Neil Hawke is a Professor Emeritus of De Montfort University. In this article, he explores the infamous story behind a mass murder in late nineteenth century Cornwall.
What happened, and where?
In 1885, James Hawke – no relation to the author – seemed an unassuming man, not long back in his hometown of Penzance from Australia. On July 28, 1886, James had been out in Mounts Bay, fishing with some friends. In the space of a few minutes and on his return, three people lay dead with gunshot wounds. James then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.
The murders gained worldwide attention and a number of questions remained unanswered, not least the murderer’s motive. Marine Place (which no longer exists) was situated just off the promenade of Penzance at the bottom of Queen Street, adjacent to the Navy Inn, which is still in business.
Marine Place was predominantly a working class area. Since his return from Australia, James had been living with his sister Mary and brother-in-law Charles Uren at No. 1 Marine Place. Charles Uren was a shoemaker.
Next door at No. 2 lived Rebecca Roberts, described as the widow of a carrier; she lived with her son (a mason) and her lodger, Emma Gendall (a tailoress). At No. 3 lived William Harvey (a mason’s labourer), his wife and family. At No. 4 was William Geech (a painter), his wife and family.
Further along the street at No. 12 was John Searle, described as a mariner and someone significantly involved in the terrible events described later in this article.
The relevant locations can be seen in a section of the Ordnance Survey map below (1908, 2nd edition). Navy Inn is in blue; Marine Place in red:
James Hawke and His Family
James was born in Penzance in 1835 to Thomas and Martha Hawke. Thomas was employed as a carpenter. At the age of 16, James was described as a tinman’s apprentice. According to the 1851 census James had two siblings, George; a guilder’s apprentice who eventually emigrated to New Zealand, and Mary; a younger sister by eight years.
Eleven years before the murders, Mary married Charles Uren. At the time, Charles was a widower of nearby Queen Street. On his marriage, Charles gained two stepdaughters, Clara and Janie Hawke. Four years before their marriage Mary and her two daughters were living in a property at the back of Marine Terrace, which fronted on to the promenade. Mary’s mother, Martha, was aged 70 and working as a laundress, having been previously widowed.
Pictured below is an engraving of Penzance at about the time of James’s birth.
James was educated at the Penzance National School where he showed considerable aptitude. The young scholar was seen as amiable, clever and well able to look after himself.
Indeed, James was often the champion of younger boys against their older oppressors and bullies. James was also said to be fond of ‘adventure’ and keen on bird nesting, hence his nickname ‘Old Bird’.
By the age of 16 James was in the tin trade where he stayed for a few years. His temper was described as ‘a fairly good one’. After employment in the tin trade James attempted unsuccessfully to join the Royal Navy, but soon emigrated to Australia where he had a succession of different jobs. These jobs ranged from store keeping through to working in the wool trade.
While in Australia, there was evidence of some literary talent when articles – in the forms of puzzles and charades, often of a poetic nature – were published in the (Sydney) Town and Country Journal under the pen name ‘Boss’ of ‘Balala’. The name may well be a reference to time spent by James at a shearing station of the same name, near the town of Uralla.
On his return to the United Kingdom James confessed to a drink problem which is well-evidenced during his time in Australia, though latterly there was no evidence of any excess on his part. Those who knew him also remembered a very deep and powerful voice which made James a good narrator and, at a moment’s notice, he could give ‘long and varied recitations’. Hawke had returned to his home country briefly in 1878 but quickly returned to Australia.
James Hawke the Mariner
Having been an apprentice tinner, James Hawke decided that he would try a different occupation and signed on aboard a local brig, the Lewis Charles, a vessel registered at the port of Truro. In one of the many charades published in the Town and Country Journal, on November 5 1881, Hawke declared that:
‘At a singing class one day
The master said I couldn’t sing,
But, like an ass, could bray.
I laughed at our old pedagogue,
This happened in Penzance…
It’s thirty-seven years ago
My friends, since this occurred,
So out of school I quickly ran…
I joined the schooner, Lewis Charles,
And went to Wales for coal…’
If the chronology is to be believed, Hawke fled from school and went to sea at the age of nine. The account may of course be accurate: the brig was trading in and around Cornwall at this time. Hawke may have looked older than his tender years so that he fitted the description of ‘ship’s boy’, and school attendance – and school leaving – was often not subject to any strict requirements. If so, it has to be assumed that he returned to Penzance before too long and took up his apprenticeship as a tinner. However, sea-going experiences emerge again, this time in what was described as a ‘puzzle’, published on March 21, 1885:
‘It came to pass, many years ago, when I was Boson [sic] of the Nonsuch, barque, a sort of ark and menagerie combined for rats, mice and cockroaches…’
Again, however, there is evidence of a barque trading to Europe and beyond during the years in question. Despite the dreadful conditions described it seems likely that what was probably an earlier experience of life at sea on the Lewis Charles had persuaded Hawke to continue. Although there is no evidence of sea-going except in literary pursuits the probability is that the idea took hold after Hawke had applied unsuccessfully to join the Royal Navy.
Realistically, the chronology seems to suggest that in his late teens or early 20s, and after a period of just a few years in the tin trade, Hawke joined the brig Lewis Charles. There is evidence from the Royal Cornwall Gazette that the brig docked at Truro in 1852 and 1854.
After what may have been a brief engagement on the Lewis Charles, Hawke moved on, perhaps to the barque Nonsuch; almost certainly a larger vessel whose trading span was probably wider.
In another item published in the Town and Country Journal on November 3 1883, the following extract appeared:
‘I was boson [sic] of a second ship
That was under an embargo;
We’d broke the eighth commandment,
For we had broached the cargo
It was my fault, I owe that much…’
This seems consistent with the extract from March 21, 1885, suggesting that Hawke had some success in his brief career at sea, being now the bosun. This conclusion may count for nothing in the light of what follows.
In 1856 the migrant ship, the barque Palmya, described variously as being 602 or 706 tons, arrived at Sydney from Liverpool. Aboard was one ‘James Hasoke’. Despite the misspelling, it’s clear from the surrounding detail that it was James Hawke. He was described as a ship’s boy, though it will be seen below that he was in fact designated an Ordinary Seaman. Arguably, the previous extracts may represent a boast on the part of their author. Assuming that Hawke left school at age 16, the evidence seems to suggest that his apprenticeship in the tin trade was relatively brief.
Arrival in Australia
In another ‘puzzle’ created by Hawke and published in the Town and Country Journal for July 5, 1884, the following passages are written:
‘A story now I will relate,
Of [a person] who was an old shipmate
Of mine on board a clipper.
In ’55 we came out here;
Most of the crew got on the beer
Without leave from our skipper.
Thirteen of us went on the tramp;
My shipmates voted me a scamp
And leader of our boys…
Up to us came a policeman,
With “Min, it’s from a ship ye’ve ran;
Ye’ll have to go to gaol…”
When we were inside Darlinghurst…
We had to draw a heavy truck,
With stones and lime and clay, and muck…
Our team was just composed of eight-
Six seamen, bos’n, and a mate,
Poor sons of Davy Jones…’
Although Hawke refers to thirteen fellow deserters from the Palmyra, records from the New South Wales Police Gazette on March 7, 1856 confirm that just eight were listed as deserters. Described here as an ‘Ordinary Seaman’, Hawke is said to be ‘5 feet 5 inches’ tall with a fair complexion and light hair.
A reward of £5 was offered for each deserter if apprehended while the ship remained in the harbour. Later, on September 1, Hawke and his fellow deserters were still at large. Eventually, Hawke was apprehended, convicted and imprisoned for ten weeks for desertion, according to the Empire newspaper on October 10, 1856.
Eight years later, Hawke was again detained at Darlinghurst, this time for being drunk and disorderly. This event appears to be linked to a report in the New South Wales Police Gazette, as follows:
Stolen about 12.30am … from the person of James Hawke, residing at Locke and Johnson’s boarding-house, Lower George Street, whilst drunk in Queen’s Place, a portmonnaie, containing one ten, one five and two, one pound notes, Banks and numbers unknown, by a prostitute – about 19 or 20 years of age, tall, black hair; dressed in a black silk mantle and dress. Cannot be identified.
Twenty years later, Hawke was back in Darlinghurst serving another sentence – seven days – for drunkenness.
Life in Australia
Although there is very little evidence, it appears that James Hawke had a moderately successful career in the wool trade, though he seems otherwise to have had a variety of jobs, including a period when he ran a store.
For the most part, Hawke appeared to have settled in a small community called Balala, a sheep rearing area of pastureland near the town of Uralla, which was about 290 miles north of Sydney and midway between that city, and Brisbane. Although many of his submissions (under the pen name ‘Boss’ of Balala or Uralla) to the Town and Country Journal refer to a wife (and on one occasion thirteen children), there is no evidence of a marriage.
That he had some success in agriculture may be seen in the purchase of 40 acres of land in the parish of Honeysuckle, August 1881, just four years before he returned home to Cornwall. Indeed, in March 1885 a charade refers to Hawke having ‘…a small farm [whose] stock consisted of a lame horse, a she goat, and a pet magpie’!
That he had an eye for the opposite sex is frequently demonstrated in Hawke’s submissions to the Town and Country Journal. So, for example, a month after his purchase of 40 acres in 1881, he wrote as follows:
Miss Nellie wears a nice [fur] cape
It keeps her very warm.
There’s dimples on her pretty face,
She’s the pride of our farm.
She often smiles at poor old Boss
The man who chops her wood.
And coaxes him to feed the pigs,
As pretty maidens should.
Not [long] ago that pretty maid
Came on my farm to dwell.
She lives a [mile] away from me,
Does pretty little Nell.
In October 1881 a charade mentions ‘my wife’, as does another in the following month, while in January of the following year reference is made to ‘Betsy Jane, my spouse’. Elsewhere, in a charade published in September 1882, Hawke refers to ‘Madam Boss’ before declaring that:
‘…still she is my Betsey Jane,
A beauty without paint’.
Later, in May 1884 Hawke declared:
‘I’d freely give a half-a-crown
To one who’d [take] my wife;
For she’s the terror of this town,
I’m sick of married life.’
Not long afterwards, in July 1884 the editor of the Town and Country Journal printed the following:
‘ “When first the marriage knot was tied.” The contribution forwarded, beginning with the above line…is so uncomplimentary to the ladies that we dare not give it a place in our pages. We regret this, as it is well written, but having such a large number of the fair sex as contributors and readers, we are not prepared to slight them in any way. Our dear old “Boss” seems to have a bad specimen of womanhood as his help-meet, but then, perhaps, it serves him right, and he is not worth a better. We think he is sometimes going too far in writing of his family jars, but there’s no accounting for men. [W]e hope few of our contributors have spouses like Madame Boss, over whose grave will be written, not a charade by Boss Balala in memory of, but the epitaph by Boss Balala –
“Here lies Madame Boss, so let her lie,
She’s at rest, and so am I”.’
On another occasion, in March 1885, the editor takes ‘Boss’ to task by saying that ‘…frequent allusions to other contributors are not in good taste’. In one of his last contributions to the Town and Country Journal, part of the charade reported that:
‘I a poker broke
Over Madame Boss’s head,
Who soon began to croak…’
The Year of 1866
Queen Victoria attained her 67th birthday. On May 27, The Cornishman newspaper noted the Queen’s birthday and observed that flags were flown throughout Penzance; Mr Roscorla’s in North Parade Gardens being ‘specially gay’.
Nationally, politics was on a see-saw between Conservative and Liberal governments. The Cornishman meanwhile carried the minutiae of life in Penzance.
On November 18 after the murders were no longer headlines, it was reported that a carnival was to be held on New Year’s Eve, though one correspondent wondered whether summer was a fitter time for an outdoor fete of this kind. Earlier, on August 12, the newspaper carried a complaint about Penzance Cemetery being closed on a Sunday afternoon. The same issue noted that the town’s population was recorded at 12,800.
The Murders and An Inquest
Very soon after the murders, an inquest was held at the Town Hall where the victims were named: Charles Uren (James’s brother-in-law), Mary Uren (James’s sister), and Elizabeth Martha Douglas Gerard (the wife of a local jeweller, visiting the Urens from nearby Daniel’s Place). It was formally noted that James Hawke had committed suicide. In something of an understatement, the chairman referred to the fact that the inquest was being held under:
‘…circumstances of exceptional horror, the surroundings of the case being shocking and appalling’.
Thomas Blewett, licensee of the Navy Inn, testified that he knew James Hawke and that, on the day of the murders, he, Hawke and another friend had gone out for a fishing trip in Mounts Bay. John Searle, the mariner living close by at No. 12 Marine Place, testified that he had seen the men go out in the boat.
Soon after returning to his home, the shootings occurred: he heard gunshots and ran towards their source: the Urens’ house at No.1. On arrival, Searle saw Mrs. Gerard on the ground in the yard outside the house. Hawke was standing in the doorway of the Urens’ house, whereupon he took a small bag from his pocket, gave it to Mrs. Roberts, the next door neighbour, and asked that it be given to his niece, Clara, before putting the pistol to his head and pulling the trigger.
Searle rushed forward, removed the pistol from Hawke and handed it to P.C. Clift. Searle testified that he had never heard any altercation between Hawke and the Urens, though he had heard that Mary did not like to see him coming in ‘with the drink in him’. On entering the Urens’ house, Searle discovered the dead bodies of husband and wife.
Rebecca Roberts testified that she had known James Hawke for 23 years, and that he had returned from Australia ‘three months ago’. This neighbour further testified that Hawke seemed ‘very affectionate’ towards the Urens. She added that she heard firing at about 1.30pm.
Mrs Roberts told the inquest that she was aware that Hawke was Clara’s uncle, though she denied having heard that Hawke wished to marry Clara. Mrs Roberts stated that Hawke had gone away ‘the last time’, seven years previously and about twenty three years ago, ‘the first time’.
Mr John George Gerard, a watch ‘jobber’ and jeweller living at nearby Daniel’s Place, testified that he was visiting the Urens on business a little after 1pm. Charles Uren went out for beer, being told by Gerard that if he saw Hawke in the Navy Inn, to tell him that ‘I am here’. About five minutes later Hawke returned to the Urens house, chatting agreeably with Gerard, before leaving for roughly five minutes.
On his return Hawke appeared to be ‘in a passion’, saying, ‘If you b – s don’t clear out from here I’ll d – d soon settle the lot of you.’ Gerard said to his wife, ‘I believe he is up to some roguery. Let us clear out.’
Gerard testified that he thought Hawke intended some sort of violence. Gerard and his wife ran from the house, whereupon there were two reports from the revolver. Almost immediately, Mrs Gerard ran back into the house, asking Hawke, ‘I have not said anything to you, Mr Hawke, have I?’
Hawke turned the gun on Mrs Gerard and shot her twice. As Mr Gerard approached the lifeless body he was heard to ask, ‘Liz, are you dead?’ At this point others rushed forward in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Hawke turning the gun on himself.
Pictured below, courtesy of the Penlee House Museum, is a pictorial representation of the events described:
The Coroner’s Summing-Up
The Coroner referred to evidence of a ‘temper’ on Hawke’s part, though there was no evidence of ‘madness’ or ‘drunkenness’. However, the events showed a ‘very cool and deliberate piece of business from beginning to end’.
Hawke, the coroner said, was sufficiently cool and calculating to have re-loaded his weapon. There was a ‘quiet deliberation’ on Hawke’s part.
In his direction to the jury, the coroner stated that the evidence showed that Hawke deliberately, and with malice aforethought, killed three unfortunate people and afterwards, while in a cool and calm state of mind, maliciously put an end to his own life. These verdicts amounted to a charge of murder against Hawke.
Verdict: wilful murder and felo-de-se.
The Media Reaction
Across the world, news of the murders and suicide reached the columns of many newspapers, particularly in what is now referred to as the ‘old Commonwealth’. Surprisingly, the Town and Country Journal where Hawke had published his puzzles and charades on so many occasions carried but a brief description of the events in Penzance in its edition on July 31, 1886, as follows:
London, Thursday, July 29. – A terrible tragedy was enacted in Penzance today. A man named James Hawke, who had returned to England after spending some time in Australia, shot his sister, his brother-in-law, and a neighbour, and then committed suicide. The three victims of the man’s vengeance are mortally wounded.
By way of an example of the world-wide press coverage, the Otago Daily Times in New Zealand carried a rather more comprehensive report some time later, on October 2, 1886. Throughout, there is a misspelling of ‘Uren’ as ‘Wren’. Interestingly, and towards the end of this piece, there appears a statement that had not been seen in the reporting of the facts hitherto. The statement is as follows:
Hawke had been a mystery to the neighbours since his return from Australia, for, though he did no work, it was generally known that he came home penniless.
More recently, John Van der Kiste and Nicola Sly in their book ‘Cornish Murders’ (The History Press, 2009) provide a very good summary of the events at Marine Place. The authors’ summary at p.44 well reflects the tragic events:
‘What had suddenly turned an apparently normal, sober man whom so many people had known as a friend for so long into a multiple killer would never be known.’
However, the evidence of Hawke’s life, and attitudes, during his time in Australia may justify a reconsideration of his character.
The Cornishman newspaper on November 18, 1886 carried a report about the deliberations of the Penzance Board of Guardians. The report indicates that the mayor of Penzance, Mr Wellington Dale, had been appointed chairman of a committee appointed to raise funds for the maintenance and education of the three ‘Uren children’ whose parents were murdered. The Royal Cornwall Gazette for November 5, 1886 recorded that £90 had been raised for the welfare of the children. The Board was thanked for having consented to pay 3s. weekly for the support of one of the orphans (Emily, aged 6), in Miss Bolitho’s home at Madron. But for the funds raised it was reported by the Gazette that the children would have been consigned to the Workhouse. This appears to be the only evidence of the children so tragically affected by the murders.
Altogether, there were four children orphaned; two stepchildren and two children of the marriage. The stepchildren were Clara, aged 24 at the time of the murders, and Janie, aged 19 at the time of the murders. The two children of the marriage were George, born in 1877, and Emily, who was 6 years old. Clara, at the time, seemed to have been living away from Marine Place working as a domestic servant. Though discussion of a motive may still bring attention back to the possibility of frustrated romantic feelings for the niece, it is still difficult to believe that it was capable of driving such an extreme reaction.
The youngest of the children – Emily Uren – was presumably in the house at the time of the murders, though it appears that there is no mention of the child’s situation. For example, there is no evidence that a neighbour or friend had sought to ask whether the child was in the house.
Later in life, in 1901, Emily married Thomas Matthews, a carpenter, at St Mary’s Church. Clara, Emily’s stepsister, was one of the witnesses. Emily’s brother, George Uren, married Olive Nicholls at Helston in 1924.
At the age of 25, Janie married a fisherman – John Williams – from the Isles of Scilly. The wedding was again at nearby St Mary’s Church and, again, Clara was one of two witnesses. At her birth in June 1861 Mary Hawke, in registering the birth, chose not to record the name of Clara’s father.
Much of Clara’s life appears to have been spent in domestic service. Five years after the Marine Place murders, Clara is recorded in the 1891 census working as a general domestic servant at 19 Morrab Road, a house owned by one Edward Polkinghorne, a solicitor’s clerk.
Interestingly, recorded in the same household is a visitor by the name of Catherine Crocker, aged 54, who lived on her own means. Catherine Crocker was the spinster sister of Polkinghorne’s wife, Mary.
Not long before the 1891 census it appears that Clara had married a Joseph Jennings. Subsequently, Jennings was convicted of bigamy at the Old Bailey in November 1889 having married Clara, while his own wife was still alive. There was a considerable age gap of nearly 30 years; Jennings having been born in 1834 and Clara in 1862.
In 1886, possibly when the couple were romantically entangled, Jennings was 52 years of age, on a par with James Hawke’s age at the time. It can be surmised that – perhaps – the romantic entanglement was something that played on Hawke’s mind, particularly if he had returned from Australia with hopes of a relationship with Clara.
In the next 1911 census, Clara is again recorded as a general domestic servant, this time at No. 31 Morrab Road. In residence lived Mary Polkinghorne, Edward Polkinghorne’s widow, and Mary’s sister Catherine Crocker.
In February 1947 Clara died at the age of 85. Clara is buried in Penzance cemetery. In the same grave is Catherine Crocker who died fifteen years before, also aged 85.
[The author acknowledges the generous assistance of the following, in the preparation of this article: Claire Morgan (Cornish Studies Library, Redruth), Katie Herbert (Penlee House Gallery and Museum), Mr Peter Waverly (local historian) and Ralph Sanderson (National Library of Australia).]