Grave Tales - Bassaleg, Gwent
I never did do it.
Tank Cottage in Bassaleg was a small property, dominated by a large water tank in the front garden. It was the home of Charles and Mary Thomas. He was 82 and she was ten years younger. They had lived on the Tredegar Estate in Newport, where Charles had been a wood cutter but now, just two weeks previously, he had finally retired and the couple had been given use of Tank Cottage.
On Thursday 11 November 1909 they went to bed, early as usual. But their neighbours didn’t see them at all on Friday and became alarmed. Mary hadn’t turned up to go shopping in Newport with a friend, as was her habit. So Constable Bale was called and he found a terrible scene when he forced his way into the cottage and went upstairs. Charles and Mary were dead in bed, their heads beaten with a heavy blunt instrument until they were almost unrecognisable. Blood was splattered everywhere. It had been a brutal, frenzied assault on a benign elderly couple.
The police began house-to-house enquiries in the shocked community and searched nearby streams for the murder weapon. Lord Tredegar advised the police to call in bloodhounds. They dug the garden, they drained the water tank but they never found the murder weapon. The police believed that it was a hammer.
Crowds gathered to look at Tank Cottage, taking away twigs from the bushes as souvenirs. The police were sure that the murderer was someone with local knowledge, someone who believed that the recently retired couple had a secret stash of cash. They focused their enquiries on ‘The Midnight Wanderer,’ someone who was often seen in Bassaleg in the dark. Everyone knew who he was. And when they decided to arrest him on Monday 15 November, they didn’t have to look too far, because he’d already been in custody since Saturday, in the police station in Newport.
His name was William Butler, who claimed to be 78 years old and a Crimean War veteran. He described himself as a jobbing gardener and had been summoned to appear in court on Friday 12 November 1909 for harassing Florence West.
Now, Florence was only fifteen years old; she was a domestic servant for the stationmaster at Bassaleg, and Butler wouldn’t leave her alone. He followed her everywhere and kept asking her to marry him. This certainly amused the press, but Florrie was understandably afraid of him, and her family had to escort her to and from work. Butler denied accusations that he had insulted her and had threatened to knock her down with a stick if she wouldn’t speak to him. He also threatened to kill the stationmaster who was trying to protect her. Butler had been a lodger in the West’s house until recently but had moved away to new lodgings with Mrs Doody.
As a result of his predatory behaviour, Butler was bound over to keep the peace, but he chose to go to prison rather than pay any sureties. And so that is where he was when the police officers came to call on Monday morning - in custody at the County Police-station in Newport, waiting to be transferred to Usk Prison.
He denied any suggestion that he was a murderer, of course. He liked the couple. He’d done some work for them. Why should he kill them? He’d been in bed. All night. The police though, were not convinced and began to unravel his carefully constructed alibi. And when you know that the West’s lived next door to Charles and Mary Thomas, and that when Butler moved out to lodge with Mrs Doody he had taken a hammer, you can understand the police interest in him. Indeed, a week earlier, when Butler had been presented with the summons for his harassment of Florence, he had told the West’s, ‘I'll make you sit up. I will ruin this house, and I will bring tears to your eyes before the week is out.’
On 11 November he made sure Mrs Doody saw him go to bed early but, of course, the police maintained that in reality he had slipped out of the house. A witness claimed to have seen him. The police said that he had previously oiled the garden gate at Tank Cottage so that it made no noise. He then broke a window next to the door, muffling the sound by holding a girl’s bodice filled with mud against the glass. Next, he had slipped his hand inside and lifted the latch on the door. He had also worn Mr Doody’s boots, which left prints larger than his own shoe size.
The police felt that he had been motivated by a desire to steal money to pay his legal expenses, and also by a burning desire to frame the West family, for he placed the front door key to Tank Cottage on the windowsill of the West's house when he left. They believed that Butler had searched fruitlessly for money downstairs and so went upstairs. When Mary awoke, he battered them both to death. All he found was a small sum of about £5 in coins, which Charles had received as sick pay from a benefit club that he paid into. Butler never found their life savings of £160, hidden in a laundry basket.
He knew the murders were not likely to be discovered until late on Friday 12 November. So early that morning he made sure he was seen in Cardiff. He’d walked there in order, he said, to consult his solicitor, but even in those days Cardiff solicitors were never hot-to-trot at quarter to eight in the morning. He then went by train to Newport and returned to Cardiff in the afternoon to meet his legal expert. And then, as we know, on Saturday he was in the cells.
Butler gave varying accounts of his movements, which were found to be untrue, and he was unable satisfactorily to explain why on Thursday 11 November he had no money but then the next day he was spending freely. He said he had backed the Derby winner, but the bookmaker had no knowledge of any such bet. He hired his solicitor using coins in the same denominations as those in Charles’ sick pay; he had generously tipped a waitress in a café.
The police lacked direct evidence of his guilt. He seemed to have protected himself from the splattering of the victim’s blood, perhaps with a piece of newspaper, but there was circumstantial evidence which persuaded the jury of his guilt. The death sentence was followed by a remarkable scene of raving, shouting, and blasphemy. He had to be restrained as he was taken away.
Butler’s previous convictions were also revealed. He had been born in Gloucestershire as Thomas Clements and he was 68, ten years younger than he claimed. He had never been in the Crimea. He had a string of offences for stealing and poaching. In fact, he had spent over twenty years in a variety of prisons, under a variety of aliases. He had once threatened policemen with a revolver.
Naturally, he maintained that he had been framed. After the trial he not only expected to be released but also promised to murder the witnesses who all told lies about him by cutting them to pieces, which even in Newport was considered unacceptable.
His appeal failed and he was hanged in Usk prison on 24 March 1910, still protesting his innocence. ‘I never did do it,’ he said.
Following the execution, it was suggested that he might have been responsible for the murder of Mary Hogg in Camberley in 1906. She, too, had been beaten to death with a hammer. Butler had spent time in both Winchester and Oxford Prisons and he seemed to be wandering around the area at the time. He fitted the description provided by Miss Hogg's sister Caroline, who had also been attacked. However, no direct link was ever established.
It is said that Butler now haunts the Tredegar Arms on Caerphilly Road in Bassaleg, stamping on the floorboards in the Lounge Bar where the inquest into the deaths of Mr and Mrs Thomas were held, still protesting.
Tank Cottage was demolished.
Charles and Mary were buried on Tuesday 16 November 1909 in Bethesda Chapel where they worshipped every Sunday. Bethesda Chapel stands on Cefn Road and the grave they share is in the bottom right-hand corner of the cemetery. It is just one amongst many, with nothing to indicate the dreadful story it contains.
We know about it now, though. And suddenly that gravestone looks very different.