A Pillar of the Local Society

It continues to leave me somewhat incredulous whenever I look up the value of money historically, to compare it with the spending power of today.  I am informed that £100 in Edwardian England would be equivalent to over £8,000 today. I mention this mundane fact in relation to a story I came across recently which has connections with my home town and also touches upon that of my former life as a police officer; it also relates to the subject of currency and matters of the mind. We are told that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’, but aren’t we all aware that such love is perhaps only natural when compared with the unease of penury, the insufficiency of money in our daily lives.
Ready money was indeed the motivating element of the facts relating to this sad account of a police officer in 1905 who, whilst serving with the Manchester City Police Force gave in to temptation and appropriated cash belonging to the public coffers, for his personal use, following which he absconded forthwith from his home and place of work. In bizarre and puzzling, not to mention tragic, circumstances he was never to return to his home town but died by his own hand in an hotel room in the market town of Melton Mowbray, some 120 miles distant in Leicestershire.  Sergeant John Petler was widely regarded as a pillar of the local society and a highly rated police officer in his home city, where few people seemed to have been aware of his motives in committing what could only be described as a one-off and stupid crime.  His lonely death and the manner of its happening created much sadness among those who knew him well and his strange actions left most people guessing as to why. From the brief information I have turned up thus far, I too am no wiser as to the motivation urging his fruitless aberration than his peers were over a century since.

                        JOHN HATON PETLER 1859-1905

John Petler was born close to Christmas Day in 1859 in the pretty Yorkshire town of Beverley when his father Thomas was 24 and his mother, Ann was 22. Starting with John’s birth  shortly after their marriage, the couple were to produce a further ten siblings in the succeeding 20 years – 7 boys and 4 girls. Thomas Petler had started his working life as a farm labourer in Yorkshire with no apparent pretensions of wealth or station but by the time he married local girl Ann Hodgson in 1859, he was employable as a groom and would later become a stud groom to some important people in his area.   
With only a passing interest in horses, son John had worked with his father in his earlier years but being restless or whatever at the time he became of age he was to join the Coldstream Guards for a spell where he apparently served with distinction. In 1885 after this service in the Guards he was to join the Manchester Police Force and upon his induction he was posted to Chorlton section where he evidently made good progress, with it becoming quite clear that he had made a good choice for his future life.  Being soon recognised by the authorities for his worth as a police officer and also regarded by his superiors as being both intelligent and trustworthy – sought after qualities in those rough times in a large city – he was soon to be promoted to Sergeant and later inherited the post of Sergeant-clerk in the Courts department.  It was also about this time that his life outside daily duties to King and Country was to be enhanced, when in December 1889, at the age of 30, Sgt. Petler married Alice Maud Killick – a young lady from Kent – at Barton-upon-Irwell in Lancashire.

Life appeared to be promising much for his future, though no children were to be born to the couple which was said to be a great disappointment to them both. Notwithstanding this deficiency in their lives, it was not too long before Alice was to become frequently ill and with an early diagnosis of Rheumatism, her life was to become a matter of increasing discomfort and constant, debilitating pain which was to progress into almost total disability, leaving John with the problem of coping.  It appears that the situation impinged detrimentally on other lives – including the Police Service – to the point where it was reported that the Chief Constable and Chairman of the Manchester Watch Committee, uncomfortable with their officer’s situation, had put in train the removal of Alice to a hospital.

Little is known of John’s relationship with his own large family which had continued to grow on a regular basis right up to 1879 when Ernest Septimus Petler was born as the final child in the year that John reached his twentieth Birthday.  It is known that he was particularly fond of his younger brother Alfred who was born some 4 years after him and who now lived with his wife Hannah and their three children in the small county of Rutland in the English Midlands.

Whatever was happening in John Petler’s now mature life in 1905 to steer his mind to the idea of committing a serious crime both against his employer and of the people of his home city, is not apparent to me and perhaps it is something we will probably never know, but it is very clear that something serious was affecting his train of thought.  Maybe anxiety at the sad situation of his ailing wife or perhaps personal problems at work, it is sufficient to say that on Thursday, November 30th 1905, unannounced and without the prior knowledge of his wife, he failed to turn up at the Magistrate’s Court for work.  It is confirmed that he left his home in Moss Side around 7am that morning and his wife was to tell the Coroners jury that,  as was his practice, he had helped her out of her bed, her being confined to her bedroom for the last 15 months.  Later, she would tell how, after kissing her John had said, “Good bye love.” instead of the usual, “Good morning.”  She also recalled that the significance of that moment only dawned on her later, when he failed to return home from work that evening. Another poignant moment she remembered was that just two days earlier it had been her birthday and that her husband had been uncommonly demonstrative in his wishes that her next year ‘would be full of happiness.’

A one-way ticket

Early that Thursday morning Sergeant/Clerk John Petler left his home for work as normal, but although it was a workday for him at his local police station he headed instead for the Railway station in the centre of Manchester where he boarded a train bound for the tiny County of Rutland which adjoins Leicestershire in the south-east – some 140 miles distant.  The purpose of his journey was, without previous announcement, to visit the residence of his favourite younger brother Alfred who was employed as a stud groom at Ketton Hall where he was living with his wife Hannah and their three young children in the village of Ketton, close to the county seat of Oakham Town.

(Manchester Libraries)

Having changed trains at Leicester Railway Station, John travelled on to Melton Mowbray and eventually to Ketton where he met up with his brother Alfred who welcomed him with open arms.  Quietly, Arthur was puzzled and apart from the fact that there had been no pre-warning of his imminent arrival and the fact that his brother seemed a little perturbed, pacing about agitatedly and constantly looking about him, he was to become concerned for his well-being.  He suggested that John should perhaps stay over for the night after his long journey, but his offer was rejected with the excuse that he needed to return to Manchester for duty.  At this time of day, Alfred’s three children were all at school locally, but they were sent for so that they could meet their uncle before he left on the next train.  As a parting gift John gave each of the children – Gladys, Alfred and Nina – a gold sovereign, which would have been a very big gift, suffice to say that today one 1905 King Edward sovereign would fetch more than £300.

On his insistence to complete his return journey to home that evening, Alfred reluctantly took his brother to the local railway station where he saw him safely into the train for Leicester, noting at the time that he was in possession of a return ticket for that town.  When on the train, which was slowly moving out of the station, John reached out of the window and handed an envelope to his brother, telling him, “Here Alfred, take these.  Good-bye for ever.”  He was later to discover that the envelope contained bank-notes to the value of £65 – somewhere in the range of £7,000 today – but feeling uncomfortable and with his suspicions aroused, he was eventually to return it all to the police.  In the meantime, Sgt. Petler, ostensibly by now on his way back to Manchester, was to add to his strange behaviour of that day when, on the arrival of his train at Melton Mowbray he made the decision to embark in the town and booked himself into the George Hotel in the High street: This was the night of Sunday, 1st of December and it would be almost two weeks before anything more was heard or seen of him.


A Lamentable Affair

Meanwhile, back in the northern metropolis of Manchester, much guessing and speculation had been circulating around a curious public wishing to hear any gossip of the affair, whilst those closer to the case attempted to make some official sense or reason of events.  Alone in the marital home and hardly capable of caring for herself, poor Alice Petler, totally in the dark as to her husband’s wellbeing or even his whereabouts would have been more anxious than most. The Manchester Guardian was soon to be on the case and in their edition of December 2nd 1905, following the announcement that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of Sgt Petler, they laid out the facts of the case for their readers. Under the heading of, ‘CURIOUS CASE IN MANCHESTER.’ they wrote

    ‘The Manchester Police are in search of one, who until a few days ago was a trusted member of their body – Sergeant Petler.  A warrant has been issued for Petler’s arrest on a charge of stealing five £10 Bank of Scotland notes, five £1 notes, one £2 note and £60 in gold.  The case is regarded by the police authorities as a sudden and unaccountable lapse in honest living.  Petler was 46 years of age, a native of Beverley, and served for a time in the Coldstream Guards. He joined the Manchester city police force in December 1885 and on Thursday last, November 30, while holding he rank of sergeant clerk he absconded and it is supposed took with him the notes and cash.  Petler, we are officially informed was a man of excellent character and highly respected throughout the force.  The utmost confidence was placed in him both by his superiors and all the officials at the police court.  This confidence was shown at the annual meeting of the Police Athletic Club last month when he was elected assistant secretary, in which capacity he would handle very large amonts of money.  It is somewhat singular that the only monies missing are a portion of the property, of two prisoners whose cases were down for hearing on Thursday morning.  He had in his charge on numerous instances the money and property of persons awaiting trial.  A safe is provided at the courts for the property of prisoners and Sgt Petler was entrusted with the custody of the property, and consequently of of the key to the safe.  It was not until he failed to attend the courts on Thursday and the safe was opened that it was found anything was missing.  The method of dealing with prisoners money is briefly as follows:   The property of all prisoners is taken with the prisoners to the courts and the officer in charge of each prisoner and received from him a receipt for it.  Petler then had the custody of the property until it was either handed over to the prisoner on his discharge or transferred to the prison authorities if the prisoner was committed to prison. The two cases in which it is alleged Petler has interfered with the prisoners’ moneys were disposed of by the magistrates on Thursday morning, and his action was brought to light when the police officers wanted to restore to the prisoners the property taken from them upon their arrest.

As mentioned earlier, Alfred Petler from Leicestershire was to make contact with the authorities in Manchester following the unexpected visit to Ketton of his brother John and upon being advised as the the circumstances of his brother’s predicament, he made the journey to Manchester where in conversation with the Chief Constable he handed over all of the stolen cash, which would also include the three precious gold sovereigns which the children had been gifted.


Having restored the money to its rightful owners, the police in Manchester were apparently off the hook, but their efforts were now to be directed to the matter of their missing officer.  For 10 days, nothing was heard of the sergeant, who was without doubt suffering from some sort of temporary mental disorder and it seems, had made no efforts to seek help or advice.  The fact that he was at Melton Mowbray might have been considered, perhaps by his brother, but no useful information was discovered.  Back in Moss Side, his incapacitated wife Alice would by now have been completely helpless with no other family about her and tentative plans previously being prepared by the Police Welfare office for her removal to a place of care were rushed into being and she was to remain from that time for over a decade until the day she died at the end of the Great War in 1918.
Melton Mowbray is a market town which lies in the NE of Leicestershire in the English East Midlands.  Well renowned for it world-wide distribution of the ubiquitous Pork pies and the main supply of the very popular Stilton cheese, the town was especially famous for it being the venue of the then prestigious pastime of fox-hunting and other equestrian sports which attracted many hundreds of rich and famous visitors during the winter season. It is likely that John Petler was lucky to have found a room available at the very popular hunting box known as the George Hotel, which stood right in the centre of the season’s activities and attracted its quests from around the world.  In Edwardian times, the activity was at its peak, especially in December and the days up to Christmas.
As to how it was, or even as to why John Petler failed to complete his anticipated journey to Leicester and fetched up instead at The George Hotel in Melton will more than likely never be known, as of course will the mystery of his rash and unorthodox behaviour in general in the preceding days.  Melton Mowbray was on the Syston and Peterborough Line which was a west/east branch line of the larger Midlands Counties Railway which plied its trade north and south of the country.  Melton was the largest populated town on the way back to Leicester and no doubt would have been an attractive pause to the troubled sergeant of police as he made his way back to certain personal humiliation and the likelihood of a prison sentence awaiting him.  Albeit then, the cold month of December, there would have been a lot of warmth in the bars and taverns of the crowded town and good food awaiting in the restaurants.  I have no doubt that John had retained some of the money and would have been comfortable as a tourist and who knows, perhaps he was deserving of a few days off work.

A Poison Draught and Just Two Pence

On the tenth day of Sgt. John Petler’s mysterious absence from a normal life in Manchester, business was continuing as normal at the George Hotel in Melton Mowbray when at around 7.30 on the morning of Monday, 11th December, the resident manager instructed a member of his staff to check on Sgt. Petler in his room on the top floor, as he had not responded to a knock on his door earlier.  It was a shock for the young man as he is said to have found the recumbent and apparently lifeless occupant along with signs of a poison draught in a glass nearby.  It was soon clear that John Petler, at his own time and place of choice, had taken his own life and the consequences of the past few weeks were to no longer fester in his mind.  About one o’clock that afternoon Mr Robert Peacock, the Chief constable of Manchester received a telephone message from the police in Melton in which he was informed that ‘a man answering the description of Sergeant Petler had been found dead in bed on the top floor of the George Hotel there’.

The body was positively identified as the missing sergeant by a  detective officer from Manchester who reported back to his chief officer that all the money he had in his possession at the time of his death was ‘two pence’!  An Inquest was hurriedly held that afternoon at which the landlord of the hotel confirmed that “Petler had been staying at his house since the first of December and that when he did not answer the boot’s call for breakfast, his room was burst open when he was found quite dead, with a bottle and a glass which had contained poison near him.”  Det. Inspector Wood gave evidence of his service in Manchester, telling the Coroner that “… it was his duty to have charge of the prisoners property, and he failed to appear after the night of 29th November when an inspection revealed that that £117 in notes and gold was missing from the safe which was in his custody.”   He also confirmed that the Chief Constable and Chairman of the Manchester Watch Committee had taken steps to have his bed-ridden wife removed to a hospital  He also told the jury that Petler’s friends had given a guarantee that all the money would be refunded.  It was a short Inquest, probably leaving many questions unanswered but for the Coroner it seems that there was sufficient for the jury to return a verdict of ‘Suicide while in a state of temporary insanity.’  Probably the only satisfactory conclusion.



So now, the citizens of Manchester were aware of the circumstances regarding the sad demise of Sergeant Petler, but many questions have lingered for me to ponder, questions to which I have been able to find the answers.  The most obvious of these relates as to why this obviously well respected and seemingly honest man, financially secure for the rest of his life, commit such an absurdly incompetent and almost impossible crime.  With every possibility of failure in his desperate enterprise what was it that drove him to end his life this way?  We have the obvious plight of his wife’s terrible illness, whose condition had apparently become beyond his ability to cope, together with the possibility that the fact of there being no children in the marriage would likely have weighed heavily upon his domestic life.

I was also puzzled to read that John Petler had been found in his hotel room with his poison draught some ten days after his arrival in the busy town, so did he commit suicide on the night of his arrival and remain unnoticed or had he been out and about during his stay. Both the official Inquest at Melton Mowbray and the very basic information given by the newspapers of the day bore little assistance in learning of any explanation or medical opinion as to his state of mind. The Jury’s verdict was ‘Suicide while in a state of temporary insanity’ and I would guess that as long as the Manchester police force had recovered their stolen money, then that  would have been the end of the matter.  The Manchester Guardian of Dec. 12th did make an attempt to steer away from the known facts of the case when having told their readers that ‘…the matter has been cleared up with dramatic suddenness with the officer having been found dead in a Melton Hotel,’ they ventured to speculate or opine;

‘…. It would seem that Petler was all but at the end of his monetary resources, and he chose to make a tragical end of a lamentable affair rather than surrender to take his inevitable punishment. It is less than a fortnight since Petler disappeared and with him, about £117 which came into his hands as an officer at the local police court.  Had he been a more deliberate and calculating criminal he would probably have waited till a later date, when, it is understood, a much larger sum would have come into his temporary charge.  Having yielded apparently to sudden impulse he could not pluck up spirit enough to make confession of his fault, and disappeared immediately from Manchester.  Finally, in eleven days after the theft, he has deemed the only way out of his trouble was the present desperate act  The description of the missing officer was widely circulated as soon as he went away, and it is a little odd that though he has lived not a great distance from some relatives in the Midlands since then, the police authorities of this city had received no intimation of his whereabouts.

Alice Petler was to live on for a further 13 years, totally immobile, in a Manchester Hospital bed.  She died on the 1st May, 1918 leaving an estate of £44 13s 2d – today, with a spending power of about £2,000.

© John McQuaid – 2017

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