Lady Nelson

She's been commissioned by The History Press to write a book about historical Suffolk murders by poisoning

The working title is Arsenic in the Dumplings - there were at least two cases of poisoned suet!

The three main players . . .

The Rev William Farley

A curate in Lancashire; moved to Hertfordshire, then Saffron Walden

Married in 1840

Mid 1840s appointed to the living of Haddenham in Buckinghamshire

Had two sons and a daughter

First wife died in 1848

He married again the following year

Had two more sons and two more daughters

Came to Cretingham in 1863

Second wife died 1881.

Married Harriet Moule the following November

It appears he had a minor stroke in 1886-87

Murdered at Cretingham Vicarage autumn 1887

Harriet Louisa

Born Windsor around 1840

Father was a grocer

At 19 was living near Gloucester as the 19-year-old ward and niece of a retired army captain

Married soldier William Moule in Gloucester in December, 1862

He was about 16 years older than his bride

Lived in New Zealand until end of the 1870s

Married the Rev William Farley late 1881

The Rev Arthur Gilbert-Cooper

Had short career as a schoolmaster in Surrey

Was dismissed for a sudden and frenzied attack on a pupil

Ordained in Dorset

Taken ill summer 1878 and treated at a home for the mentally ill

Took dummy cutlery at the end of a meal and drew the blunt knife across the throat of a fellow diner

Admitted to a more secure asylum and diagnosed with 'mania'

Was there nearly four years

Came to Cretingham as William Farley's curate in late September, 1886

Was then 33 years old

Convicted in late 1887 of murdering Farley

Sent to the secure asylum at Broadmoor

Died there April, 1927

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