Thursday 3rd November 2016

We have had a busy last couple of weeks that’s to say October and Halloween. We met Aowen Jin at Compton Verney. We gave her a mug.

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Aowen Jin is a Chinese-born British artist and social commentator. She was named by The Times as “one of tomorrow’s great artists”. Her exhibitions frequently attract critical acclaim in the media, and her artworks have been collected by Her Majesty the Queen, the Horniman Museum, and many other high profile organisations and individuals. She works between China and Britain.

On Halloween we were cutting pumpkins at Compton Verney too.

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The Ghost of Harriet Ann Devall

During the Second World War, members of the armed forces were billeted there, and the men talked, perhaps half jokingly, of the ‘ghost laundry maid’, There were rooms where no one would venture after dark, but few can have known the true story of the foul murder of the laundry maid, and why she wanders through the empty rooms where once she worked so diligently. The maid was Harriet Ann Devall, known to all simply as ‘Nance’. She was 26 years old, and described as a tall, strong, robust country girl. Nance was extremely popular with her fellow servants in the big house; a bright and lively girl who laughed a lot, enjoyed a joke and certainly enjoyed life. On 1st November 1903, her murdered body was found in a ditch near the ‘top lawn’ at Compton Verney, her throat had been cut, so viciously her head was almost severed from the body. She had been cruelly slashed about the face and arms, and the wounds appeared to have been inflicted with a razor. A trail of blood, in pools and spots, indicated the body had been moved, and led back some 270 yards to one of Capability Brown’s curving bridges, spanning the lake. Suspicion centred upon a young man, 19 year old Walter Couzens.

Nance Devall had been in service at Draycott House, near Chippenham in Wiltshire, and there she met young Walter Couzens, who lived in the village. They became friendly, starting courting and eventually became engaged to be married. But after the formal engagement, their relationship seemed to suffer, Nance was having second thoughts, and she gave in her notice at Draycott House and returned to Warwickshire to be nearer to her family, who lived in Leamington Spa. She very quickly obtained a situation at Compton Verney, where many servants were kept, and it seemed lively enough to suit her, she soon settled down. She owned a bicycle, and because she did not know whether she could store it and use it at Compton Verney, she left it with Walter Couzens in Chippenham. She soon realised it would be very useful to her in her new post, and wrote to Couzens to tell him she wanted it. Couzens had been trying to get a job on the railways, but was turned down, and accordingly left his home in Chippenham and went to stay for a while with an uncle in Little Gaddesdon, Great Berkhampstead, taking the bicycle with him. This seemed to upset Nance, who simply wanted her bicycle. After some time at Compton Verney, Nance wrote to Couzens and seems to have been trying to be very honest with the young man. She said ‘. . . I really must tell you I feel I really could not keep true to you, for there are so many dances and concerts going on, and when any chap asks me to go, I go of course. And you know I always liked dancing, so really I could not give it up for anything … also I like plenty of life, so I go first with one, then another, and 1 know you are very jealous, so I thought I’d better write and tell you. So I think the best thing for us to do is part friends…’ And she goes on to say she hopes he will soon find someone else more deserving of his love, for ‘I flirt first with one then another’ she admitted. When he received this letter, and realised Nance meant what she said and wanted an end to their engagement, Couzens was very upset, and according to his uncle’s family, he went into morose silence. On the 30th October he set off from Little Gaddesdon, with Nance’s bicycle, to come to Warwickshire. He arrived at Compton Verney, and rang the bicycle bell outside the laundry, now an administration block; having been directed to the right door by a stable lad.

Nance came out and was very surprised and not especially pleased to see him, but they had a cup of tea together in the laundry. She agreed to a meeting the following evening, and a fellow servant, Kate Usher, saw Couzens ride off on the bicycle. Nance told her fellow servants that evening that Couzens had said if he couldn’t have her, then no one else should. They all advised her not to keep her appointment with him on the bridge the following evening, but Nance laughed away their fears. Walter Couzens put up at the Rose and Crown Inn, Kineton, on the night of Friday 30th October, and according to the landlord he behaved in a perfectly ordinary manner, although he did note that he slept in the bed fully clothed, which seemed to occasion him some surprise. On Saturday 31st October, Couzens obtained a day’s work on a nearby farm, but was careful to explain to the head groom there that he must leave promptly at seven o’clock that evening, because he had an important appointment.

On that same Saturday evening, just before midnight, Police Constable Simpson, going about his regular foot patrol duties, noticed a bicycle leaning on the bridge near the road at Compton Verney. He moved in for a closer look, and discovered the bicycle was heavily smeared with blood. Nearby he saw a man’s belt, and an open razor case. He reported this to his sergeant, James Smith, stationed at Kineton, but in view of the hour, and the fact that it was pitch dark, they had to wait until daylight before beginning their investigations. The sergeant and the constable looked around, and noticed a couple of letters floating on the lake. These proved to be addressed to Walter Couzens. They went up to the big house and asked the housekeeper if all ‘the girls’ were safe. They found there was some concern because the laundry maid, Nance Devall, had not slept in her bed the previous night. More letters from Couzens were found in a drawer in Nance’s room. They were love letters, but none of them contained any kind of threat.

Police began dragging the lake, thinking it possible that Couzens might have ended his own life there. But they found nothing, and the search moved upwards towards the woods. There they found the body of Nance Devall, lying on her side, her clothing disarranged, and her face mutilated. Some 14 yards off, they found the bloodstained razor, hair still adhering to it, and scratched upon the handle ‘Joseph Couzens 1899’. Several of the servants had seen Couzens when he made his unexpected call at the laundry door, and gave the police a good description. Information came in that Couzens had been seen at Barford, where he had enquired if there was a railway station, and had been directed towards Warwick. In Warwick he had purchased ‘hard hat’ for one shilling and sixpence, throwing the cap he had been wearing into a hayrick.

At Warwick station, he enquired the time of the next train to Paddington, and was told it was due in half an hour. Couzens was told he could sit in the waiting room, and the station porter was surprised to find him still there after the train to Paddington had arrived and left. He told him the next train for Paddington would be the 6.56 pm which went through Oxford and Didcot. He saw him on the platform later, presumably waiting for this train, but he did not see him get on it.

Police followed the trail left by Couzens, and eventually discovered him asleep in a bed at the Lamb Inn, Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire, on the night of 2nd November. Police Sergeant Rich of the Wiltshire Police first examined his clothing, then woke him up. Couzens said his name was Robbins, and he had just arrived from Oxford. He was told he was being apprehended on suspicion of murder and he replied ‘I know nothing about that’. He was arrested, and brought back to Kineton on Tuesday, 3rd November. Rumours of his arrival had already circulated, and a great crowd stood on the platform of the little railway station, eager to catch a glimpse of ‘the murderer’. But the police had no trouble getting him through the crowd, and he remained unscathed, although there were many comments upon his youthful and haggard appearance. In his statement to police, Couzens said he met Nance Devall by appointment, and he had no thought at all of hurting her. They sat down together under a tree, he said, and they each smoked one of his cigarettes. Then, according to him, Nance put her head upon his shoulder and said ‘I wish I was dead’. He told her not to talk such rubbish, but she begged him to kill her, and ‘She pressed me so hard I cut her throat’, he said.

Couzens appeared before Warwick Assizes on 8th December 1903, and pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder. He appeared in a state of collapse and his drawn and haggard features sent a murmur of sympathy around the crowded court room. His father, Joseph Couzens, broke down completely when questioned in court, but confirmed that the razor used to kill Nance Devall was his, and he had given it to his son 18 months previously. He said Walter was the youngest of the family, and as a child he had suffered from fits, although he hadn’t heard of him having any since he left school, he said the boy was sober and industrious, and had never given him any trouble. He met Nance when she was working at Draycott House, and had developed a very deep attachment, which the girl seemed to return. After she left Draycott House, Couzens appeared depressed, and this was con firmed by his uncle and cousin with whom he had stayed in Little Gaddesdon. They spoke of Couzens sitting in morose silence for hours, speaking to no one, and only seeming to ‘come to life’ when in other company. They had never heard him say a word against Nance, they said. The other servants at Compton Verney agreed that Nance had been out several times with the stable lad, Tom Whitworth, and that she indicated her engagement to Walter Couzens was at an end.

They knew little of her relationship with Tom Whitworth, but since she was apparently planning to take him to meet her sister, it may be presumed that the seeds of courtship had been sown. The defence lawyer put forward the case that Couzens, known throughout his life as a good young man, ‘as unlikely a boy to commit such a crime as it was possible to conceive’, could not have been in his right mind when he murdered Nance. He said the jury had two alternatives, one to hand the boy over to the hangman, and the other to cause him to be confined for the rest of his life in a lunatic asylum. The jury were out for 25 minutes, and returned a verdict of ‘Guilty’. The foreman said ‘The jury have dismissed altogether from their minds the plea of insanity, but wish to recommend the prisoner to mercy on account of his extreme youth.’ Couzens was accordingly sentenced to death.

Nance Devall was buried at Leamington Spa, and her sister received a letter from Couzens, written while he was in jail, expressing his contrition for the sorrow he had brought upon them. And so poor Nance Devall, the big, strong country girl who loved life, perhaps half in love with the stable lad Tom Whitworth, died horribly mutilated by a young man consumed with jealousy; a young man with whom she had tried to deal kindly. And Nance still walks with light gliding steps through the old rooms at Compton Verney.

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