Comment: Passion and suicide at Staple Hall Depot

Breakfast at Staple Hall depot, First World War
Breakfast at Staple Hall depot, First World War

PERSONALLY, the dates and Kings and Queens approach to history bores me rigid.

For unfettered by encyclopaedic formalities the past should be a dimension through which to voyage, dreamlike in the waking hours, a land of strangeness where the figures one meets are not figments of the imagination but persons who have gone before.

And from the records of the past, one can often emphasise with their emotions and especially with those inflamed by the affaires de coeur in wartime. In fact such was the scenario during the First World War when thousands of troops from all over the Empire made the acquaintance of the Royal Engineer Depots at Staple Hall, in Fenny Stratford, and Newport Pagnell.

Often lonely, and facing a shortened life expectancy in the trenches, passions would sometimes run high with the opposite sex and not infrequently with the lady of the house in which they were billeted. With the husband away at the war temptations could soon prevail although, as with Corporal John Jackson, the ending would sometimes be tragic.

It was in a field on Galley Lane Farm, Great Brickhill, that his body was found with a bullet hole in the left breast and with this reported to the police it was discovered the man was a South African stationed with the Royal Engineers at Staple Hall.

To here the body was duly taken and at the inquest at the Police Court, Lieutenant George Weston, the Adjutant at Staple Hall, identified the man as having belonged to B Company, Royal Engineers. Married with four or five children he had been popular with his comrades and being in charge of the mess hut had proved to be a very good NCO, with an exemplary character. Having previously been in the Army he held several campaign medals and at the outbreak of war re-enlisted in August 1914 at Bury, Lancashire.

He transferred to the Royal Engineers that December and served in France until invalided home due to debility. He then served in Salonika but was again invalided and after convalescence went to the Newport Pagnell Depot and then Staple Hall Depot.

Giving evidence Sapper Albert Ernest Ansell, of the South African Royal Engineers, said that while walking near Galley Lane Farm he saw a dead soldier lying close to the hedge. A pistol lay near by and he at once returned to Staple Hall Depot and reported the matter.

James Hill, a corporal in the Royal Engineers Regimental Police, said he had seen the man in the camp, who when asked how he liked the job replied “Not so bad.” Inspector Callaway said that on receiving information about the matter he went to the scene and on the body were found letters to the man’s family and one to a Mrs Emily Mapley, 32, of Newport Pagnell.

The content of the letters suggested an intent to take his own life. Captain Brown, the Medical Officer at the Depot, said he had treated the man for rheumatism and eventually retained him for treatment at the camp, although marking the case ‘Public billet or hut,’ due to his condition.

Giving evidence, Mrs. Mapley, the woman mentioned in the letters, said her husband was serving abroad and she had first met Corporal Jackson when he was sweeping the road outside her house. They spoke and she agreed he could be billeted with her.

However, one night although she struggled and fainted he took advantage of her, but knowing he was married with children she decided not to say anything. In fact when ‘her condition’ became evident she went with him to Bedford intending to see a doctor but they did not go through with the plan.

Then on a second journey she took out a gun licence in a false name at Bedford Post Office and purchased a revolver from a shop in the town. The couple then cycled back to Newport Pagnell and when Jackson test fired the pistol she knew he intended to commit suicide.

Nevertheless he had seemed cheerful when she last saw him but having often talked about committing suicide he said he would shoot her first and then himself. The inquest recorded a verdict of ‘Suicide whilst in a perfectly sound state of mind.’