1. A lonely place to die
The last train arrived at Lintz Green Station at 10.42 PM — ten minutes later than scheduled. Lintz Green was a quiet rural station, midway between Newcastle upon Tyne and Consett on the now-defunct Consett branch of the North Eastern Railway in the north of England. Formerly a colliery line, it carried passengers, coal, and iron from the industrial villages of County Durham through the picturesque Derwent Valley to the bustling River Tyne.
It was Saturday, October 7, 1911, and the train was a little busier than usual with a handful of residents from the sparsely-populated surrounds returning from a day in Newcastle — shopping, drinking, and watching Newcastle United play in the Football League. Waiting on the westbound “down” platform to meet them in his uniform and cap was the Lintz Green stationmaster, George Wilson. Within a few minutes, Wilson would be dead.
Fifty-nine-year-old Wilson was a widower who lived with his daughter in the stationmaster’s house, which stood alone behind the booking office on the eastbound “up” platform. The station was surrounded by woodland, and the only other houses within shouting distance were a handful of platelayers’ cottages past the down platform. By day, Lintz Green Station was a charming English countryside location, but by night, it was an isolated and lonely place.
Wilson met the last train and watched the passengers disembark with the station’s booking clerk, Fred White, and its porter, Thomas Routledge. Wilson and White collected the passengers’ tickets, and Routledge boarded the train to go home. Routledge lived in Gateshead and would ride the train up to Consett, then remain onboard for the non-stop return journey back to the depot.
Wilson and White watched the train depart in a roll of steam and iron, then they closed up the waiting room and put out the lights on the empty platform, plunging it into gloom. Carrying their illuminated oil lamps, they walked up the stairs onto the stone bridge that arched over the railway tracks and crossed to the opposite platform, where they went into the booking office. Wilson laid his tickets on the bench, reminded White to close the platform gate, and said, “Goodnight.” Then Wilson left the office and walked with his lamp through the garden gate toward his house.
Wilson’s daughter Bertha had left a candle burning in the stairwell window to help her father find his way in the dark. Lying in bed, she was woken by a noise that she thought was furniture creaking. Then she heard her father “scuffling” with his latchkey at the outer door. “Oh dear, what a noise he is making,” she thought. Then she heard a gunshot and her father crying, “Oh! Oh!”
Bertha ran to the window and yelled, “What’s the matter? Are you hurt?”
“Yes, yes, oh, yes,” Wilson replied.
“I’m coming!” yelled Bertha, and she ran down the staircase as fast as she could. She stood behind the closed door and shouted, “Is anybody there?” There was no response. “Dad, are you there?”
“I think he said something, but I dared not go any further,” she later recalled. Instead, she began to scream.
Fred White, the booking clerk, was closing the gate on the platform when he heard the gunshot and then the scream. His friend, a miner named Charles Swinburne who had been on the train from Newcastle, was waiting to walk home with him. The two men hurried to the scene. Bertha opened the door and said, “Oh Fred, there is something happened to Father. See what it is.”
White looked behind a tree, where he saw the stationmaster lying on the garden path. “Oh!” White yelled, then hurried Bertha back into the house. “Come away in!”
“Oh, it was awful!” recalled Bertha.
“Mr. Wilson, speak, speak, say who did it!” the men implored.
Next to arrive on the scene were three more miners, Samuel Elliott, Robert Wailes, and Thomas Middleton, who had just got off the train from Newcastle. They had been to the Newcastle United match [a 0–0 draw with West Bromwich Albion], then spent the evening in the city, before traveling back to Lintz Green. They were around 200 yards from the station, on the footpath to Low Friarside, when they heard the gunshot. “There’s something the matter at the station,” said Elliott. The three men stopped and listened, then heard Bertha’s scream, and ran to the stationmaster’s house.
As the three miners approached through the darkness, they saw Fred White and Bertha cowering in terror. Elliott quickly assured them they had come to help. White directed the miners behind the tree, where they found George Wilson, prostrate and bleeding from a wound in his left breast. His lamp was still in his hand. Beside him was a small cloth covered in sand, its purpose unknown.
The miners picked Wilson up, carried him into the house, and laid him on the couch. Middleton was an ambulance man at his colliery, and he attempted to give first aid, but it seemed clear that Wilson was beyond help. Middleton loosened Wilson’s collar and moistened his lips with brandy. “Mr. Wilson, speak, speak, say who did it!” the men implored. But the stationmaster could only make a gurgling sound before his eyes rolled back and he died. It was just before 11 PM.
Lintz Green Station housed the Lintzford Post Office and was connected to the telephone exchange. Calls were made to a doctor, to the police, and to one of Wilson’s sons. Dr. Wynne Boland of Burnopfield arrived at 11.57 PM and found Wilson “beyond human aid.” The doctor confirmed that Wilson had been shot “through the heart, left lung, and aorta.” He had been shot at close range, and his vest, braces, and shirt were singed. The bullet had passed right through his body and exited his back. Sand was found on his clothing.
A man named Mr. Watson, described as being “from the forge” and presumably a blacksmith, came to the house. Wilson’s son Joseph also arrived, having hurried more than 20 miles from his home at Haydon Bridge.
The first police officer on the scene was a sergeant from Blackhill Police Station. Superintendent Joseph Dryden and Inspector Albert Gargate from Consett Police Station arrived shortly afterward with several other officers. Several questions immediately presented themselves. Where was the murder weapon? What was the motive? What was the significance of the piece of cloth and the sand? And who, on this pitch-black night in this out-of-the-way place, was the murderer?
Wilson had fought with his attacker, it was determined. But there was no indication of who the attacker might be. Samuel Elliott described hearing a rustling in the bushes after the gunshot but did not see anyone. The secluded station and the stationmaster’s house were surrounded by woods, and it seemed that the murderer had slipped away undetected. As the Newcastle Chronicle later reported, “Not a soul but the dead man saw the assailant.”
George Wilson was born in Castleside, County Durham, in 1852. He began his career on the railways as a signalman, before becoming the stationmaster at Elrington Halt then Langley-on-Tyne, both near Hexham on the Allendale branch line. He was transferred to Lintz Green in December 1903, succeeding a Mr. Hood. Wilson’s wife, Annie, died in 1910. The couple had three children: George Jnr., a railway signalman who emigrated to the U.S. sometime around his father’s transfer; Joseph, a factory clerk who lived at Haydon Bridge with his wife; and Bertha, the only daughter, and youngest child.
Wilson was described as being “of a very quiet disposition” and “a total abstainer.” He was closely involved with the Wesleyan Methodist Church, but little else of note could be said about him locally. He was best known for the care he took of the station, and particularly its beautiful floral displays that had won him several prizes from the railway company. After Wilson’s wife died, he lived with his unmarried daughter who “kept house for him.” Bertha was 26 when her father was murdered.
A man of routine, Wilson was known to collect the station’s cash takings at around 9 PM every evening and secure them at his house, carrying them in a small leather bag supplied by the railway company that was fastened at the neck with a padlock. He kept to his routine on the night he was killed, and the cash was safely secured in the house. All he had on him when he died was a small sum of his own money plus some coins from the waiting room’s sweetmeat vending machine — which sold peppermints and candies, and probably cigarettes and matches. This money was not taken, but the motive was still supposed to be robbery.
“The attack was seemingly the work of someone with a knowledge of the station, the stationmaster, and his methods from day to day,” surmised the Northern Daily Mail. “It seems to be tolerably clear that the assailant had designs upon the bag and its contents. Equally probable is that the person who did the deed had resolved to shoot Mr. Wilson first and then snatch the bag and decamp in the darkness. He accomplished the first part of the plot but was thwarted in the second.”
Some early reports of the murder, including one in the lurid Illustrated Police News, wrongly named the victim as Joseph Wilson, and this mistake was repeated by several subsequent sources. But he is correctly named on his gravestone as George. He was buried near to his wife at Burnopfield, just over a mile from Lintz Green, on October 10, 1911, three days after his murder.
The funeral was attended by “a large concourse” of mourners and sympathizers, including several other stationmasters and railway officials. The Reverend J. Griffin Hodson of Hexham Wesleyan Methodist Church “paid tribute to his worth” and called Wilson a “class-leader” on the Wesleyan circuit. Those gathered to remember him must have been deeply unsettled by the knowledge that George Wilson’s murderer remained at large.
2. A flawed investigation
Police officers searched the garden of the stationmaster’s house by the light of their oil lamps and then the rising sun. George Wilson had been shot through the heart and died almost instantly. His assassin had disappeared under cover of darkness into the woodlands that surrounded Lintz Green Station. On the pitch-black night of October 7, 1911, the peace of this quiet English countryside railway station had been forever disturbed.
A bullet, “quite flattened,” was found near to the doorstep. It had passed through Wilson’s body, struck the wall of the house, and ricocheted onto the ground. It was identified as having been fired from a revolver “of large caliber.” Prior to the Great War, revolvers were not common in Britain, although they could be purchased with a license from certain gunsmiths. An imported Colt .22 cost around £3 7s in 1911 (equivalent to about £330 or $410 in 2020). The 1903 Pistols Act required purchasers to obtain a license from a police station, and prohibited the sale of handguns to anyone who was “drunken or insane.”
Footprints between the doorstep of the house and tree where Wilson’s body was found indicated there had been a struggle. A small cloth found next to Wilson was described as a piece of linen or cotton, thought to be from a pillowcase, with a knot tied in the middle and strings at each end. Police determined that the attacker had attempted to use it as a gag — although it might also have been used as a face mask to hide the attacker’s identity. Sand was found on the small cloth and on Wilson’s clothing. The sand had likely been thrown in Wilson’s face to disorientate or temporarily blind him.
By the morning, the search had expanded beyond the house and garden and into the woodland. But it was a passer-by rather than a police officer who found the next clue. A young man found a black revolver cartridge near the footpath leading to Low Friarside and Burnopfield. This was the footpath the three miners, Samuel Elliott, Robert Middleton, and Robert Wailes, were walking along when they heard the gunshot. Elliott had also heard a rustling in the bushes. Police began to search for the gun, which they speculated had been thrown into the nearby River Derwent.
The police also searched the station’s booking office. At night, the office was illuminated by three lamps, and it was noted that anyone could see into the office through gaps in the shutters without necessarily being seen themselves. Perhaps crucially, it was revealed that the office had been burgled three times in recent memory, and the stationmaster’s house had also been broken into. So this was not the first crime at Lintz Green.
Later that morning, a message was issued to all police stations in County Durham: “Mr. Wilson, Stationmaster at Lintz Green, was murdered last night at 11 o’clock. The motive was undoubtedly robbery, as a cloth gag to be placed over the mouth was found close to where the body was lying. He was shot through the heart. Two tickets were taken out for Lintz Green from Elswick Station. The party are expected to have come from Newcastle district.”
Elswick is a suburb to the west of Newcastle upon Tyne. While several passengers had traveled from Newcastle city center to Lintz Green on the day of the murder, it must have been considered unusual for two of them to have traveled from Elswick. However, Elswick station was located next to the huge Armstrong factory, which employed thousands of workers. It was also only a mile from St James’ Park, where Newcastle United had played a Football League match that afternoon. So, despite police suspicions, there were at least a couple of good reasons for travel from Elswick.
Two men were arrested later that day — presumed to be the two men who had bought the tickets from Elswick — but they were quickly cleared and released. County Durham police made another arrest, but that individual was also released. By the following day, the police appeared to have exhausted their slender leads. Neither the murderer, nor the murder weapon, nor any satisfactory explanation for the crime had been found.
“Tell her that we shall do our best to investigate the matter, and we hope that the criminal or criminals who are responsible for this dreadful outrage will be brought to justice.”
The inquest into the death of George Wilson opened on October 9, two days after the murder, at the Lintz Green Station waiting rooms. Coroner John Graham, chairing the inquest, gave a speech sympathizing with the local community, saying that it must have been a terrible shock to learn of such a tragedy. He acknowledged that many of those present at the inquiry would have known Wilson very well. “I have known him ever since he came to Lintz Green Station,” said Graham, “and particularly, I have noticed how fond he was of his garden — at least of flowers and ornamenting his station.”
Evidence of Wilson’s identity was given by his uncle Thomas Shotton, a retired railway inspector from Shotley Bridge. Graham asked Shotton how Wilson’s daughter Bertha was coping. “She is keeping up very well and is better than she was yesterday,” said Shotton.
“Will you tell her,” said Graham, “and I am only anticipating what the jury might say, that we all deeply grieve for her, and sympathize from our hearts with her in the terrible loss she has sustained? Tell her that we shall do our best to investigate the matter, and we hope that the criminal or criminals who are responsible for this dreadful outrage will be brought to justice.”
Fred White, the booking clerk, was questioned as the last witness to see Wilson alive. He described how he helped Wilson meet the last train, and accompanied him to the office, where they said goodbye. White locked up the office and was about to go home with the miner Charles Swinburne when he heard the gunshot. According to White, because he felt “rather timid,” he gave Swinburne his oil lamp, and Swinburne led the way. Directed by Bertha, Swinburne shone his lamp over the garden path, and they saw Wilson lying on his right side, his clothes covered in blood. They helped bring him inside the house. Someone tried to make him speak, but Wilson died.
The station porter, Thomas Routledge, said Wilson was “in his usual spirits” when he last saw him on the platform before boarding the last train to go home. Routledge learned of the murder when the train reached Blackhill. After questioning Routledge, John Graham decided that enough evidence had been heard to justify an adjournment. He intended to give the police ample time to complete their enquires, and he adjourned the inquest for a month, until November 8.
The Shields Gazette noted that there had been three murders in the region within a week and called it an “epidemic of crime.” There was a shocking triple murder at Byker, Newcastle, in which Maggie Ingram and her young daughters Bertha and Ethel were killed during an apparent burglary. Maggie’s husband, Alexander Ingram, was later convicted of the murders and committed suicide in prison. And in the Northumberland village of Sheepwash, a young miner named Alfred Etheridge killed his girlfriend, Catherine Baker, with a shotgun then turned the gun on himself.
“Sad as these cases are, the murder at Lintz Green will occupy the largest share of public attention,” said the Gazette, largely because the murderer remained unknown. “With men of this class at large, life is not safe. He ranks as a criminal of the worst stamp, and there will be no easy feeling until he is tracked and brought to justice.”
Then, on October 11, there was a breakthrough. Inspector Gargate of County Durham Police and Inspector Tait of Newcastle City Police arrested a young man in Newcastle on suspicion of being involved with the Lintz Green murder. The man was detained at Newcastle Central Police Station overnight. He was described as having a knowledge of the workings of the railway station and was unable to account for his whereabouts on the night of the murder. His name was Samuel Atkinson.
THE CRIME SCENE
Lintz Green Station opened in 1867, initially to serve the local collieries and industrial villages. There were three collieries within a mile of the station — Lintz Colliery, which was on the way to Burnopfield, plus Garesfield, and Victoria Garesfield. There was also an important paper mill at Lintzford, at the top of Lintz Green Lane. Lintz Green itself — around 500 meters south of the station — comprised just one residence, the grand Lintz Green House, built in 1826 and preserved today as a Grade II listed building.
The unusual “Lintz” is said to be a derivation of “link,” meaning rising ground or ridge, with the “z” affected by an early settlement of German sword makers. According to Victorian chronicler Eneas Mackenzie, during the Middle Ages the place gave its name to landowner Thomas de Lynz, who in 1352 had the land confiscated after fleeing “for felony.” In 1911, Lintz Green was part of County Durham, which is why the murder investigation was led by Durham County Police. (It is now part of the metropolitan borough of Gateshead in the county of Tyne and Wear.)
“Lintz Green is the prettiest station on the branch,” said the Sunderland Echo in its reporting of the murder. This was in large part due to George Wilson’s prize-winning floral arrangements, which sprouted from plant pots along the length of the platforms and hung from the eaves of the station buildings. But it was also due to the station’s location in the picturesque Derwent Valley, carved by the River Derwent, which flows from its source near Blanchland, Northumberland, for 35 miles into the River Tyne.
The station represented a picture-postcard scene — and picture postcards of the station were actually produced and sold. The station’s two platforms, each with neat picket fences and brick chimneyed waiting rooms, were connected by the stone arch bridge that carried Lintz Green road over the railway line. The bridge was accessed by stone steps at the end of each platform, with wrought iron railings and stiles.
The stationmaster’s house was the only dwelling on the north side of the railway line. It was a compact and unusual three-story brick building with arched round-top windows and a mansard roof with two large chimneys. The small garden — as well-tended as the station — was fenced by wooden palings. At the end of the garden path, a wicket gate opened outward onto the station platform.
On the south side of the station, there were five platelayers’ cottages, which housed railway trackmen. To the north was Cockshot Wood, then Fogoesburn Wood, then the River Derwent. To the east was Priestfield Wood. Footpaths through the woods led to the hamlet of Low Friarside and the village of Burnopfield.
Newspapers also described the station as “isolated” and “remote,” and its rural location, surrounded by woodland and very few houses, made it difficult to trace the murderer. “The assailant had ample opportunity for making good his escape without detection,” reported the Newcastle Chronicle. “The place was in darkness, and this fact was further to the advantage of the assailant.” As the location for a murder, Lintz Green was as unlikely as it was perfect.
3. An unlikely suspect
On the evening of Wednesday, October 11, 1911, Inspector Albert Gargate of Durham Police went to a house in Kirk Street, Byker, described in the press as “one of the lower-class parts of Newcastle.” Gargate was accompanied by another police officer from Durham and two officers from Newcastle. Gargate asked to speak to a man named Samuel Atkinson, but the person who answered the door — thought to be Atkinson’s mother — said he was not in.
“They wanted to get the police away, and told me to come back in ten minutes or quarter of an hour,” recalled Gargate, who refused to be deterred. He gained access to the property, and found his suspect in cramped circumstances: “He was in bed in the kitchen.”
Sam Atkinson was a slightly-built 26-year-old, although he looked older. He had previously been a seaman but now worked as a casual porter on the North Eastern Railway. On the previous Saturday, October 7, he had been working at Lintz Green Station. Inspector Gargate wanted to speak to him about the murder of stationmaster George Wilson.
Gargate waited for Atkinson to get out of bed, then asked him, “Are you the man who was doing porter work at Lintz Green Station?” Atkinson said he was. Gargate took Atkinson into the next room and, when they were alone, asked him to account for his movements — where he had been and what he had done — on the previous Saturday.
Atkinson said he had worked at the station as usual until about 4 PM. “I then went home,” he said. “I remained in the house till about 7 PM, when I had a walk into the Bigg Market.” Newcastle’s Bigg Market, then as now, was a bustling gathering place filled with pubs. “I only saw one man who I know by sight,” said Atkinson. “I do not know his name or where he lives, but he is a casual porter on the North Eastern Railway, the same as myself.”
Gargate thought Atkinson’s replies were unsatisfactory, and the accounts given by Atkinson’s family as to his whereabouts were contradictory. He decided to take Atkinson to Newcastle Central Police Station and detain him on suspicion of the murder of George Wilson.
On the following morning, Gargate transferred Atkinson in a motor car to Consett Police Station. News of the arrest had spread quickly, and several thousand people were waiting at the station as the car arrived. Atkinson was bundled inside before any form of mob justice could be exacted. Once inside, Atkinson was placed in a line-up of 15 persons. Then several people, described as residents of Lintz Green, were asked to identify a man they had supposedly seen loitering at the railway station on Saturday night.
Afterward, Superintendent Joseph Dryden, who was effectively in charge of the investigation, made a statement. Dryden said Atkinson had been employed at Lintz Green Station for several months. On the day of the murder, he finished his shift at 3.45 PM and left the station for his home in Newcastle. However, he was seen on the platform “at a later hour,” and was there at “just about” the time the last train arrived. Dryden said two witnesses had identified Atkinson as being the man they saw at the station that night.
Dryden’s statement raised several questions. Who were the residents who identified Atkinson, considering the previously-identified witnesses had not recalled seeing anyone? If Atkinson had returned to the station, would he not have been recognized by his colleagues Fred White, Thomas Routledge, and indeed George Wilson? Was there any evidence to link Atkinson to the crime, other than an inability to confirm his presence at Newcastle’s hectic Bigg Market?
Nevertheless, that evening Sam Atkinson was placed in front of a magistrate’s court and charged with “killing and slaying” George Wilson. “Oh! Not that!” Atkinson cried. Asked if he had any objection to being remanded in custody, Atkinson said, “I do not think it should be so. I have done no harm. I cannot see why I should be remanded. I can bring plenty of witnesses to show where I was on Saturday night.” But Superintendent Dryden argued that Atkinson had been given every opportunity to confirm his whereabouts, and had not been able to do so. Atkinson was remanded for a week.
“I have done no harm. I cannot see why I should be remanded. I can bring plenty of witnesses to show where I was on Saturday night.”
During that week, police continued to search for the murder weapon in the woods around the station and in the River Derwent. On Saturday, October 14, a week after the murder, it was revealed that police were hunting a second suspect. This was thought to be a mendicant — a wandering beggar — who had been sleeping rough in the area for the past week. Neither the weapon nor the suspect was found.
On October 19, Sam Atkinson appeared again at the magistrate’s court. The court gave strict instructions that he was not to be photographed or sketched as “it would be unfair to him at the present stage of the proceedings.”
Edward Clark, a solicitor, from Jesmond, Newcastle, represented Atkinson. Clark said there was “not a tittle of evidence.” He objected to the use of the statements given by his client because they had not been given voluntarily, and Atkinson had not been cautioned. But the police requested Atkinson be remanded for a further week, and Clark consented, saying he wanted the fullest inquiry and did not want to “frustrate the ends of justice.” Atkinson was returned to the cells.
Atkinson was subsequently remanded two more times, on October 26 and November 2. On the latter occasion, magistrate Robert Mowbray Battensby asked Atkinson if he had anything to say on the matter of being further remanded. Atkinson said, “Well, I don’t know why I should when I’m not guilty.” Battensby replied, “I don’t know about that.”
The inquest into Wilson’s murder resumed on November 8 at the Temperance Hall, near Burnopfield. The coroner, John Graham, again presided. Atkinson was not present. The only witness called was Dr. Wynne Boland, who described arriving at the scene to find Wilson lying dead on the sofa with a “ragged” wound just under his left nipple, between the fifth and sixth ribs. He described Wilson’s skin as pallid and blanched, but said rigor mortis had not set in. Afterward, the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against “some person or persons unknown.”
That person or persons was not Sam Atkinson. He was brought before the magistrate’s court on the following morning, November 9, and, with the police unable to offer any evidence, he was formally discharged. He had held been in custody for four weeks and, as the most high-profile murder suspect in the country, his life had been derailed.
Atkinson lived with his elderly mother. Before his arrest, he had saved the sum of £19 (equivalent to around £1,900 or $2,400 in 2020) with which he intended to buy a horse and cart to sell vegetables around Newcastle to support himself and his mother. However, to secure his release, he had spent all of his savings and borrowed an extra £3 from his brother. Atkinson applied for a grant, “owing to the expense he had been put to,” but the application was refused. He would not get his horse and cart.
During the second week of November, Durham County Police began to circulate notices offering a reward of £100 (worth around £10,000 or $12,500 in 2020) for information leading to the arrest of a young man aged between 20 and 22 who had “maliciously shot” the stationmaster at Lintz Green. The suspect was around 5ft 5in tall and clean-shaven, with a dark, sallow complexion. He was of medium build with square shoulders and walked with a slight stoop. One young man, from Barlow, was taken into custody at Blaydon Police Station. But when a witness called by the police failed to pick the man out of a line-up, he was released.
It soon emerged that the description had been obtained from a gunsmith’s shop in Newcastle, where the suspect had purchased a box of 50 revolver cartridges between 2 PM and 3 PM on the day of the murder. This type of cartridge matched the one found at the scene. According to the gunsmith, the young man “had the appearance of one who was living in a country district,” and wore a dark tweed jacket, and collar and tie. A silver watch chain passed through the buttonhole of his jacket. His trouser pockets were on the front rather than the sides, which was considered unusual. He was accompanied in the shop by an unidentified youth.
The police also sought information regarding the cloth found at the scene. Now identified as a piece of an “ordinary” cotton pillowcase, it was very dirty, and had been “much used without washing for a long time.” The police asked for every possible inquiry to be made regarding a missing pillowcase, or portion of a pillowcase. It seemed like the flimsiest of leads.
On December 6, 1911, Bertha Wilson, George Wilson’s daughter, made a claim for compensation from North Eastern Railway (NER) at Consett county court. Her solicitor, Mr. Lambert, explained that Bertha was the sole dependent of the deceased, as both of his sons were married with their own families. He requested £300 (equivalent to around £30,000 or $37,500 in 2020), and assured the court that the bulk of the money would be invested in NER shares and “would not be squandered.” Bertha explained that she was currently living with friends at Shotley Bridge. She requested the whole compensation sum and said £200 of it would be invested as her solicitor had suggested. The court agreed, and the compensation was paid.
Meanwhile, the investigation into her father’s murder continued through to the end of 1911 without a breakthrough. Then, in January, a tip-off sent police scrambling to the wilds of Northumberland on a pursuit that would take them across the heaths and hills of the Scottish Borders.
In addition to George Wilson, there were ten named witnesses present on the night of the murder. Several heard the gunshot but none saw the killer. Ages are approximate based on the 1911 census, which was conducted that April.
Bertha Wilson, 26, stationmaster’s daughter
Fred White, 18, railway clerk
Thomas Routledge, 31, railway porter (left on last train)
Charles Swinburne, 20, colliery wagon rider
Samuel Elliott, 27, colliery hewer
Thomas Middleton, 31, colliery traffic manager
Robert Wailes, 14, colliery pony driver OR 44, colliery hewer
Mr. Watson, “from the forge,” likely the forge at Lintzford (arrived later)
Dr. Henry Francis Wynne Boland, 38, physician (arrived later)
Joseph Wilson, 35, stationmaster’s son (arrived later)
4. The scene of the crime
The Derwent Walk is an 11-mile country trail that runs from Swalwell, on the River Tyne, to Consett, in the former Durham coalfields. It follows the reclaimed route of the defunct Consett branch line of the North Eastern Railway, which cut a swathe through the rural Derwent Valley. From Swalwell, the trail runs through woods of oak, birch, and elm trees, past Derwenthaugh Park on the site of the former Derwenthaugh cokeworks, and across the remarkable feat of engineering that is the Lockhaugh Viaduct, known locally as the Nine Arches Bridge.
From the top of the Nine Arches, walkers, cyclists, and the occasional horse rider can take in spectacular views across the Derwent Valley and the grand Gibside Estate, built by coal magnate George Bowes, with its landmark 44-meter-tall Column to Liberty. Nature has reclaimed the valley and healed its industrial scars. Deer, red squirrels, and red kites now roam the area. Further west, past Rowlands Gill, around the midway point of the trail, are two overgrown stone platforms — the remains of a disused railway station. This is Lintz Green Station, the scene of the 1911 murder of stationmaster George Wilson.
The stationmaster’s house is still standing behind the north platform, and is still inhabited. It still feels isolated, too, despite the regular whizz of cyclists passing on the trail. The arched stone bridge survives, as do the stone steps and wrought iron railings and stiles. It’s possible to walk from the south platform up the steps and through the stile onto the bridge, then across and down onto the north platform, just as George Wilson did on the night of his murder. The house’s current owners are still maintaining the garden where he took his last breath.
By the end of 1911, Wilson’s murder remained unsolved. But on January 12, 1912, police received a tip that a man fitting the description of their suspect was working at Blaxter Quarry near Otterburn, Northumberland. An officer was dispatched to interview him, but by the time he arrived, the man had fled. The man had been seen heading north through the village of Elsdon and was thought to be heading to Cumberland or Westmoreland, or across the border into Scotland.
The new suspect was known as John Hall. He boasted of being good-looking with a good set of teeth, and he had the habit of “frizzing his hair in the front.” He had a tattoo of a woman on his right forearm and spoke with a South Durham or North Yorkshire accent. He was last seen dressed in corduroy trousers and a dark grey checked jacket and vest. He kept himself aloof from his fellow workers, and they noticed that he seemed “unsettled and nervous.” He told them he was born in Hunslet, Leeds, and had lived at Ferryhill, County Durham, and Bottle Bank, Gateshead. He had previously worked at various farms.
The police made urgent inquiries and began to follow John Hall’s trail north through Northumberland and into the Scottish Borders region, to Roxburghshire and Liddlesdale. But each time they chased a lead, they found that their suspect had moved on. The chase went south, back to Northumberland. A team of detectives and special constables searched the town of Haltwhistle. Then, on February 27, a policeman spotted the suspect and pursued him along Hadrian’s Wall — the ancient Roman frontier defense — to Sewingshields.
The suspect was captured and arrested, and he admitted that he knew he was a wanted man. But it was quickly established that John Hall had no connection to the Lintz Green murder. He was wanted on “trivial charges” by Yorkshire Police. Superintendent Joseph Dryden from Durham interviewed Hall and confirmed he was not the man he wanted. Hall was discharged and handed over to Yorkshire. Once again, the police had spent several weeks chasing the wrong man.
Further leads were scarce. In the first week of March, the Chief Constable of Gateshead Police, James Trotter, received two anonymous letters. The letters described a man the sender had met on the road from Lintz Green toward Gateshead on the night of the murder. Trotter issued a notice asking the sender to contact him in confidence and forwarded the letters to Durham Police, but there were no further developments.
Coincidentally, in May 1912, Inspector Albert Gargate of Durham was promoted to Superintendent at Gateshead. A reporter for the Newcastle Chronicle wrote, “I said to a friend not long ago while waiting for a train at Lintz Green, ‘Gargate will be a superintendent yet, you’ll see!’” suggesting that the promotion was connected to his profile-raising connection to the George Wilson murder — despite it remaining unsolved.
Toward the end of 1912, in late November, a man was arrested in Shiremoor, North Tyneside. He had pledged some goods that could apparently be linked to the Lintz Green murder with a pawnbroker in North Shields. But nothing came from the arrest. There were reports of a further arrest in February 1914, but again no further developments.
The next apparent breakthrough came in 1915, during the early months of the Great War. The latest suspect was Philip May, a soldier with the Northumberland Fusiliers regiment of the British Army. He was arrested in Darlington on March 24, 1915, and appeared in his khaki uniform at a special court in Consett later that evening, where he was charged with the wilful murder of George Wilson. Superintendent Dryden said May had been taken into custody after making a statement to his superior officer in which he confessed to the killing. But May denied any knowledge of the murder.
“I know as much about it as that piece of paper,” he said, pointing to a document on the magistrate’s desk. “I know nothing about it. I might have been in prison at the time.”
“Have you a bad memory?” asked the magistrate.
“No, but I have had some cuts upon the head,” said May.
“Do you belong to the neighborhood?”
“No, I belong to Gateshead,” said May. “This is the very first time I have been up here.”
May was remanded to Durham Jail to allow police to investigate the matter. A week later, he was discharged for lack of evidence. He was handed over to the Military Police regarding a separate offense under the Army Act. May, it seemed, was a troublemaker but not a murderer.
In July 1915, May and fellow Northumberland Fusilier John Haney were charged with being drunk and disorderly and assaulting two police constables in Gateshead. Both men were jailed for a month for the drunk and disorderly charge and five months for assault, and would serve six months each in total.
“The Lintz Green murder must, therefore, remain an unsolved mystery.”
The Lintz Green Station murder became a cold case, but it was not entirely forgotten. In September 1927, 16 years after the murder, another anonymous letter was received, this time by Scotland Yard in London. The sender claimed that a man who lived at a given address in Pollokshaws, Glasgow, could “throw fresh light” on the crime.
Scotland Yard passed the matter to Glasgow Police’s Queen’s Park division, which sent detectives to interview the man. Afterward, Glasgow informed Scotland Yard that the man knew nothing whatsoever about the murder. He was employed in Scotland at the time of the killing, and had never been to the North of England. As the Scottish Sunday Post commented: “The Lintz Green murder must, therefore, remain an unsolved mystery.”
The case was recalled by the press again in 1933, following the death of former Superintendent Joseph Dryden, who had retired from the force eight years earlier. The Northern Daily Mail reflected on how Dryden and his men had interviewed a large number of people and taken many statements, without success. Dryden’s death effectively ended police and media interest in the Lintz Green Murder.
Ultimately, Dryden and his men failed to solve the crime. Their investigation was flawed. They had jumped to hasty conclusions and pursued weak theories and wrong suspects with little or no evidence. But they had very little evidence to go on. During the pre-war era, the public might have expected crimes to be solved in a relatively straightforward manner with Sherlock Holmes-style powers of deduction. But true crimes did not always fit into popular narratives. The police had no direct witness, no murder weapon, and no clear motive. The murderer had slipped away on that dark night into the woods and into anonymity.
The murder did, latterly, make a connection with Sherlock Holmes. In 2017, author Paul Ashton published the Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, as written by Holmes about his bee-keeping and final investigations, and mentioned in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1917 Holmes story His Last Bow. In Ashton’s book, Holmes declines the request of the Consett Police to investigate the murder of George Wilson. “My health will not allow me to go to Durham at the moment,” he writes, “and anyway, the trail is cold.” Holmes writes of the arrest and release of prime suspect Sam Atkinson, and says the police have closed their investigation “for reasons they have not disclosed.” Even fiction’s greatest detective could not solve the Lintz Green Murder.
Today, the overgrown remains of Lintz Green Station remain as a reminder of the North Eastern Railway and its era of steam and coal. George Wilson is remembered, too, even if his story is not widely recalled. Locals know the stationmaster’s house as “the murder house,” but few who hike or cycle past know its full history. One of the platelayers’ cottages on the other side of the station is now an Airbnb. And Lintz Green makes for a charming English countryside vacation spot. Perhaps until night falls and isolation closes in, evoking thoughts of dark events on a black night back in 1911.⬧
This is a work of non-fiction. Everything in quotations comes from historical documents.
Sources: Part 1: Newcastle Chronicle, Northern Daily Mail, Sunderland Echo, North East Daily Gazette, Shields Gazette, Daily Telegraph, Illustrated Police News, UK Census, Durham County Records. Part 2: Northern Daily Mail, North East Daily Gazette, Shields Gazette, Daily Telegraph, Eneas Mackenzie’s Historical View of the County of Durham (1834), Allen Mawer’s Place Names of Northumberland (1920). Part 3: Northern Daily Mail, Shields Gazette, Sunderland Echo, Shields Daily News, Justice, UK Census 1911. Part 4: Northern Daily Mail, Northern Daily Gazette, Blyth News, Shields Daily News, Newcastle Chronicle, Newcastle Journal, Dundee Courier, Sunday Post, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture.
Paul Brown is the author of The Ruhleben Football Association.