WHAT do we expect to find when we begin to look into our family trees? Perhaps it’s an insight into the lives of our ancestors, a link to a well-known figure in history, or possiblythe thrill of uncovering some dark secret of the past. When Albert Barratt of Lobley Hill, near Gateshead, began to probe his family’s history he discovered that one of his great-uncles died young in mysterious circumstances, never to be satisfactorily explained, with the suspicion that the lad was murdered.
Albert writes: “While I was researching my family history I came across this bit of information that may be of interest to your readers. It concerns one of my grandfather’s brothers, John Willie Barratt, who according to the local newspapers was a mysterious drowning case at Coseley, 8th January, 1892.
“The inquest was held at The Anchor public house and the family lived at 165 Anchor Square. The boy’s father was John Barratt and his mother was Hannah.
John worked as a puddler at Spring Vale steelworks and there is a photograph of young John Willie that has ‘he was murdered’ written on it.
“If any of your readers can shed some light on this case I would be extremely grateful” Albert’s research has brought up a variety of spellings of the family name. The 1891 census records the name as Barratt, while the newspaper reports on the drowning case use Barrett and the 1901 census has Barritt.
Albert has sent a copy of the report from the Dudley Herald on the inquest into John Willie’s death. It was headed “Mysterious Drowning Case at Coseley”.
“On Monday morning Mr W.H. Phillips, coroner, held an inquiry at the Anchor Inn, Deepfields, relative to the death of John Willie Barrett (9), son of John Barrett, Deepfields, whose dead body was found in the canal on Friday morning.
“Deceased’s father identified the body, and said on the [illegible] his boy brought his breakfast to the Steel Works, Spring Vale, where he was employed as fireman.
He waited while he had his breakfast, and then started home with the two cans wrapped in a handkerchief. During the day his wife came to the works and informed him that he had not returned home. He made inquiries of persons about the place but all to no purpose. He then dragged the canal that day and night, and the following day and night.
On Friday morning his dead body was found in the boat dock near to Deepfields. His hat, the breakfast utensils, and a blue pilot overcoat, with tippet, which deceased had on when he left the works, were missing.
“He did not think the boy took off his overcoat because he was getting warm, as it was a cold morning and he had only about half a mile to walk. There were no marks of injury on the body. Deceased was a very sharp and intelligent boy.
“Some time ago he lost a can and £1 3s 6d, and alleged that a boatman had snatched it from him. He noticed the name and number on the boat and took witness to it, but the man who he said had taken the money was not there. He could not account for the boy getting into the canal.
‘The coroner: Was the boy’s overcoat buttoned when he left you? ‘Witness: Yes sir. It was buttoned to the bottom.
‘The coroner: The mysterious part of the case is that the overcoat is missing.
“Enoch Fellows, Broad Lanes, said he knew deceased very well from the fact of his passing to and from the steel works with his father’s meals.
He saw him at 8.30 going to the works on the morning in question, and saw him returning at 9 o’clock. He was walking along alone, and had on an overcoat with a tippet attached. It would be about 100 yards from the place where he saw the deceased, to the spot where he was found in the canal.
‘The Coroner: Did you see any tramps passing that day? ‘Witness: No sir.
‘The Coroner: (to Barrett) Did you drag the canal for the overcoat, after you found the body? ‘Witness: No. I had been dragging the place for two days and two nights.
‘The Coroner: If you have reason to suppose that the boy was waylaid, say so.
‘Witness: I don’t think my boy got into the water himself. I think there has been something done to him.
‘The Coroner: Has any doctor examined him since he was taken out of the water? ‘Witness: Yes, Dr Baker, of Hurst Hill.
‘A Juryman: Have you any reason to think that anyone who knew your boy has interfered with him? ‘Witness: No I have not.
‘A Juryman: How long has he travelled that way to the works? ‘Witness: Eight or nine months I should think.
‘The Coroner: What sort of morning was it? ‘Witness: It was broad daylight.
“The Coroner said he thought a post mortem examination of the body had better be made, to ascertain if the boy received a blow on the head, or anywhere else which would be likely to cause death. The boy did not appear to have died from drowning. He did not seem to be full of water, though the low temperature would be sufficient to cause death, if the boy’s head was not actually under water.
That circumstance and the fact that the overcoat was missing, made the case look rather suspicious and he would adjourn the inquiry for a week. In the meantime a post mortem examination would be made, and the police would also make inquiries.” It is a sad case and we can imagine the parents’ distress when their son, innocently sent to carry his father’s breakfast to work, did not return home. What seems odd today is that John Barratt had to drag the canal for his son’s body himself and it appears that the police only became involved when directed to do so by the coroner.
A week later the Dudley Herald reported on the inquest’s findings, under the heading “The Mysterious Case at Deepfields”.
“Mr W.H. Phillips (district coroner) resumed his inquiry at the Anchor Inn, Deepfields, Coseley, on Monday, touching the death of John Willie Barratt (9), whose parents live in the Anchor Yard, Deepfields, and who had been found drowned in the Birmingham Canal, under circumstances reported in last week’s Herald.
“In reply to the Coroner, Mr Barratt stated that the canal had been dragged by four men, and neither the lad’s overcoat, cap, nor the breakfast-can could be found.
“The Coroner said it was certainly very strange that the lad should have left the Steel Works, Spring Vale, all right, and should, in fact, be seen walking on the canal towing-path and near to his own home wearing the overcoat, and that his body should be afterwards found without the overcoat or the cap.
“Dr Baker, of Hurst Hill, said he had made a post mortem examination of the body, and had been unable to find any external marks of injuries. Death was due to drowning, and he was of the opinion that the body had been in the water more than 24 hours. In reply to a juryman, Dr Baker said it was true that the body was not swollen, as the water being very cold prevented decomposition from setting in.
“In reply to the Coroner, P.S. Ellis said the police throughout the division had made every inquiry, and had failed to ascertain how the deceased got into the water, or what had become of the overcoat.
A large number of boatmen had been questioned, and they were unable to give any information, except that they saw the lad on the canal towing-path.
“Mr Barratt said that he was satisfied the police had done all they possibly could, but he was bound to come to the conclusion that his boy’s death was a mystery.
“The Coroner said it was undoubtedly a mystery.
“The jury afterwards returned an open verdict.” And so John Willie Barratt’s death, 118 years ago, remains unresolved.
How did the boy, on a cold January day, end up in the canal without his coat and cap? What happened to the missing coat and his father’s breakfast-can? Did he drown as the result of an accident or was he the victim of foul play? The family certainly thought that their lad had been killed and some time later wrote upon his photograph “was murdered”.
What neither of these newspaper reports mentions is that this was not the first tragedy to befall John and Hannah Barratt.
Their second son, Ernest, died aged 5 in August 1889. Albert has a printed memorial to the two boys, much worn and tattered, which carries a poem in tribute to Ernest, and a further extract from the Dudley Herald of an interview with John Barratt in which he describes John Willie as “a goodnatured, sharp, and pleasant lad”. The boy was a pupil at Darkhouse day school and was learning to play the piano. It was only a ten minute walk from the family home in Anchor Yard to Spring Vale and only 400 yards to where the body was found.
John Willie Barratt was buried at Darkhouse Chapel on 12th January, 1892.
Albert has provided these photographs of the family. The picture of John Willie is ujnderstandably much faded but the handwriting along the edge, stating that he was murdered, is still legible.
A later picture, taken by a Chesterfield photographer, shows his father John while in the third photograph his mother Hannah stands on the right with an unknown woman.
The family left Coseley after John Willie’s death and by the 1901 census were living in Newbold, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire.