By David Pratt
For a moment, the only sound was the droning of bees among the cemetery flowers. Then, suddenly, there was utter chaos.
The chaplain took to his heels in full flight as dirt, stones and tufts of grass flew through the air. Relatives and friends of the dead woman scrambled for the shelter of their waiting carriages.
As they raced for safety, the full force of the crowd’s uncontrollable anger was unleashed against the solitary figure standing motionless at the graveside. A continuous stream of anything throwable hurtled towards him from all sides. He was bundled by a friend into the last remaining carriage, which dashed away through the cemetery gates. The mob sprinted after it.
Joseph William Ellis Holgate was not going to escape that easily – this was only the beginning of the penance he must pay for the cruel death of his young wife. Most of those in the screaming, hate-filled mob were women and many of them had known Grace Holgate, as a shy, retiring 28-year-old who was still little more than a girl, despite her age.
She had suffered terribly during her first pregnancy, the birth of her child climaxing a series of violent epileptic attacks. But she was quietly determined to go through the torture again and was nearing the agony of her confinement when the storm of her husband’s temper broke yet again – as it had done so many times during their five-year marriage.
He swore at her and beat her until she ran from their house to Copenhagen Road, Gillingham. A few hours later, he was seized by an epileptic attack and never regained consciousness. As she died, she gave birth to her second son. He was dead, too.
It was this which inflamed the emotions of the crowd of mourners that drowsy August afternoon in 1894 – they utterly despised the man who caused the death of his wife as she bore their child. Relentlessly they pursued his carriage through the streets of Gillingham, growing in numbers as they went.
They caught up with him in the High Street, where he dashed into the Railway Hotel, attempting to escape the mob by leaving through a side door and heading along Jeffery Street. But there was no hope of evading their wrath and they followed close on his heels, shouting abuse and pelting him with stones and rubbish. The persecution reached its climax in Skinner Street, where he was surrounded by enraged women who hurled flour at him and began beating him with their umbrellas.
Eventually, Holgate was rescued by two constables and escorted to the safety of the nearby police station. There he was charged with striking his wife, with intent to do grievous bodily harm. This seemed to satisfy the crowd and they were dispersed by the police – for the time being.
During the next month, Holgate left his cell only four times, for court and inquest appearances. Each time, is constant companions were the embittered crowds of women, still seeking their revenge. As he was driven away from the inquest, they lined the route to the police station, hissing and shouting insults. An angry mob had been waiting for hours outside the station and his arrival was greeted with a renewed frenzy of abuse.
Meanwhile, those who had managed to get into the Medway Union Workhouse for the inquest heard the whole tragic story. Twelve witnesses were called and their evidence proved manslaughter.
Bickering between the Holgates came to a head during the last weekend in July, when he decided to hold an inquiry into the household accounts. After a lengthy discussion, Holgate started shouting and calling his wife a liar. “That’s fifteen shillings out of the pound I gave you. What happened to the rest?” he demanded. The argument continued heatedly during the following week and on the Tuesday evening a neighbour, Mrs Charlotte Baker, was walking past the Holgates’ house when she heard their son, Willie, screaming.
She looked up at the bedroom window and saw a silhouette “with its hand going up and down in the act of striking.” Mrs Holgate was crying out in pain. It was the next evening that the top finally blew off the couple’s stormy marriage. Next-door neighbour Mrs Emily Packham heard what was by now the usual rumpus of shouting and banging. Holgate was obviously home from work. Then his wife ran from the house, only to return some minutes later.
The bond of love with her young son was too strong for her to leave her husband without taking the boy and she had come back for him. But if she hoped her husband’s fury had calmed enough for her to escape with her son, she had not learned the lesson of the past five years.
She went back into the house, fighting off her tears, and told Holgate that she and Willie were leaving. He immediately attacked her. She fought herself free of his grasp, screaming for help and ran into the passage, where she shouted that she was going to the police. Holgate did not care any more. He dragged her to the front door. “Come on. Take me to the police and have me locked up,” he jeered. And as she tried to run past him, he hit her twice, full in the face.
She fell against the brickwork and then ran off down the road, taking Willie with her. Mrs Holgate knew exactly where she was going – she could not remember how many times she had run crying to her stepfather’s house in Britton Street. It was a haven for her no longer, however, and minutes after she arrived, her husband followed her.
Her stepsister heard her screaming and asked a neighbour, Mr Henry Dixon, to help. He went upstairs to find Holgate holding his wife’s throat with both hands. Holgate relaxed his grip when he saw the man and asked him: “What the hell do you want?” Mr Dixon replied: “You won’t hit her again while I’m here,” sending Holgate into an even greater fury. He shouted: “Won’t I? I’ll knock her head off,” and hit her as hard as he could, sending her crashing against a wall.
Mr Dixon managed to get between them and Holgate was bundled from the house, still shouting: “Get the police and lock me up – that’s what I want. I’ll do seven years if I have to – you don’t know what I’ve had to put up with, with her.” Then a doctor was sent for and Mrs. Holgate was put to bed but she could not sleep.
The doctor found her in a critical condition, badly bruised and cut about the face and head – and in an advanced state of pregnancy. He ordered her to be taken immediately to the Medway Union Infirmary. Before the cab reached the infirmary, however, Mrs Holgate became very convulsed and went into a fit. She never recovered consciousness.
The post-mortem examination was far from conclusive in connecting the beating with the epileptic fit that caused her death but the inquest jury’s verdict was unanimous and decisive. Holgate’s violence was responsible for accelerating his wife’s condition. And the coroner committed him for trial at the next county assizes, on a charge of manslaughter.
Meanwhile, other more laborious committal proceedings were going ahead and Chatham’s stipendiary magistrate, after hearing that Mrs Holgate had suffered from epileptic attacks during her previous pregnancy, eventually decided on a charge of unlawful wounding and causing grievous bodily harm.
Holgate, who was undefended at his trial, denied both charges. But the assize judge, Baron Pollock, was in no doubt about his verdict when he heard the prosecution case for manslaughter.
He told him: “You have been convicted on evidence which shows that your conduct has been as cruel as any I have ever heard of. You will go to penal servitude for 10 years.” Justice had been done and the women of Gillingham were satisfied, their anger and hate placated. Grace Holgate’s death was avenged.
But the unfortunate Mrs Holgate had never thought of vengeance – she was a compassionate woman who could not understand violence. And only minutes after that last fatal beating, she had told a police officer: “Joe’s hurt me, but he’s my husband. Don’t lock him up.”