It was something of a shock when my eyes landed on the Probate index book entry for Laura Louisa McLauchlan Backler of “Norland”, Champion Park, Denmark Hill in the County of Surrey Spinster: ‘died on the 8th day of September 1909 by drowning in a lake in Richmond Park in the said County’.
Laura was the younger of two daughters of Henry McLauchlan Backler, the successful gas company man whose life I described in two previous blogs. Laura’s older sister Florence Sophia McLauchlan Backler married, aged nearly 19 years, to William Griffin Davis in the Parish Church of St Giles, Camberwell, on 16 August 1866. Witnesses included her parents and sister, as well as her father’s maternal uncle, Henry McLauchlan, and Sarah Davis. William was an engineer, resident in Tipton, Stafford. His father John Griffin Davis was a Gentleman. But the Davis’ do not feature long in our story, because alas, Florence died aged 21 and was buried on 11 June 1869 in Nunhead Cemetery, where William was buried in the same plot in October 1886. He had married Laura Louisa Potter in 1872, but by the time of the 1881 census, he was widowed again, having had a son, William Griffin Parkes Davis in around 1873.
Florence pre-deceased her parents by some years.
At the time of her sister’s death, Laura was aged 19. Was it this event which led to this young woman devoting her life to piety and good works?
Poetess’ Tragic End: The headline in the South London Press of Friday, September 17, 1909 read: ‘Poetess’ Tragic End. Camberwell Lady Wanders into a Pond and is Drowned. Life and Work of Miss Backler’. At Nunhead Cemetery, ‘the grave was surrounded by a crowd of poor women among whom the deceased was accustomed to work, and one of whom started the hymn “Safe in the Arms of Jesus”, which was taken up by all present and sung with wonderful pathos.’
The mystery of Laura’s death caused considerable concern among her friends and acquaintances, but the report of the inquest reveals undercurrents of mis-trust among her various supporters. And her Will reveals an interesting relationship which remains unexplained.
The picture which can be drawn of Laura is of a young woman in a very prosperous family, who devoted her life to writing and good work. As far as can be seen, her writings were of a pious nature, including ‘ “Issy” A Story of Trust and Triumph’, the title page of which cites other works by the author: ‘Light and Shadow’ and ‘Heart Musings’ etc. The title page of ‘How I was turned inside out’ also cites her authorship of ‘The Cry for Christ’, while the text of this 14-page tract describes how one man saw the light and reformed his ways from being a bullying husband and father to becoming one who ruled his spirit and ‘came to Jesus’.
Her piety was combined with concern for those who were oppressed in a poem about the ‘sweating system’ quoted in the South London Press report of her death:
‘Marvels of cheapness! Look at the price! Ah! look at it once again:
See it in sorrow, starvation, vice, And ruin of heart and brain.
See it in girlhood sunk in the mire, the terrible slough of sin;
And manhood checked in each right desire, Scarce able a crust to win.
‘Remember the solemn warning cry Of the prophet’s voice of old,
And refuse persistently to buy Where lives count less than gold.
Give to the labourer what is due, Pity the weak and poor,
Let the world behold Christ’s life in you, With no soul’s blood at your door.’
Both her piety and writing talents permeate the reports about Laura after her mysterious death. She had invited the local vicar, the Rev John Robert Porte D.D., to lunch on Wednesday 8 September 1909, having only two days previously returned from a five week break with him and his family in Buckinghamshire. The Rev Porte conducted the ceremony at the graveside, and had identified Laura’s body and given evidence at the inquest into her death, at which he noted ‘she has written beautiful poetry and books, which have been printed. She was a brilliant speaker on religious and social questions. Conversationally she was most delightful in every way…she was a most earnest and devoted Christian woman.’
The South London Press report says Miss Backler was ‘known throughout the Camberwell district for her benevolence, her untiring efforts to advance the moral and spiritual welfare of the poor, her zeal as a Churchwoman, and her power of producing poetry that sounded trumpet notes of earnest protest against wrong and evil’.
Body found at Dann’s Pond, Richmond Park: Some clues as to her behaviour on that day are seen in reports at her inquest and afterwards of her poor health, including among other things, diabetes, and previous instances when she had seemed to suffer from loss of memory. Saying she was going to the bank in the morning, she had proceeded to Blackfriars Station and purchased a return ticket to Richmond. How had she reached the station from Camberwell? And why had she purchased a ticket to Richmond? And how had she then covered the distance to Dann’s Pond on the far side of Richmond Park, near to Kingston Gate? None of those questions were answered in the subsequent inquiries into her death. (The pond can be seen in the southwest corner of the park at this link: http://www.mappery.com/map-of/Richmond-Park-Map )
What did emerge was that James Harmsworth, of 5 New Road, Kingston, was crossing the Park near White Ash Lodge, passing Dann’s Pond at 6.30 in the morning, and ‘saw some clothes on the ground with an open sunshade over them. They were under a tree, and consisted of a jacket, hat, waterproof and boots, and spectacle case.’ He then saw the body of a woman in about eight feet of water, using ropes to bring the body ashore, and calling the police. The report goes on to summarise the belongings on the body of the deceased: ‘a gold signet ring, gold dress ring set with pearls, another set with diamonds, and another set with sapphires and diamonds, 32s 3d silver, and 1s bronze, a silver chain purse, a return half of a railway ticket (Richmond to Blackfriars), black cloth purse bag, three lead pencils, and some memos, two bunches of keys, and one pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, a stone brooch and gold scarf pin’.
The Inquest – dispute over Will and the role of the Rev Porte: When Laura had not appeared for lunch on the Wednesday, she was reported missing by the Rev. Porte, and the next day he travelled to Richmond to identify the body. The inquest was held on the evening of Saturday, 11 September 1909. A number of people known to Laura Backler were present, including the Rev. Porte and ‘Mr. Davidson, a relative’. He was in fact Walter Davidson, the nephew of Laura’s mother, and during the inquest there was an atmosphere of mis-trust between him and the long-standing family solicitor, Mr. Cowland on the one hand, and the Rev. Porte and Mr Chester, another solicitor, on the other. The first area of contention was over the Will. Cowland solicitors had drawn up the wills of Laura’s father and mother: ‘The Coroner asked if anyone else wished to speak, and Mr. Cowland said that his firm acted for the family for last thirty years, and made a will for the deceased four years ago. Mr. Chester interrupted and said that could not be correct, for he had acted for Miss Backler for the last six years and held her will. The Coroner: ‘I am willing to give you all a hearing if you can help me.’ Neither gentleman, nor Mr. Williams, another trustee [of Laura’s Will, and Secretary to the European Gas Company], however, could add anything to what had been said.
The second, rather more mysterious note of disagreement was as follows:
‘Mr Davidson, a relative: May I suggest you ask the witness…
The Coroner: Will you allow me to examine the witness in my own way? (To Dr. Porte): Was there anything wrong with her mind? – Several times she had a bad memory. She was rather ill two or three years ago, and there was no question she was wandering in her mind.
Would you say her mind was affected? – I would not say that but her brain was clouded…
…Mr Davidson was then asked if he had any questions, and said that Miss Backler had suffered a good deal with her head.
Dr. Porte said that he thought that in the last few years she had been better in that respect. Some years ago she had suffered from headaches and loss of memory and that was due to a constitutional cause.
Mr. Davidson asked Dr. Porte to read a letter dated December 31st, 1908, in which the words occurred: “Not feeling very well.” He then asked witness to read another, but the Coroner said if he wanted the letters read he could go into the witness-box himself later on.
Mr. Chester: It was about seven years ago that Miss Backler did not enjoy good health. She was perfectly able to transact business.
Mr. Cowland. I think he has made a little mistake about Miss Backler’s health. (Mr. Davidson: Hear, hear.)
Mr. Chester: I am sorry to interrupt but the evidence may hereafter –
The Coroner: It is a matter of no importance to me what takes place hereafter. I am trying to find out the cause of the lady’s death.
Dr. Porte: Her doctor can give evidence on that. He is present.
The Coroner: Very well.
After this exchange, Louisa Baughem, the parlourmaid, said Miss Backler’s headaches were usually worse on Wednesdays, and it was unusual for her to go to the bank – she usually sent her companion.
Witnesses described instances when Laura had gone astray in previous years, once being found at her mother’s grave in Nunhead Cemetery, and once in a pond, rescuing a dog. However, the general sentiment was that there was no obvious explanation for her behaviour at the pond, her doctor suggesting that she might have thought she was going to bed. Summing up, the Coroner was reported as saying ‘that if the deceased lady had thought she was going to bed she would hardly have opened an umbrella and put it over her clothes. Had she been going to bed she would have probably taken off all her clothes. However, if the jury were in doubt as to her actions, and there was no direct evidence that she committed suicide, they could return an open verdict.’
‘The jury could not at first agree, and the foreman said nine were for a verdict of “Found drowned,” and the other six disagreed.
‘The Coroner: I must have twelve for one verdict. Surely there is no difficulty in agreeing.
‘The jury then retired, and after a short time the foreman returned and agreed on a verdict of “Found drowned”.’
Laura, her sister and parents are all interred in the ‘nature reserve’ section of Nunhead Cemetery. But her story does not end there.
Laura’s Will – suspiciously favouring the Rev. Porte? Reading the comments about the Will at the inquest, and the comments there and at the graveside by her ‘intimate’ friend The Rev. John Robert Porte, one is led to speculate about his influence over Laura after the death of her mother in December 1903 – roughly the time at which the Laura’s ‘health’ problems were said to be at their worst. The change of solicitors from the Cowlands to Chesters could have been influenced by Rev. Porte, and when one reads Laura’s Will, one can certainly see that the Porte family benefited handsomely from it. This friendship, though, was not new. The Rev. Porte was also an executor of Henry’s and Eliza’s Wills, along with William Williams, the Secretary to the European Gas Company. But the size of the parents’ bequests was small compared to that which Laura left the Porte family, and Rev. Porte in particular.
Although she was said to have many charitable and benevolent interests, Laura made no such bequests in her will. Her first legacy from her £23,000 estate was for £8,000 to the Rev Porte, and if he should have died, to his wife. In addition there was £1,000 for the Rev. Porte’s wife, £4,000 to their daughter Leonie Sybil Edith Porte (Laura’s god-daughter); £2,000 each to Monica Vera Porte, another daughter, and to each of the four Porte sons; and small bequests to friends, servants and the other executor – the total of which seems to be more than the value of the estate!
Laura’s Bequest to Leslie George Panton – who was he? A sting in the tail for the Executors, however, was contained in fully two pages of the 3 page will. Laura had inherited the leasehold of the large house ‘Norlands’ from her parents. In her Will she bequeathed the leasehold premises to her Executors, first so they pay all covenants etc from the rents and proceeds from the leasehold, and secondly so they pay out of rents and profits the yearly sum of fifty pounds, clear of any deductions whatsoever, to a certain Leslie Panton, ‘at present  residing with Mrs. Hanbrin of No 2 Paulet Road, Camberwell and of the age of seven years’ so long as he shall be under the age of seventeen and as long as he ‘shall conduct himself in every respect to the reasonable satisfaction of the said trustees’ in or towards his maintenance, clothing, education, advancement in life and general benefit, accumulating any residue of the said profits and benefits, making payments after age 17 as needed until the said Leslie Panton is age 25, and then after that the moneys to be held in trust for Leslie Panton absolutely, so long as he conducts himself in every respect to the reasonable satisfaction of the trustees!
Leslie George Panton was born on 15 June 1897 at 42 Chelmsford Road, Walthamstow to Jacobina Panton, with no father shown on his birth certificate. In 1891, Jacobina Panton was a 22 year old dressmaker, living in Dalston with her father James and her siblings. She is nowhere to be seen by the 1901 Census, when Leslie was living at the ‘Haven Home for Little Ones’ in Banstead, Surrey.
Haven of Hope: In 1893 Janet Ransome Wallis (1858 – 1928) had founded what was then known as the Haven of Hope (later called The Haven of Hope for Homeless Little Ones) in a small rented terraced house in 4 Shernall Street, Walthamstow, London E17. Soon it had outgrown its premises and moved to Walton Heath, later becoming Christian Family Concern.
What had led Laura to bestow some of her wealth on young Leslie, who would have been about 11 at the time of her death? Records show he went on to serve with the Army Service Corps in World War I, and to marry Ethel Watson in Tynemouth on 2 June 1923. Did he continue to benefit from Laura’s generosity? He died in Newcastle in 1984.
The South London Press Report of Friday, September 17, 1909 had listed some of the many organisations in which she had had an interest. They included Mr. Fagan’s Home for Boys, Southwark; The British and Foreign Bible Society; The London City Missions; the Rescue Society’s Homes; Miss Steer’s work in Ratcliff; and, tellingly, Mrs. Ransome Wallis’ Babies Home. Clearly this latter interest had led to Laura’s interest in Leslie George Panton, but what singled him out from all the others she might have supported? And, indeed, why was there no legacy in her will for any of these charities?
Rather tantalisingly, there was a short piece in the Law section of the Times of 9 December 1909, suggesting that the terms of the Will were in dispute. Under Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, in Chancery Chambers, was to be heard before Master White for Master Burney, at 12.45 Re Backler (Williams v. Panton). Alas, no record of what transpired has yet been found.
 “Issy” A Story of Trust and Triumph, by L.L. McL. Backler. S.W. Partridge and Co., 9 Paternoster Row, London. 1886
 How I was turned inside out by Laura L McL. Backler, Marshall Bros, 3 Amen Corner, Paternoster Road, London. 1887. Price Twopence, 12s per 100.