Death of Laura Curtis

Great aunt Laura was only a name in a list of birthdays and deaths kept by our gran, her younger sister. Laura’s great granddaughter then made contact via the Ancestry website and our subsequent researches added some more life, and unfortunately rather a lot of death, to the bare bones.

Marriage and baby

Laura Emma Neal, born June 1885 Norwich, was the seventh child (out of eleven) of Robert Smith Neal/Ellen Elizabeth Watts. The rest of the Neal family did quite well, as teachers, locksmith, farmer in Canada etc.

Laura married Robert Stanley Horace Curtis (born 1884 Norwich) in Norwich July 1903 – she was just 18.

Laura Neal 1902

Their child Ethel Laura was born only a few months later in December 1903. Laura doesn’t seem to have had an easy married life, but it didn’t last long. She died in August 1904.

Local press coverage tells the “ghastly story”. Read more in the attached transcriptions in pdf (Acrobat) format.

Cause of death

The initial news report on Monday 29th August starts with this:

At Sprowston, a suburb of Norwich, late on Saturday night, a young married woman named Curtis was shot dead by her husband. The evidence on that point is perfectly simple and direct, being substantiated by admissions made by the man himself in the hearing of neighbours, but whether the crime comes within the category of murder or that of manslaughter is an issue which can only be solved, if at all, by long and careful sifting of the testimony of the neigh-bours, of which there is plenty in the hands of the police. The woman was killed, apparently after a quarrel, by the single discharge of a shot gun, and her husband, who made no attempt to escape, is in the hands of the county police.

Transcription (12 page pdf): Initial news, plus inquest, of Laura’s death

Cause of death, according to the inquest, was “gunshot wounds accidentally caused”.

Background

The newspaper also reports on their living conditions, although not necessarily a fully-rounded or accurate picture.

They lived together in a cul de sac known as Constitution Opening (off North Walsham Road) …. the cottages in it, five or six in number, are very humble places indeed, each with only two rooms, one-up and one-down.

… a year or more ago (Robert) was in hospital suffering from some kind of phthisical complaint **. He so far recovered as to be able to take part in the annual training of the Militia, since when, however, he appears to have followed no occupation. How they and their eight-months-old baby lived the neighbours have been at a loss to understand.

** TB – “pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar progressive wasting disease”

Laura’s funeral

Transcription (single page pdf): Funeral of Laura Curtis.

The letter appearing immediately below the funeral description is from Robert, the eldest brother of Laura. He had returned (with his young family) in 1901 to England from farming in Canada, but is back on the land by 1906.

Trial of Robert and his later days

Transcription (9 page pdf): Remand and committal of Robert Curtis.

The Times had a little coverage of the trial, which took place 8th November- click for larger size (from page 9, 10th November 1904 edition):

Press cutting

The gun used was “an old single-barrelled converted ‘chasse-pot’ rifle, the breech of which opened by drawing back a bolt, and then was loaded with a cartridge filled with shot”. It was defective and “would go off ‘on its own occasion’ when the breech-bolt was closed sharply upon the cartridge”. Robert said in his original statement that he had bought it from a friend for 5 shillings, and shot birds with it (presumably for the pot). He had been “playing” with the gun that evening.

Robert Curtis got 5 years for manslaughter (starting from 4 Nov 1904, released from Parkhurst 3 Aug 1908). He was also discharged from the militia (4th Norfolk regiment) as a result. He had joined in November 1900, overstating his age by a year. The death certificate for his third wife, however, apparently records him as “Disabled Army Pensioner”.

Robert remarried, to Mabel Pleasants Hipper 1909 Norwich. In the 1911 census he is a jobbing gardener, with his parents, Ethel and new son William, while Mabel is with her sister’s family and daughter Ida from a previous marriage. There is a third marriage, to Alice Botwright in 1919, but nothing to show what happened to Mabel in between. Alice died 1926, and their daughter Betty, born 1921, was brought up by Alice’s sister. Robert again remarried, to Josephine Gladwell in 1927. Robert died 1949, Josephine probably 1968.

Baby Ethel

Baby Ethel grew up to marry John Charles Wilkin (almost 17 years older than her) in 1929. At 1939 they are in Lowestoft, John a pork butcher. He dies in 1965 age 77, Ethel died 1973, not quite 70.

At April 1911 and when she joined senior school in September 1913 (St Augustines Girls) Ethel was with her father. Whether this was the case for all her childhood we do not know.

What was the wider impact?

The death must have had a large impact on the Neal family, but no stories on this event were handed down. Is it unreasonable to speculate that it influenced when/how younger sister Emily got married, which wasn’t until her late twenties?

And her parents, who were active members of Magdalen Road Congregational Church {4} – did their faith see them through, or perhaps their religious views on sex before marriage had contributed to a gap between them and their daughter? Perhaps father Robert felt guilty about not supporting Laura – he certainly looks to have aged a lot in a 1905 wedding photo, and died in 1908 age 56.

It remains puzzling that Emily’s descendants had no knowledge of Ethel, and that she wasn’t listed in her address or birthday books.

Notes

  1. It would be good to hear of any relevant further information, or do ask if anything is unclear above. NB This page has been updated since Kate and Linda’s comments.
  2. Many thanks to Rachel Barber for delving into the Norwich city archives for the newspapers (mainly Eastern Evening News).
  3. Thanks to Malvern U3A family history group for allowing me to do a presentation on this topic. The key information became more obvious in preparing for this, and has added to the content above. Group members may note the addition since the talk of his military experience (still no knowledge around any WW1 service), and details of the defective gun. A little more re your questions to follow.
  4. RS Neal is a shoe maker at the time of the inquest in 1904, but is later noted as “Chapel Caretaker”. Magdalen Road Congregational Church built 1902. The original hall was in Clarke Road, “right behind their house at 7 Guernsey Road”. Wife Ellen took over his role.

4 thoughts on “Death of Laura Curtis

    1. Ethel Laura is shown as with her father (and his parents) at the 1911 census, and married John Wilkin 1929. I have been in touch with a granddaughter of hers (indeed she got the Norwich press cuttings from the archive).

    1. Hi Linda
      There are two processes here – the inquest jury looking at the cause of death, held shortly after the incident, and the murder trial jury, deciding guilt for the deed. Given the inquest decided it was an accident, there is an unanswered question on who then took it to a full trial. I’m not an expert on the legal process!

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