Seventy one years ago four members of the same family and their pet dog died in a tragedy in Richmond that is still remembered today by those who lived in the town at the time. Niall Hickman looks back at a dark day in the town’s recent history.
Mass murders, or mass suicides, or suicide-murders, were incredibly rare, both then – and now.
Much of the exact details of the crime have been lost through the passage of time, but Anchorage Hill in Richmond, near the present day Brookes petrol station, was a scene of almost unfathomable devastation in February 1950.
Bearing in mind there were only around ten murders a year in the UK in those far-flung days and you have an idea of the scale this story would have registered with Richmondshire’s locals.
A police officer was called to the Haigh family house one winter’s afternoon and at 5.10pm a Doctor JCB Williams arrived.
Quite how or why the officer attended is again unclear but he and the doctor found Mrs Dorothy Haigh, 47, lying down in the back kitchen. ‘Life was extinct’ according to reports at the time.
The officer then moved upstairs to where the carnage continued as 14-year-old Philip and his sister 13-year-old Dorothy was lying on a bedside settee, both dead.
The officer and doctor looked further and found Philip Haigh, 47, father to the teenage children and husband of Dorothy, lying in a corner of the bathroom, again dead.
Beside him was the family’s black collie, which was also dead.
Mrs Haigh’s brother Maurice Martin, a colliery head lamp man from Bolton on Dearne, gave evidence at the inquest as did Norman Martin, the children’s uncle, a pipe fitter from Barnsley.
All the family were dead and even though it has been eight decades since the Haighs perished, local historian Mike Wood remembers the incident.
“I was seven at the time and I recall it vividly as it was so completely unheard of for something like that to happen in Richmond,” said Mike.
“I believe the family were bludgeoned to death by the father, who then took his own life. It has stayed in my memory ever since and anyone who was around Richmond back then will remember it. I can still see the big crowds lining the streets all the way to the cemetery.
“It was pretty much all that anyone talked about for quite a while and although it is now a long, long time ago, I don’t think it will ever be forgotten by those of us who were alive back then.”
Crime in those days was barely a factor in people’s lives. There were of course petty thefts from shops and barns, but a whole family wiped out on a winter’s day in Richmond would have been like an alien invasion.
The papers reported the deaths very solemnly and only revealed scant details about the funerals. All the Haigh family were buried in Richmond cemetery where the town clerk, scout master and headteachers from both children’s schools were in attendance, along with 20 relatives. ‘About a dozen people turned up, but police kept them from the gravesides,’ was about the only intimate detail revealed.
Underlining that this was a different age, the rest of the story was largely unreported and of course, all the family died, so it is unclear exactly what happened and why? Murder or suicide, suicide or murder?
Homicide is now almost taken for granted as a daily occurrence in our lives. In 2018 there were 788 murders in the UK, 141 in London alone. Unsurprisingly, it is most common amongst men aged between 20-29 and death by stabbing easily outstrips all the other forms of murder.
The good news, not the correct phrase in these circumstances, is that around four in five of all those indicted for murder are found guilty, with only 15 percent acquitted. In other words, the police and prosecutors rarely get it wrong.
The Haigh name also carries with it a certain gruesomeness, as those octogenarians amongst us may even recall the hanging of the infamous John Haigh in 1949, just a year before the Richmond family met their deaths. Haigh is now better known as the Acid Bath Murderer, who killed up to nine victims by embezzling them and then getting rid of the bodies in a vat of sulphuric acid.
Haigh was also schooled in Yorkshire and was a talented pianist having won a bursary to attend Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar in Wakefield. He was evidently a dog lover though, as he murdered one victim, but then kept his pet.
So what of the Haigh family now? They are all buried side by side in the town cemetery in unmarked plots, as nobody paid for a headstone. The teenagers would now be 83 and 84 years of age and may have gone on to lead enjoyable, enriching and fulfilling lives, possibly with children of their own. Such a tragedy from another era that their days were cut so short while still so young.
After so many years the real sadness is that the family, including those two children, Philip and Dorothy, do not even have a gravestone.