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Rotherhithe teachers? murderous 1924 ?love triangle?

The next time you visit the Tesco Superstore at Surrey Quays, take a glance across the road at the large red iron bridge near the exit. It stands there as a reminder of the area?s industrial past, but less well known, it was also the scene of a tragic crime nearly 100 years ago, writes?Neil Crossfield

It was the 24th of July 1924, and the last day before the children and staff of Redriff Road School in Rotherhithe broke up for the summer holidays. On this day, many of the young boys remembered seeing two of their teachers leaving together, as they often did, and walking towards the gates of Canada Dock. This should have been a happy day, but within minutes the mood had darkened, and the two teachers lay dead in the street. They were William Holmes, aged 42, and George Leonard Kay, aged 35.

Unsurprisingly, the salacious nature of this case meant that it was extensively covered in both the local and national press. It is through these articles, covering both the incident and inquest, and a letter found at the scene, that we can uncover the distressing details of this story.

Newspapers reported that several schoolboys had seen the two men in an animated discussion walking along Redriff Road until they reached the iron bridge near to the entrance of Canada Dock. Holmes was seen to try jumping into the water but was dragged back by Kay. After this short scuffle, things appeared to have calmed down and the men walked on. However, suddenly, Holmes pulled out a pistol and fired at Kay?s chest. This caused the younger man to stumble, but not to fall, as the bullet had inadvertently hit the book that he had in his jacket pocket. The coroner noted that, in an ?irony of fate?, this book was published by the Royal Life Saving Society. This was most likely a first aid instruction booklet detailing resuscitation methods, potentially extremely useful for a teacher working in an area surrounded by water.

As Kay fell forward onto the ground, Holmes followed with a second shot to the base of the skull, killing Kay instantly. Holmes then immediately turned the gun on himself, firing a single shot into his temple. The headmaster of the school, William Lawrence, was informed about the tragedy and rushed to the scene. On seeing his two teachers lying dead before him, he fainted.

Illustrated Police News, with thanks to the British Newspaper Archive

What had transpired between these two respected teachers to lead to their deaths? The Surrey Docks were a tough, hard environment; violence was not uncommon among the dockers, but this behaviour was most unusual in men like Holmes and Kay. It was noted at the inquest that they ?generally conducted themselves as sedate members of a sedate profession?. The inquest would reveal a tangled ?love triangle?, with both victims allegedly vying for the affection of a young female teacher called Miss Gladys Lillian Maude Franckeiss. However, as we shall see, this ?love triangle? may have just been a fiction, in the mind of William Holmes.

Holmes had been born in the Tower of London around 1880. He had served in the army from 1901 till he was discharged in 1922 with an exemplary service record. The 1911 census shows he is living in Staffordshire with his wife and child. His profession is shown as an army schoolmaster. His first daughter was born in Lahore, India (now Pakistan) so he may have seen service overseas. Another daughter was born in 1912 but unfortunately his wife Edith Forrest (nee Moore) had died in 1913.

George Leonard Kay had been born in Poplar in 1888 and on the 1911 census he is shown as an ?assistant teacher? in a London County Council school. He had married Emmeline Lillian Tutt in Blackheath in 1914. They had a son, Harold Tutt Kay; born in 1921.

Gladys Franckeiss (nee Plastow) had been born in Medway, Kent in 1893. Research shows she had married a John Henry Cox in 1920 when she was 23 years old, her marriage certificate noting she is already a widow. She had previously married Herbert Cecil Franckeiss in 1918, a soldier in the London Regiment but he had died on 21 January 1919. These previous marriages are not mentioned at the inquest or in news reports, possibly to ?spice up? the story that she was some sort of femme fatale.

Gladys usually taught at Credon Road school, South Bermondsey, but would work at the Redriff school play centre from 5 pm. The Redriff School which features in this story, was destroyed in an air raid on the 7th September 1940 and is not the modern day Redriff Primary school.

Holmes appeared to have developed an unhealthy obsession with Miss Franckeiss. They had been friends at some point, but this relationship soured. Holmes had proposed to Gladys twice and was twice refused. Despite this, Holmes believed that he was engaged to Gladys but there was no evidence of this. Holmes started stalking Franckeiss at her flat and she eventually had to move out due to his harassment. One of Holmes? diaries suggests that his unwanted attention had been going on from at least 6th September 1923, but it is likely to have started way before this date.

Apart from claims of unrequited love or illicit affairs, the inquest revealed that there was other history between the two men. When Detective Inspector Bradley went to Holmes? rooms in Jerningham Road, New Cross, they found correspondence which indicated that solicitors had been involved in a dispute between the teachers, after Kay strongly objected to references made by Holmes about him. Kay had recently been passed over for promotion in favour of Holmes, though Kay had been working at the school for eleven years.

Yet, most astonishingly, it was revealed that in previous months Kay had been absent from work for six weeks due to an illness he attributed to being poisoned with strychnine by Holmes. Kay told the head teacher that his rival had confessed that he had done so and said that although ?he had made a mess of it, I hoped to do it better next time?. When the headmaster confronted Holmes he denied it and Kay later withdrew his allegations.

It is telling that both men had bought themselves guns in the months leading up to the fateful day. Both had served in the army and would have been proficient at handling firearms. Kay had bought two revolvers and cartridges, telling his wife that they would be used at school sports days, possibly as starting pistols.

Holmes had bought a five-chambered revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition in January of that year, supposedly for target shooting. These rounds were all later accounted for. Some 45 rounds of ammunition were later found in Holmes? rooms, two unfired rounds remained in the gun found at the scene and three rounds had been discharged. It seemed no target practice had taken place and the gun had been bought for one purpose only.

When Police Inspector Stone arrived at the crime scene, he found a letter in Holmes? pocket, addressed to ?Miss Franckeiss, Girls Department, L.C.C. School, Credon Street, Deptford?. The contents of this letter were read out at the inquest held at the Rotherhithe Town Hall, where it was reported that it was ?very long and written in somewhat disjointed phrases.?

It is perhaps in this last written testimony of Holmes that we get some sort of impression of his mental state at the time of the murder and his suicide. The jury, members of the public and the assorted journalists, must have been astounded when the coroner read the letter, for it clearly demonstrated that when Holmes went to work that morning, he did so with a loaded pistol and in the knowledge that both he and George Kay would be dead by the end of the day. The following are a selection of excerpts from the letter.

He started,??Dear Miss Franckeiss, -Pardon the last letter I address to you. When you receive this you will be free from the scoundrel who is ruining your life. He will be dead and you will be free to start life again, and young enough to make use of your opportunities?.?Holmes goes on to tell her that he had recently confronted Kay and warned him off continuing any relationship with her. Ominously he writes,???he would not do as he liked with you or I should kill him. I have recognised from the first that this would be the probable end? It is better to think of a girl like you lying in my arms? taking and returning my kisses and looking up at my face than lying and lying to shield a beast of a married man… I know you always regarded me as a bit of a prig, but perhaps on one?s deathbed one is allowed a little praise? Give up reading Wells and keep clear of married men. Also get rid of your love of theatrical life, and get back to your motto, ?Pure, free and unabashed?…?

He finished the letter,??after all what is left of my life is not worth much, has not been for the last ten years; but make the best of your new chance, there?s a good girl. W.H.?

Of course, we will now never know what had happened between William and Gladys so cannot totally rule out that they had, at some time, formed a romantic relationship. It is also possible that Gladys and George were involved in some sort of illicit affair, but it is highly likely that most of this was in the mind of William Holmes.

His behaviour and unhinged writings indicate that he was both besotted and obsessed with her. Today he would be considered a stalker and legal measures could have been taken to protect Gladys. It is impossible to gauge a man?s mental state after such a long period, but when one considers his erratic behaviour, it is not too difficult to surmise that Holmes was suffering some form of mental illness.

The scene of the crime

At the inquest, both Gladys Franckeiss and Lillian Kay, George?s widow, gave evidence which refuted any allegation that the two of them were romantically involved. Lillian had met Gladys on several occasions when she had gone to the Kays? house in Catford, for choral society practice. Franckeiss divulged that the relationship she had with George Kay was purely professional but told the inquest that she had asked him to keep the location of her new flat from Holmes, who had been accosting her at her previous address. Holmes had asked her to marry him twice but, on both occasions, she had turned him down. She had even taken to wearing her mother?s engagement ring in the hope that this would deter his unwanted attention.

She told the coroner:??If I stood within a couple of yards of Mr Holmes for some time he was often taken with absolute shuddering from head to foot, even the flesh of his face seemed to shake. I have never seen it before and it frightened me. He would change colour and go yellowish grey?.?She thought that Holmes was not a mentally sound man, and she was physically afraid of him.

The facts presented to the inquest jury were clear and it did not take them long to conclude that Holmes had murdered Kay and then committed suicide.

What became of those left behind? The 1939 Register shows that Kay?s widow, Emmeline, had remarried. She passed away in 1985. The same register reveals that Gladys Franckeiss passed away in August 1961. She was unmarried, and living in a Roman Catholic convent in Findon near Worthing, East Sussex.

We will never know if she ever told anyone about this dramatic episode in her life.

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