Beneath its legendary bucolic glory lies a history as angry and bloody as any inner city.
The leafy lanes and sleepy market towns and villages are the scenes of many a capital crime and 22 of these gruesome, sad and untimely deaths have been catalogued in Dorset Murders, a fascinating, if bleak, examination of largely forgotten wrong-doing.
The author is Cornwall-based forensic psychologist and lecturer Nicola Sly, who has written several other books detailing notorious murders in other counties and cities.
She spent months trawling through newspaper archives and libraries to put the book together.
“I started by typing ‘Dorset murders’ into the search engine of my computer to see what came up,” she explained. “I would then choose which ones I wanted to look into in greater depth and then follow them up in libraries and archive centres. It raised a few eyebrows I can tell you!
“I made sure I didn’t read anything else about the cases before I started doing my own research because I felt that if I did, the stories wouldn’t necessarily be my own but would be coloured by what I had read. I wanted the tales to come from my perspective.”
Nicola was also choosy about which cases she picked to write about, making sure that every one came to a neat conclusion.
She explained: “I worked by finding the relevant newspaper with the story of an arrest or appearance in a magistrate’s court and went on from there. It was quite frustrating at times because I would start on one case and get to the court only for it to vanish from the newspaper pages.
“There was one story about the murder of a child that I was doing for a book on Cornwall, and it got lost in the fuss over finding someone’s lost racing pigeon. It seemed bizarre – a child had been killed but the lost pigeon got more space.
“So there were several frustrating false leads, but I left those and concentrated on the ones that had a definite outcome.”
The stories date from 1818 until 1946 and cover all parts of the county. Many of them are crimes of deception and passion, sparked by lust, jealousy, unwanted pregnancy and greed.
Other tales are more desperate, recounting domestic abuse and the sad plight of honest families brought low by ill health and unemployment.
Nicola said: “The Dorset murder that stood out for me is the Robert Wright one, where he killed his wife and two little daughters. I am not usually affected by what I am reading or writing about, but that one really tugged at my heartstrings.
“Dorset is a gorgeous county and the thought that anything gruesome could happen there almost doesn’t ring true because it is so peaceful. But it is the same as anywhere and murders do happen.”
Perhaps more than anything else, the aspect of Dorset Murders that brings you up short is the fact that the terrible deeds catalogued by Nicola take place in what we think of as an era that is more gentle and innocent than ours today.
In the tale that so touched Nicola’s heart, Robert Wright, an honourable man fallen on hard times, killed his wife and daughters and then himself, rather than see them all live in penury.
Another sorry saga is that of Martha Brown of Birdsmoorgate, who killed her violent and adulterous husband John.
She was taken to trial, condemned and hanged, with between 3,000 and 4,000 onlookers gathering for her execution.
Her tale and the manner of her death is thought to have inspired a young Thomas Hardy – who was in the crowd of grim voyeurs at Martha’s death – to write Tess Of The D’Urbervilles.
Another charts the demise of the world-renowned architect Francis Rattenbury, who was done to death by his wife’s young lover, while ‘captain’ Frank Burdett turned his gun on himself after shooting his parents-in-law because they refused to give him money.
It is all too easy to forget that man’s nature has tended towards the murderous all through history.
We tend to look to the past through nostalgic spectacles, enjoying the cheery, rosy-cheeked portrayals such as Lark Rise To Candleford, while ignoring the poverty and hardship leading to brutality and murder.
Nicola said: “We think of them as innocent times and peaceful, but in fact, there are not many more murders today than there were then.
“And when people were found guilty and executed, sometimes crowds as big as 10,000 came to watch them hang. It’s incredible when you think about it – it’s like going to a football match today.”Source: Dorset Echo Wednesday 8th April 2009, Reporter Ruth Meech