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Was an innocent man sent to the gallows for beach murder?

PUBLISHED: 18:39 05 February 2017 | UPDATED: 09:09 07 February 2017

Fun on the sands...but in the early years of the 20th century two young women were murdered on Great Yarmouth's South Beach.
Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVE

Fun on the sands...but in the early years of the 20th century two young women were murdered on Great Yarmouth's South Beach. Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVE

Mercury Archive

The BBC-TV series Death in Paradise draws big audiences, attracted by its picturesque Caribbean island location and its quirky plots and characters. But a former Gorleston couple enjoying their little bit of sunny paradise were astonished to read about a real-life murder...back in their old home borough on the other side of the world!

Little has changed: Pier Road in Gorleston on a 1922 postcard. Little has changed: Pier Road in Gorleston on a 1922 postcard. "Aussie Arthur" Bensley was born here seven years later.

On the Cook Islands off New Zealand, the sun beamed down from a cloudless sky on palm-fringed sands washed by the warm Pacific. It would not have taken much imagination to picture a Hollywood scenario of a sarong-clad Dorothy Lamour, a flower in her hair and a garland round her neck, singing softly to herself while paddling along the water’s edge...

During their1978 vacation from their New Zealand home, Arthur and Carol Bensley were browsing through The Photo News, the Rarotonga equivalent of the Mercury, only to be startled to read a Crime Flash-back feature about the Yarmouth South Beach murder of 1900!

That Yarmouth crime caught nation’s attention, especially after it emerged later that there was a strong case for claiming an innocent man was sent to the gallows.

The surprised couple were on holiday with their young son Paul. “Rarotonga was all palm trees, coconuts and tropical lagoons filled with amazing fish and coral reefs,” recalls Arthur, who was born on Pier Road in Gorleston.

Fun on the sands...but in the early years of the 20th century two young women were murdered on Great Yarmouth's South Beach.
Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVEFun on the sands...but in the early years of the 20th century two young women were murdered on Great Yarmouth's South Beach. Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVE

“I purchased a copy of the local rag and, by a strange coincidence, it included this Crime Flash-back by a writer named Max Haines. All those thousands of miles away and they came up with this!”

Nearly four decades later, the Bensleys have never forgotten that bizarre moment on the other side of the world.

The victim was Mary Jane Bennett, 23, a Kent resident who had been visiting Yarmouth for eight days before she was strangled with a bootlace on the South Beach. Under an assumed name, she and her daughter were lodging at Mr and Mrs John Rudrum’s boarding house in Row 104, off South Quay.

Mary’s body was discovered on the sands by 14-year-old John Norton as he arrived for an early-morning swim. Her identity was traced through a laundry mark on clothing in her luggage.

Her husband, Herbert, aged 21, a Woolwich Arsenal labourer, had removed from their home - after her body was found - clothes and jewellery which he gave to his “fiancée”, 21-year-old parlour maid Alice Meadows, who believed he was a bachelor.

Police also noticed that a watch and chain worn by the victim when she was snapped by a Yarmouth beach photographer were not among her possessions at the Rudrums’ - but in the London couple’s home, police found very similar jewellery.

Bennett was tried for murder at the Old Bailey, the prosecution claiming he left his wife and daughter on holiday in Yarmouth, returning a week later to murder her so he could marry his new sweetheart. The watch and chain photograph was damning.

The defence produced Arsenal shift records showing that Bennett was at work when Mary was strangled, and a witness claimed to have spoken to him in London about that time. Also, it was alleged that she was seen kissing a man in Yarmouth on the eve of her murder.

Nonetheless, the jury found him guilty, and Bennett was hanged in Norwich Prison, still protesting his innocence. As a black flag was hoisted outside the gaol to mark the execution, the flagpole snapped – signifying that an innocent man had been executed, claimed some.

Mary was buried in the Yarmouth cemetery, between Kitchener and Estcourt Roads.

So, why was there later considerable suspicion that the hanged husband was actually innocent? Because 12 years later, there was the carbon-copy strangulation by bootlace of Dora Green, whose body was also found on the South Beach.

This resulted in claims that a terrible miscarriage of justice had taken place in 1900. And, Dora’s murder was never solved.

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