'My birthday was coming up - I was going to be eleven. Imagine that - I was all excited! And then Miss Lawn got murdered. Now, I know, looking back, a lot of us think things were better in those days. And they were when it came to crime. But we weren't living in some sort of... well... paradise. Things did happen. I remember, some years later, when I had kiddies of my own, a woman stabbing a baby parked in its pram outside Joshua Taylor's in town. I go cold to think of that. All sorts of things went on - like now, but less of it. Of course, when I was a kiddie, you didn't hear so much - we didn't have the wireless or the telly or anything. We got the paper and that was it.
'Miss Lawn's murder was a big thing in Cambridge. And it really hit us because we always went to her shop when I went to the Mart with Dad - we knew her...
'The Mart was a big thing where farmers and smallholders went to buy and sell. It was in King Street. Wednesdays were the big Mart day, and people came in from the villages all round about. It was very well known. I used to go with my dad quite a lot when I was a nipper because I loved being with him and it was fascinating. I loved it because Dad knew a lot of the people there and I always got a lot of attention. What kiddie doesn't like being in the limelight? I certainly did!
'And I always got a treat from Dad. He'd take me over to a little shop opposite the Mart and buy me chocolate or "sweeties", that's what we called sweets, and that shop was Miss Lawn's. She was very nice. Old fashioned - a bit like Grandma Brett or Grandma Prevett, and she'd say: "And what would you like today, my dear?" and that always made me feel grown-up, like I was out shopping - although Dad was paying!
'It was a tiny little shop, even though I was small myself it seemed like that, but it sold all sorts. And I'd choose my sweeties, chocolate - whatever I wanted - and then we'd go and I'd always wave "bye bye" to Miss Lawn, and she'd always wave back.
'Well, I was writing a bit in my "diary" and I put that Mum had come home from Portsmouth, and I was excited about my birthday, and then Dad came home one Mart day and said Miss Lawn had been killed, and the police were everywhere in King Street. Dad was really shook-up about it, and he wasn't a man to get shook up. Mum was too.
'Somebody had pushed Miss Lawn down her stairs...'
Used to the accuracy of my grandmother's memory, I didn't question this. I had known her version of the story of the 'King Street Tragedy' since I was a child in the 1970s. But this did not happen.
A likely sequence of events is as follows: on the morning of 27 July, 1921, somebody had entered Miss Lawn's shop and locked the door. It's thought Miss Lawn was in the back, possibly washing something up in her scullery.
The intruder, having been to the till, had then gone to Miss Lawn's parlour. She had a cupboard there in which it was known she kept change. Miss Lawn had become aware of the intruder, and emerged from her scullery. The intruder may have tried to escape through the back door.
Evidence suggests that Miss Lawn had then picked up her salt chopper (a small axe used to chop salt from blocks) and brandished it at the intruder. The intruder had wrenched the chopper from her and struck her with the blunt side of it. Miss Lawn had been stunned for a while, then got up and went to her side door, which was at the foot of the stairs. The door opened into the Milton's Walk passage, and the side door of the Champion of the Thames public house was about four or five steps from her own door. The pub door was said to be open that day.
The intruder had panicked and launched a frenzied attack on Miss Lawn with the chopper.
Miss Lawn's body was found at the bottom of the stairs by the side door.
So, why did my grandmother's version of events differ from reality? I was surprised when, going through the newspaper archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection for Arbury material in 1999, the year after my grandmother died, I happened upon the true story. Gran's accounts of all other things that had touched her life and been reported in local newspapers were absolutely accurate. But there is more to this, and I'll return to it further on.
Back to the transcript:
'It was terrible. I was frightened. I won't say it spoilt my birthday, I had a lovely music box and a lovely dress Mum had made, and all sorts, but it... well, it cast a cloud over it.
'Our house in Milton Road was a tiny, two up, two down, we'd have heard anybody breaking in, but still I lay awake listening to every creak and bump! And sometimes I'd hear Mum going downstairs and making tea and I'd go down as well and have one too.
'They arrested a man called Clanwaring for it, and I was relieved because they'd caught the killer, I thought. But he didn't do it, wasn't guilty, and I had the creeps day and night. Even out on Arbury, which was all open, I was still wary - you never knew who was behind a bush or tree!
'I remember seeing three old ladies when Clanwaring was in court. We knew them, and they were usually nice. But I saw them outside the shops on Chesterton Road looking at the paper one day and they looked like three witches. They were talking about the court case and seemed thrilled and I thought: "They're enjoying this!" That was shocking to me.
'I spoke to Dad about it, and he said, no, he was sure they were very sorry Miss Lawn had died and he didn't think they were enjoying the situation, but they'd got a bit carried away with it all. I wasn't really satisfied with that.
'Me and Mum liked to go to the pictures. She used some of the money from her dressmaking - it was all Tom Mix, Fatty Arbuckle and that, lots of exciting serials you followed up. I loved Tom Mix. Whatever happened to him?! All silent, of course!
'Occasionally, Dad would come with us and I remember once hearing a great big thud from Mum and Dad's room, in the middle of the night. Well, I ran across our little landing, and there was Dad, lying on the floor beside the bed, and Mum, who was in bed, looking down at him in astonishment. "What are you doing?!" she said. "I was rolling to one side to avoid a train!" said Dad - I can see him now blinking up at Mum, still half asleep, bless him! Obviously, he'd been dreaming and the pictures had had some effect on him because they were full of exciting things like that!
'Anyway, if me and Mum were going to the Playhouse or Kinema in Mill Road, we used to cut across Midsummer Common from Victoria Avenue to get to Fair Street. But although it was summer and broad daylight in the evenings when Miss Lawn died, we stopped going across the Common and stuck to Victoria Avenue. I mean, who knows who might have been lurking on the Common? And we certainly didn't want to find out!
'Of course, in the end they caught the two young louts who did it and that was that. but it was an awful time.'
"Two young louts"? Actually, once again, my grandmother's recollections of the 'King Street Tragedy' did not match the reality. I was amazed when, trawling through the newspaper archive at the Cambridgeshire Collection, that no accounts of the apprehending of "two young louts" appeared.
In fact, the King Street Tragedy remains unsolved to this day.
This interested me. I immediately assumed that my grandmother had been told this rather less traumatic version of events to set her mind at rest and bring closure to the affair, and this was reinforced when I got into conversation with a lady at the Cambridge Folk Museum in 2004. The lady mentioned the King Street Tragedy and the 'fact' that Miss Lawn had been pushed downstairs, this having been passed down to her by an older relative who had been a child at the time of the tragedy.
It seems likely that some local parents had 'clubbed together' with this story to tell nervous offspring to protect them from the full facts regarding the events in King Street - and the added detail about the 'two young louts' to hide the fact that the perpetrator of the King Street Tragedy had not been discovered and was not 'safely behind bars'.
Of the three cousins featured in these recollections, my grandmother was the only one to mention the King Street Tragedy. I think the fact she knew Miss Lawn added to the effect of the events on her.
Let's return to the transcript:
'I soon gave up on the "diary" after that. I never filled the notebook up. My life wasn't interesting enough to keep it going, and I wanted to be out living, not writing! I kept it though and every so often, when I was moving or having a sort-out, I'd come across it and read it again. I haven't seen it in... it must be over thirty years, so I must have chucked it out by mistake at some point. But after that I was always more of a reader than a writer.
'My Aunt May liked to see me writing my "diary". She used to say, "There's a good girl!" She liked children to be studying and behaving themselves. Everything in its place and a place for everything, that was Aunt May. If I crept into the "best room" at Manor Farm and had a plink on the piano, she used to come in and swish this little cane she had across my fingers: "Get out of here - this is the best room! You musn't come in here on your own!"
'She could be fun though, Aunt May. I remember her playing the piano at Manor Farm and Aunt Maud singing a funny version of After The Ball Was Over. It went something like...
After the ball was over,
After the break of dawn,
She put her false leg in the corner,
She took out her glass eye,
Put her false teeth in the cup,
And all that was left would go safely to bed - after the ball,
Yes all that was left would go safely to bye byes - after the ball
Well, it was something like that!
'Aunt May married a garage mechanic called Frank Andrews and they lived with Grandma and Grandad Brett at the farm. I wondered if Aunt May might have kiddies - and how she might get on with them, but she got ill, something called "Sleeping Sickness", and that was terrible...'
Part 8: illness in Arbury and 'Ah! Berries!' is here.