Just after six o’clock, on the evening of 26 November 1888, an eight-year-old boy called Percy Knight Searle was murdered in the centre of Havant. His mother had sent him on an errand into town to collect a parcel of shirting from the local draper’s shop. On his return journey Percy was attacked from behind by an assailant lurking in the shadows of a school wall. An attempt was made to cut his windpipe with a pocketknife, but the fatal blow came from a savage three inch deep puncture wound just below the right ear. Percy died minutes later from a haemorrhage to the carotid artery.
‘Murder of A Boy At Havant’ (Illustrated Police News. 8 December 1888). British Library Board
Why would anyone want to murder a harmless little boy like Percy? He was a frail, rather weedy child, dreamy and introspective, who enjoyed playing with his toy paint set and watching the magic lantern shows at the Wesleyan Sabbath School. This senseless homicide sparked widespread fear and alarm. Local newspapers portrayed Percy’s murder as a crime almost without parallel in Hampshire, and rumours quickly circulated that the Havant Tragedy (as it became known) was connected in some way to the recent unsolved Jack the Ripper murders in the Whitechapel area of London. However, on 28 November, two days after the killing, another boy, eleven-year-old Robert Husband, was arrested and charged with Percy’s murder, although he was subsequently acquitted when the case went to trial at the Winter Assizes in Winchester. Nearly 130 years later, the death of Percy Searle remains unsolved – a cold case from the late nineteenth century, when boys as young as eight could still be hanged for murder.
In part, the murder of little Percy Searle is an intriguing gas-lit Victorian whodunit, but the case also raises troubling questions about the way in which predominantly working-class boys charged with manslaughter and wilful murder offences were treated in the late Victorian criminal justice system. Events like the Havant Tragedy challenge our pre-conceived notions about childhood innocence: how should society react when both the murder victim and the alleged perpetrator are children?
Percy Knight Searle (right), the victim (National Archives, copy 1/394/407) and Robert Husband (left), the accused (National Archives, copy 1/394/391)
I began my research in 2013. Learning about local history can be a rewarding end in itself, but the opportunity to immerse myself in an unsolved murder mystery right on my doorstep proved irresistible!
Press reports were an essential research source. Local newspapers covered the case in considerable detail, pandering to the Victorian fascination with death and gruesome murder. Many historical newspapers have been digitised and are available online; other publications –the Hampshire Post for example – can be viewed on microfilm at the Portsmouth History Centre.
Local census returns, school log books and attendance records, trade directories and parish registers containing birth, marriage and death certificates, provided another valuable source of information.
Yet I wanted to do more than provide a voyeuristic account of the murder. I wanted to capture the historical moment; I wanted to delve deeper into the lives of the people involved in the drama. Happily, museums, libraries and local history centres across the county hold much material of interest. The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre in Havant – just two minutes’ walk from the murder scene – has a marvellous research room crammed with books and documents about the history of the town and its people: there is even a small archive of photographs and other records about the Percy Searle murder case. The Hampshire Record Office in Winchester contains an extensive reference library of local history books and a wealth of documents relating to Hampshire: here I was able to study the service records of Hampshire policemen, consult the Calendars of the Hants Assizes, and read the deposition statements of witnesses who gave evidence at the Percy Searle inquest.
Examination Book of Inspector William Knapton, 200M86
Inquest deposition of Dr F. St Quintin Bond, 96M92/C14
As my research developed, I started to get in touch with descendants of the Searle and Husband families, some of whom still live in the area (although one relative contacted me from New Zealand). Without exception, they have taken an interest in my research and helped as best they can with background information, personal reminiscences, and family snapshots. Unexpectedly, one lady in Havant (102 years young), whose mother was a child at the time of the murder, supplied me with startling new evidence about the murder weapon…
Gradually I built up a rich portrait of life – and death – in Havant in 1888. I am telling a crime story, but my book is also a chronicle of fallible human beings caught up in extraordinary circumstances. It is filled with the strange and dark events that for me make local history research so exciting. Thus, we encounter a posse of regular townsfolk as they scour the Hampshire countryside at night in search of Jack the Ripper; we watch a travelling illusionist turn young women into mermaids and blocks of stone in the back yard of a Havant pub; and we observe the antics of a creepy children’s ventriloquist from Emsworth who launched a hate campaign against butchers on the south east coast…
And we also learn a good deal about Percy’s murder, and possibly who may have committed the dreadful act.
David Green lives in Petersfield, Hampshire, where he works as a freelance book indexer. His book on the Percy Searle murder case, The Hampshire Boy Ripper, will be ready for publication in 2018.