Monday, 30 April 2012

The mystery of “The Lady Brooke”

An intriguing enquiry this week came from someone whose forebear, Alfred Priest, committed suicide in 1905. His descendant tracked him through the censuses, to find him married to Annie and living with their children up to the 1891 census. In 1901, however, Annie Priest is alone with their children and still listed as ‘married’, while Alfred is living with another woman whom he lists as his ‘wife’!

The 1905 death certificate issued by Steyning Registry Office records that Alfred Priest committed suicide at “The Lady Brooke at Beeding”. I realised straight away that this must be Upper Beeding, as Lower Beeding lies well outside the Steyning Registration district.

Our enquirer asked whether “The Lady Brooke” might be an institution. In trying to find any clues online, I discovered that that there were a number of individuals known as ‘The Lady Brooke’, who had lived in other parts of the country at different times, but the wording on the death certificate doesn’t seem to suggest a person. So I looked further, Googling several varieties of wording, with no luck.

Next, I asked our knowledgeable curator at Steyning Museum, whether he knew of an Upper Beeding institution or house in around 1905, called ‘The Lady Brooke’. He didn’t, which strongly suggests that no such institution existed. However, he looked pensive.

“Do you have any other ideas?” I asked.

“I think the locals used to call the streams around Upper Beeding ‘the brooks’. Maybe it’s something to do with that.’

This was a revelation to me, being a Steyning resident of only nine years. So I called Pat Nightingale, Upper Beeding historian, and asked her. She immediately knew the answer.

“Yes, there’s an area of streams or brooks, north of Upper Beeding, that are sometimes still referred to as the Brooks. Some have names. One of them used to be a bend in the river, cut off now. It encloses a small field and together they were known as the ‘Lady Brook’.

Well that was it, of course. Not an institution, nor even a person, but a place, away from any habitation, rural and alone, where a man from outside this immediate area went to choose a place to end his life. At first I assumed he drowned himself, but on further enquiry I discovered that “Alfred slit his throat with a razor during a period of temporary insanity.”

Was he a bigamist perhaps? At the very least he seems to have deliberately deceived the census enumerator who recorded the details Alfred told him. Presumably he also deceived his wife, who clearly believed herself still to be married to him. If Alfred could live one lie, what else might he have hidden? What really caused him to commit suicide in that violent way and in that lonely place?

Alfred’s descendant is now going to try and find a record of his inquest. Perhaps that will shed more light on why he did it ... or maybe we’ll never really know.

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