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Vanishing Violet - the Wolverhampton heiress who disappeared in the "Welsh Cliffs Mystery"

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: September 02, 2004

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To the outside world, Miss Violet Gordon Charlesworth lived a charmed life. A handsome girl with a pretty figure, shown off to its best by the very latest in Edwardian fashions, she made a striking sight as she walked in Wolverhampton. All heads turned as she promenaded with her constant companion, a huge St. Bernard dog, between her home at 34 Sweetman Street in Whitmore Reans into the centre of town. Her lofty appearance, however, belied her personality. She was a sociable girl, always willing to chat with the tram workers who plied the route between Wolverhampton and Tettenhall.

Violet was blessed, not only with good looks and charm, but also with wealth. It was rumoured in Wolverhampton that she was quite lowly born - she was alleged to have once been a domestic servant, while her father was an engine fitter - but she was said to have been left a fortune, possibly by relative in her birthplace of Stafford. She had moved to Wolverhampton with her parents, brother and sister Lilian in 1903, but her fortune meant that she was able to live as a "woman of means," renting a succession of lovely homes all over the country. These included Flowerburn House in Scotland and The Hall in Calne, Wiltshire, both of which she had completely furnished and fitted with kennels for her beloved St. Bernard dogs. Her wealth also allowed her to speculate on a large scale on the Stock Exchange, and she was well-known to the leading businesses of Staffordshire, always pulling up in a luxurious motor car.

In February 1908, the Charlesworths had made a return visit to Wolverhampton, taking the dogs to the veterinary surgery of Mr Cartwright and having their photographs taken, but by January 1909, Violet and her family were renting Boderw, a house near the tiny city of St. Asaph in North Wales. Violet was due to turn twenty-five, but a few days before the awaited celebrations, events took a sinister turn. Violet was already inextricably caught up in a tangle of mystery and secrecy that, were it not fact, would surely seem worthy of a work of fiction flowing from the pen of none other than Agatha Christie herself.

Violet was keen on motor cars, then still a rather novel contraption, and she had once spent the huge sum of £1,500 on cars from the prestigious Daimler dealership in London. Just after half past six on Saturday 2nd January, Violet's chauffeur Watts took the two girls for a spin from Bangor to the cliffs at Penmaenbach Point, near Conway.

At one o'clock in the morning, W.H. Huxton, the manager of a local motor department, was woken by one of his drivers, Heywood, who worked for Lilian Charlesworth. Heywood reported that there had been a terrible accident, and that a lady had been killed. Without further ado, the pair drove out to the cliffs, where they found the car smashed into the sea wall. There was no sign of Violet, but they found Lilian and Violet's chauffeur, Watts, at the scene, both dazed and saying that Violet had been thrown from the car by the impact of the crash and hurled over the cliffs.

Huxton was immediately suspicious, as Watts had not even a scratch. He asked if Violet had been driving, and the chauffeur answered in the affirmative; yet in his fifteen years of driving, Huxton had never seen anyone thrown from behind the wheel, as an arm between the two front seats prevented it. Furthermore, although all the glass from the windscreen was gone, nether the steering column or wheel was damaged. He mentioned his concerns to the chauffeur, who claimed that as the car struck the wall, he had dragged Violet with him, but remembered nothing more.

Mr Huxton noticed that Lilian walked with astonishing calm towards his car, and that on the drive back home, as they passed the gaping hole in the sea wall, neither she or Watts looked over the cliff or said a word.

An intense search of the area took place, but failed to turn up Violet's body. The police became increasingly suspicious: the damage to the car was, as Huxton had noticed, superficial, and the injuries received by the chauffeur and Violet's sister were merely trivial. The police began to conclude that supposed tragedy had, in fact, never taken place, but they were at a loss to explain Violet's disappearance.

By this time, the press had seized upon the story and there was a media frenzy. The story had all the elements of a gripping story - a beautiful victim, fast cars and the fashionable set, and at the heart of it a deepening mystery. Newspapers all over the country speculated as to what had really happened to the missing socialite and kept a constant watch on the family.

News coverage also encouraged further witnesses to come forward. A local man called Roberts revealed that on the fateful night, as he walked from Conway to Penmaenbach, he had heard the sound of a car engine; then still a relatively rare noise, especially in rural Wales. As he rounded the bend, he was surprised to see that the car was the seaward side of the wall at the top of the cliff. Seconds later, Roberts heard the sound of glass smashing, and saw the chauffeur moving about on the cliffs, exclaiming, "A lady has been thrown out over the cliff!" Roberts searched the area at the base of the cliffs, and while he could find no trace of Violet's body on the rocks nor in the sea, he did find a lady's linen motoring hat, a book and the chauffeur's cap. Meanwhile, Lilian had gone to the Ship Inn in Penmaenbach for assistance.

As more and more people came forward, the secret life of Violet Charlesworth slowly unravelled. There were mutterings of a romance, and it was revealed that, for all the fashionable frocks and flash cars, Violet was in deep financial strife. A woman in Derby claimed that Violet had borrowed £500 from her on the strength of a legacy of £75,000 she was expecting to come to her on her twenty-fifth birthday, and a well-known London stockbroker was said to have been a creditor of Miss Charlesworth's to the tune of £10,000, which she had lost on various stock market speculations. A Leicester businessman claimed that Violet had offered him some fabulous jewels as surety for a loan, although she could not prove that they were hers. Furthermore, a letter from Violet to one of her creditors, a London car dealer to whom she was in arrears, begged them not to take proceedings, pleading that "I could never, in my position, hold up my head again if such a fearful thing happened". Her debts eventually totalled a massive £13,000.

On 13th January - what would have been her birthday - angry creditors gathered at Violet's home in Wiltshire. Furniture from the house was seized, and sold off in lieu of unpaid rent. Even one of her beloved St. Bernard dogs was sold, for eleven guineas.

Meanwhile, not believing her to have perished in the car accident, the newspapers were full day after day of alleged sightings of Violet. On the 8th January, she was said to have been seen in Worthing on the south coast, and on the same day it was reported that she had been seen arriving in Holyhead, wearing a read cloak, and boarding the steamer "Connaught", bound for Kingstown in Ireland. She was later allegedly spotted in Queenstown in Ireland, embarking on the liner Campania, bound for New York.

However, on January 9th she was said to have been seen, still in Ireland, in Bray with a suitcase monogrammed with the letter C, before heading to Wexford by train, while only a few days later a journalist claimed to have seen the dinner table at Boderw set for six, which could only be accounted for by Violet's presence at the house. Meanwhile, rumours persisted for weeks that she was in Stafford.

Meanwhile, a suspicious incident occurred at New Street Station in Birmingham. A young lady enquired for a trunk, addressed to Mr Miller. The lady signed a receipt for the box in this name, but when the porter refused to hand it over without proof of address, the girl panicked, scratched out the signature, and fled the station. Upon opening the box, it was found to contain several articles belonging to Violet, including a photograph of her in Highland costume.

. Another box belonging to Violet was later found at Snow Hill Station, with stationery bearing her Scottish and Wiltshire addresses.

On 8th January, Watts changed his statement. He now said that after the accident, he had seen Violet "doubled up" on the running board of the car, and no longer believed that she was thrown over the cliff. Neither he or Lilian, however, could explain how Violet had simply vanished from the scene.

Meanwhile, the police were increasingly suspicious at the amount of time between the trio setting out from Bangor and reaching Penmaenbach: a journey of twelve miles had taken over two hours. The police concluded that they could have easily driven to Holyhead, leaving Violet to catch the boat to Ireland, and driven back to Penmaenbach to fake the accident within that time. Furthermore, witnesses reported seeing the car travel from Bangor in the direction of Holyhead, not Penmaenbach, and seeing the car later in Penmaenbach with only two passengers.

As time drew on, there was still no confirmed sighting of Violet, and her corpse was never recovered. The newspapers began to lampoon the case, and eventually lost interest.

So what really happened that moonlit January night? If the rumours of a romance were true, did she elope with her lover, and to avoid the disapproval of her family, trust her sister and chauffeur to fake her death? Could she have been suffering depression following the death in the South African campaign of a military officer called Gordon, to whom she was rumoured to be engaged? Or, most likely, was it arranged for Violet to "die" and leave her financial worries behind by emigrating abroad? The answer, now nearly ninety years old, is now hidden in the mists of time, and we will probably never know why "the lady vanished."

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