On a Monday morning in October 1871, two employees of the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal Company were at work at Gloucester Docks, trying to close the lower lock-gates. They found that one of the gates would not close properly, and suspecting that something must be obstructing it, one of the men lowered a rake into the water, to see if whatever it was could be shifted. Realising he had caught hold of something, he pulled the rake up and with it came the body of a young woman. Fully dressed and still wearing her bonnet, she had two severe head wounds, one of which looked like it had been caused by a hammer or a similar instrument.
The woman’s body was taken to the Sir Colin Campbell beer house in Llanthony Road, where it was soon identified as being Millicent Dawes, who lodged in Mitre Street, and hadn’t been seen since the previous night. She was about 25 years old and had recently been working as a nurse to a Mrs Franklin, who had just had a baby. The Franklin family also lived in Mitre Street. She had in her pockets 3 shillings and 6 pence in coins, a pair of black kid gloves and a carefully folded religious tract bearing the title, “Thou would’st be saved – Why not tonight?”
A Coroner’s Inquest was opened on Thursday, at the Sir Colin Campbell beer house. The doctors who carried out a post mortem believed Millicent Dawes had not died from drowning, but from the wounds to her head, which had been inflicted before she went into the water. The evidence suggested that there had been foul play, and the search for a culprit commenced.
Ralph Shelton, a worker for the Canal Company, gave evidence that he had been on watch near the lock bridge all of Sunday night, not coming off duty until six o’clock the next morning. He hadn’t seen Millicent Dawes, nor had he heard a splash or anything of that kind. However, just before midnight he had been approached by a man who asked him if he had just heard a splashing sound. Shelton responded that he had not heard anything. The man lingered nearby for a while, then came back to Shelton and asked if there were any lodgings nearby. He then went away. Shelton said the man was neatly dressed, but smelt very strongly of liquor.
Henry Cox, a cab-driver with whom Millicent Dawes had been “keeping company” for several years, was then called. Shelton was asked if this was the man who had spoken to him. He replied that he thought the man had been taller than Cox, and although their voices sounded similar, he couldn’t swear that this was him.
A new suspect was then introduced into the story, when a woman who lived in Mitre Street gave evidence that she had seen Millicent walking with a man on Sunday night. She described him as being rather short, having sandy-coloured whiskers, and wearing a pilot coat and a cap. Asked if Cox was the man she had seen, she said she was sure it wasn’t him.
Henry Cox then gave evidence. He said he had been on “intimate terms” with Millicent for four or five years and she had two children by him, but they had never lived together. He resided with his parents in Victoria Street. He had seen Millicent last on Saturday night, when he met her for a drink in the Booth Hall tap. They left together later that night and walked up Westgate Street to the top of King Street, where he wished her goodnight. They had arranged to meet again on the following night, but he became sick on Sunday afternoon and stayed home. In answer to questions from the Coroner and jury members, Cox said that they had not quarrelled that night and had parted on good terms. He had heard that Millicent had been intimate with another man, and had asked her about it on several occasions, but she always denied it. He added that there had been other people at home with him on Sunday night. Apart from his parents, his sister had been there, and a young man who was courting her, and a cousin.
The proceedings were then adjourned in order to track down the man who had been seen with Millicent Dawes on Sunday night. Henry Cox was advised to find some witnesses who could verify his story.
The inquest was resumed on the following Tuesday, by which time the man who had been seen with Millicent Dawes on Sunday night had come forward. He stated that his name was Samuel James Wilkes and he was captain of the screw yacht Nereid. He had been in Gloucester about a fortnight. He had met Millicent once previous to Sunday, at the house of Captain and Mrs Franklin. He saw her again on the Sunday night, at the same place. They left the house at different times and he hadn’t arranged to meet her, but later that night he came across her in Eastgate Street. They had strolled around town together and had a drink in the Victoria Public House. Returning to Mitre Street, they saw a man standing at the corner, and Millicent left Wilkes to go over and speak to him. She spoke in a low voice, but he heard her telling him to “Go that way”. The man walked off in the direction she had indicated. Millicent came back to Wilkes, shook hands and bade him goodnight. He had then returned to his vessel.
Wilkes was then asked to return to the Nereid to fetch the clothes he was wearing on Sunday night. While he was gone, a witness gave evidence that he had seen Millicent with a “sea-faring man”, drinking together at the Victoria House in Barton Street, on Sunday night. They appeared on very friendly terms and the man was asking her to go on board his ship, but he did not hear whether or not she consented. When Wilkes returned, he was asked whether it was true that he had asked Millicent to go on board with him, but he denied it. He said he had returned to his yacht alone, at about half past eleven. This was confirmed by an engineer on the Nereid, who said he had returned at a quarter to twelve and found the captain was already in his bunk, reading. The canal-worker Shelton was called and asked if Wilkes, now in the clothes he had worn on the night Millicent disappeared, was the man who had spoken to him at around midnight on Sunday. Shelton said he was sure Wilkes was not the man.
Henry Cox was then called, and Wilkes was asked whether this was the man he had seen speaking to Millicent on the corner of Mitre Street. Wilkes said that Cox did not resemble the man in any way. The proceedings were then adjourned once again.
When the inquest resumed on the following Monday, a question was raised as to the time Wilkes had returned to his vessel. Wilkes had said that he was back by half past eleven, and the engineer had confirmed that his captain was already in bed when he came in at a quarter to twelve, but Henry Vaughan, the dock watchman, said he had opened the gates on Commercial Road to let Wilkes in at half past twelve.
Henry Cox was now allowed to produce his witnesses. His sister, described as a respectable girl, said that she was at home on Sunday from four o’clock in the afternoon. She went to bed at about midnight and her brother had retired before her. She didn’t think he could have got up and left the house without her hearing. Her “young man” stated that he was at the house until a quarter past eleven, and Cox was there all the time.
It was now evident that there was no clear suspect in this case. Henry Cox had been considered the most likely culprit, but he apparently had been at his home on Sunday night. He had not been identified as either the man who asked the dock worker about hearing a splash, or the individual who spoke to Millicent at the corner of Mitre Street. As for Wilkes, there was some confusion as to the time at which he had got back to his vessel, but he had not been identified as the man who said he had heard a splash either. With no further evidence to work on, the inquest jury returned a verdict of “Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown”, and no further investigations were made into the murder of Millicent Dawes.
Gloucester Journal, 21 Oct, 28 Oct and 4 Nov 1871.
Illustrated Police News, 11 Nov 1871.
(Both newspapers sourced on the British Newspaper Archive).
© Jill Evans 2015