The background to the following mystery was made by Peter Thorpe of Leeds whilst researching his family history. Peter had earlier had a letter published in the Yorkshire Evening Post seeking further information.
The mystery concerns one William Lawson Chatham a one time coachman to the Earl of Mexborough whose body was found in Fleet beck in the August of 1909. Given the date of death, a search in the pages of the Pontefract Express revealed the following in their report of the inquest held on 20thAugust……
Gruesome Find in Fleet Beck
A farmhand named Sidney Thompson who is employed on the Clump Cliffe farm, made a gruesome discovery while at work in the potato field on the farm least week-end. He noticed an unusually bad smell coming from the Fleet Beck which runs alongside the field, and on going to see what could be the cause of it found the dead body of a man in a horribly decomposed state lying in the beck. He at once informed the police, who had the body conveyed into the village. An inquest was held on the remains on Friday by Mr. P.P. Maitland and from evidence given it would seem that the body must have been in the beck for some weeks. It was much decayed and had the appearance of being attacked by rats which infest the beck. The Jury returned a verdict of ‘Found Drowned’. The body is believed to be that of a man named William Chatham of 9 Walden Street, Castleford who has been missing from his home about six weeks.
Pontefract & Castleford Express – 27th August, 1909
Peter’s research into this aspect of his family could have ended there, until he made contact with members of the family including William Chatham’s grand daughter and Mr. Arthur Chatham of Farsley. William’s great grand daughter then contacted Peter with some startling revelations. He was to learn that the body of the man found in the beck was NOT that of William Chatham , and that he had died of non violent causes in Pontefract Infirmary in the 1930s. The same source of information added that the funeral arrangements were carried out by his son George and that William was buried in Castleford cemetery with other members of the family in attendance. His grand daughter (Cissie Godfrey) through her daughter also reported that as a young child she remembered William Chatham as an old man.
But whose body then was found in the beck, and how was it initially identified at the inquest? It was now revealed by Cissie that the body of the man found in the beck was a tramp living a ‘simple life’. A man, who it is alleged that William had taken pity on being cold and wet and offered his coat in an act of kindness. It would appear that the coat contained some form of identity relating to William which the jurors at the inquest accepted given the decayed state of the body.
The inquest held on the 20th August was only one day after the corpse had been found and the death certificate issued. Quite clearly the authorities would have wanted the remains to be interred as quickly as possible – thus giving very little time to complete more extensive enquiries.
One has now to ask how did the jury come to their conclusion :-
Was it natural causes? If so, how did the body get into the beck?
Was it murder most foul? There would be little motive in ending the life of a tramp unless in argument or disagreement. Equally importantly, lack of enquiries would not be able to confirm the body was that of a tramp or other person.
Why, one has to ask, did the corpse lay there undiscovered for so long? Didn’t Woodrow boys cover the beck as much as we did during the 1940’s and 50’s?
Where, you might also ask was William Chatham during this time? Peter Thorpe had learned during his enquiries that his forbear was prone to disappearing from time to time so his absence was not unusual. However, we never did find out how long it was before he returned to the fold, sadly, it was known that his wife died before his return.
We will never know the whole truth, the water rats of Fleet beck had destroyed all of the evidence. One thing is certain, he could not have drowned – the flow in Fleet beck would not be deep enough in the month of August. Unless…………