Postcards told the story of a murder most foul
The terrified look in the young boy’s eyes is as raw as it was a century ago.
Photographed with his ashen-faced brother and sister, he stares out with total incomprehension – and in the shot the three siblings are clearly still reeling from the horrific murder of their mother.
The sheer terror in the little boy’s face is shocking to see, but equally shocking to modern sensitivities is the fact that his suffering is captured on a picture postcard.
The postcard of the three bereft children – Annie, John William and Arthur – is one of a series produced soon after the brutal murder of their mother, Elizabeth Todd in 1908.
The 31-year-old mother was killed and beheaded by 21-year-old James Jefferson, a complete stranger to her who was described at the time as ‘congenitally defective.’ The shocking attack, on the road from Pool Bank to Otley, was condemned by the Wharfedale & Airedale Observer of the day as “one of the most diabolical deeds that ever was committed”.
The picture of the children, along with postcards of their home, the scene of the murder and the funeral procession, are among the exhibits on show at Otley Museum, just over 100 years after the awful event.
Museum secretary Margaret Hornby said the murder series may seem shocking, but she explained: “It was their medium. Is it any worse than the things we see on television today?”
Indeed, visitors to the museum are informed: “To have produced this series of postcards detailing the murder of Elizabeth Todd in 1908 may appear strange to us today but, apart from the local newspaper report, the public would only have known by hearsay what had actually happened.”
In their own way, the postcards confirmed the facts, dispelling rumours and gossip. They may also have helped swell the fund that was set up by the newspaper to raise money for the bereaved family.
As gruesome as the cards might appear, they were by no means unusual. Visitors to the museum are informed that hundreds of postcards of disasters were published at that time – including derailed trains, collapsed buildings and fires.
But not all had tragic origins. Some – such as the cheery teddy saying “What! Come Home! Not likely when I’m in Otley” – bear witness to a booming holiday trade.
While, in the days before instant communication, others served more mundane purposes.
One from the Menston Laundry to the Anglo-American Oil Company puts in an order for petrol. Postcards were a fast and efficient way of conducting business at a time when postal services were quick and reliable with up to seven deliveries a day.
Such seemingly small insignificant exhibits can throw into relief the massive changes which have taken place in society. And individual tales of heroism, suffering and tragedy can be seen in a number of long-standing exhibits at the museum.
There are no photographs on display to remind us of schoolgirl Phyllis Swainston, but a glimpse into her short life is provided by a simple dolls dress and apron she made at the age of 11. Poignantly displayed alongside the clothes is a receipt for the funeral of the youngster who died from rheumatic fever a year later.
The stories of understated tragedies are told alongside tales of heroism and triumph in the museum’s displays at the Civic Centre.
One local man is pictured posing proudly next to stuffed lions in a studio mock-up of his triumphant survival of an episode in the lions’ den. The proud man was presented with a medal after accepting the challenge given out by a travelling menagerie. The museum has been presented with the photograph by one of his descendants.
Another local man with nerves of steel was Charles Bellenby who, in 1917, plunged into the icy waters of the River Wharfe to rescue foolhardy skaters who had been using a plank to reach the still frozen section of the river. When the plank collapsed, the skaters were plunged into the treacherous waters and Mr Bellenby, a well-known member of Otley Swimming Club, was among those who rushed to their aid. His bravery in rescuing at least three people is recognised with a diploma of merit from the town.
Other exhibits provide tantalising glimpses of the lives of people now long gone.
A piece of 14th century pottery from the site of the Archbishop’s manor house still bears the indentations of the potter’s finger-prints.
And one case contains a collection of individual shoes which, in a tradition dating back to at least the early 1400s, were placed inside the walls of houses.
“People used to put them there purposely because it was supposed to bring good luck to the household,” Margaret said. “There is quite a lot of lore and superstition about shoes.”
The earliest concealed footwear in the Otley collection is a man’s court shoe dating back to the 1840s. Among those on display is a lady’s shoe from about the 1860s, and a boot that was found in a well.
The shoes and the other exhibits provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of our ancestors.
“To us they are not just objects because we have researched them and found the stories,” Margaret explained.
There are some stories, like those connected with the gruesome looking mantrap, designed to catch poachers, which just don’t bear thinking about. And some fascinating snippets are hidden away in the archives among accounts for long-gone companies and plans for buildings that are no longer with us.
The plans registry gives an insight of the changing face of life in Otley,” Margaret said. “It has got all sorts in it, besides what we regard as important buildings.
“There are people applying for what they call motor sheds, when garages first came in. There are all sorts: a cow house, shops, water closets – there are a lot of water closets!”
The important role that printing has played in the town’s history is given due prominence in the museum’s displays. Otley led the way and the Wharfedale printing machine was world-famous.
“We still get a lot of enquiries about printing machines from all over the world.” Margaret said. “The machines themselves went to what were the colonies, and you still find Otley machines in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.”
Indeed, one of the museum’s volunteers is planning to see for himself when he visits a number of museums exhibiting machines originating from Otley during a visit Down Under.
The museum is now facing an uncertain future as it struggles to find a new home after being told it must leave the Civic Centre. But its volunteers have no doubt about the important role it plays.
“This is like a capsule of the history of the town right from the prehistoric times to modern times. We are still taking things in from the 20th and 21st centuries because we realise some things will be important,” Margaret said.
“We do think our archives are particularly important because there is nowhere else you can look at those old plans, for instance.”
And, surprisingly, the archive section doesn’t contain just archives. Hidden away among the boxes of papers is an exquisite embroidered waistcoat dating back to around 1770.
“It is just one example from our clothing collection,” Margaret said. “Unfortunately, we have not got room to display everything. They are packed very carefully in acid-free tissue.”
As she carefully unpacks the precious garment, she concurs it’s a strange feeling.
“You are sort of touching the past,” she said.