Monday, 12 October 2015

The Altcar Tragedy

A soldier on training at the Altcar camp near Formby was sentenced to death after battering a fellow serviceman after a night out, but was reprieved by the Home Secretary. 

On the afternoon of Saturday 16th May 1903 Private John James and Private Arthur Wilkes of the Royal Welch Fusiliers went out drinking in Formby. They went to several beerhouses before being turned away from the Railway Hotel for being too drunk at around 9pm.

James was 29 years old and had fought in the South African War then served in China, where he received an injury that meant his fighting days were over, but he remained with the regiment as a cook. Wilkes had yet to see any action and was at Altcar with his regiment for musketry training.

The circumstances that led to what happened next will never be known, but 21 year old Wilkes arrived back at camp on his own. At 330am another private, Frederick Boswell, was walking back to the camp along Fisherman's Walk and heard moaning coming from a ditch. On going to investigate, he found James in an insensible state with several wounds on his face. Boswell ran to the camp for help and returned with a Sergeant Jenkins and a stretcher. They took James to the camp hospital but after being laid on  a bed he took his last breaths and died. 

A key find near the scene had been a regimental belt, meaning that somebody at the following mornings parade would be without one. That person was set to be Private Burke, who had reported his belt as missing at 6am when he saw that it wasn't hanging up where it should be. The belt was then found in Wilkes's tent and he became agitated when confronted about it. He was also unable to explain where his regimental trousers were, having been wearing normal ones. This was enough for Sergeant Jenkins to authorise the detention of Wilkes and he was taken to Formby police station.

The following day Wilkes's regimental trousers were found hidden behind a radiator, covered in mud. Wilkes appeared at Birkdale Magistrates Court that day and was remanded having been charged with murder. An inquest opened on the Tuesday at the Railway Hotel, with the Coroner ordering the body to be laid out where it had been found so that the jury could get a full picture of the surroundings. When they went to view it though one member of the jury fainted and had to be taken to hospital, leading to an adjournment of a week.

When the inquest resumed it was at the police buildings in Birkdale. Knowing how much evidence was against him Wilkes decided to issue a statement via Inspector Hodgson. In this he claimed that the two men were on friendly terms whilst walking back but James insisted on returning to try and find more drink. Wilkes said that when he tried to stop him, James's replied 'You will have to go to the front and get some medals on you chest before you can stop me going to town.' He then claimed that James wrestled him to the ground and he had to use his belt to get him off and he had no idea what state he left him in. 

A verdict of wilful murder was returned by the inquest jury and Wilkes was formally committed for trial at the next Liverpool assizes. He appeared before Justice Bigham on 31st July, pleading not guilty on the grounds that he was acting in self defence. However, medical evidence showed that he had not received any injuries and was much stronger than James, who had a fractured skull, crushed nose and sixteen wounds on his face, hands and fingers. in summing up Justice Bigham said that if the jury was satisfied that it was Wilkes who carried out the act then it was a 'wicked and brutal murder.'

Wilkes was found guilty by the jury who recommended mercy on account of his youth. The judge said he would pass this on but that he should not hold out much hope of a reprieve. A petition was presented to the Home Secretary by Wilkes's solicitors who were based in North John Street but time was running out fast with the execution fixed for Tuesday 18th August and no news forthcoming. Finally on the 15th August a letter was received by the Governor of Walton Gaol saying that the sentence had been commuted to penal servitude for life.

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