Ethel Major – A Lincolnshire village murderer?

Not long after we moved into Kirkby on Bain in 2001, somebody said to me something along the lines of “Of course you must know about our famous murderer, Ethel Major”. Of course I had never heard of her, so I did some very superficial research and found that this Kirkby on Bain lady was convicted of killing her husband (a nasty piece of work, allegedly,) in 1934 and hanged in Hull gaol.

A little later Betty Dixon, who was born that year and until recently was one of Kirkby’s oldest residents, kindly lent me a bundle of newspaper cuttings and a book about this case. Like a lot of accounts of past murders, quite a bit of this material was written in sensationalist styles, with little by way of references or source attributions. I also noticed that some accounts were word-for-word copies, apparently lifted from one original newspaper write-up.

During subsequent searches, I stumbled across a real surprise – macabre testimony to the everlasting obsession with murder, a knitted representation of Ethel’s house, made by Jean Arkell, originally installed at the Minories Art Gallery, Colchester. Believe it or not there really is a website featuring knitted representations of houses lived in by female murderers. Midsomer Murders scriptwriters, please take note.

My second encounter with the Ethel major stories came a few years later when I was contacted by Dr Victoria Dawson, a Research Assistant at the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hull University. She explained that she had been researching the story for some time and she had serious doubts about the reliability of sensationalist newspaper accounts of the case.

Even more recently I was approached by another researcher, Reannon Licorish, working for a TV production company responsable for a BBC documentary series called “Murder Mystery and My Family”, requesting help in arranging a film shoot in St Mary’s churchyard for an episode about the Ethel Major case. I explained that I had no authority to give permission, and I suggested she contact the relevant church authorities. She also assured me that she would keep me in the loop, but I heard no more. (Having worked in TV production myself for many years, I am not surprised.) I gather the filming session has indeed taken place, with or without permission. The episode, slated for series 2, has not been transmitted yet. BBC article.

Of course there are now numerous articles about the case on the internet, of varying length and accuracy. One of the shortest and clearest is the synopsis on the knitting site:

“Ethel Major, aged 43, lived with her husband Arthur. In 1934, after 16 years of marriage and a child of their own, Arthur discovered that Ethel already had an illegitimate daughter, Auriel. Their marriage started to deteriorate and Ethel began to imagine that he was now having an affair. As a result of her suspicions she started to poison him. Arthur eventually died on 24 May 1934 after eating corned beef sandwiches containing strychnine. Ethel was caught on the day of Arthur’s funeral when the police received an anonymous letter claiming that a neighbours dog had died after eating scraps of food from the Major’s household. After an examination of Arthur’s body and the exhumation of the dog she was charged. Ethel was found guilty of murder and hanged at Hull Prison on 19 December 1934.”

If you prefer something a bit more detailed, here’s a version from HistoryPin:

“In 1934, Ethel Lillie and Arthur Major lived at 2, Council Houses, Kirkby-on-Bain, with their 15-year-old son, Lawrence. On the evening of May 22nd Arthur (44) was taken ill and a doctor was called to see him. Arthur was in pain, suffering from contractions of the muscles that caused his limbs to jerk. The doctor gave Arthur some opium and he seemed to recover somewhat, but on the night of May 24th he died. The following morning the doctor certified his cause of death as epilepsy.

An anonymous letter to the police suggested that Arthur died from poisoning. The police stopped his funeral and sent away his organs for testing. He was found to have ingested strychnine. Ethel was charged with his murder, her motive being put down to jealousy and spite at her husband having an affair. The court heard that Arthur mistreated both her and their son, Lawrence. Evidence was circumstantial, with the prosecution alleging that Ethel had taken the strychnine from a box belonging to her gamekeeper father. They failed, however, to prove that the bottle had ever been in Ethel’s possession.

The jury took one hour and ten minutes to find Ethel guilty of her husband’s murder. The foreman added “I also wish to express the jury’s wish that a strong recommendation for mercy should be given the prisoner”. The judge asked Ethel whether she had anything to say and she said “Yes, I am innocent”. Ethel cried, but when the judge passed the sentence of death by hanging, Ethel collapsed into the arms of a police officer, sobbing violently as she was carried away.

Ethel was held at Hull Prison, where she was looked after by two female wardresses. An appeal was lodged at the Court of Criminal Appeal, however, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Gordon Hewart, dismissed the appeal. In the days before Ethel’s execution, several movements were made to try and spare her life. In Ethel’s home town, a public petition to the Home secretary, Sir John Gilmore, was begun by one Mrs Bontofft, a farmer’s wife, which stressed strongly the ‘unhappy domestic conditions which prevailed in the Majors’ home’.

In Hull, Mary Hatfield, a former councillor for the City Council and the first woman to be elected in the city, sent a telegram to King George V, appealing for Ethel’s life. Alderman J. Stark, Hull’s Lord Mayor also wired the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, imploring them to grant a reprieve. ‘The heartfelt pleas contained in this telegram are those of the 300,000 inhabitants, including the entire female population of this great city’, it read.

“The effect of this business in Hull has been appalling”, he told the press. “People from all over the district have been knocking at the door of my home – many of them women – pleading with me not to give up, but to keep trying to prevent the execution from taking place”. The Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, refused to acknowledge the Lord Mayor’s request. On the morning of Wednesday, December 19th, several hundred gathered outside of Hull Prison to witness the posting of the execution notice upon the prison door at 9:05 AM. Ethel Major was the only woman to be executed at Hull Prison.”

Among other online versions, perhaps the most detailed (but also the most fiddly) is to be found on Our Criminal Ancestors. Take your pick!

Oh, and if you are thinking of visiting the scene of the crime, take care; the house is still here in Kirkby on Bain, but the address has changed.

I see that an episode of The BBC series “Murder, Mystery and My Family” about the Ethel Major case, partly filmed in Kirkby on Bain, is scheduled for transmission in the UK on Friday April 5th, on BBC1 at 9.15 am. It will also be available online in the UK only, shortly after broadcast.

Programme synopsis:

“Barristers Jeremy Dein and Sasha Wass investigate the poisoning of a man by his wife in 1930s Lincolnshire, exposed by an anonymous note.

When 44-year-old First World War veteran and Lincolnshire lorry driver Arthur Major fell ill, suffering convulsions and severe pain, nothing untoward was suspected at first. But when the police received an anonymous tip-off alleging that his wife, Ethel, had poisoned her husband, they halted his funeral and launched a criminal investigation. It was discovered that Arthur Major died as a result of strychnine poisoning, and 42-year-old Ethel Major was arrested and charged with wilful murder. She protested her innocence and at trial was defended by a famous barrister, Norman Birkett KC, but the jury took just one hour to declare Ethel guilty.

The jury, her family, the public and even the Lord Mayor of Hull all campaigned for a reduction of sentence, but on the 19th of December 1934, Ethel Major was hanged.

Now, 84 years later, Ethel’s cousin Jill Brown wants to discover the truth. Jill discovered the case via her late father, who had researched his family history extensively. Jill has many questions for the barristers and wants to know if there was proof that Ethel was guilty of poisoning her husband, or if the case was simply built on suspicion and circumstantial evidence.”

BBC webpage

Visit the Kirkby on Bain Village website


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s