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CAROLINE IN THE CORNFIELD
or
THE CRADLEY TRAGEDY

by Nick Baker

Cornfield Capitaln July 1906 the murder of brick-yard worker Caroline Pearson, almost certainly by chainmaker Enoch Cox, with whom she was associated, and who then attempted to kill his wife before killing himself, rocked the Black Country. The salacious details of the case; Caroline, 25, was an unmarried mother of two young children, and Cox, also 25, was estranged from his wife and living openly with another woman, ticked all the Edwardian ‘disapproval’ boxes. So much so that every detail was devoured with the typically hypocritical delight of the period.

Over a hundred years later the murder still attracts controversy. For a number of reasons it entered local foCaroline Pearsonlk-lore, is still talked about occasionally today, and those related to the victims still hold strong views on the characters involved. Meanwhile, various latter-day accounts tend to slavishly and disappointingly  re-iterate both the judgmental tone of the original newspaper reports and toe the police line in presenting the ‘solution’ to the case.

This account, written after a careful reappraisal of the events, tries to present a rather more sympathetic view of the participants in ‘The Cradley Tragedy’ (albeit that the murder took place in Amblecote) or ‘Caroline in the Cornfield Murder’ (albeit that the field was rye) as the event became known, as well as analysing the reported police evidence and discovering a number of flaws. This is not to say that Cox did not kill Caroline Pearson; he almost certainly did, but in their anxiety to open-and-shut the case the police in 1906 were no less above a little creative presentation of the facts than they are today.

Also included are some of the imaginings associated with the murder, themselves entirely valid within a folk-memory context. In addition a number of locations closely associated with the Amblecote parts of the story are also identified, a remarkable number of these having survived (given the current propensity for demolition)  in a more or less unaltered form; whilst others – including the actual location of the murder – have not

In addition this article considers the murder in the context of the ‘Murder Bridge’, a now lost location that once provided a link, beneath a railway line, between the high ground of Amblecote and the lower Stour valley area. Many people who remember the bridge, which was destroyed in the 1970’s, associate it either knowingly or unknowingly with the Cox-Pearson case. Again, careful consideration of the facts throws doubt on this connection. Indeed, the question about the Murder Bridge has become even less clear with another rival, and so far un-researched, murder having emerged during the investigations.  All this research is therefore still open, with the intention of publishing a wider account at some point in the future, possibly as part of a more comprehensive history of the area.

Press Reports and Adaptations
The murder, attempted murder and suicide were widely reported in the press at the time. These press reports have been repeated since, slightly adapted, in the Black Country Bugle, first in 1974 and most recently on May the 4th 2006. A recently published book Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths Around the Black Country also contains an account of the murder; although with certain facts and locations somewhat confused. The Railways of Stourbridge published in 1998 ascribes the origin of the Murder Bridge name with the Caroline Pearson murder.

The original press reports were inclined to present the story – which almost certainly involved sexual impropriety – in as salacious a manner as decorum made permissible at the time, and the Bugle reports were directly adapted from these cautious if titillating Edwardian journalistic texts. The Foul Deeds account meanwhile takes the Police reports at face value; resulting in a strengthening of what appears to be a timescale of official convenience rather than fact. The result is that the crux of the matter – the motives of the individuals involved rather than their ultimate actions – has been ignored in favour of sensation, sentimentalism and some (now somewhat retrospective and outdated) moral judgementalism, as well a glossing over of some rather dubious evidence.

Finally it has to be said that the Caroline in the Cornfield Murder represents something that much popular published Black Country history tends to ignore. That is, that life in the region during the industrial period was not all ‘cheerful toil and chapel outings’; but that many individuals - then as now - lived their lives amidst a complex melee of emotions and motivations, often against a background of drudgerous labour, that in certain cases boiled over into a dangerous frustrated mixture of extreme passions and regrettable actions exacerbated by a culture of heavy drinking.

Murder, Attempted Murder and Suicide
The events immediately surrounding the murder of Caroline Pearson and death of Enoch Cox took place between Tuesday 26th of June  and Thursday the 12th of July1906. These are very briefly as follows.

Caroline Pearson, an unmarried twenty five years old brickyard labourer of Turner’s Lane, Brierley Hill, left work at the Harris and Pearson brickyard (its office Victorian offices and entrance arch now wonderfully restored) sometime after 5.00PM accompanied by a workmate Alice Westwood. Walking towards Brierley Hill they were met by Enoch Cox, a twenty five years old Cradley chain maker who knew Caroline. Cox  was estranged from his wife Amy (nee Hingley) who was living with her Murder Mapfamily in Dudley Wood. Cox invited both women for a drink and they went into The Vine at Silver End (now closed though with the building still standing). Leaving the pub at about 5.30 all three walked as far as the lane which leads to the Seven Dwellings Bridge (still standing over the Stourbridge Canal), where Cox suggested they walk across the fields to the Birch Tree pub  (still there and still a pub) for further drinks. Earlier, in The Vine, Cox had produced a large folding knife and now whilst they talked in the road Cox drew from his pocket several revolver cartridges and, apparently jokingly, asked Caroline if she would like some of these “in her”; whilst also intimating he might kill her, her younger sister (Annie Pearson) and his own wife. Annie Westwood wisely declined the offer of further drinks and walked home to Potter Street, and the last she saw of Cox and Caroline they were making their way across the valley via E.J&J Pearson’s Crown Brick Works towards the Birch Tree. Here the final Police account takes its first deviation from what was absolutely possible. According to the Police, Caroline and Cox were seen by ‘the company’ in the pub with Cox identified by his distinctive brown boots, and left at about 9.30, which would have been about dusk. Frankly such a vague identification seems unlikely. Caroline Pearson lived only a short distance from The Birch Tree and, in the sparsely populated district of Amblecote Bank and Withymoor, it seems very unlikely that someone, during over three hours of drinking, would not have recognised her directly. Furthermore, Caroline was by all accounts strikingly good looking and would have stuck in the mind of ‘the company’ rather more definitely than her drinking companion’s footwear.

What is certain is that Cox later appeared suddenly and violently at the home of Margaret Priest, a friend of his wife’s family, in Dudley Wood where his estranged wife Amy was staying. He attacked Amy with the knife and fired shots from a revolver before making off. Amy was badly wounded, but not fatally. What is uncertain, again, is the police account. According to Mrs Priest the attack took place at 10:30, according the to Police 11:30. The hour is crucial. If Cox left the Birch Tree at 9.30 as the Police suggest, and Mrs Priest is correct, this implies he had only an hour to kill Caroline and walk to Dudley Wood (a distance of over three miles). Not only that but he was apparently seen in a pub on the way! If however, the Police are correct on both counts then Cox had two hours within which to commit the murder and attempted murder of his wife – a possibility. However, the actual position of Caroline’s body (once it was found) was on the ‘far side’ of the Birch Tree which would have given Cox even less time to travel between Amblecote and Dudley Wood. This is a crucial point and one that has been missed by those who have unequivocally believed the Police account.

Following the attack the Police, cooperating across the Worcestershire/Staffordshire borders, began a search for Cox. A constable kept clandestine watch near Cox’s home in High Town, Cradley, where his father, his two small children and a woman, possibly named Brooks (apparent co-habiting with Cox) were living. At around 3.30AM Cox returned to the house. His father let him in, and upon warning him that the police were looking for him, Cox drew the revolver and shot himself through the forehead. He died half an hour later having uttered a rather ambiguous statement (given that in which he had been involved) along the lines of “I have done for her and now I have done for myself.”

Needless to say the events caused a sensation in Cradley where the Cox family and family situation were a source of great interest, disapproval and gossip. The ‘other woman’ (who apparent had struck up a relationship with Cox since assisting in the home during the birth of Amy’s third child – which subsequently died – in April), leaving in some haste.

However, it wasn’t until that evening that Caroline Pearson was reported missing and the story of her earlier meeting with Cox revealed. A search was initiated. Unfortunately adverse weather in the form of a tremendous widespread summer rainstorm (it actually made the record books) complicated matters, along with a reluctance of the police to trample across fields of standing crops.

An inquest on Cox held at the Old Crown in High Town Cradley the following evening (Thursday 28th June), returning a verdict of suicide. His funeral the following Monday at St.Peter’s was accompanied by an undignified mob scene which was only prevented from deteriorating into a riot by some subtle local policing. His grave is unmarked.

The search for Caroline Pearson continued throughout the 29th and canals were dragged, but nothing was found. Finally, on Tuesday July 10th,  , a fortnight after she had gone missing, her badly decomposing body was discovered in a field of rye on the south side of the valley behind the Birch Tree pub, its position betrayed by an awful smell.

Again there was sensation in the district, with a large crowd gathering to witness events, although they were prevented by police from entering the field. The body was examined in situ, as was then standard practice, by Dr. George Gifford a Brierley Hill GP.  Unfortunately a combination of extreme decomposition and lack of forensic techniques made this largely futile and no cause of death or other injuries could be determined. In effect Caroline Pearson was identified by her possessions and clothes.

An inquest was held the following day at the Eagle Inn in Turner’s Lane – a few yards from Caroline’s home – and returned a verdict of ‘found dead’. Much was made during the proceedings of the disarrangement of the woman’s clothing; her corset was undone and skirt lifted on one side. However, despite the press’ best (if somewhat coy) attention to these details, even the most amateur of witness to the scene - Joseph Wooldridge, Harry Wilcox and Arthur Skelding, who had originally investigated the smell – could not be persuaded to see signs of any struggle. Besides, after a fortnight in an open field and under extreme climatic conditions at the height of a spell of hot and stormy weather, the significance of the body’s position and arrangement of clothing would have been a matter for the sort of forensic investigation that was simply not available in 1906. As it was the scene wasn’t even photographed, and quite understandable the main concern of the officials involved was to remove the remains as soon as possible. A temporary coffin had been quickly made by carpenters at the nearby E.J & J Pearsons works and taken to the stable of the Eagle Inn in anticipation of the inquest.

ThMurder Sitee actual location of the body is a matter of great importance. Caroline Pearson lived in Turners Lane, the entrance to which was a few yards east of where the Birch Tree stood. It has been assumed by some researchers that the body was found between the Birch Tree and here. However, close attention to newspaper reports of the discovery, allied with map work and a knowledge of the farm tenancies of the period shows without doubt that the body was found about 200 yards west of the Birch Tree, just off the very path that Cox and she had traversed on their way to the pub when Amy Westwood last saw them. If the couple had been drinking in The Birch Tree until 9.30 then they must have been travelling away from Turners Lane when the murder took place. This is, of course, possible. However, it would also have been deliberate; and for Cox to have murdered Caroline after 9.30, and be at Dudley Wood at 10.30 stretches the realms of possibility to its limit. More likely that Cox murdered Caroline on their way to the pub, having entered the field for whatever reason. The placement of the girl’s hat upon her chest suggests a deliberate act by Cox (the heavy rain the following day having kept it there), whilst the unfastened corset certainly suggests a sexual motive. Whatever; if Cox did kill Caroline earlier than the Police suggest, then he would have had more time, up to four hours in fact, to get to Dudley Wood and arrive at 10:30 as indicated by Mrs Priest (perhaps drinking in both the Birch Tree and the second pub) on the way.

It could be argued that this is a small point , and perhaps irrelevant to the final outcome, after all both Caroline Pearson and Enoch Cox ended up dead. However, slavish attention to the original police story, allied with the moral tone of the re-telling, reflect a lack of historical revision which hardly pays credit to both the history of the incident and the individuals involved. The possibility of Cox having killed Caroline Pearson on the way to the Birch Tree has to be admitted.

Caroline Pearson was buried the following day (Thursday July 12th) at St.Michael’s, Brierley Hill with a large crowd in attendance. The vicar, Rev H.H.Dibben was in no doubt, both at the graveside and during a sermon the following Sunday, that the evils of modern society, particularly in the shape of drink and immorality, were to blame for the tragedy. There was a gravestone in place until fairly recently, but this has now disappeared.

Further Understanding
In order to understand more about the murder it is vital to appreciate some basic facts which were either ignored or glossed over at the time, and have hence not been repeated in subsequent accounts.

Caroline Pearson
The first concern Caroline Pearson herself. Variously portrayed in press and subsequent popular myth as either an innocent victim of a predatory male or a common prostitute, the truth is probably that she was neither.  Born in 1881 she was one of several children of James Pearson, a coal miner, and his wife Selena who lived at 40, Turners Lane. By 1906, the year of the murder, James had died in a pit accident and Selena was re-married to William Knight, though still living at 40 Turner’s Lane. Caroline, now 25, also lived at the house along with her two illegitimate children aged four and one. Clearly Caroline’s life was far from that idealised by the social mores of the Edwardian age, but then so was her job as a brickyard labourer a world apart from the middle class who promoted these.  The brickyard was a place of hard graft and tough people, and notorious for impropriety of a distinctly un-genteel nature - providing those who worked there and were so inclined with an early introduction into the theory if not practice of casual sex.

Caroline Pearson was, by all accounts both written and remembered, a very good looking girl and would undoubtedly have attracted considerable male attention. There is a hint in one newspaper account that she always took a pride in her appearance. Why and how these did not lead down the usual ‘respectable’ route of pregnancy followed by marriage it is difficult to say; but it did not, and by 1906 with two illegitimate children Caroline Pearson would have been most definitely branded a ‘black sheep’.

Enoch and Amy Cox
The Cox family have proved less easy to research (perhaps because any decedents are understandably less willing to talk) with some considerable work yet to be done on the exact nature of the relationships between them, although this would seem, in the generation before Enoch, to include a double family possibly involving two sisters and one husband. However, Enoch Cox certainly married Amy Hingley, both of them chain makers in mid 1901 and by 1905 they were living in Cradley with two children aged five and one. A third child, born in about April 1906, died after a few days and it is from this point that the disastrous series of events that culminated in the tragedy of June 26th seems to date.

In May 1906 Amy left Cox and went to live with her extensive and extended family in The Pleck, a now demolished area on the Dudley Wood border with Newtown. The children were left with Cox and his father in High Town, along with a woman who had been hired as a help by Cox, but with whom he had formed a liaison.

Needless to say these tangled relationships would have attracted considerable attention in the ‘village’ that was Cradley at that time, and it is obvious from all accounts that the women of the district, many of them also chain makers, sympathised with Amy Cox in her estrangement from Enoch. However, it is equally clear that as a man in his working prime Cox was able to ‘tough out’ his position, providing for his children and his aging father and maintaining the ‘other woman’ as well as drinking, presumably in the company of other men, in the area.  In a time when it was easily possible to starve a family to death through neglect, maintaining food on the table for dependents, no matter how unconventional the situation, counted for a great deal.

However, it is obvious from a careful analysis of the various reports, that the week beginning the 25th of June brought Cox’s precariously balanced life to a crisis point. On Monday the 25th he and Amy went to Dudley on a “legal matter”, presumably involving separation. On Tuesday Cox failed to go to work, and was seen pacing up and down The Pleck and later on a disused pit bank adjacent to it. Whilst on the latter he saw his wife and called to her; but she ignored him. That afternoon he met Caroline Pearson coming out of work and the events which let to her death, the attack on Amy Cox and Enoch’s own death began.

Enoch and Caroline
Key to understating the murder is the relationship between Caroline Pearson and Enoch Cox. A century has now passed, and whilst there certainly remain clues within family recollections and contemporary reports which point to this being something other than casual, the exact circumstances may be beyond reach. There is a brief reference to Cox being “well known” in Brierley Hill as a Saturday night drinker in the town, and it is not unlikely that this is where and how he met Caroline Pearson. As for the question at to whether Cox was the father of one or both of Caroline’s children, official records provide no clues.

Myths and Folk Memory
One additional aspect of the Caroline in the Cornfield murder is the way in which it entered the psyche of the people of Amblecote and as time went by re-formed and metamorphosed across the generations. These deviations from the fact should not to be dismissed as nonsense. The gradual change from fact to myth demonstrates a continuum of community and an engagement with the events, land and landscape that reflects the lives of those who lived, worked and grew up in Amblecote during this time

Of course, there is no one left alive who can remember the murder and hence the most directly descended recollections are via people who were told of the event, usually as children, either one or two generations removed. There isn’t space here to mention all the permutations of the story, however, these include grisly embellishment such as the victim’s head being found in a crow’s nest, blood staining on the snow (it was summer),  nothing remaining of the body (of a farmers wife) except a damp patch on the ground, and the body being carried to The Birch Tree on a table.

Two separate individuals remember the victim’s name as Maria, and one recollected seeing (and being scared to enter) a ‘red barn’ in which the body had been concealed. This, in fact, relates to the case of ‘Maria Martin and the Red Barn Murder’, a celebrated crime that occurred in 1827 in Suffolk that became the subject of much early Victorian melodrama. Clearly, the Maria Martin murder became so fixated in the public mind that elements of it were still being drawn upon by Amblecote locals over a century later (although in an interesting coincidence, Maria Martin, popularly cast as an innocent victim of the predatory William Corder, is now known to have born two separately fathered illegitimate children before allowing Corder to seduce her!).

The Murder Bridge
Finally there is the Murder Bridge. The bridge itself stood about half a mile distance from the Birch Tree. It consisted of a narrow gap under the Oxford, Wolverhampton and Worcester railway line which was, in fact, the last open remnant of a wooden viaduct which had been embanked when it became unstable. Only a few feet wide, its primary purpose was to allow local farmers to move livestock from one side of the railway to the other. The bridge was well known to local children who played in the area and its damp forbidding character gave it a certain atmosphere that was enhanced by adult warning not to stray through it (representing as it did a convenient border between upper and lower Amblecote). Proposed victims include a nurse, prostitute and children.  Forms of despatch include strangling, stabbing, hanging, pushing off and even ‘falling on’. Embellishments include dismemberment and a ‘permanent blood stain’. Occasional elements of the Caroline Pearson murder are also included, particularly extreme decomposition of the corpse.

As with the transformation of the Caroline Person murder, all these stories - no matter how untrue or implausible - are important folk memories; an entirely valid part of the ‘sense of place’ which once existing in Amblecote, and has now been destroyed by mining and urban sprawl. Indeed it is interesting to note that a surviving bridge under the railway, a mile to the south, is now know to local school children as ‘the Murder Bridge’; having taken up the mantel of the previous location!

Yet it seems unlikely that the original bridge (and impossible that the second one) was actually named after the Caroline Pearson affair as has been suggested. It is simply to far way. The first known mention of the name ‘Murder Bridge’ occurs in reports of a minor railway accident of the mid 1920’s.

However, the author has been told of a second murder, and one about which he would be very interested to hear more. This is dated sometime between about 1925 and 1935. The victim was woman named Rowbottom and the killer a man by the name of Millward.

The Author wishes to thank those many individuals who contacted him, and especially descendants of Caroline Pearson and her family for  their vital and candid contributions.