As a detective, the murder of a young women in 1913 was Grandad Beck’s highest profile case. This case was noted on his Obituary, September 1947, in the same year Mr. Beck was appointed to the Merit Class. Grandad Beck, Mr Plummer, Deputy Chief Constable, Superintendent Ricketts, and Sergeant Stockley were commended for their presentation of the case in a letter from the Public Prosecutor, Charles W. Matthews.
There are numerous accounts of this murder in contemporary newspapers from all over the UK and more recently in books and on the Internet. The Western Gazette included photographs, which was unusual. The illustrations used in this post are taken from the on-line British Newspaper Archive.
The murder reads like an Agatha Christie without Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot!
Gussage St. Michael is a small rural village in East Dorset, between Blandford Forum and Salisbury. This is an area of small villages and hamlets where agriculture was the main employment. In 1911 the population was 159 with 50 children at the school. The village had a Manor house, post office, shop, blacksmith and several farms. In the 1911 census, living at Gussage Manor was Widow Phyllis Good (87 years) with her 4 spinster daughters and 2 bachelor sons. They had 2 housemaids and a cook. Manor farm was run by her two sons, George (55 years) and Henry (53 years). In 1913 only the eldest son George is called as a witness.
The Main Characters
24-year-old brown haired Winifred Mary Mitchell, was described as 5ft 5 inches tall and slender, she worked as a cook at Gussage Manor. She wore false teeth given to her by her last employer. She had been born and brought up with her 3 brothers and 3 sisters, at her parents home at Manswood, Mere Crichel a few miles from the Manor. Her father was a woodman for Lord Alington. Winifred had worked for Mr George Good for about 5 months, she had previously been in service at several houses in East Dorset.
29 years old William Burton had lived all his life in Gussage St. Michael. In 1913 he lived with his wife and 3 year old son, Cyril Harry, at the village Post-office. Variously described as gamekeeper (1911 census) groom-gardener, trapper, Mr Good said Burton had worked for him as a gamekeeper and trapper for about 5 years. He was reported as a regular churchgoer and apparently led an exemplary life.
Burton is listed in Kerry’s Directory 1911 as Sub-postmaster but in the 1911 census it is his wife Lillian (Lily) who was the post mistress. Lillian was 12 years older than her husband and also taught the infants at the local school.
William and Winifred were distant cousins. They met soon after Winifred (also referred to as Win or Winnie ) started work at the Manor. They became close friends and started their love affair, this included an intimacy of an improper character. They exchanged letters and presents. Local people knew about their relationship but it is unlikely that Burton’s wife did. Winnie and Lily were friends and were often seen together.
Winnie’s mother Rose Mitchell told the inquest that on Sunday, March 30th Winnie visited the family at home. She told them that she would be leaving and going to work for a lady in London, but wouldn’t give a name or address, saying she would send them on later. Winnie packed a box of her belongings and asked her sister, Beatrice to bring the box up to the Manor the next day and collect her bicycle. Beatrice and her brothers Henry and Ernest went to the Manor the next day but Winnie wasn’t there.
The Housemaid at the Manor, Winifred May Bailey, knew about the friendship between Winnie and Burton. She often passed notes from Burton to Winnie, the last one was on 29th March. Winnie left the house on Monday afternoon, 31st March, on her bicycle. She said she was going to meet a motorcar from Wimborne to make arrangements to leave. Winnie had told her that she was eloping to Canada with Burton but not when, making her swear not to tell anyone else. Winnie had been suffering from morning sickness and thought she was pregnant.
Three days later her parents told the police Winnie had disappeared, but also told them that she may have gone to London. She had left a situation before and Winnie’s mother was not worried. At that point there was no suspicion that anything had happened to Winnie.
Earlier Burton told Frederick Butt, a carter at the Manor, that he was thinking of leaving the village with Winnie. Butt tried to persuade him not to go. After Winnie left, William told different people different versions of were she had gone, to London, emigrated to Canada and at his trial, gone off with a man from Poole.
George Gillingham dairyman at the Manor found a plate with 3 false teeth on April 6th when taking a short cut through Sovel Plantation (part of Manor Farm, 5 or 6 minutes walk from the village). He told his wife, who told the rector’s wife on April 29th. The Rector’s wife told her husband, who with Sergeant Stockley called on the George Gillingham to look at the false teeth.
The police didn’t know were to search until two boys Henry Palmer and James White told the them that on Sunday 30 March they had been picking primroses at Sovel plantation and seen a big hole. They showed P.S. Stockley where the hole had been. The police then dug up Winifred, they found her face down, fully clothed except for her lower underwear, she had on several pieces of jewellery.
The many newspaper reporters and photographers came to the village and plantation. The newspapers reported hundreds of people visiting the site, cycling many miles including from Yeovil, Winchester and Southampton.
During the investigation Grandad Beck took photographs of the grave and surrounding area. 14 of these were given to the courts. The police interviewed the families and friends of Winnie and William and other residents of the villages, before arresting William Burton. Some of these people were called to give evidence including three of William’s friends.
Leonard Mitcham said he lent William, his father’s gun on 31st March. William told Leonard that he wanted to shot a black and white cat. The two friends walked up the hill, when they saw Mr King, a local farmer driving his trap, they hid because neither had a licence for the gun. William shoot at a couple of birds and Leonard fetched some more cartridges. They discussed how the gun could kill someone before they parted. The gun was returned at five o’clock, William told his friend that he had shot the cat and asked him not to say that he had had the gun. The cat had not been killed.
Frederick Boyt told how William called for him at eight o’clock on the day of the Winnie’s disappearance to go trapping together. At the plantation, William went ahead and returned to Boyt with a girls bicycle. He told his friend that it was Winnie’s, he expressed his surprised to find it. He said he would take it to her home as she had gone away somewhere. The two men left the bicycle in the garden of Winnie’s mother, where it was found the next morning.
Burton spoke to Frederick Butt, a carter at the Manor, on the Friday before his arrest. Burton said the police were digging up the plantation, they have told my wife I am liable to be arrested as I was the last one to see the cook. Superintendent Ricketts told the inquest this was untrue.
The inquest was held in Burton’s former school-room at Gussage St. Michael and where his wife taught. Mrs Lily Burton had a nervous break down and went to stay with her parents at Milborne Port, Somerset taking their son.
The jury were men from the village and near by Gussage All Saints. They heard how Winnie had been killed by a gun shot to the face and neck. The gun had been discharged at a distance of no more than four feet, while Winnie was sitting down or standing. She had been picked up and carried to the grave after being shot. She was neither chaste or pregnant.
After 12 minutes of deliberation the Jury concluded that Winifred Mary Mitchel was feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought killed and murdered by William Walter Burton.
The papers reported a large crowd outside the school room including Burton’s pitiful father, while his mother watched from her daughter’s near by house. Burton was taken to Dorchester from Broadstone railway Station (13 miles away) via Poole. This avoided the large crowds waited at Wimborne in the hope of seeing Burton.
Winifred’s funeral was on Thursday 15th May, 6 weeks after her murder. The coffin was carried by four of her former school colleagues, the half-a-mile from her parents home to St. Mary’s church, Long Crichel. Followed by her family, friends and villagers, some in tears. The Rector Rev. E. H. James conducted a brief service to a packed church, many mourners had to remain outside, in the rain. She was buried in the church yard, where bunches of Narcissus were dropped onto the coffin.
The 2 day trial was on 3rd and 4th June 1913, at Dorset Assize, in Dorchester. William Burton pleaded not guilty.
The prosecution held that Winifred had been shot around 3pm on Monday 31st March, buried in Sovel Plantation. At the trial the jury heard how William was seen at four o’clock trapping a distance away from the plantation. The grave was an important matter, because the prisoner’s duties took him to the plantation practically daily trapping, and it was difficult to imagine that if the grave had been dug by someone else, and he had seen it, he would not have spoken about so remarkable and terrifying a thing.
Burton claimed he had seen Winifred at 3 o’clock for a few minutes, then she cycled her bike away, that was the last time he had seen her. He denied killing her. He had not fired a shot after he left his friend.
The Jury took 19 minutes to find William Burton Guilty of the murder of Winifred Mitchell. The Judge them sentenced William, wearing his black hat, saying that there was no doubt of William’s guilt and he delivered the death sentence.
During his last week William was visited by his mother, wife and son and was reported to have make a full confession. Showing fortitude and strength of nerve which characterised him during his trial, he expressed his sorrow for what he had done, and his belief that he had received the Divine forgiveness. He killed her because she threatened to expose him unless he took her to Canada, he had no money to pay the fares.
In letters Burton wrote I was proper led way. She made me believe all sorts, and beg me to go away with her…If I didn’t she should write a letter or else come down to see Lily (prisoner’s wife) and tell her everything…. She nearly drove me wild…This is why I done it.
On Tuesday morning 24th June a large crowd gathered at the gates to Dorchester. They could hear the Prison bell being tolled and the Chaplain reading the last prayers.
William Walter Burton dressed himself in a blue suit and laced his shoes. He walked unassisted to the scaffold where at 8 O’clock, he was executed.
The doomed man met his end unflinchingly and without a tremor.
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Ref: Quotes in italics
1911 Kelly’s Directory
Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 7th May 1913
Western Gazette 1913: 9 May p12; 16 May p2; 23 May p2; 30 May p2; 6 June p 2 & 3; 13 June p4; 27 June p12; 25 July p10.