Home > The Murder of Henry Arthur Hollyer
During my early research on the Hollyers, I discovered that two Hollyers had died in the Great War, both sailors. One was my Great Uncle George, while the other was Henry Arthur Hollyer whom I later discovered was the son of Matthew George Hollyer, a Carpenter and his wife Ann (née Ingle). He was one of their 13 children, part of the ‘City Hollyers’. The GRO death indexes for WW1 suggested he was from HMS Pembroke, while the Commonwealth War Graves Commission quotes the Indomitable. Neither source, however, gives a clue to suggest other than he died on active service. In fact, as the following article shows, he was murdered while on shore leave. Here is the story.
The Death of a Sailor
On Wednesday, June 20th, 1917, while World War One was still raging across the battered continent of Europe and men were dying in their tens of thousands, four petty officers serving in the Royal Navy took some well earned shore leave in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Arriving in the city at around 6.00pm, Alfred Gough, along with officers Birling, Grant and McDonald eventually found themselves in the Mechanic's Arms in Temple Street some time before 8.30pm and it was there that they met up with two women; Sarah Shearer and Isabella Caroline Smith, a married woman whose husband was a soldier- serving in France. Later that same night, another woman, 26-year-old Ruby Wright, came into the public house, along with Margaret Brown, who preferred to be known by the name of Muriel. These two ladies joined the four petty officers and just a few minutes later, another sailor on leave; 27-year-old Henry Arthur Hollyer, arrived at the Mechanic's Arms and joined the happy group.
Closing time duly arrived and Ruby Wright, who lived nearby suggested that they all return to her house where they could have more to drink and maybe enjoy a sing-song. By 10.30pm the five sailors and the four women were at Ruby's. The party had been in full swing for about an hour when another two men arrived, both of whom were civilians. One of these men, a 29-year-old who called himself William James Thompson, but whose real name was William Cavanagh, was introduced as Ruby's husband while the other, James Innes, was said to be a close friend of his. Ruby produced a bottle of whisky and as the night wore on, songs were sung, jokes were told and everyone seemed to be having a good time. It was then, at around midnight, that one of the ladies made a remark aimed at Cavanagh and Innes.
No one could be sure exactly what was said, but the indication was that they should be wearing khaki and fighting for their country in the trenches in France, just as these brave sailors were doing on the high seas. This argument was now taken up by a couple of the sailors and one of them, McDonald, said something to Innes which he found most objectionable. A full-scale argument began with Hollyer taking the part of his shipmate and Cavanagh joining forces with Innes.
Tempers were raised even higher and it appeared to be only a matter of time before fists began to fly. Sure enough, Cavanagh lashed out and struck Hollyer in the face, knocking him to the ground. After that, everything seemed to happen so quickly. Blows were exchanged between Innes and McDonald. Cavanagh drew out a knife when Gough tried to intervene and stabbed him in the face. Gough and some of the others then left the house and stood outside in the street but not before Cavanagh had turned around and stabbed Hollyer in the back.
The police were called and in due course, Acting Sergeant Daley arrived on the scene, to be followed soon afterwards by Inspector Wood. They found Henry Hollyer lying in the yard at the back of the house, apparently suffering from a number of stab wounds and bleeding badly. He was rushed to hospital, as were James Innes, Petty Officer McDonald and Alfred Gough. Later that same day, charges were preferred against William Cavanagh and Ruby Wright.
It was also June 21st when the first appearance at the Newcastle police court took place, before the Lord Mayor and Mr W .B. Ellis. Cavanagh, alias Thompson, was charged with wounding Leading Seaman Hollyer by stabbing him in the breast and back and with having unlawfully wounded Petty Officer Alfred Gough by stabbing him in the left cheek. Ruby Wright was charged with having assaulted Petty Officer Alfred Birling and Petty Officer Gough, by throwing bottles and glasses at them.
After the court heard evidence of what had taken place at West Street, the two defendants were remanded in custody for eight days. However, before those eight days had passed, on Monday, June 25th, Hollyer died from his wounds and Cavanagh was now charged with his murder. The inquest on Hollyer opened on June 26th, and was immediately adjourned until July 11 th.
On June 27th, Cavanagh made his second appearance at the police court where evidence was given that he had been charged with murder at 10.20am on June 26th, after Hollyer had died at the Northern General Hospital. He was remanded to July 5th. At the hearing, which opened on that date, it was revealed that James Innes, a 28-year-old native of Edinburgh, had now also been charged. Innes initially faced a charge of assaulting Gough by kicking him in the right elbow, but the prosecutor, Edward Clarke, made it plain that both Ruby Wright arid James Innes would probably later be charged with being accessories, both before and after the murder, and might face even more serious charges once the case was prepared. A further remand was granted, this time to July 13th.
On July 11th, the inquest reopened at the New Infirmary, before the city coroner, Alfred Appleby. By now, both Cavanagh and Ruby Wright had obtained legal representation Cavanagh was defended by Mr T.A.B. Forster, while Ruby was represented by Mr T.H. Smirk. Most of the witnesses to the crime gave their evidence, but the hearing continued the following evening when the jury retu ned a verdict of wilful murder against Cavanagh who was then committed for trial. Meanwhile, the very next day, July 13th, Cavanagh, Innes and Wright, now all charged with murder, made their final appearance at the police court. Here it was decided that James Innes and Ruby Wright, would also stand in the dock with Cavanagh at the forthcoming assizes.
The trial took place at Newcastle before Mr Justice Salter, on November 12th, 1917. The case for the prosecution was put by Mr Edward Shortt, MP, and Mr E. Meynell. Cavanagh and Innes were both defended by Mr Charles Mellor while Ruby Wright was represented by Mr G.F. Mortimer.
At the very outset, Edward Shortt announced that the prosecution had examined the depositions very carefully and as a result had come to the conclusion that this was not a case where they had enough evidence against Ruby Wright and had decided therefore to offer no evidence against her. The judge now directed the jury to formally return a not guilty verdict against Ruby and she was then discharged, leaving Innes and Cavanagh to face the charge of wilful murder.
The four petty officers gave evidence of their meeting with the dead man, the four women and the events at West Street once Cavanagh and Innes had made their appearance. They stated that they had first visited the Express Hotel, opposite the Union Club in Westgate Road, before moving on to the Mechanic's Arms. Also, before they had arrived at West Street, they had called at a fish and chip shop in Blenheim Street. All four sailors denied that they were drunk, or that they had taken any drink back to West Street. They claimed that the only alcohol consumed there was a bottle of whisky which Ruby herself had produced and which must have been on the premises already.
Petty Officer Birling testified that he had seen Cavanagh deliberately stab Hollyer and that Ruby had thrown two glasses at him. McDonald described how Innes had struck him so hard that he had knocked some of his teeth, out. Alfred Gough, though, went into much greater detail. He described how after the original remark about Cavanagh and Innes not being in uniform, McDonald had left the house. Innes had followed him into the street, where he assaulted him before returning to the group inside the house. Gough then saw Cavanagh strike Hollyer in the face and knock him down. Seeing that things were getting out of hand, Gough tried to cool things down, but when he tried to break up the fight, Cavanagh took out a penknife from his waistcoat pocket, pulled out the blade and stabbed him in the cheek. Hollyer was still lying on the floor and Gough saw Cavanagh deliberately stab him in the back with the same penknife. Innes then kicked Gough while Ruby was busy throwing glasses around the room at anyone within range. It was Gough, once he had staggered outside, who went to the police station and reported the matter to the officer on duty.
Inspector Wood reported how he had found a bloodstained penknife on a dressing table in the house. Blood was also found on the clothing worn by Cavanagh and Ruby Wright, although there was none found on those belonging to Innes. Next, medical evidence was given. Captain Armstrong of the RAMC had had Hollyer under his care in the hospital. He reported that there were five wounds. Two were over the heart and one of these had actually penetrated that organ. A third wound was discovered in the left side of the neck while a fourth was some three inches above the liver. The final wound was in, the back, just over the right kidney, and from the evidence which had been given by Gough, this was in all probability the first injury Cavanagh had inflicted, while Hollyer was lying face down on the floor.
Major Pybus had operated on Hollyer on June 21st, when he had stitched the wound in the heart. Unfortunately, this had not saved his life and the cause of death was given as inflammation of the heart and lungs as a direct result of the various wounds which had been inflicted.
The time came for Ruby Wright, a barmaid, to give evidence. After the original fracas was over she had told Innes and Cavanagh to take Hollyer out into the yard. She had seen them pick the man up, at which point Innes struck him in the face. Once in the yard, Ruby saw Cavanagh striking repeatedly at Hollyer, although she could not see if he had anything in his hand at the time.
If this evidence was damning, Ruby made things somewhat better for both Innes and Cavanagh by explaining that they were not the only people there who had taken strong drink. Even in the Mechanic's Arms, the sailors were rather jolly and despite what they had said to the contrary, they had in fact brought four bottles of whisky with them to West Street, and all of this had been consumed at her house. By the time the fight started, everyone was intoxicated and it had been Hollyer who struck the first blow when he hit out at Cavanagh.
Neither Cavanagh nor Innes testified on their own behalf, preferring to rely on a plea that the killing had been accidental, during an affray. Having heard all the evidence, the jury came to the conclusion that James Innes was not guilty and he was discharged. Cavanagh, though, was not so fortunate and having been adjudged to be guilty as charged, was then sentenced to death, although the jury had recommended him to mercy. His appeal was heard on December 3rd, before Justices Darling, Avory and Sankey. The grounds were rather unique.
Cavanagh, it seems, had a police record and something of a reputation on the streets of Newcastle. He had, of course, been tried before a city of Newcastle jury and it was probable that some or indeed all of the men on that jury would have known of Cavanagh's character. The defence also contended that the court could not accept the sailor's evidence as correct. They had suggested that they had used no bad language, were sober and had offered no violence but the defence found this impossible to accept. Further, the defence suggested that the civilians in this case had been enraged by insults against them and had merely defended their honour. As for the stabbing, Cavanagh had not even been aware that he had a knife in his hand, as he had been drunk when he struck the blows. The knife itself was very small and, if anything, it was extraordinary that fatal wounds should have been inflicted.
In his reply, Mr Justice Avory stated that the trial judge had left the question of scrimmage in the most favourable light possible for the appellant. It was felt that there was no evidence to show that the jury would have been justified in reducing the charge to one of manslaughter because of provocation and the request of the defence to call Innes to give evidence must be refused. There was no reason why the appeal should hear the testimony of a witness who could have given evidence at the trial itself, but chose not to do so. As a result, Cavanagh's appeal was dismissed.
On December 15th, Messrs Bennett and Maddison, the solicitors who had acted for Cavanagh, received a letter from the Home Office, stating that the Home Secretary had failed to discover any grounds in the petition praying for a reprieve. The sentence would be carried out.
At 8.00am on the morning of Tuesday, December 18th, 1917, William Cavanagh was hanged at Newcastle by Thomas Pierrepoint who was assisted by Robert Baxter. He walked firmly to the scaffold while a crowd of 50 or 60 people waited outside the prison in Carliol Square, waiting for the notice of execution to be posted on the gates. At the inquest later, Dr Hardcastle, the prison doctor, stated that Cavanagh was 5ft 3ins tall, weighed 146 pounds and had been given a drop of 7ft 3ins inches. Death apparently had been instantaneous, which was more than could be said for his victim.
[Extract from Murderous Tyneside by John J. Eddleston]
While on the subject of murder, this report in The Times for 22 February 1815 is of interest. So far, the identity of the victim is not known, though it is interesting to note that Henry Hollyer, head of the Lock-Keeper Hollyer family was married in Rotherhithe in 1811.
Union Hall - Attempt at Robbery & Murder.
A most atrocious and daring attempt at robbery and murder on Saturday evening was made on person of Mr Hollyer clerk to Alderman Atkins in China Hall Fields, Rotherhithe. Mr H was proceeding just before dusk to Alderman's wharf as was his usual custom with money to pay the workmen, when he was crossing China Hall Fields a man in a sailor's dress came up to him and without any previous question or demand seized him and having thrown him down took a razor from his pocket and cut his throat in a most dreadful manner. Mr H struggled and put up his hands to save his throat and the villain cut his hands also. Mr H still struggled and succeeded in getting loose from the villain and ran towards some houses near the spot, the wretch followed vowing he would be the death of him but within 20 yards of houses he thought proper to make off. Mr H remains in a very dangerous state. One man has been apprehended by Collingborne on suspicion and examined before Mr Chambers but sufficient proof not being adduced to justify detaining him, he was discharged.Back to top