Relatives of a man hanged for the infamous murder of his employer at a Yorkshire farm in 1933 have been attempting to establish whether he was innocent. Chris Burn reports.
“When I was a little girl, my father told me that we had a murderer in our family,” says Claire Watts, adding that beyond that conversation the subject was not openly discussed.
But decades on from the conversation, and more than 85 years since the crime itself, her and her son Archie have been unearthing more details about their ancestor Ernest Brown as part of a new series of BBC programmes Murder, Mystery and My Family.
Back in 1933, Brown was a 35-old-year-old farm employee working at Saxton Grange near Tadcaster who had recently been demoted from groom to odd-job man. One September morning at 3am, the alarm was raised as a barn was on fire. By the time the fire was put out the body of the farm’s owner, 30-year-old Frederick Morton, was found inside its charred ruins.
A post-mortem examination revealed he had been shot.
Brown was soon accused of being behind the killing because of his recent demotion, with the police working on the theory that he had shot Morton and then set the barn on fire to cover up the crime.
Just months later, he was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint at Leeds Prison having swiftly been convicted of murder following a trial which attracted major public interest, not least after it was said Brown had been having an affair with Morton’s wife.
Nearly 90 years on, interest in the case has been revitalised both by its inclusion in this series of Murder, Mystery and My Family – in which barristers Jeremy Dein and Sasha Wass help relatives of convicted murderers reinvestigate the evidence used against their ancestors to determine whether they could have been not guilty with the help of modern forensics – as well as the publication of a recent true crime book called A Stroke Of Bad Luck by Diane James.
Claire says despite being a fairly distant relative of Brown’s – he was her grandmother’s cousin, making her his first cousin twice removed – the murder had an impact on her family for generations.
“My father was alive at the time Ernest was hanged, he was born in 1932 and Ernest was hanged in February 1934,” she says.
“The more we found about it for the programme, I think it would have been a matter of shame in the family.
“I suspect it was rarely talked about in the open.”
Her and Archie were approached to take part in the programme, which is showing on BBC One tomorrow morning, by the producer and Claire says she was initially hesitant but realised she wanted to know more about what had happened.
“I didn’t particularly want to go on a television programme but I took some time to think about it,” she says of taking part in the show, whose first series regularly attracted more than two million viewers despite being in a daytime slot. “I knew my father would have wanted to find out more so I felt I was doing it for him.
“I was brought up in York and my first house as a married woman was very close to where this happened in Bolton Percy.”
For Archie, who is a law student, the decision was easier. He says that initially he was interested from a legal perspective but as they looked further into the case and learnt more about Brown’s life and the grim circumstances of his death he became more invested in his relative’s story.
“I wasn’t worried necessarily about being upset as it was a relatively distant relative but when you look at the family tree it doesn’t look that far from home. A few times during the filming it did strike an emotional chord.”
The pair are not allowed to discuss precisely what they found out prior to the show airing as the format of the show sees Judge David Radford deciding at the end whether convictions were unsafe but publicity for the programme says it explores “potentially incorrect witness timings, a dubious motive, the sensational love triangle, and a potential alternative suspect”.
Claire and Archie spoke to various experts for the show, including author Diane James, while Claire says it was going through the records at York Library which made her realise exactly how much public interest there had been in the case.
“That was the first point where I realised what a big deal it had been at the time,” she says.
“When we saw the newspaper coverage and in fact I think it was The Yorkshire Post, it was incredible. There were pages of really in-depth coverage on things like the crowds outside the trial.
“Then we began to realise there was more to the case – until that happened it wasn’t looking hopeful.
“When we saw the newspaper reports, that was the first inkling there was some hope.
“Then when we met the author, she blew it wide open.”
Archie adds: “She brought into focus things we had no way of knowing about.”
Archie says it had been sobering to visit Leeds Prison and both see the location where Brown had been buried in an unmarked grave, as well as reading the record of his execution, which set out in unsparing detail an assessment of how well the hangman had performed his duty.
“It was with all the emotion removed and the fact a human being was being killed,” he says.
“It really struck me how in a matter of months this quite respectable groomsman for a rich family was hanged for murder and died in disgrace.”
Claire adds that while visiting the spot where Brown’s body lay had been difficult, it was also something of a privilege.
“We were able to stand over Ernest Brown’s grave and I reckon we would have been the first family members to do that.”
The pair say class assumptions appear to have played a big part in the trial, with no witnesses called for the defence and Brown’s name tarnished by having previous convictions for some petty crimes he had committed as a young man.
“The speed of the process was something that really surprised me,” she says. “The murder happened in September and he was hanged by February. That was really shocking, he was even supposed to have been handed by the beginning of January but there was an appeal.”
Whether or not he was the killer, the programme has resulted in Brown being remembered once again by his family members.
“My father in his memoirs had a family tree he had put together,” says Claire. “If you look at it, there was this massive black hole for this part of the family, it was like they never existed. Now I’m about to complete that.”
The episode of Murder, Mystery and My Family looking at the case of Ernest Brown will air on BBC One at 9.15am tomorrow, November 26.
Second local case to feature in series
Another historic Yorkshire case will feature in the new series of Murder, Mystery and My Family.
An episode on December 6 will examine the case of Louie Calvert who was convicted of murdering her landlady Lily Waterhouse in Leeds in 1926.
Waterhouse had been bludgeoned and strangled and Calvert was subsequently convicted after her landlady’s missing boots and other belongings were found in her rented property.
She was sentenced to death following her trial but always maintained her innocence.
Sasha Wass and Jeremy Dein will be re-examining the case and whether she was wrongly convicted with the help of Calvert’s great-niece and nephew.