In today’s more enlightened times there’s nothing unusual about women serving on juries, but it wasn’t always so. British courts didn’t see female jurors until 1920. They were still a novelty on 13 January 1921 when three women joined a jury at Aylesbury. The defendant was one George Bailey. The charge was capital murder. The penalty, should Bailey be convicted, was death by hanging.
Bailey was charged with poisoning his wife Kate at their home in late-September, 1920. An accompanying charge of trying to rape female lodge Lillian Marks on the night of September 29 was dropped. It was then standard practice that defendants facing multiple charges including murder would face only a single murder charge. The crime was so serious (and the penalty so severe) that it was considered unfair to inflict multiple charges on the same defendant. Besides, with a mandatory death sentence for murder lesser sentences were largely academic.
The crime wasn’t an unusual one in itself. A disillusioned husband poisoning his wife to give him easier access to younger women isn’t, unfortunately, rare. It’s squalid, cruel and often brutal, but not unusual. Bailey’s case stands out not for the crime, but for the trial and the social and legal landmark it came to be.
Bailey was a milkman by trade, known locally as the ‘Musical Milkman.’ A keen musician and amateur composer, Bailey had even developed his own system of musical composition. He was also a man with serious psychological defects, psychiatric issues and a lengthy criminal record. Seemingly a career crook if not a competent one, Bailey was known variously as George Bailey, George Arthur Cox, Ronald Gilbert Treherne and Ronald Gilbert Tremayne depending on where and when people met him.
His personal history made it all too easy for a jury (male, female or mixed) to believe him capable of murder. He’d already been convicted of theft, forgery, fraud, embezzlement, giving false information deserting the army during the First World War and attempted suicide (then illegal). He was a man of disturbed mind, bad character and what we’d nowadays call a sexual predator.
The most disturbing thing about Bailey aside from his unseemly interest in young, possibly naïve women, was his fondness for poisons. Poisons had been a recurring theme during his adult life. He’d attempted suicide using aconite and morphia on different occasions and been arrested in possession of prussic acid, the same poison that later killed his wife.
At his trial Bailey claimed that she had committed suicide (albeit using prussic acid that he had purchased). The Bailey home at Barn Cottage in Little Marlow, Oxfordshire also contained numerous toxins and drugs in addition to Kate Bailey’s body. Kate Bailey had also been eight months pregnant.
Police were drawn to the cottage by complains from lodger Lillian Marks, who said the night of 29 September trying to keep Bailey from raping her. There’s no reason to disbelieve her and, worse still, he had done so while his wife’s body lay in the bedroom. Daughter Hollie had spent the night lying next to her mother’s body while her father tried repeatedly to enter Lillian Marks’ bedroom.
All told it was a thoroughly appalling night. It left many believing society deserved permanent protection from Bailey and that Bailey deserved a date with the hangman. As a result of the publicity his trial was held in Buckinghamshire, not Oxfordshire.
By the time Inspector West and Superintendent Kirby climbed through a window on 2 October 1920 Bailey and daughter Hollie were gone. Leaving Hollie with relatives, Bailey was arrested by Constable Henry Poole and Detective Sergeant Oliver Purdy near Reading railway station the next day. A suicide note was found on him detailing his intent to kill his wife, daughter and himself. The note was accompanied by four different poisons, one being prussic acid,
Not surprisingly given the severity of the crime and a capital case involving women, the case drew considerable attention from the press and public. Opinions were very different then and the idea of female jurors generally was a hot topic. Female jurors helping render a life-or-death verdict only forced the issue further into the public mind. Amid heated debate and much public scrutiny Maud Stevenson, Annie White and Matilda Tack would enter legal history, even making a brief appearance in cinema newsreels.
In the run-up to the trial newspaper letter-writers had a field day. They rendered very different and often passionate opinions on either side bringing greater attention to the case and probably fuelling newspaper circulation figures in the process. The papers, naturally, went along for the ride. It was immaterial to them whether Bailey took the fall provided circulation figures didn’t.
Oddly some of those objecting were women (or purporting to be). One wrote:
“We ask at least to have all compulsion done away with, and we appeal to men to do this for is. All down the ages we have looked to men to protect us; surely they will not fail us now.”
Another begged to differ, writing:
“To have the vote, to act on juries, to enter the Bar – all this is only of value if it is to be the means to one end, and that is a purer life – a more healthy because a more moral country.”
To give some context to the trial and the fuss it caused we must consider a few facts. Not until 1950 did a woman appear as lead counsel. That was Rose Heilbron whose client George Kelly was executed in 1950 only to be exonerated decades later. It wasn’t until 1962 that the first female judge appeared, Elizabeth Lane joining the County Court. It took until 1972 for a female judge to preside at the Old Bailey in London, Rose Heilbron again blazing the trail. Bailey and his case are scarcely remembered today, but are legal landmarks nonetheless.
The trial began at Aylesbury on 13 January 1920 with Justice Sir Henry McCardie presiding. Bailey was never likely to win it. His defence was implausible, his previous record made him almost impossible to believe and his treatment of Lillian Marks and daughter Hollie did him no favours. Nor did the note proving his intent to commit double murder and suicide.
Bailey’s lawyer Samuel Johnston was also young, inexperienced and facing veteran barrister Hugo Young, a lawyer with over fifty years experience. Whatever hopes Bailey might have had were dashed over the next few days. His best realistic hope was a death sentence and then a reprieve. He had no idea that a reprieve was a forlorn hope even before he’d been convicted.
Convicted he duly was. Maud Stevenson, Annie White and Matilda Tack performed their duties as well as the other jurors, firmly nailing the myth that women are simply too delicate flowers to be troubled with life’s more sordid criminal realities as some then believed. Such a belief seems utterly ridiculous now but was commonly-held at the time. It’s probably news both to female murderers and their victims, who might beg to differ if they were alive to speak.
For days the press and public had lapped up the real-life courtroom drama. The press box had even been emptied to accommodate more trial-watchers, jostling with their readers for the best remaining places. With the jury’s duty done all that remained was for Justice McCardie to supply the denouement. Before a packed and silent courtroom he did so in florid, yet sinister, language:
“George Arthur Bailey. The jury have found you guilty of wilful murder. I agree with their verdict. It is my duty to pass sentence upon you according to the law. The sentence of the Court is that you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came and then to a place of lawful execution, and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards buried within the precincts of the prison in which you last have been confined after your conviction. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul…”
The ‘place from whence you came’ was Oxford Prison. The ‘place of lawful execution’ was the gallows room. The date would be 2 March 1921. It was as set in stone as Bailey’s headstone would have been, if he’d had one. Traditionally hanged prisoners were buried in unmarked graves in un-consecrated ground without a gravestone. Legally still considered ‘property of the Crown,’ Bailey wouldn’t leave Oxford Prison alive or dead. Dead was also a forgone conclusion. With his guilt manifest Bailey’s appeal was quickly denied. Justice MCcardie’s handling of the high-profile trial had been far and the death sentence mandatory. With his appeal rejected Bailey could only throw himself on the mercy of the Home Secretary. Unfortunately for Bailey that put him squarely in the sights of an unwritten rule within the Home Office. That rule has never been officially admitted and was reserved for poisoners in particular;
Wherever possible, clemency was denied.
Bailey never stood a chance. In capital cases the law guaranteed only three Sundays between sentencing and execution. Bailey lasted a little longer than usual, By the standards of the time the law dragged its feet, delaying his execution until the morning of 2 March 1921, but it was still inevitable. Letters had gone to the executioners before Bailey had even lost his appeal. It made no difference whether or not Bailey was ready to do his part, the hangmen always were.
As usual Ellis prepared meticulously for his morning’s work. Ellis had looked at Bailey through the cell door’s spyhole the day before. While Bailey was elsewhere Ellis and Taylor prepared a sandbag weighing the same as their prisoner, testing the mechanism while Bailey was having his daily exercise. That done, they reset the mechanism and Ellis fixed the rope for exactly the drop he wanted.
If all went well Bailey’s neck would snap the instant he reached the end of the rope. He would also be knocked unconscious, dying painlessly and almost instantly. Bailey’s physical suffering would be far less than that of his wife. His mental suffering would probably be less than that of his daughter. The days of slow strangulation before a jeering, usually drunken were long over. Like many of his colleagues Ellis prided himself on killing as quickly and cleanly as possible.
At 8am that cold January morning chief executioner John Ellis and assistant Edward Taylor escorted Bailey from the condemned cell. It was a short walk, only around fifteen yards between Bailey and the scaffold. Ellis and Taylor strapped Bailey’s arms firmly behind his back. Bailey walked without trouble or resistance, just as he had when Justice McCardie had passed the death sentence.
Less than a minute later he stood on a T-shaped chalk mark, Taylor strapping his legs while Ellis carefully applied the hood and noose. Taking a quick look to ensure nobody else was on the trapdoor Ellis sprang to one side and shoved the lever in a single movement. Within minutes of leaving his cell George Bailey was dead. That carefully-calculated drop (seven feet and one inch exactly) had done its job perfectly, silencing the ‘Musical Milkman’ forever.
Bailey’s legacy has long out-lived the Musical Milkman himself. Located in the town of Little Marlow, Barn Cottage became Old Barn Cottage. Little Marlow has since been used as a location for popular detective dramas The Inspector Lynley Mysteries and Midsomer Murders. In fact, Old Barn Cottage has been used to shoot a scene or two. The case has also been the subject of ‘The Musical Milkman Murder,’ an excellent work by Quentin Falk.